Thoughtful Stuff from Steven Pinker
By Arnold Kling
In The Stuff of Thought, Steven Pinker writes,
Morality and causative verbs tap the same mental model of human action…
That makes the passive a convenient way to hide the agent of a transitive verb and thus the identity of a responsible party, as in Ronald Reagan’s famous non-confession “Mistakes were made” …It doesn’t just hide the cause; it refuses to admit that there was one…For instance, a pro-Israel group noted the prevalence of headlines like BUS BLOWS UP IN CENTRAL JERUSALEM, which uses an intransitive to downplay the responsible agent.
When the mind locates one object with respect to another, it is apt to compress the first one into a pinpoint or a blob whose shape and parts are no longer discernible…I suspect this is one of the reasons people have so much trouble understanding statistical comparisons. One example has been very much in the news. Many researchers have documented that the distribution of talents and temperaments of men and women are not identical…Yet when people hear about this research, they tend to mangle it into the claim that every last man is better than every last woman (or vice versa).
I’m only about 1/4 of the way through the book. I think it might be a good choice for Tyler to try for a book club entry, although it is difficult at times. I wish Pinker did not use his inside-baseball linguistics jargon so much. Anyway, I need to finish it before passing full judgment. But since Tyler has already mentioned the book I do not want to wait too long before blogging on it–I would experience that as a major loss of status!
By the way, the point about mixing up statistical comparisons and absolute comparisons seems particularly apt in light of a story that Greg Mankiw mentions, about the continued treatment of Lawrence Summers as persona non grata.