April 23, 2014

Dueling writing advice books: Pinker v. Murray

Charles Murray is currently out promoting his advice book, much of which is devoted to how to write better. And in early fall, Steven Pinker will publish his own advice book for writers:
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

When I think of people I know who are manifestly superb thinkers, Pinker and Murray are always near the top of the list for clarity, elegance, power, and precision of mind.

Here's a bit from an interview I did with Pinker to promote his book The Blank Slate that shows his command:
Q: Aren't we all better off if people believe that we are not constrained by our biology and so can achieve any future we choose? 
A: People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

Who cares?
We need wisdom not style.



a very knowing American said...

Pinker is a really superb explainer. He takes on some very difficult topics -- how binocular vision works, basics of syntax, how verb argument structure reveals the mind's underlying scaffolding -- and lays out the basics without dumbing them down. I can't think of anyone who beats him for combining depth and clarity.

Anonymous said...

People are surely better off with the truth....But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing.

Isn't this the guy who dismissed and attacked MacDonald's work while admitting to never having actually read his work?

hardly said...

I like saccharine comedies and stories where people live happily ever after, but I also like Pinker and HBD.
I wonder if people who have a pessimistic view of reality (ie us) prefer feel good works of art. While people who really think humans are not constrained by anything and they can do whatever they set their minds do, prefer gritty tragedies when it comes to art.

Steve Sailer said...

My favorite are stories in which the artist, at the peak of his powers, contrives to provide a happy ending even though he's clear how implausible that would be. Waugh's "Scoop," for instance, provides each and every character with exactly what he wants most in life (except for the baby mice in the last sentence).

Anonymous said...

Isn't this the guy who dismissed and attacked MacDonald's work while admitting to never having actually read his work?

Pinker dishes out schmaltz himself. He's too smart to believe that the public can be shielded from biological ideas forever, so he takes the gatekeeper approach of serving them in an acceptable fashion and steering the public away from more dangerous ideas.

Murray is similar.

hardly said...

Jeeves comes to mind.

Steve Sailer said...

Right. Wodehouse was a huge influence on Waugh, who was a huge influence on Stoppard, who has a knack for the perfect implausible happy ending, such as in "Every Good Boy Deserves Favor."

Mark Brown said...

The idea of science serving schmaltz is funny. A never grows old story with Pastor's is the pew-sitter who complains "but I come to church to be lifted up". Which, unless you are talking about being lifted up on the cross, is exactly the wrong idea. The biggest problems of modern American religion stem from the fact of a generation of ministers caving on exactly that request. Now that American religion has shifted to Science, I'm glad to hear they are getting the same requests - "emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing" indeed.

Power Child said...

It just struck me how much Steve Pinker looks like cellist Steve Isserlis. These Steves are practically twins.

Anonymous said...

"'But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!'"

Yet Pinker seems to subscribe to the sentiment expressed in a famous line in Stephen Benet's short story, "By the Waters of Babylon" : "Perhaps it is best the truth come little by little."

I do think the truth has been coming little by little, and that is it inevitable and good that it reaches a much wider audience. Of course, it's ironic that decades ago the truth of biodiversity was (and still is) understood by rural folks much more than it is understood or accepted by urban folks. Being raised on or around farms and ranches teaches people from an early age some undeniable truths and voila, they aren't scared by those truths.

Sean said...

The 120 Days of Sodom isn't 'true to life'. And De Sade started the French Revolution by encouraging a mob to storm the Bastille just after he finished writing it (by falsely screaming from his cell that the prisoners were being killed by the guards).

Whiskey said...

I have a problem with Pinker in cherry-picking data. He looks at life after WWII and assumes the human race is becoming far more peaceful. Because it fits his elite viewpoint of "soft power" beating military power, and the demilitarization of humanity.

That is not even true considering the Third World post WWII -- the Congo and Rwanda and such were far more peaceful under colonialism than after, with cheap AK-47s enabling lots of warfare among failed peoples.

And it projects 1945-2000 into the future of the West. Considering Putin's advance into Europe, and desperate weakness there, that seems as foolish as projecting stability in East Asia, with a rising China, independent Japan, flailing North Korea, and withdrawing US hegemon.

Pinker takes US hegemony as an eternal given, and assumes the effect of hegemony/domination is a change in human nature rather than a temporary geopolitical happenstance.

I would agree that taking a broad view of say, 1200 to today, interpersonal violence in the West declined, up until diversity in the West made it INCREASING (see SBDL for details); but that is interspersed by deadly conflicts with ever greater killing capacity and social unity. For example, African tribesman would never have stood the slaughter of 1914-1918. The first battle would have had them flee; rather than stand and be killed with their fellows in a stunning display of social unity.

Social unity and cohesion has the potential to with technology to create mass slaughter on an unimaginable scale. Something Pinker seems to miss completely because it puts schmaltz into the elites who like the pretty lies.

keypusher said...

That's more or less a verbatim quote from The Blank Slate.

Anonymous said...

People write like how they feel is best for them cuz one cannot learn to write better that what ability one is born with and that is the truth. It's like some people can make music but others cannot even if they train so much and stuff, and so most people can just write and make music in ways that aren't so great but if other folks get the gist of what they're saying, it's not so bad.
If all these advice books were any good, there would be tons of excellent writers and musicians all over the world but most folks just do like it comes to them natural cuz one cannot rise too much above biology and that is a fact. Pinker ought to know that as he did write Blank Slate. So, why he now write Blank page, as if we can all think and write like him?
By the way, I don't care how well he write if he's not writing the truth cuz, written nice or ugly, truth is truth while lie is lie. And that sure is the truth.

Anonymous said...

"But when it comes to science, these same people say, 'Give us schmaltz!'"

More like 'give THEM(dumb masses) schmaltz'. After all, the elites are very mindful of the science of mating and marriage. I mean how many Jewish Harvard graduates marry Mexican tomato pickers in the name of 'equality'?

And how come the sex deficit between Jews and Chinese is as wide as the trade deficit between US and China, what with Jewish men taking Chinese girls but not many Chinese guys taking Jewish girls?

Deep down inside, the elites notice more than they let one.

Anonymous said...

"Considering Putin's advance into Europe, and desperate weakness there, that seems as foolish as projecting stability in East Asia"

Europe is more likely to go under due to demographic change/population replacement than Russian invasion. Russia faces her own demographic challenge and has a huge resource-rich hinterland backing onto China. They've enough to keep them busy at home. And "home" includes Ukraine, where they're defending their western frontier.

Jason Hops said...

Everyone knew biology mattered for millennia. People believed in the power of blood. Our great-grandparents knew drunks ran in families.

Then dishonest intellectuals, starting with Boaz, spread false ideas. All that's happening now is that we are finally correcting their lies.

I like Pinker, but all he has really done (except a bit in language) is correct the lies his intellectual brethren pushed for a century.

Anonymous said...

"Isn't this the guy who dismissed and attacked MacDonald's work while admitting to never having actually read his work?"

I envy Pinker; I actually wasted my time wading through MacDonald. Let's just say that MacDonald is one of the best examples around of adjusting the data to fit the thesis.

Anonymous said...

Whiskey:"That is not even true considering the Third World post WWII -- the Congo and Rwanda and such were far more peaceful under colonialism than after, with cheap AK-47s enabling lots of warfare among failed peoples."

Well, provided that we gloss over the unpleasantness associated with Leopold II's Congo Free State...

Anonymous said...

RE: Pinker,

The man's career is a delicate balancing act. He knows that society can bear only so much truth. Hence, he is careful to not go too far in his pronouncements.

Anonymous said...

I envy Pinker; I actually wasted my time wading through MacDonald. Let's just say that MacDonald is one of the best examples around of adjusting the data to fit the thesis.

MacDonald's work is considered to be good and pioneering in the application of evolutionary biology to religion by mainstream scientists such as David Sloan Wilson.

Jason Hops said...

I don't think it is "society" that Pinker is trying to ease into accepting biological realities. People understood that blood mattered eons ago.

Rather, it is the academics, whose favor he must maintain, who he is trying to please.

Anonymous said...

"MacDonald's work is considered to be good and pioneering in the application of evolutionary biology to religion by mainstream scientists such as David Sloan Wilson."

Given Wilson's position as an advocate of group selection, I'm not sure that he is an unbiased judge of MacDonald's work.

Richard Brown said...

'The Blank Slate' is one of the most significant books of the entire post-war period.

Anonymous said...

My parents gave me Murray's book for an Easter present. I politely thanked them.

Anonymous said...

Is this the same pinker who's arguing that "we" are getting less violent? If so he's not a very good thinker. He's actually kind of dumb.

You can't teach people how to write better. Writing is thinking, your ability think is pretty much set

Anonymous said...

Hard for me to pay attention to a fellow who spends so much time fiddling with the arrangement of his hair as Pinker must.

Edward Cefala said...

Style. Style is practically everything to get people reading for me. It runs neck and neck with subject or peer-endorsement maybe. If you give me a person who wrote for Juxtapox when George Petros was a force there or High Times in the Forcade years, seminal National Lampoon's, associated with Krassner or one who is peripheral to those phenomenae I am going to give them the benefit of a doubt and invest 15 minutes on sight. Oh yeah I forgot to add that probably against their own best judgment, Harper's continues a tradition of a high-level of editorial selectivity too.

I have a difficult time reading much at all on the computer though I should add.

Anonymous said...

mainstream scientists such as David Sloan Wilson.

David Sloan Wilson's support for group selection is controversial among mainstream evolutionary biologists.