Pinker on the science “wars”, identity politics, and his new book

February 16, 2018 • 1:30 pm

Steve is doing a full-court press publicizing his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, which has now risen to #10 on Amazon.  And this publicity is exactly what I’d be doing if I had his renown and intellectual chops. At any rate, I’ll call your attention to three news items that are based on the book, including two excerpts or rewrites.

The first is from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below.  It’s fairly similar to Steve’s 2013 piece in The New Republic, “Science is not your enemy“, in that it calls for an infusion of science into some areas of the humanities while still extolling those areas of the humanities, like literary interpretation, that have little to do with science.  That piece drew an intemperate response from literary editor Leon Wieseltier in the same magazine, “Crimes against humanities” (Subtitle: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen.”)

Nevertheless, check out the comments after the Chronicle piece to see the humanities scholars fighting for their turf. There’s no need to, really. Their endeavors are a vital part of a liberal education, and I, for one, would have had a much poorer life were it not for my English, fine arts, philosophy, and ancient history courses in college. By suggesting that some areas of the humanities could benefit from a more quantitative and empirical (i.e., scientific) approach, Steve has been criticized as “scientistic”, and I expected this misguided kvetching will get even louder when people read the book.

This week Pinker also gave an interview on NPR’s program 1A (I’ve listened only to the first bit).  It’s still up, and you can hear the 35-minute show, in which Pinker discusses his new book, by clicking on the screenshot below. From the part I’ve heard, he shows his usual eloquence, speaking in full paragraphs that, if written out, would also be excellent prose.

Finally, there’s this, which I quite like. I’ve thought a lot about identity politics but never as clearly or succinctly as Pinker. This is from The Weekly Standard, a venue I never go to.

This is clearly connected with the new book, and is an interview with Adam Rubenstein. I’ll give just one or two excerpts (I especially like the last paragraph of this first excerpt):

Steven Pinker: Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status. Its signature is the tic of preceding a statement with “As a,” as if that bore on the cogency of what was to follow. Identity politics originated with the fact that members of certain groups really were disadvantaged by their group membership, which forged them into a coalition with common interests: Jews really did have a reason to form the Anti-Defamation League.

But when it spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values, including, ironically, the pursuit of justice for oppressed groups. For one thing, reason depends on there being an objective reality and universal standards of logic. As Chekhov said, there is no national multiplication table, and there is no racial or LGBT one either.

This isn’t just a matter of keeping our science and politics in touch with reality; it gives force to the very movements for moral improvement that originally inspired identity politics. The slave trade and the Holocaust are not group-bonding myths; they objectively happened, and their evil is something that all people, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, must acknowledge and work to prevent in the future.

Even the aspect of identity politics with a grain of justification—that a man cannot truly experience what it is like to be a woman, or a white person an African American—can subvert the cause of equality and harmony if it is taken too far, because it undermines one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment: that people are equipped with a capacity for sympathetic imagination, which allows them to appreciate the suffering of sentient beings unlike them. In this regard nothing could be more asinine than outrage against “cultural appropriation”—as if it’s a bad thing, rather than a good thing, for a white writer to try to convey the experiences of a black person, or vice versa.

My one beef with this is that there still is very real oppression of non-binary people, women, and gays in the U.S. and other parts of the world—that is not a “multiplication table” or a myth. It is an objective reality, even if, at least in America, such oppression is not “institutionalized” in law.  But I agree with him that cries of “cultural appropriation” are almost always risible, and will hinder rather than improve the world.

Oh hell, one more—a defense of free speech:

AR: There is, as you recognize a “liberal tilt” in academia. And you write about it: “Non-leftist speakers are frequently disinvited after protests or drowned out by jeering mobs,” and “anyone who disagrees with the assumption that racism is the cause of all problems is called a racist.” How high are the stakes in universities? Should we worry?

SP: Yes, for three reasons. One is that scholars can’t hope to understand the world (particularly the social world) if some hypotheses are given a free pass and others are unmentionable. As John Stuart Mill noted, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” In The Blank Slate I argued that leftist politics had distorted the study of human nature, including sex, violence, gender, childrearing, personality, and intelligence. The second is that people who suddenly discover forbidden facts outside the crucible of reasoned debate (which is what universities should be) can take them to dangerous conclusions, such as that differences between the sexes imply that we should discriminate against women (this kind of fallacy has fueled the alt-right movement). The third problem is that illiberal antics of the hard left are discrediting the rest of academia, including the large swaths of moderates and open-minded scholars who keep their politics out of their research. (Despite the highly publicized follies of academia, it’s still a more disinterested forum than alternatives like the Twittersphere, Congress, or ideologically branded think tanks.) In particular, many right-wingers tell each other that the near-consensus among scientists on human-caused climate change is a conspiracy among politically correct academics who are committed to a government takeover of the economy. This is sheer nonsense, but it can gain traction when the noisiest voices in the academy are the repressive fanatics.

This, using words like “repressive fantatics” (I agree!) is about as explicit as he gets about the foibles of the Left. And you can be sure that the usual suspects will be going after Steve, calling him an “alt-righter”, a misogynist, or even a racist for sentiments like these.

The last question posed to Pinker is this: “What should the president be reading? And why?” I’ll let you read the answer for yourself (hint: it doesn’t involve Pinker’s books).

I’ll be starting Enlightenment Now this weekend. It’s a big ‘un, and will take a while, but stay tuned for my take.

h/t: Michael, Thomas

34 thoughts on “Pinker on the science “wars”, identity politics, and his new book

        1. Authors or publications share out open links occasionally, and I suspect this is from one. I saw it earlier shared to my social media feed, where it worked. 🙂

  1. Mostly, the academics who really need it won’t read it, because they already know that Pinker’s an alt-right sympathizer who thinks about questions instead of accepting the right answers (they don’t put it that way).

    You’d think that by now the freedom to question wouldn’t be in question in much of academia.

    Glen Davidson

  2. The subtitle of Leon Wieseltier’s “Crime Againts Humanities” reads “Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen.” This is laughable; it’s already happened, a done deal. Just to cite one example, there is a scientific style of writing whose sole rhetoric is to perpetuate the myth of objectivity—passive voice, elimination of an author, etc. I sometimes refer to it as “physics envy”: its goal is to create the illusion that every branch of science, even those social sciences whose subject matter is by definition qualitative, sound as though it had the precision and rigor of physics. And it has totally invaded the humanities as well. Read any humanities dissertation or even any scholarly literary commentary and you’d swear you were reading a physics thesis. I’m generally sympathetic with most of what Wieseltier has to say, but he’s beating a dead horse.

  3. I don’t think there would be any more value in recommending a book to the President than there would be in recommending one to my dog, who has a longer attention span.

    As for the case for more Science in the Humantities, “as a” product of the Common Core, and a graduate of the Division of the Humanities, it is risible to claim that there is any need to shelter the later from the former. Do we really want Humanities students who don’t understand that Plato’s Forms don’t exist, or that Aristotlean physics are wrong?

    1. It didn’t specify “book,” it just asked what he should read.

      My answer to the last question would be: the president’s DAILY INTELLIGENCE BRIEFINGS, to start with. [Shakes head]

  4. I think you misinterpret. “No national multiplication table” means objective truths, like multiplication, are not different across nations, or across genders or ethnic groups. Pinker is not denying any oppression. I see nothing to beef about.

    1. Yeah, Pinker is just saying that multiplication tables are the same even if you belong to another nation (as Chekov says) or (as Pinker simply extends the logic) whether you are black or gay. He’s not saying there’s no racism or homophobia.

  5. Wait, those first four paragraphs of Pinker’s you quote are from a transcript of something he said? Because they sound more articulate than what almost anyone else could’ve written, even with all the editorial help one could ask for.

    That’s the kind of synopsis of an issue where you think, Jeez, that’s exactly what I was thinking — except I was thinking it in a desultory, haphazard, inchoate form, not in a clean, clear,
    concise précis like that.

    1. Wait, those first four paragraphs of Pinker’s you quote are from a transcript of something he said?

      I don’t think so. Rubenstein writes this:

      I chatted over email with Professor Pinker and asked him some questions on his new book and contemporary politics.

      As best I can see, it was an email interview. Pinker does speak well, but perhaps not that well.

      Glen Davidson

      1. Thank goodness. Maybe now, while reading the transcript of a closing argument where I thought I nailed it, I won’t cringe as deeply seeing the dangling participles, and the misplaced modifiers, and the verbs that don’t agree with the subjects set down several dependent clauses earlier.

    1. Especially the hair. Einstein wasn’t smart, but everyone thought he was because of the hair. That hair can convince people of anything.

      1. Einstein was very smart – I know this because he gave up on socks:

        “…when I was young, I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So I stopped wearing socks”

        Small minds are concerned with clearing away life’s dust bunnies while large minds embrace them as the landscape!

        1. But I wear socks because I have sweaty feet. The smartest man will be the one who invents a very thin, yet durable sock.

          1. Check the photos, Al was a fan of the sandal, so he didn’t need to come up with a general theory of sweatiness.

  6. In particular, many right-wingers tell each other that the near-consensus among scientists on human-caused climate change is a conspiracy among politically correct academics who are committed to a government takeover of the economy. This is sheer nonsense, but it can gain traction when the noisiest voices in the academy are the repressive fanatics.

    This seems weak, at best, out of an interview that is generally better. I’m not saying that the repressive fanatics are new, but they’ve only become very well known and potentially quite repressive well after a lot of anti-AGW right-wingers had already set their minds against AGW science. There appear to be quite a number of reasons for anti-AGW denialism, with a lot of wishful thinking, ties to fossil fuel producers, and a lot of propaganda out there obscuring the issues. Anyway, one might suggest that some of the regressive nonsense may be in response to right-wing nonsense.

    I’m not saying that repressive fanatics on the left haven’t provided cover for global warming denialism, but the way he put it in that paragraph tends to excuse a lot of bad faith on the right by the excesses of the repressive left. Neither side should be excused by the nonsense of the other side.

    Glen Davidson

  7. IMO, cultural appropriation becomes a problem IF in a highly commercialized consumerist society, folks at the top of the finance ladder are appropriating the culture of those at the bottom (in an stupid way).

    Other than that, genuinely mutualistic and symbiotic, as opposed to parasitic, cultural appropriation is fine.

    Even some allegedly risible examples of cultural appropriation are IMO better than they have been given credit for.

    1. I’m not sure even that should be verboten. For sure, we want to prevent intellectual property theft. But generalized and common cultural aspects don’t have a specific owner and aren’t really ‘property’ in the sense that using them legally or economically harms someone else.

      So, for example, yes we need to stop Sven the Swedish cook from stealing my secret chimichanga recipe and using it to launch his successful restaurant. But IMO we shouldn’t stop Sven from launching a successful chimichanga restaurant where he uses publicly available recipes or simply makes up his own recipe. I may own my secret recipe, but no culture owns the concept of putting meat, cheese, and sauce in a tortilla.

  8. The full Chekov quote is

    “There is no national science, just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science.”

  9. I’d suggest some Karen Straughan for ya. While she doesn’t explore it in depth, she does bring up the fact that men, often (in third world countries) don’t have it whole lot better.

    1. Vague. Has Karen ‘Honey Badger’ Straughan written a book then? Or are you referring to her YouTube? Or something else? Links?

      Men don’t have it a whole lot better than who? You don’t say…

  10. Great article, Pinker is so articulate and concise, eg. “…. a demonization campaign that impugns science (together with the rest of the Enlightenment) for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide.” Could that possibly have been expressed any better?

  11. Pinker: “In this regard nothing could be more asinine than outrage against “cultural appropriation”—as if it’s a bad thing, rather than a good thing, for a white writer to try to convey the experiences of a black person, or vice versa.”

    A couple of days ago an African-American gentleman on NPR, waxing enthusiastic about the imminent premier of the movie “Black Panther,” said that when he was little, he wanted to wear a Spiderman costume, but couldn’t because the character who wore it was white.

    That’s all that was said about that particular aspect. I wanted to know whether he couldn’t wear it because he feared that he would be accused of “cultural appropriation.”

  12. Feveryone’sI: This is an excerpt from the book, as far as I can tell effectively verbatim.

    I agree that picking the “feminist glaciology” example was a bad move, though – sticking to Kuhn’s disaster would have been more effective rhetorically, IMO. At least there we got better history (even if from philosophers like Kitcher) and a theory of reference (Bunge’s) with some merit.

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