Friday, May 22, 2015

Dialogue De Swords

I get worried when I agree with everything that someone says. Steven Pinker has given me the greatest concern in that regard. In a world where lots of people are having a good whine (Everything is awesome and no one is happy), I think his book 'The Better Angels of our Nature' is a powerful case to say everyone needs to chill. There are lots of problems, but we seem to be working our way through them. 

I have come across two attacks on Pinker's march of progress.

One comes from Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. Pinker says people tend to talk about the 'Good Old Days' without looking back at whether the old days were actually better. Ryan & Jetha argue that we used to have better relationships in these 'good old days'. They believe that they onset of an agricultural society and the break from hunter-gathering changed our behaviour and made us more aggressive. In the way providing food in one place for Chimps or Pigeons forces competitive groups making them far more aggressive (and lazy) than they would be if they were out foraging. Pinker argues that hunter gatherer societies were more dangerous than life is now.

The second attack comes from Nassim Taleb. He questions Pinker's statistical competence and says his whole book is flawed. Taleb is famously aggressive in his criticism. Ezra Klein points to Taleb's criticism, Pinker's response, and Taleb's response to Pinker's response. The heart of Taleb's attack is that the decline of violence Pinker describes ignores the 'fat tails'. When an event is potentially catastrophic, but very low probability, things can 'in reality' be getting more dangerous even though everyday life is getting safer. These one in one hundred year events are almost impossible to model and understand. Statistics work when we can apply the 'law of large numbers'. Individual stories are interesting, but they are noisy. You need to step back to separate stuff that matters. Taleb calls catastrophic events 'Black Swans'. It is almost impossible to step back from Black Swans by looking at data. The fact that the only swans you have seen are white doesn't make the case stronger that all swans are white. One Black Swan proves they aren't all white. Even the 70 year 'long peace' since the end of the last World War becomes a mere individual story if a bunch of nuclear bombs go off, or the world becomes uninhabitable  due to irreversible environmental damage.

Pinker, and me, are a little confused by Taleb's attack since 'Better Angels' does actually talk about these concerns. In the 'response to the response to the response', Taleb taught me a new word. Well, he didn't, I had to look it up. A 'dialogue de sourds' means a deaf people's dialogue and is used to describe a situation where two people continually talk back to each other without actually trying to understand what the other person is saying. I think Pinker is making that attempt.

In the same way as I get concerned that I struggle to find a concrete point of disagreement with Pinker, I think not finding points of agreement is even more of a concern. If we allow people a 'Bull Quota', we can find the points of agreement before we even criticise. It doesn't mean we are accepting everything someone is saying but it might help people put down their swords in the 'dialogue de sourds'.

I find myself agreeing with Ryan & Jetha (we can learn from simpler times), Pinker (things are getting better), and Taleb (Think deeply about hidden risks). I suspect they agree on far more than they disagree on.
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