As I mentioned in today’s Hili Dialogue, Steve Pinker was born in 1954. When I sent him birthday greetings, I had forgotten that that makes him 64, which accounted for his reply that he’ll “spend the day doing the garden, digging the weeds, and playing with Vera, Chuck, and Dave.” (If you don’t get the reference, go here.)
But all is not beer and skittles for Dr. Pinker, because once again he’s been subject to The Attack of the Woke, with The Woke arguing that we’re not really having the Enlightenment that Pinker described in his last two books. The piece, of course, is at Salon, which has become just another regressive Leftist rag like HuffPo. Click on the screenshot below to read the screed by Erika Schelby, described by Amazon as “an author with much experience in business.”
Despite Pinker’s hyper-documentation of how the world has improved in the last several centuries, and his persuasive argument that this improvement is due largely to reason, secularism, and science, The Woke don’t like him. I’m not quite sure why (see a suggestion below), but they’ve attacked—as this article does—both his claim that the world has improved as well as his analysis of why it’s happened.
Here are Schelby’s points:
a.) The world hasn’t improved that much. (Pinker argues that our increase in morality and well-being is to due more than just science, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) To refute Pinker’s massive documentation of the improvement, Schelby cites only two countering facts: that income inequality is higher than it’s been in decades, and that there’s a red tide in Florida. I quote:
In making his case for why everything is terrific and only getting better, Pinker provides dozens of graphs and statistics paired with short articles to document technological achievements and improvements for society. These exhibits for his case suggest that we are enjoying better health, greater safety, increased longevity, and more stable politics than ever before. This can bring some cheer to people drowning in depressing news from at home and abroad. Income inequality at the highest rate in decades? Not really, if you read Pinker. He can put it in perspective: it’s not that bad. But then you consult the 2018 World Inequality Report penned by Thomas Piketty and his 100 participating researchers, which finds inequality is getting worse (unquestionably in the U.S.) — and will, barring a major shift in course, continue to do so. The celebratory mood could also be soured by any of the latest examples of environmental devastation: for instance Florida’s state of emergency issued for its revolting red tide of toxic algae, and the 267 tons of dead fish, manatees, turtles, dolphins, etc. that washed up on its beaches.
And that’s her case for why Pinker may have been wrong about everything. Well, I don’t have his two fat books before me, so I can’t remark on whether Steve addressed these issues, but this seems irrelevant. If income inequality is higher, what about the average level of well being? That is, greater inequality (and I’ll accept Schelby’s claim here) may nonetheless be accompanied by greater average well being, and I know that Pinker makes a strong case for that based on data about health, wealth, longevity, happiness, and almost any index you can think of.
And what about all those other indices? Schelby ignores them. What kind of an argument is that?
As for the red tide, yes, that’s true, and Pinker does discuss global warming and other environmental threats to human well being. He argues, and you may take issue with it, that science can and most likely will solve those problems. But at least he doesn’t ignore them, though Schelby ignores virtually 99% of the data Pinker adduces for the moral and physical improvement of our species.
b. What improvement there has been of our species and our world can’t be ascribed largely to science. Schelby really doesn’t give evidence for this claim, but simply makes the claim and adds that there are “several versions of the Enlightenment.” She then—for crying out loud—gives a quote about “scientism” from Werner Heisenberg, as if that proves anything:
That scientific and technological advances are not the same as progress in human affairs goes largely unnoticed by Pinker. For him, the present is rosy and the future only better. We are the fortunate children of the Enlightenment, our prosperity bestowed not by a benevolent God, but by the power of reason and its primacy in our society.
. . . At first glance, Pinker’s exultation of Enlightenment values may be seductive. Do we want to live in an unreasonable, anti-scientific world? Yet, it’s difficult to not see it as a bold defense of a status quo that is clearly not working. Its antiseptic version of the Enlightenment is one that admits no crucial anti-imperial and anti-colonial ideas. Scientific inquiry is a method, but it is not suitable as a dogmatic worldview. Theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, Nobel laureate for his work in quantum mechanics, had little patience for the doctrine of “scientism” which only accepts strictly empirical evidence, “The existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite,” Heisenberg wrote. “It will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth.”
In fact, as Pinker shows, whatever is going on with our species IS working, for it’s effected so many positive changes in the world and in society that very few of us, if any, would wish to be a random citizen in, say, the fifteenth century. And, contra Heisenberg, if you don’t accept empirical evidence, what kind of evidence will you accept? (Nobody, by the way, sees science as the sole buttress of a humanistic worldview.)
For it’s the empirical method—the use and testing of data we can observe and collect—that has largely brought about the improvements in the world that Pinker describes. Would Schelby like to be a woman in the fifteenth century, laboring away at home without the benefit of women’s equality, convenient appliances, or modern healthcare? If science didn’t bring about modern medicine, modern agriculture, and their attendant improvements in health and longevity, what did? Certainly not religion! Would Schelby even be alive without antibiotics?
Finally, Schelby makes seem to be her two Big Points:
c. The Enlightenment wasn’t what Pinker says it was. Nope, says Schelby: there were several versions and, moreover, some Enlightenment figures had doings with non-European countries, implying (wrongly) that the Enlightenment wasn’t a largely European phenomenon:
It’s a neat equation that Pinker lays out, but as is often the case, the reality is more complicated. First of all, there are several versions of the Enlightenment, each emerging from a particular political, geographical, and philosophical home complete with its own debates and disagreements. There was a British, French, Scottish, Polish, German, and—at least in the mind of Catherine II—Russian Enlightenment. She corresponded with Voltaire, and welcomed Denis Diderot to stay for five months at her court in St. Petersburg, where she met with him almost daily. In Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, just one of the appropriated areas not given back after 1928 as Pinker claims they all were), dashing young Russian officers attended Kant’s classes and listened, spellbound, to his lectures.
There was also a global component of the Enlightenment. It was possibly an early manifestation of globalization. American and European merchants, explorers, traders, conquerors, missionaries, diplomats and bureaucrats traveled with ideas and carried them to their foreign destinations. So the Enlightenment became known beyond the boundaries of the West. Several western thinkers took a serious interest in the languages and cultures of the East. For example, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German polymath, corresponded for years with Jesuits working in China. He was on a hunt for a non-decimal system of 0 and 1, and researching “I Ching” hexagrams, which were unmistakably binary. He came to regard Chinese culture as sophisticated and advanced.
My response to this is “so what”? Does that mean that the European Enlightenment required fertilization from Russia and China? Citing Catherine II and (for crying out loud) Chinese Jesuits and the “I Ching” are simply anecdotal observations. Of course Europeans interacted with Russians, and occasionally with Chinese, but again I say, “so what”? What point is Schelby making here, other than “Pinker’s history wasn’t complete” (and I can’t remember if it was, but I suspect he did deal with the geographical reach and origins of the Enlightenment)? What is the sweating author trying to say? At any rate, giving two lousy anecdotes does not serve to show that Pinker didn’t understand or correctly describe the Enlightenment. All it shows is that Schelby likes anecdotes and that two minor ones suffice for her as a refutation of Pinker.
But wait! There’s more!
d. The Enlightenment fostered colonialism and imperialism. Here I suspect a conflation: yes, some Enlightenment figures were imperialists and jingoists, and probably racists, too. But that doesn’t show that these obnoxious and maladaptive traits were fostered by the Enlightenment. The two phenomena of imperialism and Enlightenment are historically coincidental, but the causality, if there is any, defies me.
More important, the Enlightenment is surely what helped bring an end to colonialism and imperialism, though this was late in history. After all, countries became free when colonizers became enlightened enough to realize that one country had no obvious right to subjugate and exploit another. And that comes from secular, moral reasoning: the result not of religion, but of humanism.
Indeed, Schelby admits that some Enlightenment figures were anti-colonialist, and squirms mightily to de-emphasize that:
The Enlightenment became an intellectual justification and framework for colonialism and imperialism. So much so that John Stuart Mill opined about British imperial rule in India, “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.”
But wait–there were exceptions! (My emphasis).
During the late 18th century, several thinkers launched a vigorous assault against imperialism, conquest, and appropriation on a global scale. Their arguments took aim at a hypocritical contradiction. Yes, the proponents of imperialism supported the concept of the universal “natural man,” who is seen as a generic example of all humans and entitled to his due rights, but they gave little thought to these rights when exercising their paternalistic and brutal political and economic domination. In the U.S., this mission of bringing light to the gloom was later parodied by Mark Twain in his 1901 essay, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.”
In contrast, the anti-imperialists, including Diderot, Kant, and Herder, championed the equal dignity of all humans on earth, their original right to freedom, and to a life as beings—not as something generic to be shaped at will by colonial masters. Constructs of superiority and inferiority were resolutely rejected. These major contributors to the Enlightenment condemned imperial ambitions as unjust, dangerous, and impractical.
But the views of these anti-imperialists were apparently rejected. Schelby implies, but doesn’t say, that this is somehow the fault of the Enlightenment itself:
Much of this original anti-imperialist material began to disappear shortly after it was written. By the mid-19th century, when the zeitgeist had turned zealously imperial, it was semi-invisible and eventually was pushed into the shadows altogether. But in recent decades it has been rediscovered. As Sankar Muthu writes in his superb book “Enlightenment Against Empire,” “A study of Enlightenment anti-imperialism offers a richer and more accurate portrait of eighteenth-century political thought and illuminates the underappreciated … interconnections between human unity and human diversity”.
Schelby waffles on about Johann Gottfried Herder, an obscure anti-imperialist of the eighteenth century, and how he’s been rediscovered, but all this just goes to show that the Enlightenment wasn’t as closely connected with colonialism and imperialism as Schelby claims. So history has shown her wrong.
In the end, it’s not at all clear what point there is to Schelby’s Birthday Critique. To me it looks like one more jealous intellectual trying unsuccessfully to poke holes in Pinker’s arguments.
Finally, I present this article from for your delectation, and give a couple of excerpts. It’s about why intellectuals are so driven to smear Pinker and denigrate his message of progress, humanism, science, and secularism. The author’s analysis leads him to conclude that Pinker attracts critics because he presents ideologically inconvenient facts.
Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker believes that men and women often have different interests and priorities, that violent crime rates vary among ethnic groups, and that the majority of suicide-terror acts worldwide are committed by Muslim extremists. While there’s ample evidence to support all of these claims, Pinker takes serious flak from the Regressive Left for stating them, as it offends their sensibilities. The punishment is being called a racist, sexist, Islamophobe, etc., a bullying tactic used as a silencing mechanism.
There have long been insinuations that Pinker, who’s Jewish and a liberal of the classical variety, is an alt-right sympathizer. Now that an edited video of a panel discussion he participated in at Harvard has gone viral, in which he refers to the “often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right,” the usual suspects are coming at him. Pinker’s sparked just the latest social media outrage, based on only shards of evidence, we’re now accustomed to seeing from progressives. P.Z. Myers, New Atheist blogger and biology professor at University of Minnesota, posted a screed on his blog entitled, “If you ever doubted that Steven Pinker’s sympathies lie with the alt-right.” This would be unlikely, as the alt-right is fond of Holocaust jokes and Adolf Hitler. Plus, Pinker’s a big donor to the Democratic Party. Myers once scurrilously accused the late Christopher Hitchens of advocating the “wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world.”
And Beck’s conclusion?
If you present people like [CNN contributor] Sally Kohn the U.S. Department of Justice stats that show that blacks commit nearly eight times more homicides than whites, they call you a racist, which is what happens to Steven Pinker, even though he offers a non-racist, academic explanation for the numbers. It’s a societal problem, not a racial one. Much of the criticism aimed at the professor is done in bad faith by highly-politicized individuals, while some is the result of ignorance born of zealotry.
. . . Pinker’s trying to point out the downside to suppressing or distorting facts in the way Sally Kohn and many others on the Left do. It increases the chances that people, when exposed to certain data for the first time, are going to reach incorrect conclusions about various groups because they haven’t been allowed to hear well-reasoned interpretations of the facts. The result is an intellectual black market in which opinions get skewed towards extremism. The mistake the Left makes in basing its claim of moral parity for everyone on the contention that all groups are equal in every way is that such a premise is subject to invalidation by hard evidence.
A good portion of the liberal/progressive movement is actively working towards creating an atmosphere where public intellectuals, and just regular people, shy away from addressing uncomfortable issues. Social media, where negativity thrives, aids them in helping to create the impression that people who oppose the alt-right, like Pinker, are actually alt-right apologists. Lies travel much faster than the truth on the Internet. The Left has been successful at creating an environment where self-censorship is commonplace. People are now afraid to speak their minds out of fear that the mob will come after them. Self-censorship is even more insidious than the government-mandated variety because it’s not tangible, making it harder to fight. Smearing people like Steven Pinker will, as so often happens on the Left, produce exactly the opposite of what’s intended.
The bold part is, to my mind, absolutely correct, and explains why the mild-mannered and kindly Pinker is so often the victim of vicious attacks. The attacks, as we see, aren’t based so much on his facts or analyses as on his ideology.
Happy birthday anyway, Steve!