Steven Pinker is a psychologist who writes on politics. His theories are interesting but are framed too universally to be valid

by Andrew Gelman on December 19, 2012 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Public opinion,Science

From the sister blog:

Psychology is a universal science of human nature, whereas political science is centered on the study of particular historical events and trends. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that when a psychologist looks at politics, he presents ideas that are thought-provoking but are too general to quite work. This is fine; political scientists can then take such ideas and try to adapt them more closely to particular circumstances.

The psychologist I’m thinking about here is Steven Pinker . . .


evnow December 19, 2012 at 5:08 pm

From wiki …

“Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-born experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist, linguist and popular science author”.

I’ve always known him as a linguist (he specializes in psycholinguistics and visual cognition).

Andrew Gelman December 19, 2012 at 10:24 pm


I think “cognitive scientist” in this context means psychologist.

Miles Townes December 21, 2012 at 9:09 am

Steven Pinker wrote one of, if not the best-selling political science books of last year — The Better Angels of Our Nature : . A huge part of the book was a synthesis of political science research, especially IR, but he dismisses the theories in that discipline without showing any real depth to his understanding of them. His problem is that those theories don’t say anything about his area of expertise (human brains? not sure at this point), so he has to make up his own theories — which, as you say, tend to be interesting but too universally framed.

Tom December 21, 2012 at 10:22 am

Add Jonathan Haidt to this category. Some interesting ideas, but often too general to explain American politics in particular — or, worse, he ends up universalizing contemporary American political-cultural wars into innate moral-psychological divisions.

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