Steven Pinker: What Went Wrong at Harvard

March 27, 2024   |   Tags: , ,
Steven Pinker outside of Harvard's campus | Illustration: Lex Villena

Nick Gillespie: Last December, you published an op-ed titled "A Five-Point Plan to Save Harvard from Itself" in The Boston Globe. You wrote that Harvard is now the place where using the wrong pronoun is a hanging offense, but calling for another Holocaust depends on context, and that deplorable speech should be refuted, not criminalized. But you also note that outlawing hate speech would only result in students calling anything they didn't want to hear hate speech. Can you bring us up to date on the climate at Harvard?

Steven Pinker: Harvard is a big place. There is a diversity of opinion in co-founding the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard. There was a rush of faculty joining us, but still a small percentage of the faculty, many of them vocal, many of them for the first time had an opportunity to just communicate with themselves across the sprawling, multiple campuses at Harvard. Many are upset at the direction that Harvard and other elite universities have taken in restricting the range of expressible opinions to a pretty narrow slice of the spectrum, to criminalizing certain opinions, to getting into needless trouble by taking stands that really should be the prerogative of its students and faculty—there isn't any reason that a university should have a foreign policy—or in general, at the level of discourse, where just calling someone a racist is considered counter-argument or a refutation. 

So we formed this council to try to push back, to try to offer emotional support to those who are under attack because it can be devastating to be the target of a cancellation campaign. A lot of the problems that universities have faced have come from the fact that deans and provosts and presidents just want to make trouble go away, and so if someone is yelling at them and making their life miserable, they'll do whatever it takes to get them to shut up. We figure if we also yell at them, then they'll actually have to think about what's the optimal thing to do, rather than just do what makes the noise go down. 

Gillespie: Do you feel like this time it's different?

Pinker: I think so. Harvard itself is in a kind of crisis by its own standards, which is to say that donations are down.

Gillespie: It doesn't really need the money, but it wants the money.

Pinker: Yes. And applications are down. It's become a national joke. I have a collection of memes and headlines and bumper stickers, like "My son didn't get into Harvard." An editorial cartoon of a corporate guy saying, "This guy has a stellar resume, straight A's, top scores, didn't go to Harvard." The reputation, which is a huge resource that Harvard has drawn on, is threatened. And when it's threatened, a lot of Harvard's comparative advantage will also be threatened. Harvard has a lot of money, but it also can to some extent coast on its reputation.

Gillespie: And it can only go down, right?

Pinker: At least if the past few months are any indication, it is.

Gillespie: You also pointed out in that The Boston Globe piece, and elsewhere, that it wasn't just that. Does the affirmative action case that Harvard lost play into the sense that Harvard has been moving in the wrong direction for a long period of time and needs to back up and get back on the highway?

Pinker: It certainly got Harvard's attention. The fact that it does have an outsized reputation means that it has a certain cushion. Not every department has to compete to be the best in the country because students will come, graduate students will come, donors will give.

Gillespie: You're saying that psychology doesn't really have to work very hard at all.

Pinker: Psychology has gone through waves. My former colleague Steve Cosslett is here, who made it the best department in the country when he was a chair and working behind the scenes, which is one of the reasons that I decamped [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] for Harvard more than 20 years ago. The actual quality of departments can go up and down. But Harvard has a certain buffer because of its reputation, which is now being threatened. 

A lot of the things that we're proposing, like meeting the Council on Academic Freedom, would actually relieve some headaches on the administration itself, even though their prime driver is to avoid bad publicity, keep the donations going. But a lot of the trouble, especially that our former President Claudine Gay found herself in, could have been avoided if Harvard did have a more robust academic freedom policy among other things.

Gillespie: Was the plagiarism a legitimate firing offense or is that kind of a side issue?

Pinker: For me, it was a side issue, and I won't go there because that was her. Her testimony did not differ from the other two university presidents. Focusing on Claudine Gay gave us a bit of a distraction, because the problems are more, as we say, systemic. But among them are the fact that universities and their divisions feel that they have to offer moral guidance, some sort of pastoral counseling to a grateful nation, what they ought to feel in response to various tragedies and outrages. That inevitably gets them into trouble because someone will think it was too early, it was too late, it was too strong. Only one side was represented. If they just could shut up and point to a policy that said, we have to shut up, we don't comment, as the University of Chicago has done for more than 50 years, it would just get them off the hook. 

Gillespie: That's the institution of neutrality. And Chicago sticks by that pretty well. 

Pinker: Pretty well. That is, if a department or a center puts up a statement, then they're under pressure to take it down. The reason that it's relevant to academic freedom is that it's just prejudicial to the people working in the university, or in particular in the departments. If your department chair is posting some opinion on police shootings, or Palestine, or Ukraine…

Gillespie: Or Donald Trump, I'm sure that happens a lot. "We love Trump, I love Trump, my department loves Trump." 

Pinker: All the time, yes. But it is prejudicial to the faculty and the students who have to worry, "Are my professional prospects at stake if I take a position that differs from the official one on my department website?" 

Gillespie: In your world of institutional neutrality, would individual faculty be free to issue? 

Pinker: Absolutely. It's just that the institution itself should be the arena. It should be the debating club. It shouldn't actually be a debater.

Gillespie: Of the five principles you mention in your article, after institutional neutrality comes nonviolence. It seems insane that you have to say that colleges should be nonviolent places. How does that fit in?

Pinker: I think we'd be actually saving the university from themselves. But the idea that a legitimate form of expression of opinion in a university campus should be forcibly ejecting a dean from his office and occupying the building, that just shouldn't be what a university is about. I think a lot of faculty have a certain nostalgia for when they did it in the '60s to protest Vietnam. It's like, isn't it cute? The younger generation is doing the same thing, but it really isn't okay for a number of reasons. It's commitment to the wrong ideals. The ideal of a university ought to be persuasion, the careful formation of arguments, not chanting slogans over bullhorns and getting in other students' faces.

Gillespie: Nonviolence includes drowning out speakers. It's one thing to protest. It's another thing to preclude somebody from speaking. 

Pinker: Exactly. There should not be a heckler's veto. Protest obviously is protected, and protest could involve holding placards. It could include shouting out "you lie" in the middle of a lecture, but it can't involve forcing speakers off the stage, drowning them out, drawing a banner across the stage so that speakers can't see them. That is restricting other speech as an ostensible form of expression.

Gillespie: Do you feel like students and faculty at Harvard or elsewhere understand this isn't simply hypothetical? That nonviolence is actually a principle that we need to hold to?

Pinker: Some of us have had to make the case that it's not okay to invade a classroom and start chanting slogans over bullhorns. But we had to make the case and that the university should be consistent in cracking down on it, again to protect itself, such as the lawsuit filed by these students against anti-Semitism who have pointed to episodes in which Jewish students have been intimidated, blocked, and in one case, were assaulted. If the university just had a policy, that "speech is fine, it's okay, we encourage it, but physical force is not," and acted consistently, then they would be off the hook for selective enforcement. 

If they started to enforce it against the often quite disruptive Palestinian student groups, then the Palestinian student groups could file a lawsuit saying, "Well, how come they're enforcing it against us and they don't enforce it against other groups?" If it was just clear, "This is the policy, this is what we recognize as speech, this is what we recognize as force," and be consistent, it would remove a headache from them.

Gillespie: Do you think the bookstore should stop selling Harvard-branded bullhorns?

Pinker: The first of the five-point plan was just consistent commitment to academic freedom. Because another reason that Claudine Gay got into such trouble is that when she was given what admittedly was a kind of a trap that she walked into—that is, if students called for genocide against Jews, would that be prohibited by Harvard's code of conduct—she made a pretty hardcore [American Civil Liberties Union]-style free speech argument, which came across as hollow or worse, because we've had a lecturer who was driven out of Harvard for saying there are two sexes. 

There was another professor whose course was canceled because he wanted to explore how counterinsurgency techniques could be used against gang warfare. We had a professor in the School of Public Health who had cosigned an amicus brief for the Obergefell Supreme Court case against a national policy allowing gay marriage. There were calls for his tenure to be revoked, for his classes to be boycotted. He had to undergo struggle sessions and restorative justice sessions and basically grovel in front of a mob. Given Harvard's history of those cases and others, to all of a sudden say, "Well genocide, it's just a matter of I disagree with what you say, but I defend it to the death your right to say it," came off as a little bit hollow and hypocritical. 

If Harvard had had a free speech policy that was reasonably enforced before that, then at least you would have had something of a leg to stand on in standing on principle. She was technically correct in the same way that there's no law in the United States that says you can't call for a Holocaust. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. But when it's so selectively prosecuted, then it becomes ludicrous and literally becomes a national joke or a national disgrace.

Gillespie: It's worse still that Rep. Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.), who lead the hearing, was herself a Harvard graduate. Although I guess it would have been worse if she was from Yale or Princeton. 

Pinker: There are some theories that there's a little bit of revenge motivation there because of an incident in which she was herself targeted at this invitation at the Kennedy School of Government. But there is a history.

Gillespie: It's wonderful when you find out that all big events in human history are really petty jealousy. Another one of your points is viewpoint diversity. What does that consist of? 

Pinker: Academia has rightly resisted external control over content, over hiring, over promotion, which is good in protecting a university against government propaganda. On the other hand, you can get self-contained circles of people kind of conferring prestige on each other. Then you can get entrenched orthodoxies, which no one can challenge because if they do, then they are downgraded in judgments of quality, which are often so subjective.

Gillespie: The American novelist John Dos Passos was considered one of the greatest writers alive by international modernists. Then he had the misfortune of going to the Spanish Civil War and deciding that the loyalists were as bad as the Francoists. Overnight, literally, he became a terrible writer. This kind of stuff happens, right?

Pinker: If you just define viewpoint by the conventional left-right political spectrum, then things look pretty grim because according to at least a survey of The [Harvard] Crimson, 3 percent of Harvard faculty identify themselves as conservative. And out of those 3 percent, a lot of them are in their 90s, so we know where that's going. But it's not just the left-right spectrum. There can be dogmas that become entrenched within academic fields. For example, in our program of women and gender studies, I don't think you could use the words chromosome, hormone, or sexual selection; that would be not an idea that is thinkable. 

Now the question is, given that universities do operate by peer review, peer evaluation, how could you open them up to the kind of viewpoint diversity that is intellectually indispensable? It's a shame that we still have to recite the arguments from John Stuart Mill about why you should listen to arguments that you disagree with, namely, maybe they're right and you're wrong. Unless you're infallible, you really should listen to other viewpoints. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. Maybe there's some third position you haven't thought of that would only occur to you if you hear the problems with your own position. And, even if you're right, your position is only stronger if you have to defend it against legitimate criticisms. But that case has to be made again 200 years later. 

The question is, how do you rescue programs, universities, departments, fields that become self-referential echo chambers? [Psychologist] John Haidt and [political science writer] Phil Tetlock and a number of others in an article about eight years ago called for affirmative action for conservatives. Just as an idea that, especially departments of political science—as we call it, Harvard government—maybe it's not such a terrible thing to have a couple of conservatives around. That should actually be an explicit desideratum, if not a quota. But also, there might be other mechanisms, just opening the process up. We even have at universities a mechanism that's supposed to do that. There are so-called visiting committees where departments every few years are evaluated by academics from other universities, but also donors, trustees. What they're supposed to do is advise deans on whether the department is going in the wrong direction. In practice, they don't have that much influence, and they're often quite cozy with the departments themselves. But if they were more empowered to be alert to intellectual monocultures, to dogmas that have become entrenched, if that was part of their mission, that would be another, less obtrusive way of trying to mix up the ideas.

Gillespie: I suspect there are fewer and fewer Freudians in the psychology department. That's not necessarily a problem, right? As much as independent of what we do academically, we're going to enforce a political or ideological hierarchy or monoculture that has really nothing to do with academics. Is that really the problem that we're talking about?

Pinker: As a field makes progress, certain schools of thought become of historical interest. They've kind of made their contribution. You don't have to have like one Freudian, and one [Noam] Chomsky, and one structuralist, and one functionalist, but there shouldn't be a political litmus test. In many departments there really is. Sometimes it doesn't even have to pertain to the subject matter of the field. It can just be the person's reputation politically. 

I was on a hiring committee for another department at Harvard, not psychology. There was an excellent candidate, who was by any standards, including his own, a political liberal, but he had some heterodox positions. He was opposed to affirmative action, for example. The department chair said, "We can't hire him. He's an extreme right-winger," meaning he had criticisms of affirmative action. You often think of academia as being at the Left Pole. North Pole is the spot from which all directions are south. The Left Pole is the hypothetical position from which all directions are right.

Gillespie: That's the final principle that you talked about, [diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)] disempowerment. How does that happen? Why is DEI bad? And how do you minimize it?

Pinker: I have nothing against diversity, equity, and inclusion. But as Voltaire said about the Holy Roman Empire: it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Diversity, equity, and inclusion imposes an intellectual monoculture. It favors certain groups over others. It has a long list of offenses that mean you can be excluded. But it is a strange bureaucracy. It's a culture that is kind of an independent stratum from the hierarchy of the universities themselves. The officers get hired or poached to move laterally from university to university. It's with their own culture, their own mores, their own best practices. It's just not clear who they report to, or who supervises them, or who allows them to implement policy. 

One of the things that the Council on Academic Freedom discovered is that—we had to dig to do the research that—a notorious practice of the last decade in many universities has been the so-called diversity statements, where job applicants have to submit not only a statement of their research project, their teaching philosophy, but also their commitment to diversity, which in practice means endorsing a certain canon of beliefs, that there is systemic racism, that its only remedy is racial preferences, that racism is pervasive, that it is the only cause of any disparity in racial proportions. If someone in their diversity statement says, I believe that the most defensible policy is colorblindness and that the reason for racial inequities in universities is because of our educational system in high school, their application would go into the circular file.

Gillespie: How did that come to be?

Pinker: This is a good question. That is a question we've asked ourselves. First of all, no one knew that it was a policy of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Fortunately, unlike some universities like the University of California, where they are taken seriously, they are vetted by DEI bureaucrats before they're even sent to departments, and the ones that don't endorse what we could call a woke ideology are just filtered out.

Gillespie: You mean applications go there first before they go to the department.

Pinker: Yes. Not at Harvard, but at many universities. No one knew that we had this requirement. No one knew who implemented it. The faculty never voted on it. The president never said this is our policy going forward. A dean of arts and sciences must have signed off on it, but no one can remember who or when. But we just live with it. Likewise, freshman orientation consists of indoctrination sessions. 

This is emblematic of a trend in universities, that this nomenklatura just got empowered and no one knows exactly how. What often happens is a dean gets into trouble because of some racial incident. They hire a bunch of staff, and that's their way of getting out of the trouble. Then they're there forever. And there is only one way that they've been changing and that's upward. One of the points in the five-point plan is not to necessarily abolish them—although the Florida university system has done that—but at least, just as the military is under civilian control, the DEI bureaucracy should be under the control of responsible deans. 

Gillespie: Would that mean they should be under the supervision or discretion of faculty? 

Pinker: Faculty or at least academic deans, like the dean of arts and sciences. The policy should be exposed to the light of day. The ones that are defensible should be kept and the ones that aren't should be abolished. But they shouldn't change the entire university structure by stealth, which is what has happened.

Gillespie: With the Harvard admissions policies that got into trouble with the Supreme Court, part of the problem was that they were lying about it. They were saying we weren't penalizing Asian students. If Harvard had been more open about it and said we want a different student body than the one that our current admissions process is giving, would you be okay with that?

Pinker: I think if it was transparent and defensible. It's odd how many policies at a university just got entrenched and no one ever kind of decided on them, defended them against criticism. But the so-called holistic admissions, which is a kind of mystical process where they won't say exactly how they do it because it's holistic, favors some mix of regional diversity. Class diversity is a good thing. Racial diversity was okay if it was for diversity, but not for rectifying injustices, but also activism, and arts, and athletics, and volunteer work, and cultural experiences, which also provided a fig leaf where in practice—as we now know from these documents—Harvard could make sure it didn't get too Asian. De facto, that's what happened. We know that in the elite schools, in the University of California system, they have gotten largely Asian because they're more meritocratic—doesn't seem to have done them tremendous harm. But Harvard did not want that to happen. So the Asian applicants, as with the Jewish applicants 75 years before, just happened to be lower in leadership and creativity, all these things that you can't measure. 

Gillespie: You mentioned that Florida has banned DEI statements and things like that. That can affect state-supported institutions or state-assisted colleges. From an academic freedom point of view, this can be troubling, right?

Pinker: That is another kind of menace. I do think that it's not unreasonable for the taxpayers to have some kind of input into what it is they're supporting. But what is the best institutional arrangement where there can be input, there could be safeguards against self-serving, insular communities without it being managed by political ideologues. It's a question of institutional design that I don't even know we have the optimal design for yet. So I don't think it's unreasonable. Here I differ with some of my faculty colleagues who almost define academic freedom as professorial privilege, professorial prerogatives. Professors should be able to do anything they want, and it's no one else's business. I don't think that's right. But you also don't want, as with the McCarthy era, politically motivated, ideological restrictions or loyalty tests to be imposed by the government. But the government does have a legitimate interest in making sure universities don't go off the rails.

Gillespie: Over the past dozen years or so you've emerged as a chronicler of moral and material progress, particularly in books such as The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which came out in 2011, and Enlightenment Now in 2018. Can you summarize your case for progress? 

Pinker: The case is that if you list what you consider dimensions of human well-being, that is, we're better off if we are alive than dead, if our babies don't die, if women don't die in childbirth, if people don't live in extreme poverty, if we're safe from violent crime, if we're not at war, if our environments are clean, if people are discriminated against on the basis of their race or sex, if children aren't beaten. If you list some reasonable things that people tend to agree are good things—it's better not to have a famine, better to be well-fed—and then you look at the best quantitative estimates over time, as you plot the trends, almost all of them get better. Not all; that would be a miracle. And they don't get better everywhere all the time. The trends are not, as we say, monotonic. The bad things don't always go down, and the good things don't always go up. There are often lurches and shocks. But in pretty much all of them, the historical trend has been, things are getting better.

Gillespie: Do you have a theory of social change? Why have things gotten better?

Pinker: I think that as knowledge increases, and as the arena of debate, discussion, power, and deliberation expands, there's just certain things that have to fall by the wayside. Barbaric practices of antiquity, like a human sacrifice—you throw a virgin into a volcano to get better weather—sooner or later you discover that's the wrong theory. That actually does not, in fact, prevent crop failures. Or that certain races are fit for slavery—that's just empirically incorrect. That women are not capable of intellectual work, but are designed just for the home. 

Gillespie: Up until the late '70s, girls were not allowed to pole vault because evolution had decreed that they didn't have the upper body strength to pole vault. It seems like evolution has caught up since then.

Pinker: Right, exactly. There's just the sheer gain of knowledge. Voltaire, the way he put it, those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Because there are some things that people do want—they want to be well-fed as opposed to hungry and healthy as opposed to sick—when technology provides them with the means, not uniformly, because there is superstition, but in general, more people get vaccinated than don't—but that's not the only thing. As it's harder for small elites to wield absolute power, as you open up the discussion, then there are certain ideas that just aren't going to fly. You just can't defend apartheid without seeming ridiculous or monstrous.

When the world's nations came together in the late '40s to agree on a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the question is, is there some common denominator that all of the world's countries—in the Muslim [world], in China, and India, and the Western countries—could all agree on? Or would it kind of contract to the null set, as many people suspected? It turned out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there's a lot of stuff in there. And most of it isn't particularly controversial, like everyone should have an education. People shouldn't be imprisoned for their political beliefs. Now, if they'd started out the drafters with something like, the first thing in the Universal Declaration is that America is a shining city upon a hill, you probably wouldn't have gotten agreement on that. Or Jesus Christ as our Savior and that is the way to redemption. Again, then the Hindus would drop out, or the Chinese. So what's left? 

What's left is the conditions of human flourishing. That is, the list of things that I mentioned. It isn't controversial to say that it's better to be healthy than sick, or better for kids not to die. That realization tends to be what survives when the more parochial ideologies become untenable the circle of discourse broadens.

Gillespie: Do you think that material progress and moral progress follow the same logic? 

Pinker: I think they are related. This is something that I've been looking at cross-national and cross-temporal comparisons and putting together the data that went into Enlightenment Now, I was surprised at how many good things come from being rich, for countries. People point to Sweden and Denmark and Norway as really nice places to live. You can invoke their egalitarian ethos but these are rich countries. If you look at the plot, almost any good thing—peace, safety and environmental quality against [gross domestic product] per capita—most of the countries fall on a line, with the exception of the Gulf oil states, which are rich but kind of wretched places.

An idea is that wealth is good just because it buys good stuff, like healthcare, like environmental protection, which is a luxury that you can afford after you have electricity and running water and roads and such. Education is expensive, good policing is expensive. Being rich buys you preconditions for a good life. So why isn't Saudi Arabia such a great place? They got no shortage of money. There is an idea that should be congenial to many people in this room, which is that when you have networks of exchange and commerce and markets, and that's the way you get rich, as opposed to digging stuff out of the ground, which can be monopolized by an elite and then fought over, but if the wealth comes from distributed networks of commerce and voluntary exchange, that kind of pushes people toward cooperation. 

It's the old enlightenment idea of doux commerce, gentle commerce, that the American founders endorsed, and Emmanuel Kant and Voltaire and others, that if you're in a trading relationship that yokes your well-being to that of other people, so you don't kill your customers, you don't kill your debtors. If it becomes cheaper to buy stuff than to steal it, then that eliminates one of the incentives for conquest and plunder. So countries that are both affluent and get their affluence from networks of exchange tend to be pleasant in other ways.

Gillespie: They tend to be more liberal in a classical sense, right?

Pinker: In the classical and in the American political sense, in that they have more munificent welfare states. As countries get richer, they get more redistributive. Maybe less congenial here. I've heard it called Wagner's Law. The countries that people on the left tend to extol because of their welfare states also have a lot of economic freedom and also are very affluent.

Gillespie: That came up when [Sen.] Bernie Sanders [D–Vt.] was pointing to places like Norway and Sweden, which actually sometimes do better on economic freedom indexes than the U.S. There's a lot of bullshit on both sides of that debate. The people who deny progress, moral or material, what's in it for them? 

Pinker: It's a question I thought about a lot. Why do progressives hate progress? I have to say that in the various political factions and bands along the spectrum, it does tend to be libertarians who are most congenial to the idea of progress. That wasn't always true, that's what I found. [Thomas] Hobbes put it well. It's a long-standing phenomenon, because I'm giving you a quote that's almost 400 years old. Let's see if I can remember it verbatim: "Competition of praise inclineth to a reverence for antiquity, for men contend with the living, not with the dead." That is, to criticize the present is a way of criticizing your rivals, your competitors. If there's something that you don't like about the status quo, you want to say how much everything sucks. You don't want to say how much better everything is than it used to be, because then you might be giving credit to the people that you're contending with. That's a big one. 

There are also cognitive biases that hide progress from us, such as the availability bias as coined by [psychologists] Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, which is that we tend to judge probability, risk, danger according to how easily anecdotes come to mind. We use our brain's search engine as a surrogate for probability. If there is a disaster, a terrorist attack, a police shooting, a famine in a part of the world, that's our answer to the question. Are things getting better or worse? Well, of course they're getting worse. I just read about the terrorist attack this morning, and that sticks in memory. Also, there's an emotional coloring to memory that even though we remember bad events in the past, we don't remember how bad they were at the time, so that the negative effect tends to wear off of memory, whereas the negative aspects of the present are still keenly felt. 

This is not a new phenomenon. I'd like to quote Franklin Pierce Adams that, "nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory." That is really true. Even in our lifetimes, even though there are people, especially younger people, who kind of moan about how this is an unprecedented hellscape, in the '70s, the world had only 33 democracies. Half of Europe was behind the Iron Curtain. Spain and Portugal were literally fascist dictatorships, not just countries that people called fascist, but they called themselves fascist. Greece was under the control of a military junta, all of Latin America. So despite the recent recession, people forget how undemocratic the world was in the lifetime of many people. 

Just quality of life. Like if you missed a movie in the local repertory theater, if you did live in a big city that had a repertory theater, you would never see film classics. You couldn't get access to musical performances. You got lost because you didn't have Google Maps. You couldn't look something up in Wikipedia. You had to go to this thing called the Britannica. All of these ways that our lives really have gotten better are very easily taken for granted. 

Gillespie: Before we go to audience questions, you are in town partly because your photography is being shown at Brooklyn Sweet Lorraine Gallery, and your exhibition is called "2 1/2 D: The Stereoscopic Photography of Steven Pinker," which sounds like a concept album from the late '60s. Can you explain what stereoscopic photography is, and your interest in photography—and you're quite accomplished at it? Does it tie into your larger intellectual interests?

Pinker: It does. It actually goes back to my Ph.D. thesis. My Ph.D. thesis advisor is actually in the room, Stephen Kosslyn. The term "Two and a Half D" was borrowed from the artificial intelligence of 40 years ago. In particular, a researcher named David Marr proposed that that is the information that the eyes give to the brain. That is, we don't literally see the world in three dimensions because we see in perspective, both when we are physically observing a scene—you stand between two railroad tracks, you kind of see them as parallel, you know that they're parallel, but you also see them converge. You see them in perspective, and as things recede in distance, you can sense they get smaller, even though they're the same size. That's not what you'd get from an actual three-dimensional model of the world, a kind of mental sandbox. But nor is the world as flat as a pancake. 

The two-and-a-half dimensions allude to the fact that the third dimension is not like the other two. It's actually computed from a number of sources of visual information. When lines converge toward the horizon, we interpret that as depth. When certain things move in the visual field faster than others, we interpret that gradient of motion as a cue to depth. But one of the most interesting is the difference in the view that the two eyeballs give you, that each eyeball is a different vantage point on the world. The views are slightly different, and the farther away something is, the closer its images are in the two eyeballs. The closer it is, the more they diverge. It's kind of a high school trigonometry problem to triangulate from the distance between the eyes, the angle and the differences in the images to how far away something is. 

The brain does that trick unconsciously, and it gives us a very vivid sense of the third dimension. Now, the photography comes fromit's almost as old as photography itself. But in the 19th century, most photography was stereophotography, which means showing two images taken from two vantage points, separated by approximately the distance of the eyes, and figuring out a technological way of getting each image to be seen only by one eye. That can be done with prisms, that can be done with mirrors, that can be done with false color. The recent technology, which is one of the inspirations for the show, when I showed it to the gallery owner, it just blew him away, a new kind of monitor that gives you a stereoscopic image without any headgear, without any glasses, without any gimmicks. It just pops out through some optical wizardry. So I have ultra close-up photos of flowers which kind of reveal their shape and color in hyper-natural detail.

Gillespie: Are you an AI optimist or pessimist, or is that just a silly question?

Pinker: In principle, I am an AI optimist. You never know how technologies will be implemented. I'm not an AI doomer. I don't think that AI will enslave us or turn us into raw materials. The scenario sometimes called the "paperclips ellipse" is the scenario in which an artificial intelligence system is given a goal of maximizing manufacturing of some commodity, like paper clips, and uses every available resource, including our own bodies, to make more and more and more paper clips. That does not keep me up at night.

There are dangers like, impersonation, counterfeit people, spread of disinformation, erosion of the chain of verification of fact. There's the hypothetical technological unemployment, although we're still waiting for that to happen. But there's tremendous promise. It's kind of a shame that the first large-scale implementation of AI was kind of a gimmick: a first-person chat bot, which may have some advantages and may have some misuses. But there is tremendous promise for AI, if it's task-oriented, like autonomous vehicles that could cut down on the million people killed every year in car crashes, or eliminating jobs that no one particularly likes that are repetitive and dangerous.

Gillespie: So DEI enforcement? 

Pinker: That could be the first to go. Actually, seriously, one of my postdocs who was on the job market, and she had to write a DEI statement, but couldn't do it in good conscience. So she had ChatGPT write it for her. It's actually pretty good. Very convincing.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

 

Photo Credits: Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA Press/Newscom; Nancy Kaszerman/ZUMA Press/Newscom: Rick Friedman/Polaris/Newscom

The post Steven Pinker: What Went Wrong at Harvard appeared first on Reason.com.


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