Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko.

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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Thoughts on Pinker's _Blank Slate_

I very much enjoyed The Blank Slate, but I haven't been in the blogging mood lately.  So I won't be doing chapter-by-chapter blogging.  I'll just comment on a few over-arching themes:

First, people obviously fear theories of genetic factors underlying intelligence and other abilities because of the attraction that such theories hold for racists, sexists, and other foul bigots.  Pinker concedes the need for caution, but also notes that the idea of humans as malleable blank slates was beloved of Marxists.  And the Marxists have managed to hold their own when it came to killing and oppressing.  Ultimately, the problem with racists is the same as the problem with communist:  They want to control people on the basis of their theories, and kill anyone who gets in the way. If we conclude that individual abilities are strongly (but not solely) influenced by genes we can either oppress people whom we deem to be genetically unsuited for certain paths, or develop a plethora of different educational paths for everyone to find and hone their strengths.  One of these things is very different from the other.

This is somewhat reminiscent of my observation that a theory of success is not enough; you also need a theory of failure.  If you have a theory of success, your theory of failure could be that disadvantaged people lack the characteristics that lead to success, or that they are denied the opportunity to utilize/develop those characteristics.  There's no such thing as a standalone theory of success that blames or exonerates the disadvantaged; to have such a theory we have to supplement it with a theory of why the disadvantaged didn't or couldn't do whatever it is that our theory says is critical for success.

Second, Pinker argues that the effects of parenting are smaller than people want to believe. I think he's over-stating his case (more on that in a moment), but to whatever extent parents don't matter, teachers must matter even less.  Also, he argues that neural plasticity isn't as powerful as people like to think, i.e. brains aren't as malleable as people believe.  As a person responsible for teaching 18 year-olds, I wish he'd also said that to whatever extent the brain is plastic, that plasticity decreases (which is different from saying that it completely disappears) with age.  You can't expect me to change people as much as a kindergarten teacher can, and you can't expect a kindergarten teacher to change people as much as a parent can.

Third, when he argues that parents matter less than we want to believe, he refers to the fact that well-designed studies of parenting practices and household characteristics don't find that those variables explain much of the variance of various outcomes.  However, the proper control groups are people from similar social classes, neighborhoods, etc.  I think it follows that if we just vary one characteristic of a household but keep everything else in that household similar to the rest of the neighborhood (i.e. the rest of the control group) then not much will change.  Well, that just means that what matters is that parents provide the same general baseline as everyone else, not that they get everything right or jump on every fad.  A parent who doesn't provide the same overall baseline as the rest of the neighborhood could very well produce a different outcome (better or worse) than a parent who does the same as the rest of the neighborhood.  A particular fad or whatever doesn't matter, but overall adherence to the big picture does.

Of course, he also says that even if parents don't matter for various long-term sociological outcomes as many people would like to hope, so what?  Parents matter as long as they are in a child's life.  Failure to do the basics would matter, provision of the basics matters a lot, and loving family relationships enrich life.  They might not move the needle much on sociological outcomes but who cares?  Not every moment of our lives has to be calibrated to some social reform agenda.  We can simply live as social primates with loving bonds and make the most of that.

Finally, I like his point about how literature, poetry, and other artistic endeavors might be better windows into human nature than much of the ideologically-constrained and often non-replicable social science out there.  That doesn't mean that every poet, novelist, or sculptor out there is equally possessed of timeless insight, but if something is widely-recognized as brilliant it might be resonant with something in human nature and human experience.  We can learn a lot about humans by pondering those works that have resonated with us throughout the ages.

So I guess I'd better keep reading.

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