Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Epstein and Pinker

Whenever I think reality can’t get any worse, along comes a headline. Like, say, this one from The New York Times: “Jeffrey Epstein Hoped to Seed Human Race with His DNA.” Really. Read if you dare.

An exchange between Epstein and Steven Pinker recounted in this article caught my attention:

At one session at Harvard, Mr. Epstein criticized efforts to reduce starvation and provide health care to the poor because doing so increased the risk of overpopulation, said Mr. Pinker, who was there. Mr. Pinker said he had rebutted the argument, citing research showing that high rates of infant mortality simply caused people to have more children.
I just left a comment at the Times:
It’s striking that we don’t hear Pinker telling Epstein that withholding food and health care from poor people is cruel, immoral, depraved. Instead Pinker rebuts the argument with statistics. The lack of moral outrage here speaks volumes about how Epstein found audiences and allies in academia.
And I have to wonder: what if research showed the opposite, that high rates of infant mortality caused people to have fewer children? Would that make withholding food and health care appropriate? I can only repeat what I wrote in my comment: The lack of moral outrage here speaks volumes about how Epstein found audiences and allies in academia.

Related reading
All OCA Steven Pinker posts (Pinboard)

[Good grief: my comment, five minutes old, is now a “NYT Pick.”]

comments: 5

Daughter Number Three said...

Congratulations on being a "pick"!

Have you read Charles Mann's The Wizard and the Prophet? This argument about overpopulation is what has tripped up the prophet side, historically... though Epstein is clearly a wizard-type (as is Pinker).

I'm not sure you were reading my blog back in 2008 when I wrote about Bob Jensen's book Citizens of the Empire ( Your comment on the NYT story reminds me of a passage from that, which I quoted:

In a separate part of this chapter, Jensen tells a story about talking to a student who said she wondered if, given overpopulation, it was a good idea to develop drugs to fight diseases endemic in the third world. I'd be willing to bet this is a common question heard at the Gates Foundation, for instance, as it works to end malaria. Something along these lines has run through my mind at some points, I have to admit.

Jensen's response to the student is revelatory in its clarity, and I'll remember it for a long time:

I...told the student that when she was ready to sacrifice members of her own family to help solve the global population problem, then I would listen to her argument. In fact, given the outrageous levels of consumption of the middle and upper classes of the United States, I said, one could argue that large-scale death in the American suburbs would be far more beneficial in solving the population problem.... "If you would be willing to let an epidemic sweep through your hometown and kill large numbers of people without trying to stop it, for the good of the planet, then I'll listen to your argument," I said. (page 97)

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you, Pat. I will follow your links and see the rest of the story.

Michael Leddy said...

I missed Jensen’s reply in your comment (reading on my phone) but just saw it on your post. It’s perfect.

It made me think of what I heard someone say during a discussion of material culture and the idea of simplicity: “Well, I would never give up my things.” I’ll look for the book in the library.

count reeshard said...

The fact of your comment being immediately singled out by the NYT doesn't surprise me in the least. Insight and well-worded criticism are central to my daily enjoyment of OCA. (By the way, I'm hoping you've heard & enjoyed VDP's latest collaboration, ¡Spangled!) And I, too, get the film noir 'wim-wams' when the media expects me to trust Steven Pinker.

Michael Leddy said...

Thank you for the compliment, Count.

But wait — I thought that album was coming in October. If it’s out now, I’d better order it.

The more I read about Pinker, the more I find him an untrustworthy thinker. The distortions and misreadings in The Sense of Style made me furious. People who know much more than I do find fault with his work in other areas too.