Point of Inquiry Live | Steven Pinker – The Decline of Violence

February 18, 2013

Note: You can watch this episode on Youtube.

Since the horrendous massacre of children and teachers in Newtown, CT last year, gun control and the second amendment have been frequent topics of the national conversation. Point of Inquiry would be remiss if we didn’t add our signature long-form interview style to the discussion. To that end, we interviewed Steven Pinker whose recent book suggests that we are, contrary to popular belief, living in the most peaceful time in humanity’s existence.

Steven Pinker is professor of psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of eight books, including How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, The Language Instinct and most recently The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. He is a two-time Pulitzer-prize finalist, one of Time‘s 100 Most Influential People and one of Foreign Policy’s top 100 Global Thinkers.

Also featured is an interview with Tom Di Liberto, meteorologist at NOAA and winner of the 2013 America’s Science Idol contest.

This episode was recorded live at the 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston and was produced by Adam Isaak. The event was sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and the National Science Foundation.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This episode of Point of Inquiry was recorded live at the 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. The event was sponsored by the Center for Inquiry and the National Science Foundation. There’s also video of this entire episode. If you’d like to watch the show rather than just listen to it, you can find the video at point of inquiry dork. Lastly, and perhaps most exciting is that we now have official point of inquiry T-shirts for sale. You can show your support for the show by picking one of these up. I think they’re great. And if you want one, which obviously you do, just go to point of inquiry dot org. Click on the store link. 

This is point of inquiry for Monday, February 18th, 2013. 

Welcome to a point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney and I’m Indre Viskontas Point of Inquiry is a radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. 

This is a very special recording for us and for both the live audience and our regular listeners at home. Let me tell you what’s going on. We are live at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2013 annual meeting, and we’re doing an event with the help of the National Science Foundation. A live recording of the podcast. And we’re doing this as part of a number of sessions that the National Science Foundation is putting on, focused on the communication of science. 

So here we’re highlighting in the podcast format how that actually plays out and because we’re alive. 

We invite you to join the conversation by tweeting and using the Twitter hashtag p o. I live. I’m Chris. And I will be getting select questions from that hashtag, from that Twitter stream to ask our guests. And of course, anything is fair game, though. 

If it’s on topic, it’s more likely to get chosen. And yes. And. 

Since the horrendous massacres that occurred in December in Newtown, Connecticut, gun control and the Second Amendment have been topics of a national conversation at point of inquiry, we would be remiss if we didn’t add our signature long form interview style to the conversation. So we’ve decided to invite someone whose thesis is that, in fact, violence has declined over time and we are living in what might be the most peaceful time in human existence. Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. He’s the author of eight books, two of which were Pulitzer Prize finalists. And the books include How the Mind Works, The Language Instinct, The Blank Slate and Most recently, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Why Violence has Declined. He is Time magazine’s one, one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and one of Foreign Policy’s 100 top global thinkers. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. Steven Pinker, thank you. I wanted to start off by asking what inspired you to write a book about violence? 

It’s a natural topic for anyone who’s interested in human nature. Their question is our species innately violent and war loving or innately peaceful and cooperative goes back literally hundreds of years, maybe thousands. So it’s it naturally falls under the category of psychology in my particular case. It began with my books, How the Mind Works and the Blank Slate, where I advocated the idea that there is such a thing as human nature. Some parts of which are can be rather nasty that we have urges like revenge and dominance that can erupt in violence. And I had to anticipate an objection that I would know I knew would come. Namely, if we do have these tendencies that can erupt in violence. Does that mean we have to have a fatalistic attitude toward war and peace and violence? Violence is in the genes were were killer apes. We have homicidal DNA. Therefore, there’s nothing you can do about it. And I pointed out that this is total non sequitur. The answer is no, we don’t have to be fatalistic because for one thing, human nature is a complicated system, even if we do have urges that can result in violence. We also have all of these systems that can inhibit urges toward violence. And whether we’re actually violent depends on which part of human nature prevails. And that can change with the circumstances. And I said there can’t be a theoretical debate over whether we’re doomed to a constant rate of violence because you open up the history books and it’s clear that rates of violence change. And I gave a few examples of cases that I knew of at the time. This is back in the 90s of how rates of violence have come down, for example, from the Middle Ages to the present, at least in England. There is a 35 fold decrease in the rate of homicide. Or if you look at the kind of life that our ancestors presumably lived without a foraging lifestyle, without a government and police force. The rates of death in tribal warfare were really, really high, higher than even the 20th century with our world wars. I made these observations and I said so. Yeah. So there’s no philosophical apriority debate about whether rates of violence can change. History tells us they can change. Then a few years later, John Brockman, my literary agent and the proprietor of edged out Warg, asked 100 150 scientists, philosophers, writers to give him a couple of paragraphs on the question, what are you optimistic about? I kind of cut it and cut and pasted and tweaked those sections and went online. Then I got this slew of correspondence from experts on violence who said you really understated the case. There are many other cases where there have been dramatic declines in violence, and these are from scattered scholarly communities who had nothing to do with each other. So, for example, people, scholars in international relations who study war and peace would say things like, gee, you know, it used to be that countries in Europe would start two new wars a year for 500 years. As of 1945, that went to zero. Military historians have just been astonished at the fact that war between developed countries has pretty much ceased to exist. Other scholars said, you know, it’s not just England where the homicide rate plunged since the Middle Ages. It’s also Italy and Germany and Switzerland and Scandinavia. Then other people said, well, and it’s not just war between rich countries. If you look at statistics on war worldwide since 1990, they have been going down, down, down. And fewer people are killed in war than ever before. And then one of my colleagues in the psychology department said. Well, you could have added that rates of child abuse. Approval of spanking, domestic violence. All of them are down. So I thought she’s I’ve got first of. No one knows about these facts. And they’re pretty important facts as the arithmetic sign of trends of violence, positive or negative. Kind of a basic fact about violence. And everyone thinks it’s gone up and it’s gone down. But then it also posed a kind of delicious challenge to a psychologist. Two challenges, really. One of them is why has there been so much violence in the past? And secondly, how is it that violence managed to come down? So those are the two psychological questions that got me going. 

So you you Painton sense in the past the kind of we lived in a Game of Thrones world of brutal violence. Right. Horrific violence. So then, I mean, I guess just set you up. What is the cause or reason for some kind of change? 

Yeah, I think there are a number of reasons. In part because there are a number of causes of violence. And neurobiologists neuropathologists have long known that there’s no such thing as aggression because there are there are multiple systems in the brain that make organisms, including homosapiens, aggressive. 

And so you’d expect there to be multiple causes that would drive that down. I think the first and foremost is probably government, the Hobbs’s theory of the Leviathan. If you’ve got a state with a monopoly on violence, they can penalize incentives for aggression and exploitation by imposing penalties that cancel out the game. You rob a liquor store, you’re likely to be thrown in jail. You think twice about robbing a liquor store. But that also makes everyone more peaceful, because not only are you disincentive ice from committing aggression, but you know that your enemies are, too. And so that has a reverberating effect. You no longer have to maintain a belligerent, macho stance to deter your enemies because the government’s doing it for you. You no longer have to pursue vengeance after the fact at all costs because, again, you can outsource that to the government. So no one actually could be the Leviathan. And we see it that the remaining zones of violence are basically zones of anarchy. 

But that’s kind of a game theory, assuming everyone’s being rational, right? I mean, calculating to some extent. But, of course, a lot of this is very emotional, right? 

Yes, that’s right. And although I think the the rational incentives, the emotional reactions can play off each other, that if you live in a society where there is a rule of law for long enough, you start to get you’re it changes your emotions. 

So you’re less likely to react with rage. If someone gives you the finger or calls you a nasty name and you don’t challenge them to a knife fight, but you say, oh, walk away. So and in the in the book, I talk about the interplay between these rational calculations and just what’s intuitively you do. You don’t do dorm’s. 

One of the things I really loved about your book is how you couched a lot of these issues within the prisoner’s dilemma framework. And so I’d like to take a moment to sort of have you describe what is the prisoner’s dilemma and how can we apply it to something like gun control, where you have this movement of people saying, well, I need a gun because somebody else has a gun and so don’t take away my right to not have a gun. 

Can we talk? 

Yeah, well, there’s the I alluded to the version of the prisoner’s dilemma. I called it the pacifist dilemma, but it has the same structure, just putting different labels in the cells as a way of trying to of answering the somewhat mysterious question of why multiple historical forces all seem to be pushing rates of violence down. So Chris asked, what’s the what are some of the causes? And in a long winded way, explained one of them. And I’ll be shorter winded in identifying some of the others, which are trade and commerce, which changes getting game theoretic terms, has people playing more positive some games and fewer zero or negative some games. Or, to put it more concretely, if you have networks of trade in exchange, it becomes cheaper to buy stuff than to steal it. And other people become more valuable to you alive than dead. And so as you have a rise of commerce and trade, the incentives change and people get less violent. Third is expanding circle of sympathy that as we consume more fiction, history, journalism, person to person contact, it becomes a little harder to dehumanize other people. 

That kind of expands your sense of empathy, decreases your taste for cruelty. I think the empowerment of women has been a factor that across societies and across eras, societies in which women have more rights and more of a voice tend to have less macho violence. And I think that reason and science have played played a role that as people intellectualize the human condition. Step back, they look at violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a game that has to be won. So I’m being long winded, but I’ll try. 

Last year I saw the interview and that’s what I usually just move to. 

To answer your question, I do have a point here. 

And the point is, OK, so I list these five different reasons that violence has gone down, that no one could pull this off your reductionistic, simplistic theory. But we don’t. Why have five different forces all pushed in the same direction? Is there some kind of mysterious arc that bends towards justice? Is there some dialectical process where the man ascends and will eventually reach a utopia of perfect coexistence? And the answer is no. I think that that the there is a more mundane explanation, which is and now we get to your question of the pacifists dilemma, which is that that violence is in an objective sense. It is really a bad thing. It’s a nuisance. It’s a it’s a it’s a plague. It’s a pestilence. The reason is that even though it me, it’s always tempting to an aggressor to exploit a victim. But it’s far more damaging to the victim than it is beneficial to the aggressor. Now, over the long run, since aggressors can become victims and so on and vice versa. You know, empires rise. Empires fall. You can today’s aggressors, tomorrow’s victim. Objectively, everyone would really be better off if everyone could forswear violence. It really is a better way to live than to blow things up and destroy flashin and life and all of that nasty stuff. 

The problem the reason that it’s not so simple is that. How do you get the other guy to renounce violence at the same time as you do? And this is where the game theoretic calculation comes in. Because if I beat my swords into plowshares and the other guy keeps his as as a sword, you know, I could find myself at the wrong end of a rather unpleasant confrontation. So how do we both beat our swords into plowshares at the same time? And the common denominator. So I think that is the human dilemma. That’s like disease. It’s like hunger. It’s a part of the human condition that sucks. Fortunately, we are smart. We can gradually, in bits and pieces, try to improve our condition. And one of the ways that we do it is to try to incentivize everyone to forswear violence at the same time. And what the common denominator is between these five pacifying forces, I suggest, is they all jigger with the payoffs in the Matrix. And they turn the pacifist dilemma into more of a rational actor circumstance in which we. We all opt for that nonviolence cell. 

We have a question from the floor that I think was inevitable. So why don’t we just go to it? So what about the US? What is it? Why does it seem such a violent place compared to other places? Yeah. 

And this is from G.E. and an HMD, which is so probably someone’s Twitter name. 

I’m sure you’re out there. 

Yeah, it’s an excellent question because by a number of criteria, the United States is more violent than other Western democracies. Our rate of homicide is two to five times higher than that of other Western democracies. We start more wars. We 33 of the 50 states have capital punishment, which has been abolished everywhere else. And the answer goes back to settlement, I think, settlement patterns in American history. One way to begin to answer that question is to point out the United States isn’t a country. It’s at least two countries. 

And if you look at the northern and coastal states, there are, you know, the kind of Vermont is kind of like an honorary Denmark. 

It’s the rates of violence in the northern and coastal states are still higher than those of Europe, but not as high. Southern state and Western states have much higher rates of homicide. It’s the you know, the blue states that have abolished capital punishment tend to be more dovish in foreign policy. So in part, this is a question about the American South and West. And I think the simplest answer is that if they lived in a condition of anarchy until fairly recently, historically speaking, we are the cliche. The closing of the American frontier was only in the 80s, 90s, and that kind of marked a symbolic end to anarchy in the United States and that the mountain is south of of the Hatfields and McCoys and Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and so on was a kind of archetype of American history. What happened is often in in anarchic societies, you see a culture of honor developing that is that. Your only protection consists of maintaining a belligerent stance where you have to avenge any insult regardless of the cost to you, and that was your only protection that got, I think, embedded into particularly southern and Western culture. But to some extent, also other parts of the country, whereas the Europeans were kind of beaten into submission by their autocratic kings many centuries ago. And they kind of got used to the idea that you can outsource your protection to the government. That’s the simplest. So and so. 

So how do we get the the south or the areas in which there it’s the most guns to melt their assault rifles and turn them into iPods? 

Yeah, I don’t have a I don’t have an easy answer to that question because they the. As you point out, the the guns are out there and, you know, the gun lobby having created this situation now says, well, there’s nothing we can do about it. And so let’s make it even worse by having everyone. Even more people have guns to defend themselves against all those people with guns. 

Yeah. And by no means an expert on sort of on the statistics behind gun use and gun violence in the U.S. But some of the some some of the readings that I’ve done, I’ve noted that there are different ways of looking at these statistics. So, for example, if you look at the number of gun owners in the U.S. versus, say, Canada, the numbers are pretty equivalent to the number of guns per owner. There’s a huge difference, right? That’s a very important point. 

That’s absolutely right. And moreover, consistent with your statistic is that the number of households with guns in the United States has gone down. Right. Even though the number of guns has gone up. So it means that there are a smaller and smaller number of people who own bigger and bigger arsenals. 

And this makes me nervous because, of course, our weapons are getting more and more sophisticated. So even if the overall number of violent people and the population declines, it takes fewer and fewer to inflict more and more damage, as we saw in some of these mass shootings. 

So how do we how does that how do we fight that kind of growth in these outliers of people who are actively violent? 

Well, the you know, I think guns themselves probably aren’t they the been place to look for an answer, although it got a lot of common sense gun control measures that, you know, any sane person would have to agree should be implemented. But the U.S. Europe difference is not just a difference in the availability of guns. So if you subtract out all the gun homicides in the United States and you just look at the homicides committed with ropes and candlesticks and daggers and so on, we still kill people at a higher rate, even if you take out all the gun murders. We are more violent. 

And the the right not to endorse anything that the NRA says. 

But there is some truth to the idea that it really is people who kill people rather than guns that kill people. 

And so that’s why I think that the psychology and sociology of violence is probably more important than just the weaponry. In talking about rampage shooters, there’s not much that you can do. But to be honest, it’s not as far as violence goes, it’s not that much of a problem in the following callous sense. That is of raw numbers. So Sandy Hook killed, what, 27 people altogether, 22 May 6th. I think I don’t know the number, something like that. But, you know, every day in the United States, 35 to 40 people get killed. And so after all that round the clock coverage of Sandy Hook, they didn’t they. The cable news networks didn’t say, oh, and by the way, we’ve had another Sandy Hook and a half today. And then on Thursday, we’ve had another Sandy Hook and a half to today again and every single day since then. 

So these are it’s a there are two categories of violence that are peculiar in that they generate a massive amount of publicity, discussion, concern and inflict relatively little damage. And one of them is rampage shootings and the other is terrorism. And this is your terrorism, the worst terrorist attack in history. Killed twenty eight hundred people, 9/11. And in the United States, every year, 16000 people are killed in homicides. 

But it’s not a coincidence because why do people blow themselves up? Why do people shoot up a school and then shoot themselves? Well, it’s the only guaranteed way to get the world’s attention. They know that, you know, if you as Adam Lankford, who just wrote a book on on our suicide terrorism, points out. 

Let’s say you wanted to become famous nationwide, worldwide. What could you do to guarantee yourself to become famous? Make a site. Great scientific discovery. 

Forget that, you know, compete on American Idol, American Science. 

American Science. 

No, you want to become fake. There is there actually is one guaranteed way to become famous, and that is kill a lot of innocent people. Now we’ve set up that incentive structure. It’s hard to know how to reverse it. But. 

That being there are people with a grievance, whether political in the case of terrorism or personal, in the case of someone who has been dissed, insulted, the we’ve created this opportunity for them to have their platform. Namely, they kill a bunch of people and we put them on page one. 

So got a very quick plenty from the Floridian. 

So, look, putting that into the pacifist dilemma, you know, is that an argument for not covering the media, not covering these mass shootings? Are these these sort of large events or would that really never happen, given how much that sells? 

I think it is an argument for reduced making news coverage and policy discussion more in line with the statistics. So the reaction of both the round the cut clock coverage of these rampage shootings and their response to terrorism, the our society is turned upside down. We started two foreign wars that were we’re still in as a response to terrorism. If you looked at the numbers like what what are you to do if you’re a government official in charge of your citizenry safety, what should you do to maximize that safety? And the idea is turn your society upside down and start wars to reduce terrorism does not make a whole lot of sense. 

So a lot of quick questions comes from the floor regarding, you know, increase of women’s rights and how that plays in here. And so I’ll just read one of them from Katju Scott. Why do more rights for women mean less aggression in society? 

Yeah. Excellent question of the. I mentioned there several motives for violence and I think there’s some where there’s not much of a sex difference. If you’re the head of state, you’re defending your country’s interests with a gameboard of a lot of other hostile states. Any woman who is running a country is going to act in the interests of that country, and that’s going to include waging war when that’s the rational thing to do. But and that’s the category of violence, of simply violence as a means to an end. And I don’t expect a sex difference. But when it comes to the kind of stupid macho violence, knife fights over a parking space, road rage fights over a pool table, fights over national honor where nothing is at stake except national honor, campaigns of bloodthirsty conquest and insane wars of aggression. It looks like that’s more of a guy thing. 

And also cross societies in non-state societies. There is anthropologists have documented a correlation that say that the societies that are constantly raiding each other tend to be the societies where men make a little bit of an understatement. You don’t have a whole lot of women’s rights and the societies where there is there is more egalitarianism. They tend to be less warlike. Now it’s hard to know what’s cause and what’s effect, but there is a correlation. So I think in terms and you can even see this projected into modern societies where, you know, anyone who’s worked in mixed sex environment is familiar with women saying about their male colleagues. Oh, you know, typical male behavior, namely pointless contests of what I call competitive distance urination. 

So there’s that. 

There’s a there’s a second factor pointed out by Malcolm Potts, a public health researcher in the U.K., that when the chief battleground kind of ground zero in battles between the sexes is is reproduction, these societies that control women control their reproduction by selling them off as brides while protecting their chastity, forcing them into to become kind of round the clock baby factories are societies that where women have more autonomy. The first place they exercise that autonomy is their own sexuality, their own reproduction. And when you have women’s rights, women have fewer babies. They have them later. And as a result, in more female empowered societies, you’re less likely to have youth bulges. And since another thing that goes along with women’s empowerment is these societies are less likely to to either murder female newborns or abort female fetuses. If you’ve got, you know, lots and lots of babies coming out and lots and lots of them are boys. Well, that leads to trouble. Down the line, you get youth bulges of unemployed, unattached young men. And that means trouble societies where women control their reproduction or societies to have fewer of these youth bulges. 

You know, just to follow up. Here, I mean, you wrote the blank slate about how it’s not right. We’re not a blank slate yet. Right. So this is sort of a case study. I mean, do you feel that when people talk about mass shootings or terrorist attacks, are we becoming willing to credit the fact that they are largely driven by men? 

Should we be more upfront about that? And should we biologies that and be frank about it? 

Well, I think we should biologies it in trying to understand it. Keeping in mind that these are all statistical generalizations. We shouldn’t biology’s it in our system of politics and justice where we should treat individuals as individuals. Tom Flynn. That’s the short answer. OK. 

I’m Dr. E Oby on Twitter asks, Are there exceptions to the decline in violence, like, say, for example, in countries in Africa? And do those cases help explain the decrease? 

Yeah, that’s a great question. And there are there are exceptions. So it’s not a monotonic nor a worldwide uniform phenomenon. So some of the increases in violence that I talk about are the huge increase in violent crime in the United States and most other Western countries in starting in the 1960s. 

So the 1960s, rates of homicide, rape, robbery, assault, you name it, went through the roof and they pretty much stayed high through the 70s and 80s before starting to come back down to earth in the 90s. That’s one. Another is that the heyday of genocidal totalitarian regimes in the middle decades of the 20th century? The glory days of Hitler and Stalin and Mao. A third is the rise in civil wars following decolonization in much of the developing world and leading even though rates of war in Africa have gone way down over the last couple of decades. Many African sub-Saharan African countries still have very high rates of homicide. So. So I don’t want to say that this is some mysterious force that just brought violence down monotonically everywhere up. And yeah, I do think that the I argue that at least some of these exceptions are exceptions that prove the rules, prove it in the old sense of test. In general, when you have anarchy, you have high rates of violence. So you precipitously remove government and you end up with violent chaos. And we saw that in Iraq, just toppling Saddam Hussein’s regime and having nothing to put in its place opens the ground for a lot of internal scene violence. And likewise, when the often oppressive but at least minimally competent colonial governments gave way to utterly incompetent kleptocracies and tribal favor test regimes, you ended up with a lot of violence in countries in the developing world. Likewise, the other major zones of violence today are often in drug warlord economies or other contraband zones of blood diamonds, oils, oil rich states where particularly in the case of contraband goods like drugs or earlier in our own country during prohibition. If your line of work means you can’t avail yourself of the dispute resolution apparatus of the state or put it more concretely, someone cheats you in a drug deal. You can’t file a lawsuit because you’re what you’re doing is illegal in the first place. And if you feel threatened, you can’t down nine one one because you’re flouting the law in the first place. 

Well, that means you’ve got to defend yourself with a credible threat of violence. And zones of contraband tend to be zones of high violence because they’re not geographically but economically zones of anarchy. 

So what was going on in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s that led to that? 

Yeah. So here’s a bit of a traitor to my generation. 

But, you know, I think the one of one of the psychological dynamics that controls rates of violence is the inner conflict between self-control and temptation to lash out in violence. 

And, you know, the 60s were the decade of doing your own thing and letting it all hang out. And if it feels good, do it and rebel against authority and hope I die before I get old and don’t trust anyone over 30. The culture shifted from the self-restraint and maturity and commitment to family of the boring white bread. Ozzie and Harriet 50s to the let it all hang out. 60S. And I mean, that sounds kind of highfalutin cultural explanation, but I think it did filter down to the actual. Treatment of violent crime in the court system. There was a lot more lenience. You had the baby boom generation entering the crime prone years, which by itself can’t explain the rise because the numbers are off. But I think helped to push it in that direction. And it was only later when people thought, well, gee, you know, not be able to walk in Central Park because you’re going to be mugged or a woman not being able to walk outside after dark because she might get raped. That really isn’t such a great thing. And there were a few. There are some advantages to rule of law and more effective policing. 

Starting in the 1990s, engagement with communities targeted the crime that had been unleashed in the 60s and helped put the day the devil back in the box. 

Is there anything that, as a psychologist who has studied violence so extensively, you would say can be brought to bear on actual policy decisions about things like background checks, high capacity, all the things that people are actually document in Washington? 

Are these the kind of things that work or could work based on your research? 

I think there are a lot of them are common sense. I mean, to keep the guns out of the hands of raving lunatics. I mean, that’s got stuff. 

To do with that idea. 

And so I use all the common measures. I don’t think that stricter gun control by itself is going to turn the United States into Denmark. So I think it goes beyond that. You know, I’m I’m in favor of these measures, but I think it goes deeper. 

We have a interesting question from Jamie Vernon. Her jail, Vernon D.. 

What do you think about Jared Diamond’s characterization of tribal societies as in a state of perpetual warfare? 

Oh, I think he’s a perpetual warfare is a bit of an exaggeration. But the the observation that they’re the rates of death in warfare are very high. 

Is correct. 

And I have a chapter in the book where I go over every quantitative estimate that I could find from the ethnographic literature and also from the archeological literature on rates of violence in non-state societies. And they span a range. They’re not at war all the time. Some of them are more violent than others. But if you look at the average, it’s it’s high. There are. And the thing is that perpetual reasons and exaggeration, exaggerations, they might go to war every other year. 

But that’s a lot. And there are a lot of people die. So. So that diamond is right. And Napoleon Chagnon, another person has been attacked for making such claims also as the numbers on his side. 

So I just want to remind our listeners that Steven Pinker, his latest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature Why Violence Has Declined, is available through our website. Point of inquiry, dot org. 

And I’d like to circle back a little bit, pardon the pun, which will make sense in just a minute to, well, something that you mentioned the very beginning. We started talking about the expanding circle as being one of the one of them of pacifying forces. I was really intrigued by the idea that as we become more global and sort of the in group out group distinction becomes messier because we are encountering people who are more diverse all the time, that that violence is one of the reasons why bonds might decline. And in particular, I was tickled being a married person to know that actually marriage can lead to decreases in violence. So let’s talk a little about that. 

Yes. Both of them are, I think, profound drivers of violence. One of them is the expansion of the circle of Sympathy, the expanding circle. It was the title of a book by Peter Singer Thief, the philosopher, who, not coincidentally, is also the author of Animal Liberation. And it’s part of the same logic, namely, once you extend sympathy to other sentient beings, say, well, I don’t think it’s such a good idea for me to kill my neighbor because I don’t think it’s such a good idea for my neighbor to kill me. And if I’m going to say to him, hey, don’t hurt me. He has every right to say, OK, yeah, but don’t hurt me. 

Now, once you start thinking that way, golden rule, categorical imperative, a veil of ignorance, whoever you want to precisely frame it, there’s a built in inflationary arrow built into it, namely, OK, you don’t kill your neighbor. Then how come? Why not extend that to the guy in the next village? OK, you’ve done it to the guy in the next village. Well, what about the whole tribe down to the tribal with the nation. And then, you know, the women will say, well, gee, you know, how about us? And then people point out, well, you know, how about our kids? Is it really right to beat the crap out of our kids when they misbehave? Kids are people, too. And then indeed, you get people like Singer saying, well, animals are sentient. They can suffer. They deserve to come into our circle of sympathy as well. By the way, Charles Darwin actually stated it 100 years before Peter Singer. He said there’s just only an artificial barrier that restring. It’s any expansion of consideration to members of your own tribe or village, to all of the human race. And that is, I think, a very powerful idea that once it’s loosed in in public discourse, it does tend to carry us upward and outward and and make it more and more indefensible to exploit other people just because, you know, we’re us and they’re not. I mean, that’s the argument. We can do it because we’re us and they’re not kind of falls apart when you challenge it. And it’s very hard to maintain that argument. 

It makes me think that some of the social media that we engage in so much now, say Twitter, which actually puts a personality onto people from around the world. So, you know, I connect with people on Facebook who are in Africa whom I would never have a personal relationship with. But on Facebook, I see pictures of their kids and I see pictures of their life. And on Twitter, I hear their witty, pithy remarks. And now they’re part of it, is that you think that some of these social media technologies might be pacifist in the end? 

I suspect over the long term they might be simply because it’s happened in the past. So one of the puzzles in that that I take up in the book is why in the second half of the 18th century, the world made a quantum leap in humanity, that that was the era in which countries stopped disemboweling people for criticizing the king. Were you stopped having public executions? The first movements to abolish slavery got traction. Debtors prisons were abolished. They stopped burning heretics at the stake. Blood sports were abolished like a dog fighting. You had the first articulate statements of women’s rights, of children’s rights, of gay rights. You know, back in the 18th century, our own prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution occurred smack dab in the middle of this process. So what happened to the second half of the 18th century? Why did the world wake up and suddenly realize, hey, you know, there might be something a wee bit wrong with slavery after all, even though we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. And I think most plausible candidate is that the second half of the 18th century was the rise of affordable printed media and the rise of literacy. If you look at what happened before that era, you can’t you really can’t do experiments. So do the next best thing. You least try to identify some exclusionists putative cause that at least occurs prior in time to the putative effect. The only one that I was able to find is there’s a massive increase in correspondence. You had a national international post offices, that kind of thing. The email and Twitter of the time, you had a huge increase in the economic efficiency of publishing books and pamphlets. You had an expansion of the press. It was much cheaper to travel from city to city. And these cosmopolitan forces back then, I think led to increasing humanitarians sensibilities. I think got a second wave of that in the 50s with the rise of television and electronic media. The Vietnam War was the first war to be brought into people’s living rooms in real time, and it was the first war that had a substantial anti-war movement as it was progressing, which I suspect was not a coincidence. So for modern social media and the Internet, can you credit them with the Arab Spring and the color revolutions? Well, it’s a bit awkward to claim that the color revolutions in the Arab Spring have been a success at this point, but they might be in the 10 or 20 year window and then that would vindicate, I think, social media as a liberalizing force. 

Dr. Pinker, we only have time for one more question, but it’s been a fascinating discussion. So following you on this show, as a young man who won our America’s Science Idol contest two days ago with a very cool, funny talk, which we’re going to see a clip of in a second, as a very senior, highly successful communicator of science, what advice would you have to aspiring young science communicators like Tom or like other people in this room? 

Well, this is a great opportunity for me to plug my my next book, OK, which is not as yet written, which is going to be a writing manual based on linguistics and cognitive science. How can you be the clearer? So I think they first and foremost is clearly to master some of the principles of communication, which include being vivid, being concrete, trying to avoid the curse of knowledge, namely the inability that we all have to imagine what it’s like not to know what we do know, to kind of subtract knowledge and realize that there are intelligent people who are curious, who just haven’t duplicated your particular educational trajectory. How do you work backwards and make the material fresh, intuitive and concrete? 

Well, I think that’s wonderful advice. 

And we’ve had a lot of great Twitter questions, so I’m sorry we don’t get a chance to and take those. But hopefully the conversation will continue on Twitter as well. Continue to use the. Tag and maybe get some answers from the people who are listening. 

So thank you so much for being with us on point of inquiry. This has been wonderful and I hope the audience agrees. 

And just a moment, in a moment, we’re going to invite are the winner of our science idol, but I just want to say that, of course, Dr. Steven Pinker is science’s hottest warm up act for art. 

Stick around. 

So many of you already know that Tom DeLay, Oberto one, America’s science idol, and I’m going to show you a clip of part of the winning speech in one second. Let me just give you his bio. And Tom, you want to come on, join us up here. So he was ISRO is born and raised in Long Island. He’s been fascinated by the weather since he was a young child. He is currently a meteorologist at the Climate Prediction Center of Noah, forecasting the weather for Africa, Central America, Hispaniola and Central Asia with a focus on weather hazards that could affect food security. He has a master’s in neurology from Stony Brook. In his spare time, I told them this before. He’s a devoted foodie who is learning to make cheese. And when he’s not in the kitchen, he loves to follow the Mets, the Giants, Knicks and Islanders. So just watch a little bit of this. 

This was the winning talk, weather forecasting. How hard can that be? Isn’t it beautiful? As meteorologists, we attempt to create a fake one of these as similar as possible to the real one and then model its changes out into the future. But the public really wants to forecast trinary smallness. No smaller. Keep going. Plus, the public really wants a forecast for the two by three rectangular hole window. They are looking out of. While they attempt to write something witty on Twitter. And if that forecast is wrong. Well, hashtag weather fan. 

The truth is. 

So how does it feel to be America’s science idol now you’re off to Hollywood. How does it feel? I’m still a little shell shocked by the Hollywood part, but no. It’s a it’s a great honor. 

I know everyone I talked to, they all the other contestants. And they’re also very smart and a really interesting topic. So I’m very proud. 

So we’ve just spent forty five minutes talking about the decline of violence and we’ve done something extraordinarily cruel, which is to make you watch yourself on a screen. Our apologies for that. But is there something that you would have done differently now, having seen a bit of or having had gone through the experience? 

I probably would have slowed down a little bit and tried to enunciate words better. But now, yeah, everything that the talk went. Well, I’m I’m more than surprised. I remembered everything I wanted to say, because at the time I most people couldn’t see it, but my knee was kind of vibrating and everything. The entire time I was talking was actually kind of glad they forced us into the corner here. So I didn’t I could just stand around here and don’t talk to to talk to the crowd. 

Well, as the judge, the competition was pretty stiff, I have to say. And what put you over the edge was the fact that you really mastered the clock. You got in your last point right before the buzzer went and you seemed extremely calm about it. I want to congratulate you on that and ask you about your strategy. Did you. Did you think about how you would pace your talk so that you could master the clock? 

I guess is one good thing to have a little OCD in me. I, I prepare that talk a lot. I gave it a ton of a ton of times. And the most part I was between two minutes and 45 seconds and about two fifty five. And beforehand I had made known that when I had seen the timer I would know exactly where in the speech I should be. So if I was not at that point, I would know I’d have to cut something to go a little bit faster. But no, you I tried to. The main thing I tried to do at the top was really make it a story. So I really wanted to have a beginning, middle and end. And I was mainly the main strategy for that. 

And for those who weren’t here, the talks, all the talks had to be three minutes. If they were over, a buzzer went off and they were summarily told to cease and desist. 

So he definitely didn’t have that happen to him. You had some tough competition. There was a rapper who you beat. There was a pretty hilarious talk about sex among insects and how this applies to humans and very funny stuff. You won. So I would argue that you won. Not if you were entertaining everybody. So everybody’s laughing, but you had a clear, succinct message and everybody knew the takeaway and it was even reduced to a hashtag, whether respect. Tell us a little bit about how you like how you paired down what you wanted to say. 

I feel like as I feel like I’m not the only meteorologist ever who has had that talk in their head at some point in their life. But now it’s three minutes. It’s a very short amount of time and you really can’t yet to try. And it’s a tight balance between getting specific and also understand. You really can’t get into specifics. So I really just try to focus on one individual theme or one individual message and keep kind of reinforcing it. And a lot of the time, people are only going to take out certain soundbites. I wanted to as opposed to let them decide. But the soundbites are. I wanted to create my own soundbites in my own talk so I can somewhat control what the message would be at the very end. 

And I would always I would argue that you actually support my my theory that I tell a lot of my music students that an amateur hour practices until he gets it right. But a professional practices until he can’t get it wrong. And it sounds like that’s what you did and that’s what somebody’s got to win. 

Which is also important to communication. 

We may will be reprising the science idol competition. What would your advice to future competitors be? 

Be short and sweet. Don’t try and do too much. Even I was thinking I was pushing them on a slide. I was showing it. And you have to remember that not everybody in the crowd is going to know your field and you have to make it interesting and then B, make it understandable for a wide range of people, people who like math and people who are scared by math, which is, you know, generally speaking, the public. 

You actually showed equations. There was a whole slate of equations and you didn’t lose me. 

Am I my senior was in my secret, does not go too much into those equations as opposed to showing all these Greek symbols. 

But so, of course, here at Triple Ask, we are all about the actual message. So I wanted to take a couple of moments to ask you what about to tell the audience here and our listeners elsewhere. 

What is your message and what do you want to accomplish? Well, weather is one of those things where everyone has an opinion on it because it affects everybody every day and it’s something they can physically see or experience when they go outside. 

So with that said, everyone is so much of an improper expert, so to speak, on on weather. And there is some some misunderstanding about how complex and how difficult it is to forecast the weather. A lot of times forecasters have a couple of hands tied behind their back to try to make a forecast. In fact, the forecast that we’re with, you know, it’s snowing outside pretty hard. And I know this forecast is quite difficult because a lot of the models that meteorologists use, what kind of all over the place? Leading up to this storm. So how do forecasters then expect. Talk about that probabilistic risk to the public with the public just wants to know if it’s good to snow outside their window. So is more just trying to get over get over that fact about? It’s difficult. Don’t be so angry at us. We’re trying our best. 

So what’s what happens? Do you now? What do you hope to do now as a communicator of science? 

It’s you know, it’s it’s great. I’ve always loved talking to people. So it’s good that now I actually I can say I have a title associated with it. Supposed to be my crazy meteorologist guy wants to talk about the weather. 

Well, can you be a meteorologist now? I mean, you got you forecast you entertain you in a little weather respect. 

I know the weather aspect that the one thing is hard for me. I can not talk. I cannot point to things backwards in front of a green screen, which is why I never got into TV sets. That’s one thing I’ve never mastered. It’s I can derive equations from here until sundown, but I could not point out a part of the country and west that easily confused me. But I would love. Yeah. I love talking about the weather. I love talk about science in general, so I hope they continue into the future. 

Well, anything else you want to leave the crowd with now? 

I thank everyone for the opportunity to come on, talk to you guys and to do this. It’s a great idea to try and tell me to tell scientist and general to boil down a topic in a three minutes and then it’s it’s much more difficult than Pininfarina. 

Don’t know, Gyeom Bells going off and guard dogs start shaking off the stage. So just don’t forget to wield your fame and power now for good, for good and for good for you. All right. 

Well, thank you so much, Tom, for being with us on Point of Inquiry. Thanks for having me. 

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I’m your host, Chris Mooney, and I’m your other host, Indre Viskontas. Thank you.