Are We Becoming More Moral Faster Than We're Becoming More Dangerous?

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker convincingly makes the point that by pretty much every measure you can think of, violence has declined on our planet over the long term. More generally, "the world continues to improve in just about every way." He's right, but there are two important caveats.

One, he is talking about the long term. The trend lines are uniformly positive across the centuries and mostly positive across the decades, but go up and down year to year. While this is an important development for our species, most of us care about changes year to year -- and we can't make any predictions about whether this year will be better or worse than last year in any individual measurement.

The second caveat is both more subtle and more important. In 2013, I wrote about how technology empowers attackers. By this measure, the world is getting more dangerous:

Because the damage attackers can cause becomes greater as technology becomes more powerful. Guns become more harmful, explosions become bigger, malware becomes more pernicious... and so on. A single attacker, or small group of attackers, can cause more destruction than ever before.

This is exactly why the whole post-9/11 weapons-of-mass-destruction debate was so overwrought: Terrorists are scary, terrorists flying airplanes into buildings are even scarier, and the thought of a terrorist with a nuclear bomb is absolutely terrifying.

Pinker's trends are based both on increased societal morality and better technology, and both are based on averages: the average person with the average technology. My increased attack capability trend is based on those two trends as well, but on the outliers: the most extreme person with the most extreme technology. Pinker's trends are noisy, but over the long term they're strongly linear. Mine seem to be exponential.

When Pinker expresses optimism that the overall trends he identifies will continue into the future, he's making a bet. He's betting that his trend lines and my trend lines won't cross. That is, that our society's gradual improvement in overall morality will continue to outpace the potentially exponentially increasing ability of the extreme few to destroy everything. I am less optimistic:

But the problem isn't that these security measures won't work -- even as they shred our freedoms and liberties -- it's that no security is perfect.

Because sooner or later, the technology will exist for a hobbyist to explode a nuclear weapon, print a lethal virus from a bio-printer, or turn our electronic infrastructure into a vehicle for large-scale murder. We'll have the technology eventually to annihilate ourselves in great numbers, and sometime after, that technology will become cheap enough to be easy.

As it gets easier for one member of a group to destroy the entire group, and the group size gets larger, the odds of someone in the group doing it approaches certainty. Our global interconnectedness means that our group size encompasses everyone on the planet, and since government hasn't kept up, we have to worry about the weakest-controlled member of the weakest-controlled country. Is this a fundamental limitation of technological advancement, one that could end civilization? First our fears grip us so strongly that, thinking about the short term, we willingly embrace a police state in a desperate attempt to keep us safe; then, someone goes off and destroys us anyway?

Clearly we're not at the point yet where any of these disaster scenarios have come to pass, and Pinker rightly expresses skepticism when he says that historical doomsday scenarios have so far never come to pass. But that's the thing about exponential curves; it's hard to predict the future from the past. So either I have discovered a fundamental problem with any intelligent individualistic species and have therefore explained the Fermi Paradox, or there is some other factor in play that will ensure that the two trend lines won't cross.

Posted on January 4, 2017 at 7:42 AM • 74 Comments

Comments

Eric WilsonJanuary 4, 2017 8:12 AM

Moore's Law of Mad Science: Every eighteen months, the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point. -Eliezer Yudkowsky

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 4, 2017 8:39 AM

It will never cease to amaze me how the "highly intellectual" who have spend decades disparaging religion come up with their own "secular religion" and their own priests like Steven Pinker.

William F Buckley said that he would rather entrust the federal government to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University. I will go a step further: somebody has yet to explain to me why is that the American taxpayer has to fund these people to produce the garbage they regularly produce. If it were up to me, not a single federal dollar would go to fund academic disciplines outside the hard sciences (math, physics, chemistry, biology) and engineering (I consider computer science to be a branch of engineering, not the hard sciences).

And before somebody calls me "anti intellectual", I hope we can all agree that the real anti-intellectualism or pseudo-intellectualism comes from those who put on the same level the nonsense that Steven Pinker produces as say the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem produced by Andrew Wiles.

AnonJanuary 4, 2017 8:41 AM

The closest thing we have to a single person with a nuke is North Korea.

Assuming for a moment they get lucky and launch a nuclear missile that successfully arrives at its destination and detonates, and they do this without warning, another part of our species (China), or maybe several (China/USA/South Korea), will launch an all-out strike to stop them doing it again.

I think as much as several major countries have sufficient firepower to obliterate the entire earth, those same countries have self-preservation preventing them actually pushing the button.

I think all-out nuclear war is possible, with destruction of all life, but I think the probability of it is quite low.

It would take something extraordinary for it to happen, and in that case many people to make the decision to do it.

A rogue actor might be able to do localized damage, but annihilation of the species by a lone actor is I think extremely unlikely (less likely than an asteroid impact wiping out life).

Does the length of time a certain technology exists increase the probability of annihilation vs. a localized event?

If we look at the spread of malicious software that compromises devices, whilst groups of computers are affected (either by geographic location, or device type, e.g. web cam), it has never been observed that all devices connected to the internet were all compromised at the same time.

A survivor of both Nagasaki and Hiroshima nuclear attacks died only a few years ago. He was unlucky to experience both, but he survived nevertheless, against the odds.

I suggest there will always be natural factors that will prevent the worst-case scenario. It would require the joint effort of many to make it happen.

vas pupJanuary 4, 2017 8:43 AM

@Bruce:"we willingly embrace a police state in a desperate attempt to keep us safe;"
I guess Bruce we should agree on definitions: what is police state in your view?
My view is that police state is the state with vague laws which let police/LEA apply those laws selectively on their discretion based on criteria THEY think appropriate (including plea bargain - cancer of the criminal justice system)and there is no affordable and fair way to challenge them in the court for average Joe/Jane:"All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of p o w e r and not truth.” (Friedrich Nietzsche).
I'd prefer police state with clear and transparent laws (even iron laws) which applied UNIFORMLY regardless of demographics, social status, political affiliation or assumed (by LEAs) loyalty, NOT by the rule: "For friends everything, for others Law". I agree with you that "someone goes off and destroys us anyway?" but the probability and number of those 'someones' would be substantially less (all security is about probability) when system has fair, transparent and affordable structure of conflict resolution, when there is less space with each year for conflict resolution between persons, groups, countries by asymmetric attempt to resolve conflict by violence with or without technology.

qwerttyJanuary 4, 2017 9:20 AM

"So either I have discovered a fundamental problem with any intelligent individualistic species and have therefore explained the Fermi Paradox, or there is some other factor in play that will ensure that the two trend lines won't cross"

I've always believed that long-term (e.g. one billion years, or something along that scale) survival of a species as "intelligent" as humans depended on the race between these two trend lines and space colonisation. Technological advances can't be stopped indefinitely, so either we take the responsibility that comes with those seriously first, or we destroy ourselves first. Or we spread out faster than technology that could kill us all develops (e.g. we have enough nukes to destroy most (or all) humans, but if we colonize the whole solar system, that would not be the case anymore).
Interesting times!

@anon
"I think all-out nuclear war is possible, with destruction of all life"
All human life maybe, all life, no way. Bacteria will survive, evolution will keep going, and in 100 million years, earth will be the green planet once more. Just that we won't be there to see it.

Peter S. ShenkinJanuary 4, 2017 9:36 AM

This reminds me of a story Churchill told in his autobiography, "My Early Life". Someone in power (I forget who, maybe Lord Beresford) told him in the early 20th century that he believed that there would never be another European war. "So many times," he said – I'm paraphrasing –, "I've seem them come to the brink, but then they always pull back." Implicit is how wrong Beresford (if that's who it was) became in 1914.

Time to reread Louis Frye Richardson's "Statistics of Deadly Quarrels".

As John Maynard Keynes once said in a different context, "In the long run, we are all dead."

SparkyJanuary 4, 2017 9:40 AM

TL/DR re:previous quoted articles by Taleb etc,
Pinker is a fraud, he doesn't properly understand statistics as they point out and his statement is false.
There is not less violence now.

Don't trust fraudsters, use your eyeballs.

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 4, 2017 9:53 AM

@Sparky

Pinker is a fraud, he doesn't properly understand statistics as they point out and his statement is false.

The best metaphor to understand the role people like Pinker play among today's intelligentsia is to think of them as their priests.

Secular Humanism is a belief system that is common among elite academics today. There is nothing automatic or logical linking an atheistic/materialist worldview to secular humanism. Secular humanism is a dogmatic set of beliefs like any other.

For these "intelligentsia" to feel good about themselves believing that secular humanism is the only logical position for the highly intelligent, they need priests that tell them so. Whereas regular priests go to seminary, the "intelligentsia priests" have degrees from or teach at highly prestigious institutions like Harvard. That makes people like Bruce Schneier have an easier time feeling good with their own beliefs: "see this Harvard guy is saying that my beliefs are the only rational choice for highly intelligent people like me".

Fake religion is not any better than fake news. I honestly prefer the originals on both cases.

someoneJanuary 4, 2017 9:59 AM

hard to believe that his statistics are true. I search for criticism and i must admit i found some interesting criticism. Most of the criticism focus on his statistics and methodologies. The criticism seems valid. Still in order to have a valid opinion someone should probably read his book and then the criticism. Personally i cant spend that much time to search for it right now.

LevJanuary 4, 2017 10:07 AM

This begs the question(yes really). Where is the evidence that people are actually becoming more moral at all? Perhaps the increase in our dangerousness is what is driving the decreases in violence, and not our increased morality. In that case its a rational case of not choosing to hurt oneself, not a moral case of trying to do whats right.

someoneJanuary 4, 2017 10:11 AM

@Steven Pinker is overrated

"I will go a step further: somebody has yet to explain to me why is that the American taxpayer has to fund these people to produce the garbage they regularly produce. If it were up to me, not a single federal dollar would go to fund academic disciplines outside the hard sciences"

well i must agree that pinker is probably wrong but saying that you shouldn't give a single dollar to social science is wrong. Theoretical speaking studding society and how society works is the first step to solve a problem.
If someone is regularly producing garbage then you should try to make better choices next time you hire someone. But i believe that is something other social scientist should do.

AnuraJanuary 4, 2017 10:25 AM

@Lev

Things that we've done in the past, we are horrified at now. Slavery, laws that treated people differently based on things like race and gender, police brutality, inhumane treatment of prisoners. All of this stuff is major advancements in the last couple centuries, however, and I'm not really familiar enough with the liberalism movement pre-19th century to comment on that.

Now, at all points in history there have been people arguing against things like slavery, but it has become significantly more widespread over time. And honestly, it just makes sense; there is a clear link between education and violence, and education has necessarily been going up over time.

Steven Pinker is overrated January 4, 2017 10:25 AM

@someone

I have had a lot discussions in my life with people about social science. I think that the combination "social science" is oxymoronic . I could give you my reasons why I think this, but Richard Feynman did a much better job than I could ever do explaining this some time back. Just watch this 2 min video from an interview he gave almost 40 years ago https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWr39Q9vBgo .

It is very sad that in the last 40 years or so, the appropriation of the word "science" by pseudo-intellectual endeavors has increased, not decreased. Increasingly, what the media calls "science" has little to do with falsifiable endeavors and more to do with "people with fancy academic credentials uttering nonsense".

Human beings are not atoms. Our thoughts, feelings, human experiences are not constrained by the laws of physics the way the hydrogen atom is. This is why any attempt at predicting the future of human societies from putting numbers to the way past societies have behaved is doomed to fail, just is attempts to extrapolate what is "good" in a Western context to other cultures are also doomed to fail.

Secular humanists believe their dogmas are universal, but they are only universal among people like Bruce: highly intelligent people educated after WWII. The highly intelligent people educated pre-WWII took things like eugenics as dogmas that only morons could oppose and we all know how story turned out to be.

Scott AtranJanuary 4, 2017 10:28 AM

Steve Pinker is a serious and able thinker, hardly a fraud, although there is a bit of Prof Higgins in his writings to the effect of: "Why can't everyone be more like us.... Others are irrational, exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating. We are so honest, so thoroughly square; rational, truthful, tolerant and fair. Others continue with religion and war; they make such a fuss while we help the poor. But history's on our side, they'll soon be like us!"

Much debate over Steve Pinker’s thesis in THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE on decline of violence focuses on fragmentary data (see, for example, "Civilization's Double-Edged Sword" by A. Lawler in the May 18 issue of Science magazine). But even if evidence supports decline in interpersonal violence, this underplays the power law distribution for big wars: since about 1500, they are increasingly infrequent but many times more murderous than the last: politically, economically, socially. The interpersonal trend has progressed downward for centuries, even millennia, whereas large-scale intergroup violence has powered upward.

Pinker acknowledges the power-law trend but argues that since 1945 no "Big War" has occurred. Conflating a 70 year-old reduction in international war with a 7000-year decline in interpersonal violence implies a fairly sudden, almost miraculous, convergence of factors that supposedly lead to overall reduction in violence: increasing interdependencies, awareness and empathy with others' values, and Reason. Few policymakers I know believe we’ve avoided nuclear war because we suddenly became empathetic, globally aware, and reasonable. Projecting trends that include catastrophic events, as nuclear war likely would be, requires figuring in expected risk of such events, not just actual occurrences. People I’ve interviewed involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis estimated risk of thermonuclear war at "about 20%" (Dean Rusk, Secretary of State at the time, estimated chances of war at one in three); still in line with the upward trend (consider, by analogy, a mega-war as 1 in 36 chance of rolling snake eyes; if the dice are fair, then the probability of no snake eyes even in 100 roles can’t be rejected at the p = .05).

With the USSR’s collapse risk of thermonuclear war has dipped. But things are not as rosy as they may seem: Pakistan, for example, has the world’s fastest growing nuclear stockpile while spiralling into political chaos (2 new plutonium reactors, work on a hydrogen bomb, etc.), and many militants I’ve interviewed there believe nuclear war with India inevitable (India moves that the USA will not oppose under a recent agreement). Leaders in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt have indicated that if Iran continues to seek to acquire a nuclear weapon, then their countries will be obligated to begin accelerated nuclear programs in this most unstable region of the world (responsible for 5 of 6 violations of the NPT - the other being N. Korea - and ALL uses of chemical weapons in he world since WWII). There’s a remarkable lack of concern that my students in Paris, Michigan, New York and OIxford have about nuclear weapons, thinking of them as big bunker busters; and the “normality” surrounding them in policy circles makes them all the more insidious and their use all the more conceivable.

David Allen WilsonJanuary 4, 2017 10:31 AM

We can't forget, we are just a tiny blip in time away from being screaming naked primates clobbering each other over the head with clubs.

Just because we pretend we know what civilization means, doesn't mean we aren't still barbaric creatures.

Dirk PraetJanuary 4, 2017 10:55 AM

@ Bruce

First our fears grip us so strongly that, thinking about the short term, we willingly embrace a police state in a desperate attempt to keep us safe; then, someone goes off and destroys us anyway?

Instituting a police state actually makes it more likely when dissidents can no longer freely voice their dissent. And as state violence increases, so does that of the dissenters. Just look at what's happening in Turkey. Erdogan's hard crackdown on the opposition and Kurdish parties has all but diminished the number of bloody attacks in his country. It has actually increased them. On top of that, his push towards a more Islamic society has also inadvertently encouraged and legitimised with at least some layers of the population Daesh-like violence such as the mass shooting at Istanbul's Reina club on New Years' Eve.

@ vas pup

I'd prefer police state with clear and transparent laws (even iron laws) which applied UNIFORMLY regardless of demographics, social status, political affiliation or assumed (by LEAs) loyalty, NOT by the rule: "For friends everything, for others Law".

The reason why any form of police state or other "enlightened" authoritarian regime is undesirable is because it always ends up being hijacked by those in power, and to the detriment of all others, domestic and foreign. Even the Romans already knew that 2,500 years ago when they deposed their last king and instituted a republic meticulously designed to prevent one single person from usurping all power. It lasted for almost half a millennium, until mortally weakened by civil war, the Senate handed over the keys of power to Augustus.

vas pupJanuary 4, 2017 10:58 AM

@Lev: I don't know what you think is moral. I guess two step approach for moral behavior is reasonable. Step 1: Treat other people as you want to be treated. Step 2: Treat other people as they treat you, meaning RECIPROCITY is the key. If you treat bad those people who treat you good - you are jerk deserving any type of expulsion out of any civilized group(ostracizing good example from ancient Greece). If you treat good people who treat you bad - you have no dignity at all, and their level of treating you bad would escalate (e.g. attempt to satisfy Hitler's appetite by surrender to his territorial demands before attacking Poland in 1939, same applied to person2person,person2group,country2country,etc.)You do not owe blind loyalty to anything or anyone except the truth(possibly). The best quote on all moral issues I have from Confucius: " Should we return good for evil? We should return good for good. For evil we should return justice." And justice is fair balance of level of evil and punishment - I guess.

vas pupJanuary 4, 2017 11:21 AM

@Dirk Praet, I agree that it should be only temporary form of State political regime, but always necessary at the time of history junction(time of crisis)as most effective and temporary, e.g. I hate Stalin and his regime, but to be objective, Soviets never ever would break the spine of Hitler's Germany, if they had so called democracy (e.g. France, other Western European democracies failed miserably), and by the way Brits could as well if US did not backed them up by its economic and military resources.
In recent history: South Korea. Could you imagine that it was time when living conditions in North Korea were better than in South? SK dictator invested into Samsung and other start ups and make South Korea great again (just some joke to relax). Singapore is another vivid example. Even China to some extend. You can take a power by force, but in a long run dictatorship need to control transformation asap to fair representative by merits (as main criteria) form of government after field is cleaned up of most flavors of evil by dictatorship (e.g. Chile, recently Egypt - love its President). We will see how it is going to work with Philippines recent practice if social experiment is going to be clean meaning without external intervention (you know what I mean).

AlexJanuary 4, 2017 12:34 PM

The more Maslow's Pyramid is fulfilled the less violence there is, but all it takes to reverse that is to make people start at the bottom of said pyramid again.
Starve them they kill for food, frighten them they do as you wish, over populate or introduce external forces and watch them tear themselves apart.

You can see the same behavior in other apes and monkeys.

WinterJanuary 4, 2017 12:40 PM

Re Pinker:

There are 16 European countries that have less than 1 murder victim per 100,000 population per year. Can anyone point to any period in history where you could find half a densely populated continent with such low murder rates?

There are very very few people on earth that run the risk of being tortured to death Inquisition or Roman style. Go back in time to the noble, valiant savage. The unspoiled people living in the inlands of New Guinea were head hunters.

The most devastating wars in percentage of the world population that died were in 6th century China and the Mongol hordes. We think of the world wars as bloid baths, but the thirty years war killed 30% of the German population.

Look at this list and divide by world population:
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wars_by_death_toll

TeaDrinkerJanuary 4, 2017 12:55 PM

Has Pinker started including error-bars on the graphs he claims show these trends? His slides during talks when the book first came out did not. I thought that made any talk of trends very subjective -- especially when trying to guess from early archaeology whether remains are the result of war, ritual sacrifice, post-death dismemberment etc.

The CoW project has been at this sort of thing for a lot longer than Pinker and seem methodologically more cautious: http://www.correlatesofwar.org/ One of their suggestions was that the frequency of wars/conflicts had decreased, but their magnitudes had increased, a related point to the one that I understand our host to be making.

Dirk PraetJanuary 4, 2017 1:12 PM

@ vas pup

I agree that it should be only temporary form of State political regime, but always necessary at the time of history junction(time of crisis)as most effective and temporary

The office of the dictator was in fact also an invention of the Roman Republic. This was a magistrate entrusted with the full authority of the state to deal with a military emergency or to undertake a specific duty. From Wikipedia: "In order to prevent the dictatorship from threatening the state itself, severe limitations were placed upon its powers: a dictator could only act within his intended sphere of authority; and he was obliged to resign his office once his appointed task had been accomplished, or at the expiration of six months".

"We should return good for good. For evil we should return justice."

Nice quote. The real or perceived absence of justice and the inability to protect its outer borders are the Achilles heel(s) of every nation state. Throughout history, they have caused revolutions, authoritarian power grabs and even the fall of empires. The first is a really ugly problem in the US, the second one a serious threat to the EU.

Mike CJanuary 4, 2017 1:26 PM

The problem with trend lines is that they're assumed to continue indefinitely without outside influence. However, they often encounter a disrupting factor, whether it be a hard limit on how radical a person can get, an increase in intelligence to detect radicals before they act, or perhaps a change of policy that reduces the need to radicalize.

That, and the idea that the people who'd most like to blow up the world are usually the people least capable of doing it, lets me sleep at night. (After all, the more you benefit from society, the more you're likely to want that society to continue.) Television and movie villains all require considerable behind-the-scenes resources to even make their plans possible, and even the reduction of required resources trend will have its own disrupting factors.

albertJanuary 4, 2017 1:28 PM

@Anyone, as appropriate,

What ivory tower does Pinker live in? I want one. A friend, a mathematician, told me they call them social sciences because they use scientific principles, that is, the scientific method. I understand that. They use a lot of statistics, too. Problem is, they try to quantify the unquantifiable. By choosing the appropriate definitions, their results are always correct. I don't know anyone who gives a rats ass about this sort of history. Clearly, no one has learned from the past, so it falls on deaf ears.

Gotta love a brilliant physicist who sounds like a dock worker from Brooklyn:) Was Feynman the last Real Scientist?

I don't think anyone should question someones intentions. I don't have evidence that Pinker is a fraud. He may really believe that stuff he writes.

Why should social 'scientists' decide anything? That's like saying Flat Earthists need to be heard. Our societal problems are well known and so are the solutions. We need to stop studying, and start -doing-. Except for a few brave souls (who are marginalized, often by their own), academics talk a good game, but never put their money where their mouth is.

There's more to this issue than body counts, but you'd think body counts should be enough. Nuclear war threats aside, we have been, for decades, facing environmental threats of all kinds, as well as state-sponsored violence everywhere. Now, as Bruce rightly points out (for the nth time), we face dangerous abuses of our own computerized devices.

So let's stay on track. The answer to Bruces headline question is -NO-. We have become moral cannibals in pursuit of money and power. People don't 'become' moral. It takes years of study and practice. But however, it seems to be quite easy to become immoral.

Go figure.

. .. . .. --- ....

WinterJanuary 4, 2017 1:33 PM

"well i must agree that pinker is probably wrong but saying that you shouldn't give a single dollar to social science is wrong. "

For one thing, Pinker has a lot of data to show for. I have read Pinker's research papers (in psycho-linguistics), and they are pretty solid. I read the book cover to cover and have little to comment on. Yes, historical data is patchy and difficult. Just like the fossil record is patchy and incomplete. That should not be an excuse to run away from it.

Pinker's data all point in the same direction. His detractors do nog have data to support their views. They just question the statistics of specific subsets of his data. Exactly as Creationists do to question biology.

Bruce has a valid point. As we become more civilized and less blood thirsty as societies. A collapse of order can unleash progressively larger mayhem and bloodshed. East Asia has become more safe over the last decades. But a new war in East Asia could put everything humanity has encountered in its shadows.

WinterJanuary 4, 2017 1:38 PM

"The problem with trend lines is that they're assumed to continue indefinitely without outside influence."

Pinker explicitly writes in his books that we could have a new war that is worse than we had. He shows a trend and does expect it to continue if there is no new world war. The trend has indeed continued since his book appeared.

But now we see already a trend break in the Philippines, where people were sick of peace and prosperity and preferred mass murder.

old*man*cJanuary 4, 2017 1:49 PM

@Anon: "The closest thing we have to a single person with a nuke is North Korea."

Not sure what planet @Anon is referring to, but on this planet it's not just North Korea, but "any of the leaders of any country with nuclear weapons, and maybe a whole lot of other people in those countries as well".

I don't intend to start some discussion about this particular person versus that particular person (dictator or president-elect), and I know nothing about the command and control system in North Korea or other nuclear powers. But in the USA there's no practical limitation on the power of the president to order a launch (certainly not during a crisis), and little in the way of "security" to offset an ill-considered decision to do so.

The people who actually turn the keys and push the button may be tested for psychological health, but the ones who give the orders, not so much.

bearJanuary 4, 2017 1:57 PM

I am an optimist. I think that the next major crisis will probably kill only about two-thirds of the world's population. The remainder will adapt, in whatever ways they must. My wife, on the other hand, is a pessimist.

Modern civilization is increasingly unsustainable and increasingly precarious. If power were to go out in a major city for even a few days, there would be a lot of dying going on. Insulin, for one example, needs refrigeration else it can't be stored. A power failure in Phoenix or Las Vegas during the summer, if it lasted even a few days, would see a lot of people killed; air conditioning is life support in that area.

We are already too late to save the climate. Sea levels will continue to rise, summers will continue to get hotter, and annual tropical storm seasons will continue to get worse. We produce food in areas very far from where it is consumed, and a disruption in shipping would mean people starve.

And then there's war. We all have nuclear war in mind - the thought of landscapes reduced to ash and glass and wreckage is fairly daunting. But consider conventional warfare; our freight and tanker vessels have grown enormously large. Mines placed at a depth below the waterline of most vessels would remain unsuspected until these high-value, deep-draft targets blundered into them, and that raises the specter of large areas suddenly bereft of food and fuel. If you imagine a metropolitan area with no food coming in on ships, it's hard not to imagine death tolls reaching double-digit percentages within a week.

And every one of these systems depends on all the others. Cut off fuel shipments, and food production and power generation dies. Cut off power generation, the Internet dies. Cut off the Internet, and communication dies. Cut off communication, and the coordination of relief efforts dies. We have stacked up our vulnerabilities like dominos.

Really, it would only take one major crisis - a serious flu pandemic, for example - to start the dominos falling. We don't need to wait for so-called terrorists to pull the trigger. We've built a fireworks factory and now we're playing with matches in it.

vas pupJanuary 4, 2017 2:14 PM

@Albert:
"People don't 'become' moral. It takes years of study and practice. But however, it seems to be quite easy to become immoral."
Agree 100%. I see the cause that crooks, all types of moral and law violators are very often(unfortunately) are in the better conditions of living and prosper. Just recall as good illustration: 'Wolf of the Wall Street'.
Adam Smith and other capitalism theory 'founding
fathers' never suggested that winner should take all and ends justified means, quite opposite:
'Fairness, Benevolence, and Prudence'(per Adam Smith) should be those moral principles for ALL businesses regardless of size or field of activity. So, it is good to be rich if you follow those principles, but when no external and effective mechanisms exists to reward moral behavior (I always pro 'carrot' first, then 'club' - second)big ends let winner be protected for immoral/bad means (buy power/politicians directly or by sophisticated lawyers who could prove anything on your side). Exceptions just confirmed the rule. Conclusion: moral and law-abiding behavior(I mean fair and just laws only) as a rule should put the person in a better position than violator. Application and acceptance of this principle takes years as you suggested to get results.

keinerJanuary 4, 2017 2:21 PM

Nice to see you guys still have the time for philosophical discussion.

Maybe better get your Nazi propaganda channels under control:

http://www.n-tv.de/politik/US-Fake-News-sorgen-fuer-Panik-in-Dortmund-article19476011.html

...enough that your political system is going down the toilet, keep your stuff on your side of the pond.

Oh, regarding "things get better":

Maybe have a look at:

World War 1, especially the part in France

Word War 2, maybe consider Leningrad. Coventry. Dresden. Auschwitz. But even Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Vietnam war. War in Iraq (weapons of mass destruction, you remember? How many civil casualties? 1.000.000? More?)

And then the covert actions to destabilize Georgia, Ukraine and Syria?

What is the percentage of US-citizens in prison over the last 50 years? What is the number of people killed by police in the USA over the last 50 years?

Then please tell me, where do things get better?

rJanuary 4, 2017 3:14 PM

I think we're more apprehensive about ramifications in the face of pervasion, also QoL is going up in most areas and that also may be masking predatory behaviors.

I don't believe morality is on the rise for one second.

AndrewJanuary 4, 2017 4:23 PM

@Bear: "I am an optimist. I think that the next major crisis will probably kill only about two-thirds of the world's population."

All the survivors of a nuclear apocalypse will die within one or two years, most likely by hunger or diseases. These are not the lucky ones.
Even the ones in bunkers will probably end fast by eating or killing each others, the human experiments on long term isolation (like for Mars or on space station) are not very optimistic, psychological issues occur quite fast.

http://www.nucleardarkness.org/warconsequences/hundredfiftytonessmoke/
http://www.nucleardarkness.org/index2.php

The young generation seems to be completely unaware about the consequences of a global war. Nice article on Business Insider today:
http://www.businessinsider.com/trump-nuclear-weapons-expansion-risk-2017-1

TedJanuary 4, 2017 4:34 PM

From the Vox article:

“As it happens, most global, long-term trends have been positive. As for the future, I like the distinction drawn by the economist Paul Romer between complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents, and conditional optimism, the feeling of a child who wants a treehouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one. I am not complacently optimistic about the future; I am conditionally optimistic.”

And from Mr. Schneier's 2013 article "Trust and Society":

"Most of us recognize this: that it's not in our long-term best interest to act in our short-term self-interest."

US2020 is a program that helps to match STEM mentors with students, sharing both the conditionally optimistic and long-term views of the above articles.

From their “Science Behind Mentorship” resource page, US2020 offers several great webinars, one being the 75 minute webinar “Bringing Social and Emotional Learning to the Forefront.” [1]

At minute 5:00, the moderator presents research by the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) validating that both of the following skill-sets were fundamental for developing young people for the workforce. [1]

Knowledge, Skills, Abilities -- academic knowledge, academic success behaviors, technical knowledge and skills, communication skills, problem-solving, critical thinking skills, social skills and teamwork, goal-setting, college knowledge, career knowledge, self-advocacy skills
Personal Resources -- physical/mental health and wellbeing, resilience, self-esteem, motivation, independence, personal and civic responsibility, financial resources for postsecondary education

Cisco is one mentorship partner who has engaged US2020, committing that 20% of their US employees will be available to provide STEM mentoring to students by year 2020. [2]

[1] https://www.us2020.org/library-mentor-science

[2] http://blogs.cisco.com/csr/ciscos-cybercamp-accelerates-next-generation-of-cybersecurity-professionals

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 4, 2017 5:37 PM

@bear

If you aren't familiar already with the term https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malthusian_catastrophe , you should study it.

Every generation since the late 1700s has had its share of doomsday alarmists proposing increasingly sophisticated -according to the sophistication of the contemporary elite- scenarios predicting the end of resources and the end of life on the planet as we know it.

If the data from history is to be taken seriously the way the religious followers of Steven Pinker insist we do, the probability of encountering one of those Malthusian catastrophes in the near or medium term is approximately zero.

There have been many of these failed predictions each of which is worth studying, but I will focus on two:

- The "eugenics" doomsday. Harvard academics, chiefly Charles Davenport, noticed at the turn of the century that people like themselves -highly educated whites of Anglo-Saxon ancestry- tended to have a lower number of children than those pesky immigrants from Southern Europe -mainly Italy- and Ireland. Scared by the prospect of the disappearance of the great American civilization as they knew it, they proposed eugenics to ensure that only the fittest of Americans -white Anglo-Saxons like Davenport- could reproduce. We all know how that ended.

- The "Limits to Growth" doomsday. In the early 1970s, the Club of Rome -the same people promoting these days the global warming scare- commissioned to some of the brightest academic minds in America a study about the prospect that the world would run out of resources. The result was the aforementioned book. It predicted that by the late 1980s the world would run out of resources. In reality, none of that came to happen. The world population has nearly doubled since 1972 and yet, depending on the source, extreme poverty has been cut by at least 50% during the last 30 years. Technological innovation fueled by the same human ingenuity that got us out of the caves thousands of years ago proved these doomsday promoters wrong.

With this historical evidence, the real question is why would anybody living in 2016 take seriously the same type of predictions (we are doomed) made by the same people (narrow minded academics from the Ivory Tower) about what will happen 40 years from now.

It seem that now just as 40 years or 100 years ago, intelligence and a good education do not make anybody immune against foolish thinking. Or as the late professor Carlo Cipolla would say "the probability that a certain person (will) be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person."

Clive RobinsonJanuary 4, 2017 6:29 PM

@ Steven Pinker is overrated,

Technological innovation fueled by the same human ingenuity that got us out of the caves thousands of years ago proved these doomsday promoters wrong.

So far, however we very provably are running out of some resources (helium being a prime example). And human ingenuity does have limits, for instance there is only so far you can go on making a process more efficient, the laws of thermodynamics are very definite on this, entropy always wins. Also we know we are overdue some "60,000 year events", the fact we mamals are currently at the apex, would appear to be down to one such event.

To pretend otherwise would be stupid, which means that at some point either we are going to have to get off this rock or suffer a series of increasingly worsening setbacks untill getting of this rock is nolonger possible, at which point well a "three mile asteroid" could well knock us off our perch.

Thus we are in a bit of a race with a ticking clock, because human life has no implicit right to exist on earth, and we can see many previous occupiers of the apex that are nolonger around, except as rare fossils etc.

So yes some kind of "doomsday" event will eventually come along, it's success or failure depends on us being sufficiently advanced to stop or mitigate it at that time. Which brings us to the so called "Terrorist gamble", each time an attack happens they only have to get lucky that one time, we on the other hand have to get lucky every time to survive, so the odds are very much against us surviving...

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 4, 2017 6:46 PM

@Clive Robinson

All I want to say is that after having "cried wolf" so many times, the argument "trust me, I am a smart academic from Harvard, I know what I am saying" is not valid. Not only it is not a valid argument but in some cases, like the eugenics one, it has proven to be a very dangerous argument that has resulted in real people suffering the consequences of such foolish thinking.

As you can learn here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics_in_the_United_States , eugenics was embraced by the intellectual elite of the time and was one of the pillars of the progressive movement back then. Although accurate estimates are hard to get, it is believed that tens of thousands of "unfit people" were sterilized against their will between the beginning of the XX-th century and the early 1980s, when the last eugenics legislation was repealed in Oregon. Most of those compulsive sterilizations happened in the lead up to WWII, although they continued in some states like North Carolina until the 1970s.

The reality is that maybe at some point humanity will kill the planet, however we are far, far (perhaps millions of years) removed from the possibility of that happening. To begin with, most of the Earth is occupied with oceans inhabited by humans. To continue, in those places where humans live, they generally concentrate in high population density areas. The United States is a good example. Anybody flying from Los Angeles to New York City can see that most of the United States is both empty of people and plentiful in terms of natural resources.

Don't expect me to believe the Harvard/MIT/whatever nut job du jour predicting a Malthusian catastrophe in our lifetimes. It ain't gonna happen even if suddenly we were to triple our CO2 emissions in the next 10 years.

someoneJanuary 4, 2017 7:29 PM

@Steven Pinker is overrated
I saw the video.
well we are not talking about the same thing. When we talk about social science we dont talk about organic food etc. If organic food is better or not thats not a problem of sociology. Thats a biologic and medical problem.
Yes social science have rules that they are not the same with maths etc but they have rules and theories that try to explain reality. Even raw data gathering is really important if we want to explain and understand society.

JG4January 4, 2017 7:32 PM

@Keiner

I'd put the death toll from the Vietnam conflict much closer to 4 million; that's 1+ million Vietnamese, plus nearly 3 million Cambodians. It was a giant scam for power and money. I hope to live long enough to piss on Kissinger's grave. The news came out last week that Nixon foiled the one peace effort that Johnson attempted. Later, they bombed Cambodia from the bronze age back to the stone age. I had thought that Pol Pot was "educated" at Harvard, but I was wrong.

rJanuary 4, 2017 7:34 PM

The other thing I thought of while I was eway,

What does this have to do with morality at all anyway?

Did he poll all the would be offenders and ask them 'why' ?

rJanuary 4, 2017 7:37 PM

How does he define morality?

Porn is everywhere on the internet, Iran and others try in vain to block it.

Depending on his stance morality is very obviously decreasing in today's world.

So on one hand, technology is enabling detection and mitigation of morally abject behaviour but it's also enabling it to a large extent - photography hasn't been around forever yanno.

rJanuary 4, 2017 7:42 PM

If we were to ask a feminist or sociologist about commercials and sexification/objectification I think we'd hear the complete opposite about media particularly.

Are we less dangerous knowing we can just hijack a truck with a butter knife and go gnome bowling with a peterbilt?

Technology is a huge enabler of destruction.

more guns != less danger

more responsibility with guns != less danger

I'm really having a hard time here lol

Clive RobinsonJanuary 4, 2017 7:50 PM

@ Bruce,

Pinker's trends are based both on increased societal morality

Is it "morality" or is it something else?

Such as fear?

Fear was at the end of the day what Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was all about.

Also "Super Power Proxie Wars" with the idea being a Super Power arms up a "political" side in a third world nation, where another Super Power already supports another "political" side. The two sides would battle it out --often to stalemate-- to decide which Super Power was superior etc. The use of a third world or other country being due to the fear of rapid escalation to full nuclear warfare if it was Super Power -v- Super Power directly.

The ability to "fear consequences" is down to improving knowledge and understanding and a more informed population.

It's been known since before WWI that war rarely brings profit except to a very tiny number of arms manufactures etc. Prior to that it was known that Empires were bad news as well, the only profit accruing to those who exploited resources or a captive market. The significant losses of defending the territory far out weighed any tax gain on the resources aquired.

Even though we know "War does not pay" every so often an idiot thinks that they have come up with a new way that will pay... As always any war quite rapidly gets "bogged down" as the invador becomes mired down. Usually with the meter running on tripple overtime the cost to both nations is often more than they can afford. And recession often hits the econony to make matters worse...

pebcak esJanuary 4, 2017 8:38 PM

Are we even going to notice when the real world disappears?

Nukes, Climate Change, extinction...

Will we even bother or dare to look up from our phones?

tyrJanuary 5, 2017 12:15 AM


It's easy to forget that the only thing that
saved us from a nuclear exchange during the
Cuban missile crisis was a soviet submarine
junior officer who refused to fire on an
american ship which was harassing the sub.

When the satellite monitoring was put in
place there was a huge airburst over the
Pacific. Naval planes crossed through the
area but didn't detect any radiation. It
took a while for them to decide it was just
a meteor. If it had happened over a major
city of a nuclear power the whole northern
hemisphere would have been paved with a
nice set of radioactive glass pockmarks.

The crime statistics show that most violent
criminals are produced in USA by the school
system since illiteracy= violent criminal
behaviors. What is horrifying is that the
system is designed to produce barely able
folk trapped in an extended childhood.

The National Socialist Eugenics program was
called the Indiana Program because it was
based on the USAa actions. Once the death
camps were ordered to be filmed by Eisenhower.
The advocates of such things decided to try
a low profile for awhile.

So far it is just sheer dumb luck and flukes
that have kept us from being overrun by our
own dimly understood complexities. Only a few
have the sheer curiosity it takes to study the
magnitude of the problems outside of their own
narrow interests or training and nobody wants
to hear what they have to say. The preference
is for the three monkey statues (hear no evil,
see no evil. speak no evil) hoping it will all
go away by magic.

There is a nice parable in the Gatling Gun, it
was conceived as a weapon so horrible it would
make war impossible. It failed, but the looneys
have kept trying to make it bigger and more of
a threat thinking an idea that was false could
be made true if you invested enough in it. The
Missile submarine (Boomer) is just a more costly
version of Professor Gatlings mad scheme.

Any morality that is not grounded securely in
the concept of survival is based on false premises.
No amount of technology and no amount of academic
epistemological cartoonery will get you past this
fact. So you start with the individual and work
your way up the ladder to the entirety of your
species ensuring survival all the way. Then you
can call it morality, anything else is just a
badly scripted attempt to weasel out of being
moral.

Pinker has been as badly damaged by his academic
environment as anyone who is embedded in the system.
It's all part of the rush to Scientisms.

KaziJanuary 5, 2017 2:19 AM

Bruce seems to rule out some mainstream production of colossal violence. Is there a particular reason for that?

You can only imagine where things would have been today without a certain Vasily Arkhipov's disagreeing on nuclear assault/retaliation during Cuban missile crisis?
Individuals running the machinery at the White House and Kremlin are not deemed idiots per se, but there is such a thing as institutional stupidity.

WinterJanuary 5, 2017 2:44 AM

"Pinker has been as badly damaged by his academic
environment as anyone who is embedded in the system."

Yes, he fixates on numbers and real data instead of senseless soundbytes and myopic US TV.

JG4January 5, 2017 2:58 AM


I think that a proof can be constructed on the basis of entropy that destructive capacity always exceeds creative capacity. The consequence is that political maturity (whatever that might be) has to outrun destructive capacity, as modified by stupidity, greed and malice, or the result is extinction.

Can't recall if I posted this before. I don't agree entirely with Creamer's conclusions, having stated mine here, but I think he does a reasonable job of presenting "Grinspoon's gauntlet." Einstein and others have made similar points. The nuclear/security industry is a long series of coverups of disastrous accidents and near-accidents.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-creamer/the-real-attack-on-the-sp_b_8876954.html
...
Toward the end of his book, Grinspoon speculates on the chances of survival for intelligent life in the universe. He argues that every civilization of intelligent creatures must pass through a gauntlet that tests whether the values and political structures of the society are capable of keeping pace with the exponentially increasing power of the society’s technology. If its values and political structures can keep pace with technological change, the society may pass into a phase of enormous freedom and possibility. If it does not, the power of its own technology will destroy it. Perhaps, he postulates, civilizations are like seahorses. Many are born, but only a few survive.
For the first time, a little more than half a century ago, human society entered that gauntlet. Our technological growth reached a point of takeoff that for the first time gave us the power to destroy ourselves and all life on our tiny, fragile planet. From that moment on, the race began.
The next several generations of humans will decide how that race turns out. We won’t simply observe it, or describe it; we will decide it. Whatever the future holds will be a result of human decision for which we are all responsible.
We will decide if we pass through that gauntlet or — like our cousins the Neanderthals — become evolutionary dead ends. We will decide if humanity passes into a new era of possibility and freedom — or the human story simply ends.

DroneJanuary 5, 2017 4:04 AM

"Are We Becoming More Moral Faster Than We're Becoming More Dangerous?"

Ask the man who hands a child a knife to behead someone because they believe in a different God. Ask the man who sends a remotely piloted drone to destroy ten families, one of which may be guilty of something.

vas pupJanuary 5, 2017 9:50 AM

@Linguistic uncertainty leads to legal uncertainty.
I'll suggest mandatory (no bleeping self-regulation on that) linguistic expertise for the following legal binding documents:
- privacy policy of private companies targeted general customers(banks, insurance companies, internet providers, you name it)
- Federal, state and local laws/regulations of legislative and executive branches with targeted general population: criminal, family, real estate, labor, you name it. !!! Laws for regulation and/or set up banks, international companies, non-for profits, big corporations, drilling oil, etc. ARE EXCLUDED- all of them have capability to hire team of professionals - they are NOT targeted general population.
Purpose of expertise: establish level of understanding by high school graduate - no legalize, plain English. If they did not pass expertize - they could not be legally binding. Period. We do have in US experts for such analysis, but 'swamp' does not care.

vas pupJanuary 5, 2017 9:53 AM

@Kazi
same applied to insanity:
“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”(Friedrich Nietzsche)

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 5, 2017 11:57 AM

@someone

Although he used organic food as an example, Feynman general point was with respect to what used to call https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cargo_cult_science . He had used the before that interview.

My contention is that a lot of what is done in social science is in fact cargo cult science. Same thing with nutrition. And in fact a lot of what passes for "science" these days in the media is in fact cargo cult science, sadly.

The behavior of human beings cannot be modeled via the interaction of deterministic entities that are easy to model like the hydrogen atom. Thus, what you learn from analyzing a particular group of humans doesn't necessarily translate to others, specially when those other humans know about the study and adapt their behavior to game new rules derived from analyzing the other set of humans. So called "social scientists" have built their careers on false premises and we, the American tax payers, have to pay to subsidize a lot of the garbage they produce.

In nutrition, while it might be theoretically possible to analyze an orange by deriving laws that govern a bunch of atoms working together -I say might because recently there was work built on Godel/Turing's work questioning whether it will ever be possible to model macro behavior of molecules out of quantum mechanics alone http://www.nature.com/news/paradox-at-the-heart-of-mathematics-makes-physics-problem-unanswerable-1.18983 - in practice doing so is so complex that most nutrition studies are setup as pretending to analyze isolated variables (such as the matter of organic fertilizer impact on health) when in fact there are many other variables not accounted for (like nutrition literacy, genetic factors, weather, culture) that might be more important than the variable allegedly under study.

As far as I am concerned, Steven Pinker and the like are akin to the priests or astrologers that advised the elites in previous times.

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 5, 2017 12:04 PM

@someone (and others)

While I do not know if Scott Adams -the author of the famed Dilbert cartoons- is familiar with the above Feynman work, he recently wrote something that touches similar themes in a blog titled "The Illusion of Knowledge" http://blog.dilbert.com/post/155121836641/the-illusion-of-knowledge .

His general point is about the ability of non-experts to delude themselves via confirmation bias when they read studies that they don't fully understand, that agree with their worldview and that on the surface look serious because they have mathematical formulas or fancy graphs on them.

I see Bruce falling for this type of delusional thinking in this post when he mentions Steven Pinker.

bearJanuary 5, 2017 3:00 PM

Honestly, I think that violence has declined in recent centuries primarily because it's no longer as good a strategy as it was in previous centuries. People do what works. Bullies three centuries ago got what they wanted by threatening violence, and bullies today get what they want by threatening to file lawsuits. The psychology of the bully has not changed, and if you put the bully down in a situation where the other strategy works better, it wouldn't take them very long to adapt.

So Pinker is looking at a real thing - a decline in violence over the centuries is very real. But I think that he has largely drawn the wrong conclusions.

Governments have always been defined by the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. As technology has empowered governments, sanctions on those who use violence without that authority have made that strategy worse. That's been, I believe, the long-term change which is the cause of the observed long-term effect.

@Steven Pinker is Overrated... I really dislike the tone of "Everything Pinker Says is Crap" responses you've been making here - absolutely no reasoning or analysis has been present in any of these posts, so they sound like parroted opinions.

jennifer goldJanuary 5, 2017 5:26 PM

@ tyr

>It's easy to forget that the only thing that
>saved us from a nuclear exchange during the
>Cuban missile crisis was a soviet submarine
>junior officer who refused to fire on an
>american ship which was harassing the sub.

I thought it was the X-Men ??!

i find it a bit sad, all these smart people commenting in really smart ways, here, but just adding to a utterly meaningless post & philosophical time wasting.
a symptom of the 'chattering classes'. Yawn
Okay, back to work on your practical projects for bettering and furthering the planet, everyone!!!!

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 5, 2017 6:44 PM

@bear

As I said, just because Pinker has fancy academic credentials, it doesn't mean that we should take what he produces as worthy of studying. His general field is total garbage.

This pseudo-intellectualism - somebody has fancy academic credentials, therefore he/she should be taken seriously automatically- is very destructive for intellectual life.

I admire people like Grigori Perelman. His achievements are the kind of intellectual work that I respect. In addition, he had the moral courage to stand up to the bullies that rule today's academia.

mrpuckJanuary 5, 2017 8:41 PM

I'm struck by all the darkness in the above thoughts. War, genocide, famine, like the worst of any disaster movie. Could the recent election have anything to do with these less-than-Pollyannish thoughts?

rJanuary 6, 2017 4:29 AM

@Mrpuck,

Hellno, at least with me I paint the world in a dangerous light and stoke the embers of hope with the dismal ever permeating fog.

WinterJanuary 6, 2017 8:07 AM

@Stephen Pinker etc
"His general field is total garbage."

Which tells us a lot about your ignorance. You obviously have no clue abou psycho-linguistics.

"As I said, just because Pinker has fancy academic credentials, it doesn't mean that we should take what he produces as worthy of studying."

He collected a lot of data and statistics. Up to now, you have only produced insults and empty accusations. My impression is that you object to the political implications of his findings and are trying to inundate us with anti propaganda.

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 6, 2017 10:04 AM

@Winter

"My impression is that you object to the political implications of his findings and are trying to inundate us with anti propaganda."

Your impression is wrong. I deeply care about the misappropriation of the word "science" by people like Pinker of Bruce to advance their own political agendas. In doing so, they undermine the scientific enterprise -and the hard sciences.

It goes something like this:

- In the aforementioned hard sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, etc), the premise is that there exist universal laws that the scientific method uncovers. These laws are not subject to "peer review" or "expert opinion". When data is collected in experiments like those carried out by LIGO or the LHC, it is always in a attempt to falsify a hypothesis. Data collection and analysis is only a means to settle the question of whether a particular hypothesis is false. In this context, "peer review" only determines whether the steps were done appropriately. This basic feature of hard science is what gives the hard science its predictive power: once a particular hypothesis hasn't been falsified by different people attempting the same experiment, there is high confidence that the experiment will turn out the same way every time. In the case of our understanding of gravity at the surface of the Earth, tens of thousands of planes flying worldwide everyday do an experiment that attempts to falsify Newton's law of gravity. I will pull another Feynman here, from the first minute of this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EYPapE-3FRw


"In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s really true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature, or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

- The social sciences and its practitioners like Pinker have this understanding of science reversed: they first collect data describing something. They then apply some statistical analysis to that data and then they pretend that the result of said analysis is the new law that can be extrapolated to other human societies or even the future because "they say so". Sometimes "they say so" is disguised with "I got a degree from Harvard therefore I am right" or "My garbage passed peer review of other peers who are as misguided as I am, therefore I am right".

In the hard sciences, the assumption is the per-existence of immutable laws that the scientific method uncovers. In the social sciences, people like Pinker invent new laws out of analyzing data. They then present these "new laws" as if they are as universal as the laws governing gravity and call "idiot" anybody who disagrees with them.

This has serious implications for real life. I don't need a study to tell me that if I jump from a tall building I am likely to get crushed by gravity. Gravity will crush me regardless of whether said study exists. On the other hand, Pinker and the like invent imaginary realities based on the biased analyses they do of data and go around saying "this study shows this and that". Well, if you need a study to show something to be real, that "something" is probably fake and worth less than the paper it is printed on.

LevJanuary 6, 2017 10:33 AM

@Anura

Either you define Moral as not doing things that horrify the actor, (Which I will point out those "old peoples" were moral by your standard in doing what horrify you) or you just gave a great example of the begging the question fallacy that I was pointing out. The only other possibility is that you see yourself as the arbiter of morality for the world. You've not made any other moral arguement

In 100 years laws that treat people the same may be seen as just as horrifying to people as we see laws that treat people differently. In fact it is quite likely.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 6, 2017 12:17 PM

@ Steven Pinker is overrated,

I don't need a study to tell me that if I jump from a tall building I am likely to get crushed by gravity. Gravity will crush me regardless of whether said study exists.

I don't think you ment to say that. Because if gravity was going to crush you, you would have been crushed on the tall building long before you jumped...

As for hard science and soft science, the real difference is apparently non determinism, and at higher levels what we like to call free will.

If you think about science we have our physical world defined --so far-- by energy, mass and forces. However if you go down far enough you get into the quantum world where things do not behave the way we expect from our own physical senses. As you move upwards from quantum physics you get into Newtonian physics, chemistry, organic chemistry and then into biology. It's around this point experiments become soft and probabilistic in nature, you keep going and you enter the world of free will where the likes of economists and some philosophers like to play. You keep going and you enter the realm of faith and religion (which few would argue is rational thus scientific). Sitting of to the side of this line of science we have things with no physical actuality such as information which is comprised of data and logic giving us mathmatics etc which we use as the tools to analyze our physical world. The important point to note is that probability rules all from the quantum world through to the universe and potentially beyond. Some times it's effects are large sometimes they are so small we talk of them as noise or less to the point of not being measurable. The simple fact is hard science occupies the ground where we can in effect ignore probability because it's effects are to small to measure due to other noise, thus we talk of determanism and an experiment working for all each time it is carried out. However our own senses tell us that this is actually not quite true. Take an empty wine glass and drop it from a sufficient hight... We know that in all probability it will shatter. What we don't know is how it will shatter and spread the broken pieces. Some call it a chaotic process others call it a random process either way the pattern lacks determanism...

Steven Pinker is overratedJanuary 6, 2017 4:14 PM

@Clive Robinson

"The important point to note is that probability rules all from the quantum world through to the universe and potentially beyond"

I kind of agree with that statement with a very strong qualification, which is to say, that it is not a continuum. There is a significant gap between the quantum world and the macro world that can be modeled via Newton and Einstein's equations. We still don't know why this is the case, but the gap is real. Also, while the Newton/Einstein modeling applies to how big bodies interact with space-time, it doesn't apply to modeling behavior of humans endowed with free will.

The problem with soft science is that it attempts to model entities that cannot be modeled deterministically via deterministic models. As good sophists, they add a touch of "statistical inference" to make their BS look more acceptable, but remains bs nonetheless.

A few years back, I heard the best metaphor about the lack predictive power of economics. The joke began: here comes an economist trying to model the behavior of a group of cows and begins by saying "suppose that a cow is a sphere...".

The problem with soft science is that their hypotheses DO NOT MATCH the underlying reality. Therefore, fancy equations and fancy derivations are irrelevant because these cannot correct for the fact that the hypotheses do not account for how humans behave.

Also, whether free-will is real or it is something that could be modeled with gigantic computer power is irrelevant. Our whole system of laws presupposes the existence of free will. "My genes/atoms made me do it" is not a legally accepted defense against murder.

Similarly, the reason for having democracy as a way to channel political opinion is because of the acknowledgment that political opinions are like a-holes: everybody has one and there is no "a priori" objective better idea. Voting gets us what the majority prefers, but this is very different from the result of what the majority prefers being "the best" in some sort of absolute measure good for all humans.

For all these reasons, I think that Steven Pinker and the like are like snake oil salesmen. They've found their niche market among the intellectual elite of today who, having rejected faith and religion, need a way to justify their secular worldview. What Steven Pinker tells them is music to their ears because it confirms their biases and beliefs.

Finally, we need to keep perspective. At every point in history, the elite has believed things as if they were absolute truth that we find today appalling. I am talking about "God appointed absolute rulers, aka kings", astrology -few people know that research into astronomy began pushed by astrology not the other way around-, slavery, eugenics, etc. Therefore, we must guard against what today's elite believes as absolute truth because more likely than not it is complete garbage. Most of what Steven Pinker produces is like that.

Anon10January 7, 2017 1:13 PM

As Bruce points out, it's foolish to estimate the costs of terrorism in the future from the costs of terrorism in the past. It's easy to envision terrorist attacks becoming more lethal using conventional explosives(ex. McVeigh in OKC), using chemical weapons(ex. ISIS in Syria and Iraq), or biological weapons being within reach of small cells of terrorists within the near future. Technology advances are likely to make all those attack vectors easier to use and acquire.

Clive RobinsonJanuary 7, 2017 4:56 PM

@ Anon10,

... using chemical weapons(ex. ISIS in Syria and Iraq), or biological weapons being within reach of small cells of terrorists within the near future.

It's actually unlikely they will be effective compared to the immediacy of bombs and bullets.

In Japan a quater of a century ago a doomsday cult (Aum Shinrikyo) that was very well resourced produced both biological and chemical weapons. It culminated in a sarin attack on the Tokyo Underground, which to that time had been the deadliest incident since WWII.

But when you tally up the numbers of cult members involved and the number of deaths and casualties it caused, from a terrorist point of view it had a very poor return on the investment, when compared to modern day Disposable DNA attacks with semi and fully automatic guns.

Similar poor return on chemical and biological weapons have been seen with conventional forces deploying them. Put simply whilst such weapons show great promise in carefully controled lab experiments, they do not work any where near as well in city or urban areas, because the delivery systems realy do not work except under exceptional circumstances.

For various reasons these delivery systems are unlikely to become any where near as effective as conventional munitions with explosive weight equivalent to the mass of the chemical or biological weapons.

WinterJanuary 11, 2017 3:04 AM

@Clive
"Similar poor return on chemical and biological weapons have been seen with conventional forces deploying them. "

Posdibly because nature has been much more resourceful in launching biological and chemical attacks. Illustrated by AIDS, the recent ebola outbreak, and the current Zika outbreak. And chemical attacks, almost every plant species is poisonous and most surface water is unsafe to drink. There are also very good reasons we are very touchy about ventilation. Humans have developed a very good sense for biological and chemical attacks and ways to handle them.

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