A Case of the Mondays: The Blank Slate and Other Phantom Theories

Reading Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate reminded me of most other polemical books I’d read that attempt to integrate some science into their works. In theory it’s a science book, a longwinded defense of both evolutionary psychology and its obvious social implications. But in practice, it’s mostly a political book; the science is provided only as a backdrop against which Pinker sets up his attacks on a host of social, political, and cultural notions that stand in opposition to crude evolutionary psychology (which I’ll abbreviate as EP in the rest of this post).

Pinker frames his view as this of modern science, represented by such tools as genetics, neurobiology, and post-Williams Revolution evolutionary biology, versus this of three closely interlinked demons. The first demon, which he focuses on the most, is the view that at birth the human mind is a blank slate to be shaped by environmental forces. The second is romantic affection for the noble savage, uncorrupted by pernicious civilization. And the third is the dualist notion that people are ghosts inhabiting the machines that are their own bodies.

The problems with the book’s thesis start right at the beginning, when Pinker claims that a) all three views are interlinked, and b) all three views were very respectable until the science of EP started to overthrow them. The best way of seeing why Pinker is wrong there is by looking at the three philosophical positions he associates with the three demons—empiricism for the blank slate, romanticism for the noble savage, and dualism for the ghost in the machine.

By and large, the philosophers who developed empiricism, romanticism, and dualism in modern times disagreed with one another. Descartes’ dualism isn’t a component of Locke’s empiricism; on the contrary, they disagree on the fundamental issue of whether all knowledge comes from experience. Romanticism developed mostly after the Enlightenment, and was only associated with empiricism or dualism when it mythologized European progress rather than the noble savage.

Zooming in on empiricism, it’s easy to see another error of Pinker’s: Lockean empiricism does not strictly speaking say the mind is a blank slate, at least not in the way that is relevant to EP. The main point of EP is that the human brain is hardwired to be prone to certain forms of learning and modes of behavior. The EP-derived view that men are on average better than women at math is not that men are born knowing more math than women but that men are born with a greater aptitude for math than women. In contrast, Locke’s main contention is that knowledge comes directly from experience. He never concerned himself with social learning, which only became a serious subject of study a century or two after his death.

More importantly, the people Pinker criticizes for distorting science by claiming that IQ is not meaningful or not hereditary, or even that the mind is indeed a blank slate, have nothing to do with the other two demons. Marxist theory, which the people Pinker labels radical scientists adhere to, is extremely anti-romantic and anti-dualist. Among all the radical ideologies in existence—libertarianism, fascism, religious fundamentalism, anarchism—it is certainly the most pro-modern. Lewontin’s politics is largely doctrinaire Marxist: in Biology as Ideology, he trumpets the triumph of progress, even as he indicates this progress should come from accepting socialism more than from ordinary capitalist improvements.

The relationship between Pinker and Lewontin is an interesting one. Pinker notes that although Lewontin claims that he thinks the dominant force in evolution is the interaction between gene, organism, and environment, in terms of social implications he ignores everything but environment. On that Pinker is certainly right: Biology as Ideology is an anti-science polemic that distorts facts to fit Lewontin’s agenda (my take on Lewontin was subsequently debated in length here). However, Pinker commits the same transgression: he says he believes in the sensible moderate view that human behavior is determined by both inborn and environmental factors, and goes on to not only ignore the implications of the environmental part but also defend racists and sexists who have used pseudoscience as cover.

For instance, he starts by ridiculing people who called Richard Herrnstein a racist for a 1970 paper about intelligence and heredity. Although the paper as Pinker describes it is not racist per se, Herrnstein was indeed a racist. The screed he published with Charles Murray in 1994, The Bell Curve, is not only wrong, but also obviously wrong. Even in 1994, there were metastudies about race and intelligence that showed that the IQ gap disappears once one properly controls for environmental factors, for example by considering the IQ scores of children born to single mothers in Germany by American fathers in World War Two.

The truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive. If there is indeed an innate component to the racial IQ gap, or to the gender math score gap, then it’s not racist or sexist to write about it. It remains so even if the innate component does not exist, but the researcher has solid grounds to believe it does.

However, Murray and Herrnstein had no such solid grounds. They could quote a few studies proving their point, but when researchers publish many studies about the same phenomenon, some studies are bound to detect statistically significant effects that do not exist. By selectively choosing one’s references, one can show that liberals are morally superior or morally inferior to conservatives, or that socialism is more successful or less successful than capitalism. At times there are seminal studies, which do not require any further metastudy. There weren’t any in 1994, while existing metastudies suggested that the racial IQ gap was entirely environmental. As I will describe below, the one seminal study done in 2003 moots not only Murray and Herrnstein’s entire argument but also much of Pinker’s.

To rebut claims of racism and sexism, Pinker invokes the moral argument—in other words, that to be against racism and sexism one need only vigorously oppose discrimination, without believing that without any discrimination there would be no gaps in achievement. In theory, that is correct. But in practice, that narrow view makes it impossible to enforce any law against discrimination.

Worse, Pinker invokes anti-feminist stereotypes that are born not of serious scholarship, but of ideologically motivated conservative thinking. He supports Christina Hoff-Sommers’ spurious distinction between equity feminism and gender feminism. Although there are many distinctions among different kinds of feminists, some of which track the degree of radicalism, none of the serious ones has anything to do with Hoff-Sommers’. In theory, equity feminism means supporting equality between women and men, while gender feminism means supporting a view of the world in which the patriarchy is omnipresent. In practice, the people who make that distinction, including Pinker, assign everyone who supports only the forms of equality that are uncontroversial in the United States, like equal pay laws and suffrage, to equity feminism, and everyone who supports further changes or even existing controversial ones to gender feminism.

As a case study, take family law activist Trish Wilson. Wilson’s activism focuses on divorce law; she has written articles and testified in front of American state legislatures against laws mandating presumptive joint custody, mainly on the grounds that it hurts children. In addition, she has written exposés of ways abusive men exploit legal loopholes, including presumptive joint custody, to gain custody of children. In pushing for equality in the courtroom, she is a liberal feminist’s liberal feminist. And yet, her attacks on the men’s rights movement for protecting abusive men have caused every conservative who makes distinctions between equity and gender feminism to deride her as a gender feminist.

Any reasonable distinction between a more radical feminist stream and a more conventional one would put Betty Friedan and her organization NOW on the less radical side. Friedan was anti-radical enough to devote much of her tenth anniversary afterword to The Feminine Mystique to attacking radical feminists, by which she means not Catharine MacKinnon or Andrea Dworkin, but Kate Millett. NOW has focused on legal equality, primarily abortion rights and secondarily laws cracking down on employment discrimination and sexual harassment. But Pinker assigns Friedan as well as Bella Abzug to the gender feminism slot, using entirely trivial statements of theirs to paint them as radicals. Friedan he attacks for suggesting extending compulsory education to the age of 2; Abzug he attacks for saying equality means fifty-fifty representation everywhere.

To his credit, Pinker never quite claims that there is no gender discrimination. However, he makes an earnest effort to undermine every attempt to counteract it, however well founded. For instance, he claims that it’s absurd to say that women’s underrepresentation in science in the United States is due to discrimination, on the grounds that they’re even more underrepresented in math, and it’s not likely mathematicians are more sexist than scientists. Instead, he suggests, women are just not interested in math and science.

However, it is legitimate to ask why this interest gap exists. There is no EP-based argument why it should be innate. On the contrary, independent evidence from, for example, the proportion of female mathematicians who come from families of mathematicians versus the proportion of male mathematicians, suggests it is environmental. Indeed, the educational system of the United States has long encouraged women to ignore the hard sciences. Other educational systems produce near-parity: while 13% of American scientists and engineers are women, many other countries, such as Sweden and Thailand, have percentages higher than 30 or even 40.

Furthermore, one of the most important pieces of information about biases in education, the stereotype threat, receives no mention from Pinker. It’s an established fact that telling girls who are about to take a math test that boys do better will make them do worse. In fact, telling them that the test measures aptitude, or even asking them to fill out an oval for gender before the test, will hurt their performance. And yet somehow Pinker glosses over that fact in a book that purports to be about a combination of genetics and environment.

There is hardly a single thing Pinker gets right about rape in his book, except that Susan Brownmiller is wrong. His explanation of rape is that it is a male biological urge, as evidenced in the fact that in many species males rape females. However, that theory says nothing about why straight men rape other men in prison, or in general about the dynamics of male-on-male rape. He provides scant circumstantial evidence for his theory of rape; instead, he prefers to rant about how Brownmiller’s feminist theories are dominant, even though in fact the dominant view among criminologists is that rape is simply a violent crime, rather than a case of passionate sex gone awry or a mechanism of reinforcing the patriarchy.

Pinker commits not only a sin of omission in writing about rape or violence in general, but also a sin of commission, in writing that nobody really knows what causes violence. In fact, criminologists have fairly good ideas about how social ills like poverty and inequality cause crime, although they know it about murder more than about other violent crimes. Still, the rates of all violent crimes are closely correlated; the major exception is the United States’ murder rate, which is higher than its general violent crime rate predicts presumably because of its lax gun control laws.

Finally, Pinker quotes a 2001 study by Eric Turkheimer as showing that the Darwin wars ended and the gene-centric side, led by Richard Dawkins, prevailed over the more environment-based side, led by Stephen Jay Gould. Thence Pinker concludes that attempts to raise children in ways more conducive to growth are futile, since much of their future behavior is genetic, and almost all of what is not genetic is due to developmental noise rather than environmental influence.

However, in 2003 Turkheimer published another study, which sealed the questions of race and IQ and of environmental influences on children in general. Turkheimer’s starting point was that earlier studies about the heritability of IQ often focused on adopted children in middle- and upper-class families, where environmental influences might be different from in lower-class families. By examining a large array of data spanning multiple races and social classes, he saw that on the one hand, within the middle class IQ is highly genetic, with a heritability level of 0.72 and no significant environmental effects. But on the other, within the lower class, which includes most blacks and Hispanics in the US, the heritability of IQ drops to 0.1, and environmental factors such as the depth of poverty or the level of schooling predominate.

Obviously, it would be futile to blame Pinker for not mentioning Turkheimer’s 2003 study. The Blank Slate was published in 2002. However, all other facts I have cited against Pinker’s thesis and its purported social implications predate 2002. The Turkheimer study does not show by itself that Pinker’s book is shoddy; it merely shows that much of it is wrong. What establishes Pinker’s shoddiness is the treatment of social problems like sexism, racism, and crime, which is based not on examination of the available evidence or even the views that are mainstream among social scientists who study them, but on what think tanks whose views align with Pinker’s say.

Even a cursory examination of the current mainstream social scene will show that the myths of the noble savage and the ghost in the machine are nonexistent. That fringe scholars sometimes believe in them is no indication of their level of acceptability; there are fringe scholars who believe in 9/11 conspiracy theories, too. Even the theory of the blank slate, at least in its most extreme form, is a phantom ideology. Lewontin adheres to it, but Lewontin is a contrarian; non-contrarian scientists do not publish books comparing modern biology departments to Medieval Christianity. Pinker likes to poke fun at theories that suggest everyone or almost everyone can succeed in life, but he never gets around to actually refuting them. All he does is attack extreme caricatures such as the blank slate and other phantom theories.