Weekend Coffee: November 9


• Following the resignation of the previous team, CFI has announced the new hosts of their podcast Point of Inquiry, one of whom is my friend Lindsay Beyerstein. Congratulations!

• This week’s entry in the WTF Department: Richard Cohen, an awful columnist for the Washington Post, saw the movie 12 Years a Slave and was shocked to learn how bad slavery was. I wish I were kidding about that.

• Three cheers for science! A new antiviral therapy can cure hepatitis C without a vaccine, holding out the possibility of eradicating a disease that kills more people than AIDS.

• Via Steven Pinker, a counterintuitive but very hopeful conclusion: peaceful civil disobedience is more effective at toppling dictatorships than violent rebellion.

• In some rare good news for reproductive choice, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling striking down a law that banned medication abortions in Oklahoma. [Wording corrected.]

Congratulations, Illinois!

• With the recent release of Ender’s Game, here’s an outstanding essay by Rany Jazayerli, who once corresponded with Orson Scott Card, about prejudice and tolerance. Jazayerli writes about how Card’s writing once showed unusual sensitivity and decency toward outsiders, and speculates on how Card wound up as the hateful, narrow-minded conspiracy-monger he is now.

• Doug Phillips, one of the founding figures of the Christian Patriarchy movement, has resigned from his ministry after admitting to having an affair. It’s almost as if insistence on rigid obedience to antiquated gender roles doesn’t actually make people more moral or lead to happier domestic relationships.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Via Steven Pinker, a counterintuitive but very hopeful conclusion: peaceful civil disobedience is more effective at toppling dictatorships than violent rebellion.

    -Tell that to the Libyans. It’s not that regimes that can’t be felled by armed rebellion can be felled by peaceful civil disobedience -it’s that insufficiently entrenched regimes give up long before armed rebellion may begin.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Also, perhaps the author meant to write “ending the ban on” medication abortions in Oklahoma?

  • L.Long

    ” Via Steven Pinker, a counterintuitive but very hopeful conclusion: peaceful civil disobedience is more effective at toppling dictatorships than violent rebellion.”
    That is why your cannot trust historians, because as we all know the USA became the USA thru peace civil disobedience of the English rules. And the revolutionary war is an invented myth to impress Europe.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Steven Pinker is never afraid to present conclusions that do not rely on evidence. That’s just the kewl kind of guy he is, pulling anything he wants out of his ass and being lionized for it. It’s a good living.

  • Jason Wexler

    There is a difference between “civil disobedience is more effective” and “only civil disobedience is effective”. Also Pinker is a cognitive linguist not an historian.

  • Leeloo Dallas Multipass

    Jazayerli’s essay was interesting, but annoyingly dragged up the “you’re being intolerant of intolerance!” canard in response to those boycotting the movie. Yes we are, and so what?

  • Nancy McClernan

    Being a cognitive linguist didn’t stop Pinker from writing The Better Angels of Our Nature on the history of violence, which had very little to do with cognitive linguistics.

    But then, which would sell more, a book about the history of violence, or a book about the history of cognitive linguistics? Pinker knows how to play the public intellectual game.

  • Nancy McClernan

    And he has provided no evidence for either proposition on civil disobedience, although weasel that he is, if he was pushed into a defense, would probably re-define the word “effective” as needed, the same way he redefines the Second World War to bolster the premise that the 20th century is less violent than preceding centuries. And only The New Yorker was un-awed enough by Pinker’s Great Man of Thinkology reputation to question it:

    According to his own calculations, the Second World War was, proportionally speaking, the ninth-deadliest conflict of all time – in absolute terms, it was far and away the deadliest – yet the war lasted just six years. The Arab slave trade, which ranks as No. 3 on Pinker’s hit list, was an atrocity that took more than a millenium to unfold. The Mongol conquests, coming in at No. 2, spanned nearly a century.

    But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we accept that the Second World War was only the ninth-bloodiest conflict in the history of our species, and the First World War the sixteenth. Isn’t this still a problem? The heart of Pinker’s argument is that trends and historical forces associated with modernity have steadily diminished violence. Though he hesitates to label the Second World War an out-and-out fluke, he is reduced to claiming that, as far as his thesis is concerned, it doesn’t really count. Accidents happen, and the Nazi’s rise to power was one of them. A series of unfortunate events ensued, but it’s important not to rush to judgement…


  • g

    Nancy, it wasn’t Pinker who made the claim about violent versus nonviolent resistance. He just provided a link, just as our host did here. By following that link, however, you will find that the person who *did* make the claim offers substantial evidence, in the form of an analysis of every major campaign of violent or nonviolent civil disobedience over the last century.

  • Nancy McClernan

    My assumption is that Pinker was implying this was true, although I didn’t locate the original “via Steven Pinker” source and there was no link to the Pinker.

    In any case just like Pinker and his claim that violence has declined, the claim that non-violence is more effective can only be maintained by moving the parameters and the goal posts around at will.

    Apparently the hallmark of a successful non-violent campaign is that something changes, even if the change isn’t what was being fought for:

    3. How can you call the Egyptian revolution a success? Didn’t it usher in a military government?

    I would call it a success (for now), because the campaign had a direct and discernable impact on Mubarak’s stepping down—an outcome that few would have imagined before the uprising took place. The post-Mubarak era is still shaping up, but two things are especially important to remember. First, the nonviolent resistance is still going on, with pro-democracy activists remaining committed to seeing through reforms. Second, the military and security forces were willingly repressing pro-democracy movements in Egypt for years; it was the mass, nonviolent demonstrations that created cracks in the military, both among senior leadership and within the ranks. According to reports, one Egyptian demonstrator said that he did not see the military intervention as a coup, but rather that “This is them consenting to the people’s demand.”


    In other words, even though they didn’t achieve their goals and “the nonviolent resistance is still going on” she has decided it’s already a success.

    And because there are so many factors in any political struggle, there is no way to determine if a violent approach would have been “more effective” than a non-violent approach. She controls for some factors, but simply ignores the many others.

    But it’s no surprise that Pinker approves this message – not only is the methodology slippery, but her fundamental belief is exactly the same as Pinker’s – the reason that there is less violence is because people have simply learned to think better.

    You can tell she thinks that thinking is the causal factor because she says:

    What if our history courses emphasized the decade of mass civil disobedience that came before the Declaration of Independence, rather than the war that came after? What if Gandhi and King were the basis of the first chapter of our social studies textbooks, rather than an afterthought?

    And not only that but her quote proves another one of my points, when she says “what if our history courses emphasized the decade of mass civil disobedience that came before the Declaration of Independence…”

    What would they learn? That the civil disobedience DID NOT WORK? And the only way independence was ultimately achieved was through violent insurrection?

    It’s apparent that she’s decided that it was the “mass civil disobedience” that achieved independence and put that in her win column by simply ignoring the actual violent part.

    And that leads to another issue – she herself cites the American Revolution as something that had two components – a non-violent and then a subsequent violent one. But if the British had given into the mass civil disobedience before it got violent, well it would never have gotten violent.

    In other words, every non-violent victory might be simply the opponent giving in before it got violent – or even giving in because it might start to get violent.

    She doesn’t address those things. And since there are public intellectuals like Steven Pinker who are hardly likely to pose such questions, we can all just believe that the world would be a less violent place if we were all taught more about civil disobedience. How nice and neat and simplistic. Time for Pinker to write another book.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    I suggest you read the full article. The claim isn’t that peaceful resistance always succeeds or that violent resistance always fails, but that peaceful rebellions succeed a greater percentage of the time than violent ones. This is a statistical conclusion that isn’t contradicted by isolated anecdotes.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Yes, that’s what I meant. I’ll add a correction.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Like I said above, she defines success however she wants, and appears to be considering the “mass civil disobedience” that came before the American Revolutionary War to be proof that non-violence works. She simply ignores any data that doesn’t support her point – in this case blatantly.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Nancy, I suggest you read the article before opining. The claim didn’t originate with Steven Pinker himself, but from a political scientist named Erica Chenoweth, who surveyed all major successful political uprisings since 1900 and coded them as either violent or nonviolent. By her telling, she began this project with the expectation that violent rebellions would be more successful, but her own data led her to the opposite conclusion.

    Pinker didn’t directly participate in this study in any way; he just linked to Chenoweth’s TED talk about her results. (I found out about it when he posted a link to the article on Twitter.) Whatever your personal feelings about him, these results deserve to be considered, and not automatically rejected just because they come by way of someone you clearly dislike.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yes I did read the (group of articles) which is why I quoted from it. Did you see that part, where I quoted from it?

    I may have jumped the gun by suggesting that Pinker had no evidence – but the evidence he has is crap. As I explain in the post where I quote the article.

    And this isn’t about my “personal” feelings about Pinker, it’s about his rotten scholarship and the fact that he’s nevertheless considered some kind of great man of knowing everything. Is that personal? Or is that a problem with a public intellectual who is not only a poor thinker but even attacked intellectuals in The Blank Slate.


  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    He wrote books on cognitive linguistics before, if you look up his bibliography.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    He never attacked all intellectuals (he’s one, after all) but the ones he disagrees with (hardly surprising), citing others he agrees with approvingly.

  • Nancy McClernan

    Yes, and what’s your point? That he is capable of writing a book on a topic on which he has some expertise? Clearly it didn’t satisfy him since he hasn’t published a book on the subject since the 1990s. He’s decided he’d rather explain how women’s brains have evolved to be less capable with numbers and how humans have learned to think less violently, by playing fast and loose with the facts until they support his thesis.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I don’t have The Blank Slate handy at work, so I’ll quote from the New Yorker review which I previously provided a link for:

    “These are both efforts to explain mind and behavior biologically, as products of natural selection and genetic endowment. Unless you are a creationist, there is nothing exceptionable about the approach. If opposable thumbs are the result of natural selection, there is no reason not to assume that the design of the brain is as well. And if we inherit our eye color and degree of hairiness from our ancestors we probably inherit our talents and temperaments from them, too. The question isn’t whether there is a biological basis for human nature. We’re organisms through and through; biology goes, as they say, all the way down. The question is how much biology explains about life out here on the twenty-first-century street.

    Pinker’s idea is that it explains much more than some people—he calls these people “intellectuals”—think it does, and that the failure, or refusal, to acknowledge this has led to many regrettable things, including the French Revolution, modern architecture, and the crimes of Josef Stalin. Intellectuals deny biology, according to Pinker, because it interferes with their pet theories of mind and behavior. These are the Blank Slate (the belief that the mind is wholly shaped by the environment), the Noble Savage (the notion that people are born good but are corrupted by society), and the Ghost in the Machine (the idea that there is a nonbiological agent in our heads with the power to change our nature at will). The “intellectuals” in Pinker’s book are social scientists, progressive educators, radical feminists, academic Marxists, liberal columnists, avant-garde arts types, government planners, and postmodernist relativists. The good guys are the cognitive scientists and ordinary folks, whose common sense, except when it has been damaged by listening to intellectuals, generally correlates with what cognitive science has discovered. I wish I could say that Pinker’s view of the world of ideas is more nuanced than this.

  • Nancy McClernan

    I realize that this is all heresy in many atheist circles. We all know that Pinker is one of our intellectual kings and it’s controversial to actually critically examine the stupid dumbass shit he says.

    He also likes to refer to professional racists for support when his work is criticized. His go-to guy when Better Angels was trashed in the New Yorker was Razib Khan, and his go-to guy when arguing with Malcolm Gladwell on the football issue was Steve Sailer. If his weasel scholarship and arrogance doesn’t convince you that Pinker is a fool, that certainly should.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Yes, I read the review you linked. I don’t agree that it fairly describes his view of “intellectuals.”

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    You are hardly the first person I’ve seen criticize Pinker in atheist circles (though so far they have not been substantive criticisms). His work should be critically examined as with everything else. I’m not aware of the issues you specifically refer to though. I wish to point out that this thread is not about Pinker, either, and it would be best not to derail that further on here.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    I don’t know-what’s *your* point? That no one should write outside their own field?

  • Nancy McClernan

    I thought you didn’t want to discuss Pinker any more lest we “derail” the thread. Make up your mind.

  • https://www.facebook.com/michael.carteron Michael

    Fine, bye.