The Chronicle of Higher Education has a new and longish article by Tom Bartlett about the character, achievements, and demonization of Steve Pinker. Click on the screenshot below to read it.
Let me give my own take on Pinker first. It’s no secret that I consider him a friend and admire him hugely. Among all those in the atheist-sphere with whom I’ve interacted, he’s the most empathic, the most intellectually productive, and the most thoughtful. Dawkins is a marginally better writer, but not by much. I’ve never seen Steve commit a shoddy act nor engage in ad hominem arguments. I’ve read nearly all his books (save the linguistic ones except The Language Instinct), and can’t find much to quibble with.
But people still dislike him—even hate him. This is puzzling to me as he’s a nice guy and can’t be accused of Misogyny and Nazism Through Tweeting. As best I can understand, people don’t like him because he’s famous and they’re not, because he attacks a “blank slate” view of human nature (a view to which much of the Left is ideologically wedded), and because he has documented continuing material and moral progress in humanity (which “riskologists” don’t like because they make their lives crying that the sky is going to fall). I’m not a sociologist, and accept his figures as given, but even his critics can’t find much to quibble with about the data he shows. Rather, they make false claims about his “rosy” view that society will always be improving without effort, and about his ignoring existential threats like atomic wars. If you read his books, though, especially the last two big ones, you’ll see he does take these issues into account.
People like John Gray and others go after him, but I fault them for ignoring the palpable fact (which Pinker documents with endless data) that society is indeed getting better, and has gotten better on average over the last four or five centuries. I doubt John Gray and Pinker’s other critics would want to live in 16th century France, for instance, unless they were royalty or a nobleman. For one thing, they’d be sick a lot of the time, and their life spans would be shorter. Their teeth would hurt and rot. Their food and general well being, not to mention their education, would also be much worse. Which would you choose: to be a European peasant in 1600 or an American, French, or British farmer today? I think the choice is clear.
A few excerpts. The article begins by raising the same issue that has puzzled me:
It’s not like he was uncontroversial before. His 2002 bestseller, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking), ruffled egalitarian sensibilities by arguing that our tabulae are far from rasa. He’s also dipped into contentious debates about gender differences, infanticide, and IQ. But the pushback against his more recent work, beginning with The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), feels harsher, more personal, at times tinged with real anger. Which is surprising, in part because his message — that, hey, despite some significant challenges we’re making progress as a species — seems benign enough. Pinker doesn’t come off like a bomb-thrower; friends and colleagues describe him as generous, curious, eager to share credit. He carries himself with none of the swagger of an academic rock star, though he’s on a short list of those who could reasonably claim that title.
So how did such a nice guy become such a big target?
Before summarizing the criticisms of the Two Big Books, the Chronicle recounts Pinker’s career and his arduous (and, for me, unattainable) work habits:
When he’s at work on a book, Pinker writes obsessively, to the exclusion of almost everything else. “I tend to write morning, noon, and night until I’m finished,” he says. “There’s a low level state of anxiety that keeps me going until the project is done.” Gary Marcus, once Pinker’s student and now a professor of psychology at New York University, remembers working on a paper with him years ago. “He would write for 12 straight hours,” says Marcus, who struggled to keep up. “He could just go and go.”
Yes, that’s what I’ve learned: Pinker told me that when he’s writing, it’s full time except for meals and exercise. And he just keeps doing it. I admire that but I could never emulate it, nor, given my constitution, would I want to. But of course he’s famous and I’m not: that’s the trade-off, even if I did have the brainpower to do what he’s done.
Some of the criticisms:
Pinker isn’t shy about taking on his more substantive critics. Among the most persistent is the philosopher John Gray, whose firmly pessimistic outlook feels like the precise reverse of Pinker’s approach. Gray has called Enlightenment Now“embarrassing” and a “parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest.” Gray told me he considers Pinker a “not terribly interesting thinker.” The feeling appears to be mutual. Pinker shrugs off Gray’s critiques as “the kind of argument only an extremely articulate sophist would make.”
Another longtime nemesis is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the best-selling author, statistician, and former Wall Street trader who made his fortune betting against optimism. Taleb accuses Pinker of “unstatistical reasoning” and of disregarding so-called fat-tailed variables — that is, when Pinker contends that we’re living in an extended period of relative peace, Taleb laughs and points out that a nuclear war or other cataclysm could wipe out those gains, just like the subprime mortgage crisis upended the stock market. Pinker responded at length to Taleb in an essay titled “Fooled by Belligerence,” a play on the title of Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness, writing that Taleb has not read his work carefully and that “accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people’s ideas are not his strong suits.” When asked if he’d ever debate Taleb, Pinker shrugs. “He’s more of a bully than an intellectual,” he says. It’s possible that Taleb, who likes to compare himself physically to a bodyguard, would take that as a compliment.
But Taleb’s not the only one who makes this case. Even some scholars who know Pinker and respect his work, like Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, are concerned that his undeniably eloquent tone has turned dangerously reassuring: “I have this really awful feeling that one day we’ll all be sitting in a bombed-out bunker saying, ‘Hey, remember Steven Pinker’s book?”
Well, these criticisms are lame. “Not a terribly interesting thinker”? Maybe not to the arrogant and condescending Gray, but a lot of us enjoy Pinker’s books. He writes a lot better than the leaden and mind-numbing Gray, whose picture appears beside the word “hauteur” in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Steve did more than just summarize data, you know: he analyzed the reasons for the world’s moral and material improvement. Gray and others may disagree about those reasons, but let them provide alternative explanations for the same indisputable trends. Taleb and Ferguson’s arguments that Pinker neglects nuclear war are misguided: he takes the threat as real and says we have to work on it. Nowhere does he say that we’re on a fast track to Everything Will be Better; his lesson is that things have gotten better, they’ve gotten better because of the assiduous adoption and employment of Enlightenment values, and we have to uphold those values to keep the world from getting worse. Pinker keeps saying that, and people keep ignoring him.
The one criticism that Bartlett sees as valid doesn’t look so valid after all (my emphasis):
But Pinker complains that it’s often his critics who garble his arguments, and then set about torching straw men of their own creation. For instance, a review in The Nation by David Bell, a Princeton historian, quotes Pinker as asserting that “there really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” as if the committed atheist had expressed faith in unseen forces. In fact, in the quoted passage, Pinker is saying the opposite: that social and political advancement only make it seem as if such an arc exists. Bell stands by the quote, telling me that Pinker disregards the reality that societal improvements “take conscious political action” and that in the book Pinker evinces “contempt for intellectuals and what intellectuals do.”
There’s something to that last charge. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker writes that intellectuals hate “the idea of progress” while happily enjoying its multitudinous comforts (“they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia”). He also mocks academics for embracing Marxism, dismissing science, and for being more interested in crafting critiques than searching for solutions. “It’s easy to take an oppositional stance if you’re not responsible for getting clean water to run through the pipes, sewage to be taken away, electricity to be provided, and police to ensure safety,” Pinker says.
I’ve read both of Pinker’s latest big books (Better Angels and Enlightenment Now), and in fact they are the works of an intellectual, providing copious statistical data as well as rational analysis of the data and reasons for societal trends. The “contempt” that Pinker evinces is not for “intellectuals and what intellectuals do”, but for that subset of intellectuals who are protective of their intellectual turf, who cannot bear to see naked data refuting their hypotheses, and who raise the hue and cry of “scientism” when facts are adduced alongside arguments.
He’s also been accused of being an alt-righter, and that’s the most mendacious accusation of all. Pinker is on the Left, though more toward the center than are, say, the Justice Democrats. He donated a sizable sum to the Democratic Party during the last election cycle, and I know from conversations with him that he’s not the neo-Nazi you’d guess from reading, say, Ph*ryng*l*.
Read the piece for yourself if you wish. I have been accused of being Pinker’s Bulldog or an uncritical fanboy, but I reject those charges. I’ve been critical of plenty of my atheist colleagues when I think they say something wrong or act badly. Some of them, like Michael Shermer, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, I remain friends with although I take issue with some of their ideas; others, like Lawrence Krauss, I’ve broken off with completely. I just haven’t found anything to dislike about or disagree with vis-à-vis Pinker.
I’ll finish with something that we Pinkerphiles always wonder about: what his next book will be. For there will always be a next book until they lay the man in the ground. And here’s the answer:
The book he’s working on now, tentatively titled “Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo,” will attempt to unpack the psychology behind such outsized responses. “One of the reasons that you get shaming mobs, and conspicuous outrage, especially on social media, is when there is some common knowledge that’s an affront to an understanding that is shared in some faction,” he says. When that understanding is under threat, Pinker says, members of that faction “feel obliged to challenge it because their own identity is at stake.”
As Bartlett notes, this sounds a bit like Steve is trying to make intellectual sense of the new opposition he’s encountered, which is a bit defensive. But I don’t mind it, for I’m sure his take on social media, scientism, and the like will be both interesting and readable.