Social Science, Dogma, and Steven Pinker

Why am I re-reading The Blank Slate? First, because on first reading I marked it as one of the all-time great non-fiction books. Second, because I am thinking about possible parallels between the psychology of B.F. Skinner and the economics of Paul Samuelson. Some remarks:

1. Both Skinner and Samuelson dominated their fields around 1960. For those of you who do not know, Skinner’s view was that all behavior is learned, through the process of reward and punishment. We do what is rewarded and avoid what is punished.

2. Both took a very mechanistic view of, respectively, human behavior and the economy. We should not be surprised to see intellectuals in the aftermath of World War II seeing the world in terms of simple machines. What won that war? T-34 tanks. B-17 bombers. LCA’s that carried soldiers to the beaches held by Germans or Japanese. Relatively simple machines, built in enormous numbers, by countries whose economies were under considerable central control. Neither Skinner nor Samuelson would have thought in terms of personal computers or the Internet as metaphors.

3. Psychology eventually escaped the clutches of Skinner’s restricted research paradigm. Economics succumbed to Samuelson’s.

4. Pinker’s goal in the book is to dispel the dogma that human beings are shaped entirely by environmental factors, especially arbitrary social circumstances, and that social scientists have the power to re-shape society to achieve any desired outcome. On p. 19, he writes,

In behaviorism [Skinner’s psychology], an infant’s talents and abilities didn’t matter because there was no such thing as a talent or an ability. . .To a behaviorist, the only legitimate topic for psychology is overt behavior and how it is controlled by the present and past environment.

According to what I see as the central dogma of (progressive) social science, individual characteristics and choices bear little or no responsibility for differences in life outcomes. Instead, people who are successful owe their achievements to being born into power and privilege. People who are unsuccessful owe their deprivation to being born into poverty and discrimination. These outcomes are entirely changeable, through the application of social science.

Of course, this dogma is still prevalent. President Obama and many academics appear to be wedded to it.

5. I am starting to think about doing a work with the tentative title: Specialization and Trade: A Re-Introduction to Economics. The idea will be to shift focus from the issues of scarcity and choice that are now considered absolutely central in economics textbooks. Although these are certainly important, I want to argue that the central social phenomenon is specialization. In some respects, my goal is like Pinker’s. I want to emphasize the weaknesses in the simple, mechanistic views Samuelsonian economics, particularly Keynesianism, and instead offer a way of thinking of the economy that owes more to computational metaphors. Consider these sentences from Pinker (p. 31, p. 39, p. 40):

The mental world can be grounded in the physical world by the concepts of information, computation, and feedback.

The mind is a complex system composed of many interacting parts.

It is now simply misguided to ask whether humans are flexible or programmed, whether behavior is universal or varies across cultures, whether acts are learned or innate, whether we are essentially good or essentially evil. Humans behave flexibly because they are programmed: their minds are packed with combinatorial software that can generate an unlimited set of thoughts and behavior.

After listing a set of physical brain differences that are associated with different mental capacities and behavioral traits, Pinker writes (p. 44-45),

These gross features of the brain are almost certainly not sculpted by information coming in from the senses, which implies that differences in intelligence, scientific genius, sexual orientation, and impulsive violence are not entirely learned. . .There is much we don’t understand about how the brain is laid out in development, but we know that it is not indefinitely malleable by experience.

Similarly, I want to point out that economic outcomes are not indefinitely malleable by fiscal, monetary policy, and policies intended to correct market failures.

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11 Responses to Social Science, Dogma, and Steven Pinker

  1. Adam says:

    Computation is not different in kind from behaviorism. The key flaw of behaviorism is not that it takes no stock of inborn tendencies or differences in talent or disposition. The key flaw of behaviorism is that it has no model of an animal that uses language.

    The computation approach thinks that it has overcome this problem, but it has not.

    I urge you to ask yourself: why do you want to write this book? What is your model of how persuasion works, in a field like economics or anywhere?

    Consider that we have computers that can beat humans at chess, but no computers that can play chess *the way a human does*. Anyone familiar with chess can tell when the opponent is a computer, just by the way that they play. (for more on this I highly recommend Harry Collins’ Tacit and Explicit Knowledge).

    A better approach than either behaviorism, or its modern modification computationalism, is interpretative economics, which takes the act of interpreting text as the core of what makes human especially human.

    Don Lavoie was a pioneer of this approach, and has an excellent collection available for free online:

    And of course Deirdre McCloskey pioneered the “rhetoric of inquiry” approach to economics, in The Rhetoric of Economics, If You’re So Smart, and Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics. Her latest paper on how neo-institutionalism is just Samuelsonianism in fancy dress is also a good one:

    • Arnold Kling says:

      I’ll look at these. In other her other writings, McCloskey tends to create a straw-man version of institutionalism. In her version, it includes only formal legal systems, not norms and beliefs. That straw man is readily beaten.

      • Adam says:

        Yeah, one of my co-bloggers argued that she didn’t look into the institutionalist branch that deals with beliefs and so on. I think that’s very true. But McCloskey’s main complaint is that institutions tend to be treated as nothing but an external structure which constrain actors who are otherwise Samuelsonian optimizers. Basically it’s Samuelson plus some specific constraints. Whereas the notion of institutions from philosophy and sociology (to say nothing of the notion of ideas and beliefs from these and other sources such as literature) is much, much richer.

        • Andrew' says:

          Never dismiss a theory because of one it’s proponents, unless time is scarce, then go ahead.

    • Urstoff says:

      This is not very good history of psychology. The key flaw in behaviorism was that it couldn’t (or wouldn’t) model complex internal processes, of which language is but one. Cognitive psychology, of which computational psychology is just one approach, does posit internal processes and representations. What’s odd with Arnold’s framing is that computational does not entail innate or vice-versa. Connectionism is a type of computational model, but much of connectionist research is avowedly environmentalist. The whole nativism debate is deeply confused and confusing, but I think most psychologists and social scientists (although perhaps not sociologists and definitely not those populating English departments) agree that there is definitely major contributions to personality traits from both genes and environment.

      In addition, computational psychology is no less mechanistic than behaviorism; the mechanisms are just all on the inside. I understand Arnold’s larger point, but his details are a bit wonky.

      • Adam Gurri says:

        I always think of an Alfred North Whitehead critique of behaviorism, in which he added “a committed behaviorist cannot take my criticism seriously, he can only behave.”

  2. Urstoff says:

    What’s amusing regarding Pinker is that his book didn’t budge the Left in the humanities at all. I’ve seen plenty of comments on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. site stating that Pinker has been “thoroughly debunked”, although they never say by whom or exactly what proposition of Pinker’s they’re talking about. His work is also referred to as “pseudoscience”. Basically, The Blank Slate and The Better Angels of Our Nature have become this generations Bell Curve.

    • Kenneth A. Regas says:

      There seem to be so many truths that mainstream culture can’t abide. For example, there is the work of Lee Jussim of Rutgers, who seems to get no traction when he points out with scholarly rigor that stereotypes are generally true, on average. Doesn’t fit the narrative, so it can’t be true. Actually it doesn’t even need to be refuted because Jussim who?

      There will come a time in the future when our descendants will ask of us – what were they thinking? The Nazis, the Communists, all the people who over the years have lived in a world where the sky is green – they have nothing on us when it comes to group delusion.


  3. Ryan Murphy says:

    But central among the tools that allowed psychology to break from behavioralism was game theory, playing much the same role it did in improving neoclassical economics. And the emphasis on the selfish gene is in some ways analogous to the Lucas Critique. Digesting the literature on evolutionary psychology has in the long run made me less critical, not more critical, of modern mainstream economics, in part because modern micro and modern macro are not nearly as Samuelsonian as they once were.

    On the other hand, the connection between Samuelson and Skinner might be made even clearer in light of Samuelson’s descriptivist methodology writings.

    Finally, there was a paper presented at AEAs this year on how experimental economics has a lot more in common with Skinner than does behavioral economics. I can’t find it anywhere online, but I hope to come across it when it is published.

  4. Georg Thomas says:

    “I want to argue that the central social phenomenon is specialization. In some respects, my goal is like Pinker’s. I want to emphasize the weaknesses in the simple, mechanistic views …”

    There is no such thing as “the central social phenomenon.” Assuming such a phenomenon is a sure step toward “simple, mechanistic views.”

    For more see:


  5. Adam says:

    I just wrote a post summarizing what I was getting at; it may be more accessible than Economics and Hermeneutics

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