This week’s #ThrowbackTuesday is the psychologist and popular science author Steven Pinker.
Joined as a co-host by my friend and MMA fighter Peter Irving, I had one of my favourite afternoons since launching London Real.
Steven’s reputation is humbling and impressive. I was honoured to have him on the show.
He taught at my alma mater MIT for over twenty years and he is now professor of psychology at Harvard University.
He’s written hugely popular books on the history and evolution of language, and at the time he came to visit us he was promoting The Better Angels of Our Nature, which is a controversial book arguing that we are becoming less violent.
Steven and I had a little bonding moment about MIT, a place that is dear to the both us.
I tell Steven that being a student there was a permanently humbling experience.
In fact, just talking and hanging out with Steven reminded me of that feeling.
He’s so articulate, and so gracious with the way he shares his sometimes really complex ideas, that you can’t help feeling you are becoming a better person just listening to him talk!
Having been a professor at MIT, Steven was a colleague of Noam Chomsky, the linguistics professor and political activist.
Steven Pinker on Noam Chomsky
In the space of about 15 minutes or less, Steven gives us a complete history of linguistics, and explains why it’s important.
Steven’s ability to distil difficult material into accessible chunks of information is astounding, and you can see why he is now a household name.
I felt that I understood more about the human capacity for language in that short ten-minute chat than I ever have from reading a book.
I think what makes him so effective as a communicator is that he really values discussion and sharing ideas.
He’s not interested in pumping himself up, and let’s face it that can be a rare trait in academics these days!
Steven is genuinely interested in your questions and he’s open to new ideas.
His main agenda is satisfying an almost child-like curiosity about human nature.
My co-host Peter Irving put me to shame with some of the deep and penetrating questions that he was firing off, but frankly, it was a pleasure to listen to these guys share their thoughts.
I LOVE the fact that Steven is the archetype of an MIT guy.
So he’s interested social ideas, and he’s a philosopher as much as a scientist.
But ultimately, he’s a numbers guy and I like that. I also think it’s part of his effectiveness as a communicator.
Numbers talk, and when you break it down that way, people either accept the truth or live in denial, and that’s very much Steven’s style.
If he’s wrong, he wants to see the figures, and he has no problem changing his mind if the stats say so.
For a lot of the episode we talked about Steven’s book on violence, and again, he’s adamant that the figures point to an overall DECLINE in violence.
He throws out some crazy stats, like the fact that a man in England is one-thirty-fifth as likely to die in a murder attempt than his medieval counterpart!
If you compare this to the picture we get from the modern news media, it’s makes you think right?
Steven says the fact that everyone is a reporter these days makes this much worse, because unlikely events like war and violent crime are transmitted easier and instantly.
War is decreasing, torture is decreasing, domestic violence is going down – everything is getting less violent!
Strangely enough, this makes Steven all the more controversial.
As he explains, there are too many sacred causes, and sometimes the facts get in the way of people’s opinions.
We had a fascinating chat about morality, and Steven thinks there is too much of it.
He’s not saying we shouldn’t be good, but that often hard and fast moral stances make the world more violent rather than more safe.
Steven Pinker on How Morality Drives Violence
Being a facts and figures guy, Steven is in favour of thinking like an economist.
He’s about generating the greatest good for the greatest amount of people, and he believes morality can often get in the way of that.
Gun control comes up in this episode and Steven’s take on it should be ESSENTIAL viewing for all Americans.
He sees the problem of gun ownership as a purely psychological one, coming down to people’s tribal attitudes, and based on the violent and male-dominated history of the states.
Seriously, this is enlightening stuff! Steven is never simplistic, but he’s always simple in the way he lays it down.
I got the feeling that Steven could have chatted for a few more hours, and I would have been happy for him to do that.
I really hope we can get him back on the show, as this episode has to be up there with Neil Degrasse Tyson.
The more guys like Steven there are out there, the more hope there is for humanity!