Are You Part of Steven Pinker’s “Science-flunking Intellectual Elite”?

In a passage highlighted by Flip Chart Fairy Tales, Stephen Pinker, in an interview in The Observer last week, argues that statistical ignorance is our intellectual culture’s great failure.

I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today’s human trafficking and the African slave trade. It’s a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn’t know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics.

I largely agree with him, though the English major in me rebels — and I think a world where everyone understood stats but no one read good literature might still be a less moral place. (I could be wrong on this.) But Pinker is not pressing us to dump Milton, of course, but to gain competence in understanding statistics and scale. He’s dead right, and what makes his argument interesting is that he’s insisting our ignorance of statistics, amid our joy of reciting flabby or misleading numbers, can make us ignorant about moral questions.

It’s a good interview, as most with Pinker are. He’s smart, articulate, and complicated in ways that lead to surprises. You get a chance to see him talk, do so.

Trivia find: Pinker has a profile and several entries at IMDB, the movie database, where he is listed as “miscellaneous crew” (and adviser) on several films. He also shoots some nice photos.

Our science-flunking intellectual elite | Flip Chart Fairy Tales

Steven Pinker: fighting talk from the prophet of peace | Science | The Observer

12 responses

  1. But how to solve the problem he addresses? Simple. Prioritize statistics above other “higher” mathematics at the high school level. Why was I taught geometry, trigonometry and calculus, none of which I recall or ever used again, even during my brief time in the lab, when statistics would have been so much more valuable?

    The funny thing about statistics is that some of it is simple enough to teach at the junior high school level. And it should be.

    • Agree — statistics should come early and be required, and a second round should be pushed as alternative to calc or pre-calc at upper HS levels. To make that second part work, though, universities would need to place an explicit value on statistics in incoming applications. The people who later become the elite Pinker talks of now take pre-calc or calculus because it boosts college applications, when in fact, as you note, statistics would actually be more valuable for making them well-rounded scholars. 

  2. I don’t always agree with Pinker, but in this case he is absolutely right; I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered “brilliant” people who revel in their ignorance of science / math / stats.

    Christopher, I agree with you on calculus, but not so much on geometry and trig — I find myself using them all the time. But you may be right that stats is more important for the general population than all of them. There’s no question we could come up with a better math curriculum. And don’t get me started on science, which is generally taught in such incoherent drips and drabs in America that it’s a wonder anyone becomes a scientist. In another life, with a better science curriculum, I wouldn’t have become bored with science by 11th grade and I’d probably be a scientist today instead of a science writer / catherder.
    And David, you’re right too — a rare trifecta! We need to teach everyone the beauty and relevance of words too. Go liberal arts!

    • I meant to put in my two cents for geometry, since I buy the argument that that whole proofing business helps build a sense of logic and, well, proof. It’s an area of math the benefits of which carry even if you never use it again. 

  3. Nice post. To speak to the hard choices between math, science and literature, I agree that none needs to suffer. Basic statistical concepts can be covered in every science lesson. When you learn about science, we should DO science, when doing science, we collect data… how do you describe a set of data? Statistics. My kids are starting to learn some probability and stats in 3rd grade right now. 

    However, all three (math, science and literature) are currently suffering under the test-based accountability craze (at least in this country). We are dropping Milton for reading strategies, we are postponing a lot of great math in order to drill the “basics” into everybody at an early age, and there is not enough time to do cool science because everyone is too worried about reading and math scores. 
    The emphasis of No Child Left Behind (and Race to the Top) of closing gaps by getting everyone to a baseline of reading and math (which are sold as somehow fundamental to all learning) seems logical.
    But turning reading into a skill, rather than a way (among others) of accumulating interesting knowledge and skills about history, social studies, art, science, etc punishes people who might be delayed in gaining this skill, but still gaining knowledge through other means. 

    I agree that it would be better if basic statistical competence were more widespread, but I am less convinced that its effects would be as positive as Pinker imagines. For example, look at the many economists who have lead the way in championing many of the current educational reforms. If you know a whole lot of statistics, but not a lot about 3rd graders and how the mind works, I am not sure you are better suited to analyze educational data than someone who can put it into context. Pinker’s complaints about the inappropriateness of comparing Vietnam to Afghanistan, or the modern slave trade with the ancient one, or finding patterns in sniper attacks aren’t really about statistics at all, but choosing which kind of background knowledge is relevant. In other words, first having background knowledge (about historical and sociopolitical context), and choosing which knowledge to apply is the key to understanding these metaphors or not. For my economists example, they analyze the data that is available to them, without questioning whether that data that is inconvenient to gather or aggregate might actually be more important. They analyze test data without dwelling on what exactly the test measures, and which correlations are stronger indications of causality and which are not.

  4. The problem that I suspect the author and commentators wish to ‘solve’ as it were, is likely less about statistics as a mathematical pursuit and rather learning how to think logically and rationally.

    I enjoy statistics well enough, and in fact as an analytical chemist for nearly ten years in industry, I was probably more of a statistician than anything else. Plumber comes in a close second, though. There is a certain logical rationality that most scientist follow, consciously or unconsciously, that is arguably more important than the literal mathematics of statistics. This ‘logic’ (for lack of a better term) helps understand the significance (or lack thereof) and relationships between events or processes. I don’t think any of my colleagues ran any sort of statistical analysis on why something did not work or every little thing they did in the lab, but rather thought it through logically and came to some sort of conclusion. Obviously when you wrap up a study, or whatever you are working on, there are tons of statistical analyses to perform (as I noted, on many days I probably did more stats than chemistry) but the scientific process itself is more about logic, and less about stats.
    So I bring all of that up to try to explain why I believe that perhaps students would be served well by taking courses on logic, philosophy, critical thinking and so forth. Certainly stats should be an option in high schools, but I don’t think simply cramming it down students’ throats will somehow make them more ‘enlightened’ through college and afterward. However, my gut reaction is that offering additional coursework on philosophy and logic probably does little to boost school numbers for whatever metrics they are trying to meet.

    I suppose there is even a sense of irony with this article and Pinker’s thoughts. If we assume statisticians – or users of stats – lead to logical and rational thinking; however, that just may be a correlation not causation. Perhaps there is a great deal of rational and logical thinking that does not rely on statistics. Lawyers, perhaps?

  5. Oh how much better things would be if people knew Bayesian statistics, among other things.  Pinker is right.

  6. So many of the pathetic lies of politicians and the media would exploded with more literacy in statistics and critical thinking aka  the scientific method.

  7. Since you mention it, David, I was the tour guide for SP for the pictures shown under Europe/Norway, which he did when he was here in Tromsø receiving an honorary doctorate. And I agree with your assessment … not surprisingly. I think the statistics problem he points out and the challenge of comprehending deep time are the source of many reasoning errors. Introducing statistics into journalists’ training would be a huge step forward.

  8. As I read this post I was reminded of the countless students at my university that seem to have given up on anything science related after initially being an engineering or pre-med major. I would say that I’m quite the opposite of the type of person that neglects to hold scientific perspective on world issues. Ironically enough however, I was not required to take a full statistics course during my time in my undergraduate experience (and am still on track for graduation!). I was briefly exposed to college level statistics during an introductory course on my major (bioengineering). This just goes to show you  the level of importance placed on statistics in some situations. However, I found that as I worked in labs analyzing data and taking additional courses that statistics was indeed very valuable if not absolutely necessary to confirm important conclusions made from experiments. This is a specific example, but it can be generalized to conform to Pinkers’ views – which I agree with.
    On another note, I do harbor some concern about the people that ace their math and science subjects but are socially inept. I bordered on this at the beginning of my college career. Pinker should remember that knowing the facts is just as important as being able open your mouth and speak confidently in order to communicate those rational thoughts and ideas.

  9.      One of the worst things that someone can do is make ‘assumptions’ about one another – or of people from the past, per se. In ancient times, people learned more orally, as I assume there were fewer books available to them, and choice scholars as teachers were probably even more rare. People learn in different ways, it seems – and develop different interests. A lot of that does depend on their earlier educations. Having a teacher who loves students and loves what their teaching is quite valuable, and having good course materials is also critical. It’s really hard to gleam what is ‘really’ wrong with human society, since everyone develops their own unique perspective. Statistics is a good foundation – I will agree with that, and should be taught as such – ‘there is only cause and effect – no accidents’, which teaches us not to make excuses.
         We have so much more a richer depth of knowledge, that it is truly difficult to be a ‘truly wise’ person, whom all others would concur with. Einstein comes to mind – everyone respected him. Getting people past a catch-all education system would indeed improve our society, no doubt about it – but necessity also pushes round pegs into square holes, sometimes. Just my thought.

  10.      Sorry, that seemed a bit rambling of me. I am a writer, and I’m used to spending a lot more time proofing my writing.

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