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Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Monday, July 04, 2011

Gopnik and Pinker on Darwin



This discussion is from 2009. I enjoy Gopnik's New Yorker writing, which is usually on cultural topics (he was trained as an art historian). But here he comes across as a high V, low M type -- more fluff than substance. Like other HVLM types, he seems to lack a good intuitive feel for the dynamics of how evolution works (i.e., for how a complex system might evolve in time). His goal seems to be to "rehabilitate" Darwin (as if that were really necessary), to make Darwin's beliefs consistent with modern political correctness. Listen carefully to what Pinker says, though (e.g., discussion starting at @15 min until @23 min or so).

34 comments:

RKU1 said...

But here he comes across as ahigh V, low M type
Couldn't the same be said of almost the entire American MSM?...

steve hsu said...

Yes. On the other hand you can be HVLM and yet *realize* that there is a type of powerful reasoning, which you might not be good at, but which is nevertheless necessary to reach correct conclusions about complex quantitative issues.

David Backus said...

Reminds me of Charlie Rose -- the questions go on and on.  

You said...

Nah, this was way worse.

reservoir_dogs said...

Charlie Rose is a much better interviewer than this guy.

MtMoru said...

Pinker: looks like a poodle, nauseatingly prescious, ignorant (or pretends to be) of his own people's culture.

Fake Name said...

Is the "circle of sympathy" meant to be a biological basis for morality?

Jake Hammer said...

Gobnik is insufferable but harmless, like virtually all humanists. I wonder what intellectual typology would apply to Pinker, though. Presumably he's a high-M type, yet he casually makes a claim like "Secularism is about ... being able to question anything... Faith is believing in something without having a good reason to", which is (obviously, I think) reasoning with a sledgehammer. It seems to me that there's something of the high-V's facility with bullshitting to him: He's good at using rhetoric to lend an air of authority to his statements. That the discussion format lends itself to such sweeping claims isn't much of an excuse.

A. Zarkov said...

Gopnik is insufferable. His somewhat frenetic manner reminds me of Anthony Weiner. I had to shut him off. Pinker as always is a delight.

gcochran said...

       I don't think you need a lot of mathematical ability to notice significant cognitive differences between populations.  Henry Harpending tells me that the Herero occasionally discuss ''why Europeans are more intelligent than Africans.', as a question that as well known and obvious to everyone.   They haven't figured out the answer yet, but I bet they get there before Adam Gopnik.

       

      

steve hsu said...

I think mathematical reasoning forces you to be logical and apply rules in a consistent way. If you're only used to the kind of sloppy verbal reasoning used in some areas it is much easier to bend evidence according to your biases. (Gopnik seems able to read whatever he likes into Darwin's writing!) Even better is actual scientific training which teaches you how to build models and compare them with reality. The worst is probably legal/humanistic training in *how to make arguments* without any emphasis on actually finding the truth or what constitutes a decent epistemology.

Pincher said...

I find it painful listening to Gopnik.  He never says five words when he can say fifty instead.

gcochran said...

You might be right.  I can think of numerous examples of mathematically competent people who embrace nonsense on this and other issues - but maybe they do better on average than the non-mathematical types.   Then again, maybe mathematical and legal/humanistic training are only sorting people by personality, rather than changing them.

steve hsu said...

I'm not saying math ability protects completely against nonsense beliefs. For example, there were many good mathematicians and scientists who believed in communism as an economic system. However, at least a math person knows faulty logic when he or she sees it. And a (good) scientist should have a nose for whether a particular model fits the evidence or not ...

MtMoru said...

"I'm not saying ..." Whatever you end up saying my "model" tells me it will flatter you.

"For example...communism..." Bad example.

"However, at least a math person knows faulty logic when he or she sees it." You don't!

Steve said...

Steve says:

"The worst is probably legal/humanistic training in *how to make arguments* without any emphasis on actually finding the truth or what constitutes a decent epistemology."

One problem is that the law is all about figuring out "bright line" distinctions that don't happen all that much in nature.

RKU1 said...

I think the overwhelming majority of China's political elites come from an engineering background and a similarly overwhelming share of America's political elites are lawyers by training.  The huge difference in the current economic growth rates between those two countries may or may not be connected with this.

As an additional datapoint, my impression is that back a century or more ago the overwhelming majority of China's political elites were the local equivalent of lawyers, namely scholars very skilled in citing selections from Confucianist texts in support of their arguments.  And China's economy was much less successful at that point.  But maybe this is just another coincidence...

Sam H said...

Do you propose that it only matters if M is low relative to V? For example suppose someone is in the 99th percentile V but 85th percentile M, so the V type of thinking dominates their thoughts. Now what if someone is 85th percentile M but 70th percentile V. Clearly the former person is more intelligent but their mind is tilted differently. 

Sam H said...

Most radical (for some) is the thought that individuals differ not only individually in part because of genetics but also at the group level. 

I'm probably just 1 SD over the average White IQ; in other words, I am not that smart, and evolution, selection, etc., it all makes perfect sense to me. If it's explained by complex math it's like Hieroglyphs though so I will never have an understanding at that level, which Steve probably argues that the topic cannot be truly understood then, & he's likely right. 

steve hsu said...

Gopnik seemed not to grasp that Pinker, with his "small quantitative differences" between groups, was leaving the door open for everything Gopnik is sure just *cannot* be true.

Fred23 said...

That was my impression from reading The Blank Slate, where he would often get carried away with his own train of thoughts, without asking himself whether what he was saying was a. true, or b. pertinent.  (although I did like the book).

Lover of Wisdom said...

I think we have to be careful by how we define high-V low-Q people.  First we have to understand the tilt towards verbal ability.  Suppose a verbal GRE score of 740 places one into the 99th percentile for verbal ability.  We can calculate the z-score, which determines how many standard deviations one tests above the verbal mean, as 2.35 SD, if we suppose the mean verbal score is 465 and the standard deviation is 117.*  Further suppose the quantitative z-score is 1.18 for a quantitative score of 760 (placing one at the 85th percentile), mean of 584, and standard deviation of 149.  Subtracting the quantitative z-score from the verbal z-score results in a difference of 1.17 SD.  I would consider a difference of one standard deviation or greater to show a serious tilt towards verbal ability.

However, we must also consider the percentile one is placed in with their quantitative score.  One might exhibit a verbal tilt but have a quantitative score above the majority of test-takers, which is sufficient for mathematical understanding.  I would not consider such a person as a high-V low Q type, simply because such a person can understand mathematical concepts relatively well.  I therefore propose that a true high-V low-Q type to be one who both tilts towards verbal ability, as exhibited by one's difference in z-scores, and has average or below average quantitative ability relative to the population.

Henry Harpending said...

Good Lord Steve this was a cruel thing to impose on your loyal readers.  "In a certain sense," up is down, right is left, and true is false!

Pincher said...

And of course Pinker did nothing to disabuse Gopnik of his misconception.  In fact, Pinker was all too ready to follow Gopnik's lead in allowing that nearly all the political prejudices of modern-day liberalism are entirely in sync with Darwinism.

Pincher said...

RKU1,

"As an additional datapoint, my impression is that back a century or more ago the overwhelming majority of China's political elites were the local equivalent of lawyers..."And how would that have made the Chinese any different from the leadership class in the U.S. and Great Britain a century ago?  Are you under the mistaken impression that those two countries were once governed by mathematicians and engineers?This implicit argument, based on a couple of poorly-informed case studies, that a high-M, low-V leadership class govern more effectively than a high-V, low-M leadership class is a very high-V, low-M type of argument to make.

Yan Shen said...

Good thing RKU didn't also try to predict the future development of China.

RKU1 said...

Touche...

However, I still do think that the British and Continental elites of a century or so ago were probably quite a bit more knowledgeable and respectful of the natural sciences than their Chinese opposite numbers, especially given the wealth and political influence of the early industrialists.

As an example on the other side, I think I remember once reading long ago that when Mao was a youngster he wanted to study Western science and engineering, but his hard-headed father regarded such subjects as being totally useless nonsense, and instead pushed him toward a much more practical education in the Confucianist classics, which might provide him with an excellent chance for material reward and advancement.

MtMoru said...

Not nearly as bad as your paper on Ashkenazi IQ Henry and your making the very prole height g analogy.

Nano Nymous said...

I was sure Gopnik is trying to parody the guy in this video:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6xJzAYYrX8
(first appearance at 3:05 and more at 8:00). Pinker's patience is enviable!  

Christopher Chang said...

Be careful: 99th percentile *among GRE test takers* is not the same thing as 99th percentile in the overall US or world population.

Unfortunately, one can exhibit high-V low-Q pathologies even with quantitative ability noticeably above the population mean.

Michel said...

Why you guys consider Gopnik an high V ?

because he is verbaly fluent and invokes sophisticate concept ?

Your definition of high V seems to not demand good logic and deep understanding.

should someone who is able to fill up quickly a board with equation full of little mistake be consider a high M ?

and even if he can appear brillant to somme ?


I have personaly never passe any iq test, but if you can get an high V score without being able to speak logicaly or to show understanding of notion that do not need math at their very conceptual core ...something is wrong  because your verbal test mesure nothing esle than an ability to impress people who just don't understand what you are realy talking about.


A meaningful notion of verbal aptitude should not be unrelated to logic that can be express by words alone.

Dawg_from_Hell 2010 said...

DOJ also ought to note that V scores on the GRE for native English speakers are significantly inflated due to the large number of foreign test-takers. Also, graduate degree holders are becoming stupider with time (http://inductivist.blogspot.com/2010/12/mean-iq-of-americans-with-advanced.html).

Further, the high-V low-Q split really boils down to the ability to think statistically. I doubt whether someone in the 90th percentile for quantitative intelligence can properly understand Mathematical Statistics or Machine Learning (see the confusion over PCA even on Dr. Hsu's blog). 

silkop said...

In essence, formal rigor protects against internally inconsistent reasoning or "procedural mistakes". It doesn't protect you against (consistently) processing flawed information or relying on incomplete models and thus arriving at wrong conclusions with respect to the Real World. In fact, if you are careless, being adept in M may leave you with a nasty bias along the lines "I apply strict rules of logic, hence my conclusions *must* be better than other people's, who seldom do". On a related topic, see James Randi's remarks about how easy it is to "fool a scientist" who is accustomed to thinking in "natural laws" rather than "human laws" (of manipulation and deceit).

darklayersify said...

         Steve, how exactly would you define a high V, low M? For instance, in the SMPY study, their top .01% high verbal kids were in the top .5% of math ability. E.O. Wilson has said on some occasion that he's got modest mathematical ability, but he's an eminent biologist. His latest work had caused quite a stir, but like, it's done with a mathematical biologist. 

http://www.webofstories.com/play/51910 

 In fact, given some things about Darwin, he might have had stronger verbal than mathematical ability himself. 

"In the third week of January 1831 Charles sat his final exam. There were three days of written papers covering the Classics, the two Paley texts and John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, then mathematics and physics. At the end of the week when the results were posted he was dazed and proud to have come 10th out of a pass list of 178 doing the ordinary degree. Charles shone in theology and scraped through in the other subjects. He was also exhausted and depressed, writing to Fox "I do not know why the degree should make one so miserable."

Ernst Mayr was also said not to be a particular fan of mathematically-oriented evolutionary thinking. 
For those who posit that Pinker is a high M, it's worth recalling a few things. In the Roe paper, social scientists did better on verbal than mathematical. Pinker is in the psychology of language--he's not primarily in a field like psychometrics.  

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