Pinker versus Taleb: A Non-deadly Quarrel over the Decline of Violence

As promised, I’ve just posted the slides of the talk I gave yesterday at York University (with some overnight modifications).

You can get background with links for further background here.

Somewhat bizarrely, Steven Pinker’s 2011 book was rocketing to the top of the Amazon best seller list due to a Bill Gates Tweet right when I was talking about it at York..  So I guess my timing is good.

7 thoughts on “Pinker versus Taleb: A Non-deadly Quarrel over the Decline of Violence

  1. You are ignoring Occam’s Razor. Null hypothesis is that war probability distribution has not changed after WW2. It is a null hypothesis, because it is the simplest one.

    If you want to claim otherwise, the burden of proof is on you. Taleb just pointed out that the data is consistent with null hypothesis and the Pinker was not able to disprove it (in a Popper’s sense).

    Your criticism of Taleb not proving his thesis is therefore irrelevant, he does not have to, because it is a null hypotheses.


  2. Thanks you for your comment Samuel.

    To be clear, I do think that Cirillo and Taleb made a nice contribution to this discussion. Because of the fat-tailed distribution of war sizes it would take a really long peaceful time to reject a hypothesis of “no change” based only on war size and timing data.

    I think that you and I aren’t all that far apart, actually, although I do perceive divergences.

    First of all I’m not so confident in Occam’s razor as you are.

    Occam’s razor might be a good idea, in principle, for breaking ties between two theories with equal explanatory power although, in practice there is usually some difference in explanatory power so the question becomes whether an increase in explanatory power is worth the increase in complexity.

    Moreover, the world may just be complex in some ways and simple theories might miss the point.

    In any case, saying that the decline-of-war thesis and the no-change hypothesis have equal explanatory power (but no-change is simpler) really requires you to blind yourself to ….well…the whole Pinker book and look only at the time series of war sizes and timings. And even then I think you’d have to privilege decline-of-war since war does actually decline.

    Second, even if we try to use Occam’s razor it’s not even clear to me that “no change” is the simplest theory. Given that war violence actually decreases after World War wouldn’t the simplest theory say that the world really has become less violent? It seems more complicated to say that the data that is plain to see is actually misleading. Yes, the idea that the actual data is misleading is consistent with the “no change” hypothesis but is this really the most simple and direct theory?

    Add to this some the the factors I mention at the end of the slides such as the fact that military spending percentages have been going down, etc. and, again, I’m wondering if the simplest theory is really that nothing has changed.

    Returning to my sports analogy – you bring in a new coach and players who are highly regarded and you start winning. Does the simplest theory really say that the personnel change was meaningless and the winning steak an illusion? Of course, this theory could be true. But is it the simplest, most plausible theory?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Smoke screening the debate. There is. I formal argument in your reply.

    Cirillo and co settled this debate by debunking the misleading assumptions on the distributions of “violence”.

    Of course you can parse your model with more parameters and take into account things such as “narrative coherence” but to say this replaces Occam’s razor as an instrument to select between models is plain irrational.

    The data is the data.


    1. “The data is the data”

      Would that be the data that, 2 years later, they still refuse to publicly release?


    2. Occam’s Razor is a heuristic not a rule. There is no weight behind it beyond what experts find persuasive about alternative models/explanations

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I am curious, does anyone have an idea of why Taleb has such an emotional reaction to Pinker and his work? Is there a hidden political agenda? A personal dispute between the two? Or is Taleb just mad at the world and he read Pinker’s work when he was looking to beat on someone?


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