John Gray versus Pinker on Violence: “The Sorcery of Numbers”

UnknownSteven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that declines in all kinds of violence, including war, reflect moral progress. I reviewed it enthusiastically (and not just because it cited my own book). But, unarguably, Pinker’s thesis has had a bad few years.

Hardly was his ink dry when violent conflict engulfed the Arab world. Russia has resurrected, zombie-like, a kind of big power military aggression we had thought gone forever. And whereas expanding democratization was a key explanatory pillar for Pinker’s thesis, democracy too has had setbacks, in countries from Venezuela to Thailand, with Egypt’s revolution producing a regime even worse than before,* while China’s authoritarianism looks better (in some eyes) than America’s democratic paralysis.

imagesWell. As I’ve often argued, human affairs are complex, and their path is never linear. We’ve had some years going in the wrong direction; but it’s way too soon to read the last rites for far longer and larger trends in the right direction.

Comes now John Gray in The Guardian** with an essay boldly headed, “Pinker is Wrong About Violence and War.” The subhead asserts, “[t]he stats are misleading . . . and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and just plain wrong.” (My daughter Elizabeth challenged me to respond.)

images-4I was expecting to find, in this lengthy essay, some substantive grappling with Pinker’s arguments and his exhaustive analysis of data, in the light of latterly developments. Not so. Indeed, the essay’s verbosity is inversely proportional to its substance. As Texans say, all hat and no cattle; revealing less about Pinker than about Gray’s pretentious cynicism masquerading as intellectual depth.

Gray does perfunctorily argue that data here “involves complex questions of cause and effect,” citing some ambiguities whose disregard, he says, renders Pinker’s statistics “morally dubious if not meaningless.” images-1But what Gray completely disregards (did he read the book?) is the vast depth in which Pinker examined just such issues (for example, what counts as “war” and how you count casualties), always probing for the reasons and explanations behind the data, to arrive at true understanding.

Rather than get into such nitty-gritty, Gray offers a string of non sequiturs. images-5For instance, unable to rebut Pinker’s analysis of actual history, he invokes counter-factual history – what might have happened, but did not (e.g., Nazis winning WWII). And, after enumerating a few recent violent episodes (yes, it’s no revelation they still occur), Gray says, “Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.”

Fatally! This hyperbolic twaddle is belied by Pinker’s comprehensive exegesis of just how different modern advanced societies are, from earlier ones, in terms of the violence ordinary people encounter in everyday life. Thus Pinker addresses not just war, but every other class of violence – something Gray totally ignores.

Part of Pinker’s explanation for the improvement is the influence of Enlightenment values (just one example: Beccaria’s battle against pervasive torture). But Gray makes the customary shallow and cynical attack on the very idea of Enlightenment values. He cites a few backward views held by Locke, Bentham, and Kant. Which proves what, exactly? And Gray alleges (without specifying) “links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism,” dismissing any denial as “childish simplicity.” Call me childish, but I don’t consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao avatars of Voltairean humanism.

But, again, none of this nonsense represents any serious effort to engage with the analysis Pinker laid out in such depth. images-6And it’s all just a lead-up to Gray’s main point, which is to simply ridicule the whole project of elucidating these matters through statistical evaluation – which he likens to a 16th century magician’s use of a “scrying glass” to access occult messages, or spinning Tibetan prayer wheels. He sees Pinkerites as similarly trying to assuage some existential angst by fetishizing data, reading into it meaning that isn’t there. “Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt,” Gray writes, “it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers.”

There you have it. “The sorcery of numbers.” The postmodernist mentality at its worst: there’s no such thing as truth. images-2Don’t even try to understand reality by examining evidence for what’s actually happening. Instead, place reliance on – what? – John Gray’s deeper wisdom, uncontaminated by data? Magicians and sorcery indeed!

True, statistics can be misused, but surely that doesn’t tell us to eschew their use. Pinker recognized that his book challenged conventional wisdom and would be met with a wall of cynicism like Gray’s. Thus he knew he had to build a powerful battering ram of facts and data – accompanied by thoroughgoing and persuasive interpretive analysis – to break through that wall. Unknown-1Pinker’s success is evidenced by Gray’s bemoaning that “the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy.” If so, that orthodoxy is in no danger of overthrow from such a disgracefully foolish effort as John Gray’s.

* Though there’s been good news in Sri Lanka, and now Nigeria, where voters transcended traditional divisions to oust the ruling party.

** It had also published a similarly cynical and stupid review (by George Monbiot) of Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist.


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2 Responses to “John Gray versus Pinker on Violence: “The Sorcery of Numbers””

  1. Bob-B Says:

    A very good discussion.

  2. Al de Baran Says:

    Rather than address the ridiculous straw man caricature that this person creates of John Gray, let’s look at what Gray actually endeavored to do in his review of Pinker.

    Gray’s aim is to attack the notion that, because Steven Pinker has amassed lots of numbers and data in his book *The Better Angels of Our Nature*, he must then be right, Q.E.D., and those who disagree must be innumerate, or haven’t read the book.

    The intellectual and philosophical naïveté of this view beggars belief. Numbers, like facts, never speak for themselves. They require, first of all, competent and unbiased gathering and reporting, and second, interpretation. Numbers, like facts, also do not interpret themselves. They require human interpretation, and humans can and do reasonably disagree over interpretations.

    Gray, along with other reviewers of Pinker’s rose-colored Whig history of violence, indicates that Pinker’s interpretations of his data (as well as the data themselves) are questionable, and that the alleged “pattern” he has discovered in history is therefore also questionable, even dubious. Many other reviewers have addressed Pinker’s specific shortcomings, and Gray simply takes the larger view.

    In short, all the simple-minded hand-waving about numbers and facts won’t save Pinker from the accusation that he has cherry-picked his data, relied dubiously on figures from the more distant past that are speculative, at best, and woven from this tissue-thin tapestry a pattern that is very much open to challenge. What is more, reviewers who are competent in the field, i.e., actual historians, have universally criticized Pinker’s book.

    Now, those who, unlike this individual, actually embody the Enlightenment virtues of dispassionate reason and the weighing of evidence, rather than pay lip service to them while engaging in self-contradictory frothing at the mouth, should have a look at the following refutations of Pinker.

    First, here is a link to a review of the book by Professor Benjamin Ziemann of the University of Sheffield (unlike Pinker, Ziemann is actually a historian):

    So, here is strike one (the first of many): A historian who demonstrates that there are problems with Pinker’s book based on substantial matters of fact.

    Bede Journal (the blog of historians James Hannam and Humphrey Clarke) offers a thorough demolition of several of Pinker’s claims:

    See also this, from Yale historian Timothy David Snyder:

    And this, from anthropologist Douglas P. Fry:

    Or this, from psychologist Christopher Ryan regarding one of Pinker’s talks on the same subject:

    Or this, from historian Barb Drummond on the subject of state violence and incarceration:“.

    A statistician looks closely at the numbers and takes down Pinker, here:

    Click to access longpeace.pdf

    See also the extensive critique by Herman and Peterson, 2012:

    And by Stephen Corry, 2013:

    And last but not least, see R. Brian Ferguson, “Pinker’s List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality,” in Douglas P. Fry, ed., War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 112-131.

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