“The Nudge Debate”;
“Science is not Your Enemy”


Two public thinkers contribute food for thought that fits, if obliquely, into the conversational pot-luck on MIA. The New York Times‘ David Brooks writes in “The Nudge Debate” that “These days, we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one. Some modest paternalism might be just what we need,” and Steven Pinker writes in “Science is not Your Enemy” for the New Republic (an essay that resonates significantly, given recent events at the Vatican, with Galileo’s adventures in scientific exploration) that “One would think that writers in the humanities would be delighted and energized by the efflorescence of new ideas from the sciences. But one would be wrong. Though everyone endorses science when it can cure disease, monitor the environment, or bash political opponents, the intrusion of science into the territories of the humanities has been deeply resented.”Of further interest:

Beyond the Brain (Earlier op-ed by David Brooks in the New York Times)


  1. David Brooks, neocon:

    ‘But, in practice, it is hard to feel that my decision-making powers have been weakened because when I got my driver’s license enrolling in organ donation was the default option.’

    David Brooks has no problem with government assuming that the bodies of all its citizens will be harvested for organs upon government doctors declaring death, ‘by default’. I have a problem with this, first, the ugly idea that the state owns people’s bodies by default. Second, if ‘assumed’ so called ‘default donation’ becomes the norm, and made by default at age 16 on state mandated driver’s licenses, any system of record keeping designed to identify those who had ‘opted out’ is a lot different to a system of record keeping designed to keep track of people who have made a decision to donate. If you’re being ‘nudged’ by government to ‘donate’, and at such a young age, is it a true ‘donation’ in the classic sense of that word donation?

    On Steven Pinker, where to start, he’s a neo darwinian evolutionary psychologist, the new sanitized rebranded sociobiology. I wouldn’t want him writing government policy.

    I like this from a review of Pinker’s work:

    ‘Those thinkers who neglect to study the role of nurture sometimes attempt to justify their approach by characterising it as ‘scientific’. Yet the attempt to explain human nature by directing attention away from the observable details of human behaviour and towards invisible and largely inscrutable entities is not the monopoly of modem genetic determinists. Something very similar was done for centuries by priests, prophets, theologians and other ‘spiritual determinists’ working within the mainstream of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. One of the reasons that sociobiology, like psychoanalysis before it, has found such an enthusiastic following in Puritan America is that it possesses many of the characteristics of the religious ideology which preceded it. It too frequently seeks to explain the visible by reference to the invisible. It too can be used to justify the economic, political or sexual status quo by appealing to unseen powers which supposedly control our destiny. Not only this but it also frequently provides what some have seen in religious faith – an excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Sociobiology, in all these respects at least, is perhaps best seen as one of the new spiritualisms of our age – a form of hard-centred mysticism which, like that created by Freud himself, has managed to reintroduce a traditional religious ideology in a disguised form, safe from the criticism of scientists (or some scientists at least) precisely because it is itself offered as a contribution to science. Although some forms of ‘evolutionary psychology’ may be more subtle than the sociobiology they derive from, others merely continue the same kind of biological reductionism under another name.’


    and another review of Pinker by John Dupre:

    ‘To end as I began, with the underlying philosophical issue, there is a real advantage to the positions that Pinker decries as blank slate theories. Once we accept, as we all should, interactionism between the biological and the environmental (especially the cultural), there is little hope that we will be able to characterize human nature in any fine detail. The ideal, perhaps, would be to describe the “norm of reaction” for human nature—to characterize human behavioral tendencies as a function of all the possible environments in which humans can develop. This is still, surely, an impossible task. It does point to something possible, however—namely, that we might explore the effects of changes in the sociocultural environment on the development of human nature. Of course, we should be mindful of our ignorance and even more mindful of the disastrous consequences of some earlier attempts to manipulate human nature. However, with such sensitivity, with appropriate imperatives of decency and respect toward the people whose lives one may be affecting, and with the sophisticated understanding of human nature that derives eclectically from history, literature, philosophy, science and experience rather than the crude reductionism of Pinker’s “Darwinism,” there is still the possibility that we may build better societies. Pinker’s scientistic conservatism provides no reasons for abandoning such ambitions.”



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  2. The nature versus nurture controversy was settled long ago by an identical twins study which compared the outcomes of twins, one of which died at birth. In every instance, the twin that lived and was nurtured had a far better outcome than the one that died and was not.

    One of my psychology professors told this sick, old joke in class years ago.

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