Interview with Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker about free speech

[Video Link] Ted Balaker produced this video interview with Harvard experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, author of such books as The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature and, most recently, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Pinker tackles everything from the fallacy of the blank slate to the psychology of indecent proposals and why he's catching flack for arguing that violence is decreasing.

In one particularly interesting bit he makes the case for defending the rights of dissenters as a way to help avoid "collective delusions," such as Hilter's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union or the European witch hunts which tortured to death 150,000 woman who were suspected of causing ships to sink and crops to fail by casting spells.

Here's Pinker:

"You look at them retrospectively and you wonder, 'How could everyone have been so mad?' On top of being evil these ideas seem patently ludicrous. How can you have a collective delusion overtaking an entire society? And it looks like one of the answers is that if dissenters are punished and can anticipate they're going to be punished, then you might have a situation where no one actually believes something, but everyone else believes that everyone else believes it. Therefore no one is willing to be the little boy that says the emperor is naked. And this 'pluralistic ignorance' as it's sometimes called is easily implemented when you have the punishing or censoring of unpopular views."


  1. But permitting nonconformists to challenge my cherished beliefs hurts my feelings and just stirs up trouble!

    We should only permit responsible nonconformists who know to hold only very slightly odd views, nothing that would rock the boat or anything.

    1. Quite so. I think we call those people eccentric. They can be jolly amusing. The others, the irresponsible ones you mention, well, they’re just loonies who should be locked up for their own protection.

    1. That’s called a pre-emptive Godwin. It’s a strategy used to defuse trolling, which is especially virulent in academia.

  2. Wait, a straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class, cis-gendered, dude thinks the world is just hunky dory? I thought the ‘privilege denying dude’ thread was elsewhere!

    (i’ve actually read the giant tome that is The Better Angels of our Nature and thoroughly recommend it, but the joke just HAD to be made)

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