Steven Pinker on torture

I’ve recently been thinking about that expression, “A liberal who’s a conservative who’s been arrested.”

Linguist and public intellectual Steven Pinker got into some trouble recently when it turned out that he’d been offering expert advice to the legal team of now-disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.

I would not condemn Pinker for this. After all, everybody deserves a fair trial. Also I agree with the statement here that it’s not fair to tar Pinker with guilt by association just because he met Epstein a few times and had friends who were friends with Epstein. We’re all of us two or three links from some pretty bad stuff. I have friends who’ve done things they shouldn’t have, and I’d be surprised if I didn’t have friends of friends who’ve committed some horrible crimes. Social networks are large. (We’ve estimated that the average American knows 750 people. If each of them knows roughly that many people, then, well, do the math.)

Pinker has come up before on this blog, notably in this 2007 post regarding a newspaper article he wrote, “In defense of dangerous ideas: In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them.” That article contained a long list of ideas labeled as dangerous. At the time, I questioned how dangerous some of those ideas really were, and Pinker replied to my questions. You can go read all that and make your own call on how the discussion holds up, twelve years later.

But the “In defense of dangerous ideas” idea of Pinker that I want to focus on here is this one:

Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?

Recall Pinker’s statement:

In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them.

One thing we do know, though, is that the U.S. government supported torture of terrorist suspects back in 2007 when that article came out, and torture is supported by the current U.S. president and also Pinker’s friend at Harvard Law School. So I guess it’s not such a taboo question after all.

I googled *steven pinker torture* to see if he’d written anything on the topic since then, and I found this from 2012 or so:

Question: You say that cruel punishments and slavery have been abolished. But torture was practiced by the United States during the Bush administration, and human trafficking still takes place in many countries.

Response by Pinker: There is an enormous difference between a clandestine, illegal, and universally decried practice in a few parts of the world and an open, institutionalized, and universally approved practice everywhere in the world. Human trafficking, as terrible as it is, cannot be compared to the African slave trade (see pp. 157–188), nor can the recent harsh interrogation of terrorist suspects to extract information, as indefensible as it was, be compared to millennia of sadistic torture all over the world for punishment and entertainment (see pp. 130-132 and 144–149). In understanding the history of violence, one has to make distinctions among levels of horror.

This seems to contradict Pinker’s “In defense of dangerous ideas” position. In 2007 he was defending the idea that torture would save lives—not that he necessarily agreed with the point, but he thought it worth discussing. But a few years later he was arguing that modern torture is “indefensible” and not such a big deal because it is “clandestine, illegal, and universally decried” and only occurring “in a few parts of the world” (unfortunately, the U.S. is one of those few parts of the world, also I don’t think it’s at all accurate to describe it as universally decried, but no need to get into that here as the point is pretty obvious and so I guess Pinker was just doing some rhetorical overreach when he said that).

So what’s the take on torture? Is it indefensible and universally decried, or is it an idea worth discussing, supported by a large chunk of our national political leadership?

One argument that’s sometimes been made in favor of torturing terrorist suspects is that terrorism is a new danger, unique in modern times. But I don’t think Pinker would make that argument, as he’s on record as saying that we live in “an unusually peaceful time” and that terrorism is a hazard that “most years kills fewer people than bee stings and lightning strikes.”

It kinda makes you wonder if he’d support police torture of beekeepers, or manufacturers of faulty lightning rods. Only in special circumstances, I’m sure.

Just to be clear: I agree with Pinker that less torture is better than more torture, and I’m not equating current U.S. military practices with the Spanish inquisition.

OK, so what’s the connection to Jeffrey Epstein?

Two things.

First, torture may well be “indefensible” in any case, but I think we can all agree that it’s particularly horrible if, when instituted as part of an anti-terror program, it ends up administered to someone who isn’t actually a terrorist. From news reports, it seems that happens sometimes. In Pinker’s 2007 “In defense of dangerous ideas” article, there’s the suggestion that torture of terrorism suspects could be ok—at least, worth discussing—without so much concern that terrorist suspects might be guilty of nothing more than association. The problems with guilt-by-association could well be clearer now to Pinker.

The second connection is that Pinker’s “In defense of dangerous ideas” article also appeared as the preface to a book called “What’s Your Dangerous Idea?”, the 2007 edition of a set of collections of short essays published by the Edge Foundation. This 2007 volume did not include any contributions from Jeffrey Epstein, as he was consumed with legal troubles at the time, but the now-famous financier returned the next year as one of “the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions” to contribute to the volume, “What have you changed your mind about? Why?”

My point in making this connection is not to tar Pinker with guilt by association (or, for that matter, to imply that Epstein ever supported the idea of torture). My point is that your perspective on legal actions will appear different, depending on which end of the telescope you’re looking into. If you’re talking about an unnamed terrorist suspect, maybe you think that torture is a bold and dangerous taboo idea worth defending; if the person accused is a friend of a friend, they get legal advice.

I’m sure that most of us, myself included, behave this way to some extent. When it comes to intellectual debate, I can be as hard on my friends, and on myself (or here), as I am on acquaintances or people I don’t know at all. But when it comes to people actually getting hurt, then, sure, it’s a lot easier to summon empathy for people who are close to me, and it’s a lot easier to apply some principle of loyalty to friends of friends. Clashes between loyalty and other principles: that can be the stuff of tragedy.

So, again, the point of the this post is not to trap Pinker in some sort of Gotcha. It’s fine with me that his position on terrorism and torture changed between 2007 and 2012. In 2007, the World Trade Center attacks were still fresh in everyone’s mind, but by 2012, Pinker had been spending years reflecting on the global decline of violence so he was less willing to consider terrorism as a police tactic worth defending. Fair enough. If you’re an Ivy League pundit and you want to support police torture as an idea worth defending, you have to think that the benefits are greater than the damage—while taking account of the fact that lots of the damage would be happening to people you have no connection to, people who might not be clients of your law-professor friends.

And then there’s that line, “A liberal who’s a conservative who’s been arrested.” Due process and not tarring people based on guilt by association: that’s a principle that applies to associates of sex traffickers and also associates of terrorists.

Studying incoherence

The above might come off as anti-Pinker, but that’s not where I’m going here. So let me explain.

Coherence of beliefs and attitudes is an ideal or norm that should not be achievable in practice. We shouldn’t expect complete coherence among someone’s beliefs, for the same reason we shouldn’t expect complete coherence in the actions of a complex organization such as a corporation or a government.

To put it another way: Consider a house that’s been lived in for a few decades, long enough that it’s had various weather events, changes in occupancy, and other things that have required repainting of various rooms at various times. The colors of the different rooms won’t be quite in synch. Similarly with an economy: different products are coming at different times, prices keep changing, there never will be complete coherence. The point of noting an incoherence in someone’s views is not a Snap! You’re a hypocrite!, but rather: That’s interesting; let’s juxtapose these views and see if we can understand what’s going on.

We learn through anomalies. That’s what posterior predictive checking is all about, and that’s what stories are all about. The anomalies of Pinker—a prominent libertarian who’s open to the idea of police torture, a supporter of due process for sex trafficking suspects but not for terrorism suspects, etc.—are interesting in giving a sense of the contradictions in certain contrarian political perspectives.

P.S. Speaking of the Spanish inquisition, my googling turned up this Pinker quote from 2019:

Changing sensibilities: In 1988, I enjoyed A Fish Called Wanda. 30 years later, I found it cringeworthy: We’re supposed to laugh at stuttering, torture, cruelty to animals, the anguish of those who care, & a women using her sexuality strategically. Not un-PC, just un-funny.

I’m surprised that the torture bothered him so much. What ever happened to defending dangerous ideas??? Maybe the problem is that the torture in the movie wasn’t being done by the police, and it wasn’t being done on a suspected terrorist.

I thought A Fish Called Wanda was hilarious in 1988 and I happened to see it again last year, and I found it hilarious the second time as well. Not cringeworthy at all. My favorite scene was when Kevin Kline flipped the gun to himself as he was walking through the security gate at the airport. And that was just one of so many memorable scenes. I’d call it a modern classic, except that I guess 1988 isn’t really “modern” anymore.

I wonder what Pinker thinks about The Bad News Bears? I loved that one too!

P.P.S. I also came across this thoughtful and approximately 60% positive review from sociologist Claude Fischer of Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” I highly recommend Fischer’s review. Indeed, I think you’re better off reading Fischer’s review than my post above.