It’s pretty darn remarkable, really. Every time—every! smegging! time!—that Steven Pinker opens his yap and opines on something I know about, he comes across as a transparent buffoon. The topic could be modern research on evolutionary dynamics, or it could be fanfiction. Today, thanks to his participation in the annual Edge essay shindig, it’s the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Pinker’s essay is of the kind that starts semi-competently before going off the rails. He takes a valid and important scientific principle, oversimplifies painfully, discards all the actual content and ends up with a vacuous statement that shades into ethical irresponsibility.
A taste will suffice:
The Second Law of Thermodynamics is acknowledged in everyday life, in sayings such as “Ashes to ashes,” “Things fall apart,” “Rust never sleeps,” “Shit happens,” You can’t unscramble an egg,” “What can go wrong will go wrong,” and (from the Texas lawmaker Sam Rayburn), “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a carpenter to build one.”
By scrapping all the actual thermodynamics from his discussion of the Second Law (“Hello? Do you plan to have dinosaurs on your dinosaur tour?”), Pinker degrades it to the level of folk wisdom. And thus he gets his name up in lights for the revolutionary statement that life in the state of Nature is nasty, brutish and short. And then, after reducing science to a matter of earthy quips, he has the gall to turn around and claim that “the inherent tendency toward disorder” is underappreciated.
Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.
The problem is that poverty, in practice, is not simple. Poverty has a particular character that folksy wisdom about barns and jackasses does not explain. It is not the same everywhere, and part of understanding those differences is a question of blame. (Why, for example, is economic mobility more of a sick joke in the United States than in other developed nations?) “What needs to be explained is wealth,” Pinker writes—but part and parcel of that is explaining the why, specifically of poverty.
Quoting somebody who is not Steven Pinker—William A. Darity, Jr., writing for The Atlantic:
Estimates generated from the 2013 round of the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances indicate that black households have one-thirteenth of the wealth of white households at the median. We have concluded that the average black household would have to save 100 percent of its income for three consecutive years to close the wealth gap. The key source of the black-white wealth gap is the intergenerational effects of transfers of resources. White parents have far greater resources to give to their children via gifts and inheritances, so that the typical white young adult starts their working lives with a much greater initial net worth than the typical black young adult. These intergenerational effects are blatantly non-meritocratic.
Indeed, the history of black wealth deprivation, from the failure to provide ex-slaves with 40 acres and a mule to the violent destruction of black property in white riots to the seizure and expropriation of black-owned land to the impact of racially restrictive covenants on homeownership to the discriminatory application of policies like the GI Bill and the FHA, created the foundation for a perpetual racial wealth gap.
Blacks working full time have lower levels of wealth than whites who are unemployed. Blacks in the third quintile of the income distribution have less wealth (or a lower net worth) than whites in the lowest quintile. Even more damning for any presumption that America is free of racism is our finding that black households whose heads have college degrees have $10,000 less in net worth than white households whose heads never finished high school.
Reached for comment, Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted, “Seriously. Did not think it was possible for me to undersell white supremacy. Was wrong.”
But “shit happens,” right? No point in pointing any fingers, is there, Blamey McBlamington?
(Pinker’s Edge essay found via Dan Graur and PZ Myers.)