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Steven Pinker and His Critics: Is the Long Peace a “Statistical Illusion”?
AUTHOR
Scott Atran
Scott Atran
is Adjunct Research Scientist, Research Center for Group Dynamics; Adjunct Professor, Psychology Department; Visiting Professor, Ford School of Public Policy; Presidential Scholar, John Jay College of Criminal Justice Senior; Research Fellow, Harris Manchester College, Oxford University; Directeur de Recherche, Anthropologie, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, has garnered much attention. Part of the reason is because it is a classic example of scholarship that stands on the shoulders of academic giants. The thesis is not entirely new (as many of his critics are quick to point out), but Pinker marshals substantial evidence from across disciplines and integrates it in a novel and compelling way. Consequently, this interdisciplinary salvo has been debated widely and deeply. One recent example is Pinker’s reception at the International Studies Association earlier this year (2012) which was covered by TVOL (see here).

Of course debate continues, and the latest critique comes from New York University Professor Nassim Taleb. Professor Taleb posted a short riposte (The “Long Peace” is a Statistical Illusion) that outlines a number of components of Pinker’s thesis and responds briefly to each. Having learned of the Taleb piece (which is actually a work in preparation), Pinker generated a response that he posted on his own website. Both papers can be accessed at each author’s personal websites:

Nassim Taleb: The “Long Peace” is a Statistical Illusion

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Steven Pinker: Fooled by Belligerence: Comments on Nassim Taleb’s ‘The Long Peace is a Statistical Illusion’

4 Comments

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4 Comments

  1. Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa says:

    I am on the side of Steven Pinker in this discussion.  Nassim Taleb added a small response to Pinker, where the former accuses the latter of “ad hominem” attacks.  I don’t know if Taleb knows what the term “ad hominem attacks” means, but Pinker’s response was far from that.  You may agree or disagree with Pinker, but “The Better Angels of our Nature” is a remarkable book and supports the main thesis that violence has been declining, not increasing.  As always, when he presents his points, he is a gentleman and an honest intellectual.

  2. Helga Vierich says:

    There is a problem with any form of trend-based analytical framework, especially when dealing with a potentially very volatile situation.  The scientific evidence indicates that human economic systems based on industrial uses of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources cannot be sustained.  Whatever data has accumulated on relative non-violence within large scale states in the past 10,000 years, it is not equal to to the task of predicting what will happen when growth ends and industrial economies (with their industrial systems of agriculture) around the world begin to contract.  In any event, Pinker’s thesis says nothing about human “nature”, it relates only to trends in human culture.  As for the data he relies on for the levels of violence prior to 10,000 years ago, it is very misleading, for Lawrence Keeley’s data was NOT all based on foragers, for one thing, mixed data on murder rates with data on warfare, for another, and finally, appears to have EXCLUDED data from hunter-gatherers with no evidence of warfare or significant levels of violence.  The issue of violence is a very different issue from that of organized warfare, and to confound the two is a mistake.

  3. David Roodman says:

    FYI, I have posted a quick take on round 2 of this debate: link to davidroodman.com