Friday, July 27, 2007

Steven Pinker fails to boil blood

A correspondent kindly informed me that Steven Pinker, whose work I often find very interesting, has been trying to stoke up some controversy. He has suggested some questions that he thinks so controversial they will make people’s blood boil. Well, after reading through them, I reached for a thermometer and found my body temperature had not increased by a fraction of a degree. So, I thought I might try and answer his questions as well. But before I do so, I’d like to pose one of my own that Pinker did not feel it worth asking:

“In a hundred years time, will people look upon our attitudes towards abortion with the same horrified incomprehension that we feel about nineteenth century slavery?”

I’d be interested in Pinker’s answer. Now to his questions:

1: "Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?" A: Yes, obviously.

2: "Were the events in the Bible fictitious -- not just the miracles, but those involving kings and empires?" A: No. Many of them are confirmed by other sources.

3: "Has the state of the environment improved in the last 50 years?" A: Possibly. The fall of communism led to a big improvement.

4: "Do most victims of sexual abuse suffer no lifelong damage? A: If it is anything like as prevalent as we have been led to believe, then many people are able to make a full recovery.

5: "Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?" A: Yes, according to Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse (which I will review in a few weeks time when I’ve finished it).

6: "Do men have an innate tendency to rape?" A: Most don’t. Some do.

7: "Did the crime rate go down in the 1990s because two decades earlier poor women aborted children who would have been prone to violence?" A: Yes. But it was not a crime worth paying.

8: "Are suicide terrorists well-educated, mentally healthy and morally driven?" A: Yes.

9: "Would the incidence of rape go down if prostitution were legalized?" A: I doubt it. Increasing supply tends to increase demand.

10: "Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men?" A: No idea.

11: "Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?" A: Some elements of morality have evolutionary explanations. Others are much harder to explain in this way.

12: "Would society be better off if heroin and cocaine were legalized?" A: No.

13: "Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?" A: Never heard of this one before.

14: "Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?" A: No.

15: "Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?" A: Obviously, yes.

16: "Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism?" A: A trick question, I think. Nazism was only around for 15 years. At that tie it certainly killed more than religions.

17: "Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?" A: No. Torture is ineffective as the victim just tells the torturer what he thinks he wants to hear. Even the Inquisition realised this.

18: "Would Africa have a better chance of rising out of poverty if it hosted more polluting industries or accepted Europe's nuclear waste?" A: Yes possibly. But the decision should be made by Africans, not western environmentalists or African dictators.

19: "Is the average intelligence of Western nations declining because duller people are having more children than smarter people?" A: It’s possible but I’ve only seen evidence that IQs are increasing.

20: "Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?" A: A well-regulated market might work and help reduce abortion. But it would be hard to avoid abuses.

21: "Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?" A: I’ve already argued in favour of this.

22: "Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?" A: I’m not convinced this would be beneficial.

Comments or questions? Post them at Bede's dedicated yahoo group.

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