Why should we listen to one over the other? Siding with Pinker we might answer: numbers, I mean scads of numbers, oodles of numbers. Combined with Pinker’s statistical savvy, gleaned from his decades of immersion in the study of Linguistics. Surely this gives us a foothold into the interpretation of the past that has eluded the efforts of the pure, that is, math-disinclined historian. Forget for a moment Pinker’s penchant for exaggerated titles — How the Mind Works hasn’t exactly snuffed out the field of neuroscience. If we turn the rigor and clarity of of the scientific method on the study of history we’ll at least have something we can sink our teeth in. Or as Pinker puts it:
I think that a failure of statistical thinking is the major intellectual shortcoming of our universities, journalism and intellectual culture. Cognitive psychology tells us that the unaided human mind is vulnerable to many fallacies and illusions because of its reliance on its memory for vivid anecdotes rather than systematic statistics. Yet pundits continue to hallucinate trends in freak events, like the Norwegian sniper (who shot all those young people on an island) and make wildly innumerate comparisons, such as between Afghanistan and Vietnam, or between today's human trafficking and the African slave trade. It's a holdover of the literary sensibilities of our science-flunking intellectual elite, who would be aghast if someone didn't know who Milton was, but cheerfully flaunt their ignorance of basic science and mathematics.
Forcefully argued. But if your nightstand is already groaning under the weight of many a tome you might be reluctant to throw another 800 pages on top. One must be choosey. So I have to confess that I haven’t given the work more than a hasty skim. Instead I have done what I so often do, trying to content myself with book reviews.
But here’s the strange thing, the very strange thing — critical response to Better Angels has been pretty patchy. If you throw Pinker a couple softballs and just let him talk for a while, like they did on NPR, you’re liable to hear all sorts fascinating things on the subject. So far this has not been my experience with co-pundits and journalists (admittedly I haven't hit all the reviews he lists). Peter Singer’s New York Times review was little more than a nod of approval in the form of a book report. Gary Gutting, also in the New York Times, passed on some remarks worthy of an undergrad’s personal reflection paper. And then there was the guy over at Anamnesis who practically went into anaphylactic shock over the book and was only able to choke out a few grunts of indignation. And it gets worse.