A disgusting hit piece on Pinker in Current Affairs

May 31, 2019 • 9:50 am

Several readers sent me this hit piece on Pinker in Current Affairs, written by Nathan J. Robinson, a Ph.D. student at Harvard in sociology and social policy. He also happens to be the editor in chief of the magazine, which explains how this profanity-laced piece got published.

Click on the screenshot below to read it.  One person also sent it to me because I am quoted in it, though the quote is used in a misleading way (more below). I suggest you read it yourself, and compare Robinson’s characterization of Pinker with what you know of Steve’s last two books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now. For if you haven’t read either or both of those books, you won’t be able to judge Robinson’s jeremiad.

The title alone tells you where the piece is going. Regardless of what you think of Pinker, he’s surely not even close to being “the world’s most annoying man”. Has Robinson considered, say, Donald Trump? Or Bill Nye? Or Dr. Oz?

Robinson turns out to be annoyed largely because he doesn’t like Pinker getting all rich and famous peddling ideas that Robinson thinks are misguided. The “rich and famous” stuff rankles him deeply. As for the “misguided” bit: Pinker has been accused of the same stuff before, and has answered many of Robinson’s objections (see here and here for a start).

I’m not going to dissect the article in detail, as it is similar to many other hit pieces on Pinker—except far more vitriolic. I urge readers to give their own judgement in the comments below, but want to make a few points.

1.) Robinson says he agrees with 80% of what Pinker says in those books, but then concentrates on the 20% he doesn’t like, distorting Pinker’s views in the process. For example, he calls some of Pinker’s statements “irrational swipes”, including these. You may not agree with them, but they’re not irrational, and the second and third ones happens to be true (note: Pinker mentions only “some” feminist theories as well as “many on the left”—not all feminists or Leftists in either case):

  • “An axiom of progressive opinion, especially in universities, is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society—which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.”
  • “Some feminist theories have embraced the Blank Slate and with it an authoritarian political philosophy that would give the government sweeping powers to implement their vision of gender-free minds.”
  • “Many on the left encourage identity politicians and social justice warriors who downplay individual rights in favor of equalizing the standing of races, classes, and genders, which they see as being pitted in zero-sum competition.”\

Robinson also distorts Pinker’s views on nuclear weapons, saying that their existence makes hash of Pinker’s views of the increasing peacefulness of the world. The fact is that the world has grown increasingly peaceful despite nuclear weapons, and Pinker adduces data to that end, and also seriously considers the nuclear threat. But Robinson, whose main objection to Pinker’s documentation of progress seems to be that “some people haven’t experienced positive change”, uses this in a digression to indict America for its use of nuclear weapons in World War II, as well as drones at present and the Vietnam policy of Lyndon Johnson. This is irrelevant to the discussion.  Robinson:

Nuclear weapons pose a strong challenge to Pinker’s thesis of declining violence, one he never dealt with adequately. He argues in his books that the “long peace” since World War II was not the result of nuclear weapons, and argues that nukes are essentially “useless in winning wars and in keeping the peace” since no country would dare to use them:

“Incinerating massive numbers of noncombatants would shred the principles of distinction and proportionality that govern the conduct of war and would constitute the worst war crimes in history. That can make even politicians squeamish, so a taboo grew up around the use of nuclear weapons, effectively turning them into bluffs.”

Of course, this means the United States itself has committed the “worst war crimes in history” since it intentionally dropped nuclear weapons on two civilian populations. And while there is certainly a “taboo” on such behavior—Hiroshima horrified much of the world, though Americans tend to think it was fine—U.S. commanders contemplated using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, too. (Good thing Lyndon Johnson got a bit “squeamish,” although not so squeamish as to stop a war that killed two million Vietnamese people.)

2.) Robinson seems mostly concerned with taking down Pinker’s status because he perceives that Pinker has a high status, but a status that is unwarranted. Robinson repeatedly mentions Pinker’s position as a Harvard professor and how, sequestered among the ivy, he cannot know about the travails of the common person, which of course Robinson, as a Harvard graduate student, knows a lot about.

Get a load of this:

But sometimes [Pinker] accidentally lapses and says things like: “Everything is amazing… None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.”

This is, of course, false, insulting, and enraging. Even assuming Pinker’s thesis is accurate, life is clearly not “amazing” for everyone, like the tens of millions of refugees around the world. “None of us”? The spectacle of a Harvard professor, with millions of dollars in book sales and friends among the jet-setting global elite, telling the Rohingya to perk up, and Black Americans to be more grateful for iPhones, is grotesque. Pinker may reply that by “us” he does not mean everyone, just the statistically average people for whom things have gotten better. But this is precisely the point: Casually switching between “things are better at the median than during 1940 or 1410” and “everything is amazing” is appallingly insensitive to the reality of pain and deprivation. “If we have a shred of cosmic gratitude,” Pinker writes, we “ought to be” happier. “An American in 2019,” he writes “will live nine years longer” and “have an additional eight hours a week of leisure,” which they can spend “reading on the Web, listening to music on a smartphone, streaming movies on high-definition TV, … or dining on Thai food instead of spam fritters.” When people who are not among the Americans who can do these things read a passage like that, is it any wonder that they get a little ticked? The Thai food in Cambridge may be excellent, but my friend who teaches elementary school in Detroit still has students coming to school hungry each day. I am sure they’d happily take a spam fritter, though perhaps they just lack a “shred of cosmic gratitude.”

I do not think Pinker told the Rohingya to perk up, nor does he diminish the problems that remain in this world. Pinker’s tactic is to regard them as things to be solve. Read the damn books!. Robinson’s repeated mentioning of Harvard, his denigrating tone, complete with profanity (see below), and the gratuitous mention of “millions of dollars in book sales,” makes me think there is something more to Robinson’s beef than mere facts.

There are two cartoons in the piece that are so far from reality, and so unfair, that I find them offensive. Here they are:

Seriously? This is in Current Affairs?

3.) As I said, I’m mentioned in the piece, though I didn’t catch that when I skimmed it (I didn’t originally intend to defend Pinker against such a stupid piece). Here’s Robinson’s brief mention of me:

The Chronicle suggested that “by proclaiming the gospel of progress,” Pinker “has made a lot of enemies.” (It cited a cartoon printed in Current Affairs as an example of the “hate” Pinker gets.) Pinker’s friend Jerry Coyne thinks people dislike Pinker because he is famous.

Well, yes, I do think that some people dislike Pinker because he is famous, for they’re always mentioning his fame and his books (and often, like P.Z. Myers, their own lack thereof). But if you look at the link to my post, you’ll see that I actually said this:

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).

Note that I gave three reasons, of which Robinson uses just one. This is quote mining and it is intellectual dishonesty. So be it.

4.) Finally, the piece is larded not just with invective, but with profanity, even calling Pinker an “asshole”. This last bit shows you not just the outraged tone, but the not-so-hidden resentment of Pinker’s fame (that may be why Robinson used only the “he is famous” bit from my diagnosis of why people dislike Pinker). Yes, I think Robinson is one of those people afflicted by all three symptoms of my tripartite diagnosis of Pinkerphobia. Here’s Robinson’s splenetic ending. I’ve bolded the most telling parts.

Yeah, okay. This is Science. This is Reason. Give me a break. Look, I’m just peeved because Pinker is treated as a serious and sober-minded public intellectual when he is no better than the rest of us. And I get particularly annoyed at guys who rail against “populism” without showing a bit of empathy for those who have serious grievances, or considering the possibility that the world looks a bit rosier from their personal position than it does once you get out of Harvard Yard. I wouldn’t even mind so much if he didn’t also take gratuitously unpleasant and unfair swipes at the left. We’re not “progressophobes” or fucking morons who don’t recognize that the internet is cool and the Black Death was not.

I find Steven Pinker the most annoying man in the world because he’s certainly one of the most patronizing men in the world, and that contest has a lot of impressive contenders. I even sense that he’d be proud to be called annoying: “Ah, you’re annoyed because you can’t handle the facts due to your cognitive biases. It must be because of envy and narcissism.” He’s even writing a new book trying to explain why people hate him, and of course it’s all going to be because they’re defective reasoners who subscribe to idiotic Blank Slate theories of nature, not because he’s an asshole who doesn’t bother to listen to a word anybody says. I’ve seen this type of guy so many times now. HarrisPetersonShapiro. They all want to explain before they’ve empathized, irrationally diagnose others’ irrationality, insist that their ideology isn’t an ideology while ours is. Is there any way to make it stop? Is there anything you could say to them in response that wouldn’t just further convince them that they’re right? Is there hope for an Enlightenment that doesn’t just consist of the word “Enlightenment” repeated ad infinitum?

No better than the rest of us? Well, I, for one, am quite willing to admit that, when it comes to intellectual ability, perspicacity, diligence, and eloquence, Pinker is better than I. And that’s fine with me. I’m glad that people better than I walk the Earth!

After reading this piece, I really do think that Robinson has some psychological issues that have clouded his analysis. But I’m not a psychologist. My friend, Orli Peter, who is a psychologist, told me this: “Outrage is addictive and Pinker takes away the drug, so [Robinson] has to be outraged at Pinker to get his fix.” Be that as it may, Robinson’s petulant and distorted analysis, filled with rage, does not stand as a substantive critique of Pinker’s last two books. 


120 thoughts on “A disgusting hit piece on Pinker in Current Affairs

  1. As Spock so succinctly put it : “Fascinating.”

    And I’d read it, but I have to remove and clean sixteen ball bearings.

    1. That sounds like the excuse “I’d love to go out with you, but I’ve gotta wash my hair”.😂

  2. “Is there anything you could say to them in response that wouldn’t just further convince them that they’re right?”

    Well, Mr. Robinson (don’t try to seduce me!), how about starting with a coherent system that could replace our current one and bring about the utopia you think democracy, capitalism, Enlightenment, emotional reasoning, etc. are standing in the way of? How about proposing something yourself? Oh, and make sure you keep the planet that is already the least violent and the most plentiful it has ever been for the largest percentage of people around the world

    I hate these kinds of “thinkers.” It’s the far-Left idea of utopia vs. gradual progress, where the utopia magically appears if everybody would just do…something vague and follow their lead. They think we have not only the resources to create a harmonious worldwide utopia (we don’t), but that we could also implement some kind of system in which people would willingly distribute all of those resources (which, I repeat, we don’t actually possess) to create it. They don’t have any real solutions, only problems, and they get very angry when people point out that we’re slowly but surely addressing those problems, especially when what’s creating that progress is systems and people they hate.

  3. The student is jealous because Steven Pinker has achieved a great fame becuase of his outstanding work he will probably never achieve. Especially not after this sad excuse of an article.

  4. Good for Pinker! All PR is good PR, and the more unhinged the opposition, the stronger the appearance of the opponent.

    On the other hand, the world is invariably more peaceful since the wide-scale adoption of nuclear weapons, as there is little point to large-scale wars of conquest if someone just nukes the planet into another ice age. A modern Hitler-wannabe would be completely out of luck. Dr. Edward Teller’s Hydrogen Bomb has done more to promote world peace than all the peace activists in history. . . not that he’ll ever get any credit.

    1. Nukes, of course, carry the risk of rogue agents or terrorists getting their hands on them, but those are by far the biggest risks. Without nukes, we would have had WWIII. the USSR would have eventually gone to war with the US, and all of Europe by proxy, and both Europe and the USSR would have lost tens of millions of people in the fighting before the USSR was finally defeated (they would have the manpower advantage, but their resources and supply lines, weaponry, air force, navy — literally every part of their military but sheer manpower — would have been dwarfed by Great Britain alone. With the help of the US, which would be immune from a land war with the USSR, the USSR would eventually be defeated, but not before that war became the most disastrous war in history. Meanwhile, assuming the Brits still left India, Pakistan and India would probably still be fighting a horribly bloody war today. I could go on, but nukes almost certainly have saved the world from an enormous loss of life, horrifying bloodshed, nigh-incomprehensible destruction of cities and infrastructure, and severe economic challenges in many areas of the world.

      1. I think it’s a fair conjecture that the Korean War only failed to escalate into a global conflict because the backers of North Korea thought that they would be obliterated in a nuclear war.

      2. Your speculation about a world without nuclear weapons is what is called “alternate history.” It is a parlor game that is unprovable. I would not make your pronouncements with your degree of certainty. I guess you would agree that germ weapons are even a greater savior for the world since they could do greater damage than nuclear weapons. Let’s make even more of them because they are the greatest deterrent to war imaginable for now. Of course, people are so rational that even terrorists would not think of using them. No worries there. I think that the next big hope for world peace would be satellite based ray guns that could wipe out a country with a single pulse. How great would that be!

        1. OK, since there were no real responses in that comment and it could basically be summed up as, “I disagree,” just put “very likely” in front of a bunch of sentences in my post.

  5. PZ saw that article too and, needless to say, he enjoyed it. His blog post (which I won’t bother linking to) was entitled “Steven Pinker gets the treatment he deserves”

        1. I’m not new here, I just think he’s such a pointless, unpleasant guy that it’s not worth keeping track of whatever vicious, ugly little sideswipe he’s come out with lately.

          1. No, I don’t. The only time he enters my consciousness is when his name is mentioned on WEIT, which isn’t that often. I think I’ve visited Myers’s blog three times in my entire life.

    1. PZ who?

      Isn’t that the evolutionary biologist who has made it his life’s work to clobber each and every person who does not support his one-way regressive leftism?

      1. “Evolutionary Biologist” is a generous way of describing someone who believes in Lamarckism, Gaia Theory and Striving, thinks Founder Effect and Random Drift are the same thing, that Population Genetics is when rival populations compete, and believes all DNA is junk DNA because Neutral Theory mean no genes have fitness value.

    2. I am not normally one to engage in schadenfreude, but I do when the subject of it is a nasty person who has repeatedly tried to destroy others and has regularly lied and harassed others to do it. Therefore, I find few things more gratifying than the fact that, all these years later, PZ is still jumping on his bed in a fit, screaming at all the other people who continue to surpass him in fame and popularity. He will never stop. He is a bitter, broken man.

  6. It appears that Nathan Robinson also founded “Current Affairs”, as recently as 2015. He wrote a character assassination of Pete Buttigieg in the March issue. Perhaps a more honest name for the magazine would be “Nathan Robinson’s Finest Whines”?

        1. Yes, it’s his vanity publication. Unfortunately it has some cachet among the sort of intelligentsia who think socialism is the cure-all for everything.

    1. The kind of ‘left-winger’ who goes after Buttegieg for not being sufficiently election-losingly-insane deserves a special place in hell…by which I mean they deserve for their pillow never to be cool, no matter how many times they turn it over. They infuriate me almost beyond words.

      Sam Seder, Cenk Uygur, all of you, I hope your neighbours turn their houses in to pig rendering plants.

      1. “they deserve for their pillow never to be cool, no matter how many times they turn it over.”

        That’s got to be the cruelest insult ever.

      2. Lordy do I hope I remember that pillow curse when I need a brilliant come back in the future.

  7. Pinker must be on to something. Attacks like this are not wasted on eccentrics or cranks whose views have no credibility. Only those who are getting close to the truth and attracting well-earned acclaim will draw this kind of fire.

    There is no better cheap way to fame than to defame someone who has it.

    1. The operative word (for me, at least) in your last sentence is “cheap”. Robinson’s cheap effort to link himself to Pinker backfires like a cheap gun. While “walking the stacks”of a library in the mid-nineties, “The Language Instinct” caught my eye. I’ve been a Pinker “fan” ever since. (Robinson ought to try criticizing Pinker’s first two books-Not!). While Pinker’s charts and graphs appear to be painting rosy pictures, he (Pinker) did a great job explaining possible setbacks realistically in his text, which Robinson obviously chose to cherry-pick for his “purposes”.

    2. You’re right. Before this I’d never heard of Robinson. Now he occupies several neurons in my brain right next to the neighbor’s pig rendering plant.

    3. I’ll point out, once again, that those who say the world isn’t doing so badly must be suppressed by those who want to bring about radical change. After all, who needs a revolution if things are going OK?

  8. “Stop taking away my sense of victimhood and moral superiority with your inconveniently watertight counter-evidence, IT’S NOT FAIR. If you keep it up I’ll be forced to whine annoyingly about how annoying you are. You have been warned Pinker.”

  9. Damn, that piece’ll go down in the annals of “hot takes.” You write something like that, you should stick it in a drawer for a week, then show it to someone else, before hitting the publish button.

    1. In order to recognise that you should sleep on it you’d have to have the self-awareness to know how much of a twatsatchel the article makes you look, and I don’t think this writer has that much self-awareness.

      It’s not going to change anyone’s minds anyway. It’s too hysterical and obnoxious for any neutral to come away trusting it. Everything about it signals that it’s written solely for the audience of ‘awful people who already loathe Pinker’.

      1. You’ve come up with some darn good lines in this thread. “Twatsatchel,” “they deserve for their pillow never to be cool, no matter how many times they turn it over.” I’ll have to remember these.

  10. Anyone at all who thinks modern society is amoral, or selfish, or sinful, or insufficiently religious, or insufficiently committed to socialist ideals, or not Randian enough, or too sexually lax, etc. – all these people will bridle at the historical and socioeconomic evidence in Pinker’s arguments. And that’s a lot of people, on both sides of the political aisle.

    They find it impossible to accept the data because they want to believe that society is in – and has for a long time been in – a decline, a decline which requires radical correction.
    So if you show them evidence that the grand correction they spend much of their lives working towards(whether that correction involves turning back the clock to the 50s, or enforcing some kind of socialist state, or whatever) isn’t necessary…they react badly.

    This example is absurd, nasty and hysterical, especially the gibbering lunacy of its cartoon strip, but it fits into that broader pattern of political discomfort with the idea that things are actually, on the whole, pretty good, and getting better.

    1. Anyone at all who thinks modern society is amoral, or selfish, or sinful, or insufficiently religious, or insufficiently committed to socialist ideals, or not Randian enough, or too sexually lax, etc. …

      Oh, hell, in that case they’ve got poor Pinker surrounded. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, as Mr. Rafferty said.

  11. > “They all want to explain before they’ve empathized”

    This idea is really fascinating. What does empathy have to do with explanation? Does everyone have to do a Bill Clinton “I fell your pain” before explaining how the world actually works?

    1. Y’know, all those scientists out there really need to empathize before they think about their evidence. We should change how to present and interpret evidence based on feelings (but only the correct feelings for the correct groups).

  12. The diagnosis by Orli Peters (“Outrage is addictive”) sums up the pop-Left perfectly. I wonder whether a program of Outrage Anonymous would help. There could be frequent meetings, thus filling that part of the addiction, and these could be held in a college conference room at the bottom of a flight of 12 steps.

  13. Nothing like a little scholarly objectivity from a journeyman. See also his article “What is Freedom?”, which seems to argue that we aren’t free if we are put in the position of having to make tough choices.

  14. “Outrage is addictive and Pinker takes away the drug, so [Robinson] has to be outraged at Pinker to get his fix.”
    Interesting possible diagnosis of an aspect of the SJW mentality.

  15. I agree it is an unnecessarily rude hatchet job, though contains exaggerations of a few legit criticisms.

    This is annoying, because those legit criticisms should be talked about and this craziness poisons the well.

    I know that in the US and many places, *book* titles are not subject to most forms of IP protection. Is that true of journal titles? I ask because it seems to me that a title like _Current Affairs_ would have been in use long before 2015.

  16. “Many on the left encourage identity politicians and social justice warriors who downplay individual rights in favor of equalizing the standing of races, classes, and genders, which they see as being pitted in zero-sum competition.”

    I don’t know if that is true, it’s certainly not an important element. So-called “social justice warriors” do not appear to have any theory or idea — it’s a primitive anti-white, anti-male ideology without any sophistication. There’s no evidence that anything more advanced, if it exists, is known to the common internet warrior.

    Further, the typical “SJW” is simply an outraged believer in said primitive sentiment who has found (or was convinced by their tribe) that somebody deserves social media hatred. They become part of what is commonly called “online hate mob”.

    People should stop taking them seriously. They aren’t the Left, they don’t have anything important to say, are not good people who want to do the right thing, and they are certainly not academics or academically knowledgeable people. Critical Identity Theory and suchlike exists, but it has little to with the internet versions peddled by Natalie Wynn (“Contrapoints”), Suey Park, Arthur Chu, Pz Myers or whoever is currently the leading “social justice intellectual”.

    “SJW” are just the social media version of the troll. A frustrated individual who is abusive, whips up or participates in an social media online hate mob.

  17. I’ve read and enjoyed Pinker’s books, but wish he wouldn’t pose for photos like the one at the head of Robinson’s article. It’s almost as if he’s begging to be ridiculed.

  18. This is in the motto of Current Affairs:

    “We have two missions: to produce the world’s first readable political publication and to make life joyful again.”

    Sounds a bit Pinkerish to me. But they don’t seem to be aiming for it.

    The article is another example of “outrage rhetoric,” a genre where the goal is to wind up the rhetorical excesses to 11, thus impressing readers with your rhetorical flair. The content of such pieces is secondary, and usually vapid, as is this one.

    Robinson wants to succeed Pinker as the worlds’s most annoying man. Mission accomplished.

  19. Steven Pinker gets the same sort of moronic crap from those who are obsessively anti-Sam Harris.

    The same Far left morons who think they are “Nazis” and “white supremacists”, while these same Far Left extremists chum with antisemites, Jew-haters, and bigots.

    The likes of ** ********, PZ Myers, Ryan J Bell-End, Dan “The Zionists” Arel, Sam “debate me” Seder, Sacha Saeen, and that loony playwright from NYC (McClernan???) who creates conspiracy theory flowcharts linking Pinker with Far Right nutters.

    The problem is that some of the noise from these goblins catches the ear of clickbait hit-piece smear merchants such as those at The Nation, Salon, Buzzfeed, etc.

    1. Who’s the utter ballbag who sits next to Sam Seder on his YT show and look a bit like a younger Paul Kaye? I never remember his name, but his face is permanently drawn in a smug sneer. Ghastly little man.

      I tried listening to something of theirs recently, because while I disagree with Sam Seder on his priorities I still find some of the videos funny, especially the ones where some absurd alt-righter calls in to tell them all black people have low IQs and they eviscerate him. But I had to switch off when the one whose name I forget referred to Buttegieg as a ‘useless mediocrity’. Apropos of nothing too. They really seem to spend about five times as much energy ripping on electable Democrats as they do on Trump and the Republicans.

      1. Indeed, they seem to have not learned in 2016 that spending the entire election season shouting about what a POS Hilary Clinton was, was probably not the best get-out-the-vote strategy.

  20. People in difficult situations do not care about empathy. They care about improvement, and improvement requires solutions and action.
    I read Pinker’s 2 last books. The overall intention is extremely simple: « statistically things are getting way better, we have to analyse the causes in order to do more of it for the people who still suffer ».

    Faking the failure to understand this simple message requires intense intellectual dishonesty.
    All this is frustrating and counter productive.

    (Excuse the poor English, I’m french)

    1. Your message comes through quite clear. You did an excellent summary of Pinker’s themes with excellent English grammer.👍

  21. I’m disappointed in your analysis, Jerry. Robinson makes some excellent critiques of Pinker in the article, and I encourage everybody to read it fully.

    As somebody who thought “The Blank Slate” should be in contention for the best book of the millennium so far, and as somebody who rarely missed an opportunity to exclaim how much of a fan of Pinker I was, I was mortified to read “Enlightenment Now,” particularly the chapter on the environment.

    It really reads like something out of the Exxon PR department, or a juvenile Slate article.

    Pinker says: “It may be satisfying to demonize the fossil fuel corporations that sell us the energy we want, or to signal our virtue by making conspicuous sacrifices, but these indulgences won’t prevent destructive climate change… The human moral sense is not particularly moral; it encourages dehumanization (‘politicians are pigs’) and punitive aggression (‘make the polluters pay’)”

    To which Robinson replies: “What Pinker calls the ‘demonization’ of fossil fuel companies is the recognition that they engaged in practices they knew to be destructive, misleading the public to maintain profits the same way tobacco companies did. It’s important to treat this as what it is: fraud and theft, because those who are responsible for knowingly causing damage ought to pay for it. ‘Make polluters pay’ is not immoral ‘punitive aggression’ but an application of basic tort law principles.”

    Exactly! Pinker is parroting cliched anti-environment corporate talking points and should be called out on it.

    Sure, the title of Robinson’s piece is hyperbole, but Pinker deserves the criticisms he’s getting for the irrational Panglossian technophilia he exhibits in Enlightenment Now.

    1. Pinkers treatment of environmental trends was weak for sure. But I didn’t read it as corporate apologetics either.
      I read it as a lazy attempt to shoehorn the reality of a degrading environment into the larger thesis of everything’s getting better.
      Pinker is generally right about that, he does make some surprising mistakes too.
      In Enlightenment Now Pinker tries to make Nietzsche the godfather of wrongthink. It’s a simple answer to the wrong question.
      Enlightenment Now makes an important point: we need to focus on problems in order to solve them, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture context.

        1. Nietzsche said a lot of stuff. Some of it both brilliant and courageous, others that haven’t aged well.

          You can quote-mine Nietzsche to extract some nasty-sounding bits, but but casting him as the Dr. Evil behind whatever offends thee is dim.

    2. If the article had been in any way measured, sane, and hadn’t been followed by a lunatic cartoon describing Pinker as the worst human being in the world, etc. I’d have probably been onboard with some of the criticisms:
      I did not find Enlightenment Now anywhere near as riveting or persuasive as The Better Angels.

      I thought it was, in parts, vacuously noncommittal, constantly walking a perfectly straight line down the middle of the political road, repeatedly committed to making political concessions to one side in order that it wouldn’t come off as politically biased. You can’t do that when you’re talking about politics and policies for however many hundreds of pages – you just can’t. The world isn’t neutral – some political ideas and positions really are better than others, some positions make sense and others don’t, and even in those instances where there are arguments for both sides it’s rare that they’re perfectly balanced to cancel one another out. So I found the constant insertion of sops to conservative readers grating after a while; the section on the environment was just one of many really.

      At the same it’s also a more ideologically partisan book. The Better Angels simply presented the reality of the historical data and challenged the reader to come away with a different conclusion. Enlightenment Now had more of a polemical edge.

      I agreed with its overall thesis but when you’re telling people that the world has never been better you have to be very careful how you do it. You have to bear in mind the stew of human suffering that is bubbling away in the background every time you type a word. Think about how your words sound in that context. The Better Angels never lost sight of that context, and was always careful to concede that there was so much left to do, and that human misery was still colossal. EN on the other hand crossed the line slightly into, yes, Panglossian rhetoric.

      I don’t think the criticism from Jerry is unfair though. This article was idiotic, nasty and hysterical. It lost the right to be taken seriously with its title.

      1. Also, do *not* tick off people with concrete expertise in what you are talking about.

        One may remember that I mentioned he ignored both philosophers of computing *and* IT security experts on the AI and stuff things.

  22. It crossed my mind, while reading the article, how easy it was to quote mine Steven Pinker to make him look bad. I’m half-way through Enlightenment Now, and he regularly uses the counterarguments and criticisms others would make, and then shows how they are wrong. So similar to the Darwin quote about the eye evolving, you could pull one of his examples of him stating what others would argue, and out of context it sounds terrible.

  23. Robinson should be thankful that Harvard allowed him to participate in their doctoral program. They normally exclude pseudo intellectuals as a matter of principle.

  24. I realised yesterday evening that I’d missed Pinker’s apperance on “Question time” (UK current affairs talking head show, obviously mostly consumed with the insanities of politics). Fortunately it’s repeated on Sunday afternoon – and the idiot box is now set to record it. Probably worth the effort.

      1. I’dalready set the Idiot Box to record the Sunday re-transmission. Bit of a waste really – Brexit self-destruction left, right and centre, and Prof (?) Pinker tacked onto the end looking slightly bemused as the politicians rear up like an overweight veles trying to catch a retiarius between a wall and a pointed tool.

  25. I would agree that this would indeed count as a lapse…

    “Everything is amazing… None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.”

    …If Pinker had really said that, but he didn’t.

    Robinson has dishonestly cut out two intervening paragraphs.

    (See link to google books, scroll down a bit.)

    Pinker could be fairly criticised for clumsy wording (unusually clumsy by his standards, in fact), but to represent it as taunting refugees is entirely dishonest. He is clearly referring to those in the US whose feeling of happiness lags behind their actual well being.

  26. Yep, someone who presents facts which contradict your favourite ideological tropes is really annoying. Necessary, but annoying.


  27. Even heavy leftist Noam Chomsky said that the possession of nuclear weapons by several countries had reduced the threat of nuclear war. As for Robinson and the DSA manifesto, I can’t decide which is dumber. Robinson’s screed only shows him up as a vengeful dud and in no way detracts from Pinker’s achievements or intelligence (though his chapter on environment in Enlightenment Now is seriously deficient…more opinion that fact and I’ve told him so). Dawkins has received similar dissing, and I conclude that there are just some people who can’t stand the thought that there are people in the world who are smarter and more influential than they are. Robinson and DSA provide some jolly entertainment if you want confirmation of your bias that the left is nothing but a bunch of beard-stroking loonies who really REALLY think their time has come… when it is already past and barely existed at any time.

  28. So Robinson is attempting to gain his own fame and fortune being a mosquito on the arse of an elephant? Well good luck to him. Maybe if he’s lucky, in a hundred years or so, some grad student will stumble across this nonsense and use it as a minor footnote in a book about Pinker and everyone who reads it will say “Robinson who?”.

    1. ” . . . a mosquito on the arse of an elephant.”

      Re: Dawkins’s reference to a dog and its fleas.

  29. It was indeed a disgusting ad hominem attack on Pinker. Expected when Robinson cannot refute Pinker’s facts. Robinson seems to think that describing a case where someone isn’t better off disproves Pinker’s claims about averages and medians. Duh, take a stats class.

    OTOH, I didn’t find it “laced with profanity.” Perhaps I miscounted but I saw only one gratuitous “fucking moron.” Did we read the same piece?

  30. you forgot to mention that robinson is a she. shes upset because pinker’s position is evidence-based but hers isnt.

  31. When you appreciate that people like Steven Pinker, Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris etc believe in the status quo and would consider themselves Centrists, it is little wonder people searching for greater social equity in society are going to find such people cowardly and even heartless. Nathan J Robinson’s article is hardly disgusting. Steven Pinker does come across as serving the Koch brothers and rather lacking in self awareness.

    1. Pinker believes, afaict, that we have done pretty well since the Enlightenment through incremental, meliorist democratic change. I’d agree. It’s such a precarious, multivariate edifice that we’ve constructed here – so many thousands of years of shivering in the cold and bowing and scraping to lunatic leaders before we finally managed to rig up something approaching liberal democracy. Every alternative has been a horrible failure by comparison, and it’s still such a vulnerable system.

      My feeling is that we should be incredibly careful when calling for wholesale change to it – large evolutionary changes are more likely to horribly harm an organism’s ability to survive, and large changes to a societal structure as complicated and organic as liberal democracy are more likely to do it harm than improve it.

      If the changes you’re talking about are reasonable, achievable forward steps towards a more progressive liberal democracy; more socio-economically fair policies and support systems for the vulnerable and less laissez-faire capitalism, then I wouldn’t disagree, and I don’t see much in Pinker’s work that suggests he’d disagree either. Or Sam Harris, although he doesn’t tend to talk about policies very often. I don’t think a reluctance to embrace wholesale change is(necessarily) a marker of cowardice or callousness.

      Jordan Peterson is a whole different kettle of fish in my opinion. He’s a reactionary and a crank.

      1. Pinker should not be placed in the same ocean, let alone kettle, as the execrable Jordan Petersen.

      2. The problem with Pinker is precisely his elision of our society’s continued inequities and horrors (the flip side being his utter disdain for the past). The lives of historical actors cannot and should not be reduced to “shivering in the cold and bowing and scraping to lunatic leaders.” In his panglossian reverence for science and neoliberal altruism, Pinker fails to confront the fact that modernity has wrought just as much evil as pre-modern social structures, if not more. In exchange for pandemics, we now have genocide; instead of kings, we have oligarchies; rather than serfs, we’re (wage) slaves. This isn’t “the best of all possible worlds” – Pinker is, indeed, the most annoying man in the world because he believes that it is, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

        1. Would you argue that the Enlightenment produced the modern ills you cited? Are you proposing there was an exchange of ills?

          1. I don’t think the Enlightenment was a bad thing. As an historian, I understand history to be moving laterally, not really in an upwards or downwards trajectory. But global capitalism continued to develop during the period and gave us slavery and imperialism. The Enlightenment values of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” aren’t really a reality for most people because modern representative democracy is unfortunately mostly a fig leaf. Combined with cheap consumer goods (made in developing countries as part of the legacy of enlightened imperialism), the right to vote obscures, for most people, the fact that corporations (oligarchs) control most “democratic” countries. Liberty, equality, and fraternity are excellent values! But we haven’t actually lived up to them.

          2. I’ll take that as a … as a what?

            Pinker points to scientific values developed in the Enlightenment to explain numerous graphs that anyone can make from the database. That is called quantitative reasoning and it can move in whatever dimensions are set up for the plot. Pinker says we have every reason to make use of those values as we work to solve new problems.

            Do you claim that is wrong because there are new problems? You say the Enlightenment isn’t bad – but that wasn’t the question. Thus I am failing to grasp your point.

          3. You claim that corporations and oligarchs control “most” democracies, so I guess you admit that they don’t control all of them?

            How is it possible that the Nordic Social Democracies have been able to use the dynamic wealth generating capability of capitalism to create prosperity and high quality of life for their people, without becoming the victims of those corporations?

            They say that every nation gets the government it deserves. In the case of representative democracy that argument has a lot of merit.

            So maybe what you’re really saying is that you don’t like what the government represents; but when it’s a representative government, what it represents are the people. So maybe what you actually dislike are the people and the stupid choices they make at the ballot box.

            Churchill said democracy is lousy was to run a government. I guess we need smarter voters.

        2. Your historical trade-offs are faulty: genocide for pandemics? Genocide is as old as life. It’s always been part of human existence. Every human culture currently in existence is here because they’ve been successful genociders in the past.

          Kings for oligarchs? Seriously? The autocrats of old could have a peasant cut down with a word. Oligarchs manipulate markets to bump their profit margin. If you think that’s a bad trade, you’ve led a sheltered life.

          Serfs for wage slaves? Wow. Employment is an agreement of mutual consent, which can be terminated by either side. We may not like the conditions, we’ll almost certainly want higher pay, but there are remedies for both of those issues. Walk. If you think trading serfdom for a paycheck is a bad deal, your bargaining skills are as bad as your grasp of history.

          1. I’ll ignore your ad hominem attacks and get right to it.

            First: saying “genocide is as old as life” is not, in fact, an argument that things are better now than they have ever been. There is more wealth and more technological innovation now than there ever has been, and yet poverty, exploitation, and war continue as they always have. You’ve shot yourself in the foot right off the bat. What good is eliminating preventable diseases if people survive only to work in sweatshops or become victims of drone strikes?

            Second, oligarchy – capitalism – relies on imperialism, spawned everything from the Atlantic slave trade to modern day sweatshops and everything in between (including the commodification of healthcare and social life). The global oligarchy has given us crowdfunding for essential medical procedures and child care. More importantly, the global capitalism that Pinker defends has brought the threat (if not the absolute certainty) of climate catastrophe. Pinker has faith that the same oligarchs who helped cause climate change to fix it. Pardon me if I believe their desire for short term profit margins outweighs their sense of commitment to the global population that they continuously exploit.

            Third: employment is not an agreement of mutual consent as long as individuals cannot survive in a society without selling their labor for wages. Short of leaving society entirely and disappearing into the (dwindling) wilderness, there is no escape from selling one’s labor. Hence the term “wage slavery”. Unions have been undermined for decades – telling an individual to “walk” and hope to gain better working conditions without collective support is so hilariously disingenuous I won’t even bother to engage it further.

            In short, you’ve bought Pinker’s neoliberal fantasy hook, line, and sinker. Pinker likely won’t be highly affected by global capitalism. He’s a professor who exploits the labor of others happily himself. He has enough money and privilege to insulate himself from most political and environmental vagaries. I’d venture to guess you’re in the same position.

            I’m not arguing that we, as a species, haven’t made strides, especially in medicine and technology. Just that those advances have not benefited the population at large. The benefits of modern innovation have accrued to a few. If most people don’t have control of their economic destinies, technological innovations are mostly worthless.

          2. Your last paragraph is completely disingenuous. I doubt that you would want to swap places with a randomly selected person in, say, 1200. So the population at large hasn’t benefited. What about the increase in lifespan.

            One word to you: antibiotics.

            Oh, and you need to learn what an ad hominem attack is. You haven’t been the recipient of one.

          3. “So the population at large hasn’t benefited” – I think you showed your hand there. Again, what’s the point of living longer if people only survive to serve the global oligarchy’s desire for greater profit margins? If our society isn’t fairer than it was, it’s not really “better,” is it? This is Robinson’s point and mine.

          4. I guess you’d trade places with a 13th century person selected randomly then.

            Your point is wrong, and you haven’t proven that society is less fair now than it was hundreds of years ago. Ask ANYONE with an infection today if they want it cured or not.

            You spew a lot of Marxist pap here, but you don’t walk the walk.

          5. You yourself literally said “so the population at large hasn’t benefited.” You’ve already ceded the point. The foundation of modern capitalism is slavery and imperialism which continue in different forms today, despite superficial increases in standards of living for middle class people in the west.

            Given that we, as a society, have the wealth and technology that exists today, “not dying of a preventable disease” is a pretty low bar to clear. And many, many millions DO die of preventable diseases every year.

            Pinker seems to believe, like you, that first world luxuries 1) are equivalent to true freedom 2) a very slight alleviation in global poverty justifies centuries of imperialism which continues to this day and 3) that because things have gotten some degree better in terms of physical standards of living for people in industrial nations, we shouldn’t worry ourselves with the vast, entrenched inequalities that plague our society and the globe.

            I don’t know what you mean by saying I don’t “walk the walk.” You and Pinker evidently believe that this is the best of all possible worlds. I’d worry about what that says about you.

          6. Fare thee well.It has not escaped my notice that you dare not use your real name on your comments or website, betokening cowardice.

            Your last sentence is rude, a Roolz violation.

            Oh, and don’t forget to take your antibiotics. (As a sign of your lame “logic”, you use the present deaths of people from preventable diseases as some kind of argument that the world isn’t getting better. That’s simply idiotic, because a lot FEWER people die of preventable diseases than they used to.) You never responded, by the way, to the question of whether you’d be glad to change places with a random person living in the 14 century. I think we know what the answer is, but you won’t get to give it here.

          7. The germ theory of disease and contact lenses are two things that have helped me live beyond 6 years.

          8. I’d mention the computers we are using in this moment to discuss the topic – or to read more about them, etc. – a privilege indeed.

          9. These comments, and the posting, suggest to me to share this Mark Rober video on a project to diagnose malaria with “frugal science” https://youtu.be/Qf-D1Upn-KU

            I personally think it’s brilliant, clever, creative, and inspiring – yet, as big but clearly identified problems are attacked by good solutions, it reveals more problems to solve.

          10. You say you ignore ad hominems directed at you, then you claim Pinker “exploits the labor of others happily himself” an has enough “money and privilege to insulate himself ….”. I don’t know if that’s ad hominem, but it’s cynical.

          11. An “ad hominum attack” is one that fails to address the facts and/or logic of an argument, but instead attacks the person. Surely you know that? And surely you can tell the difference between saying that your grasp of history is weak and a personal attack.

            Your grasp of history is weak. Pinkers argument is correct: life is far better for the average person today than it was centuries prior; except for places like N. Korea, of course, but that does not support your complaint about greedy capitalists at all.

            One thing I do find puzzling about the argument you’re pushing: you paint yourself as a fighter for social justice, so concerned about the welfare of the working stiff suffering under the yoke of global capitalism, right? I’m guessing you aren’t a Trump voter, but correct me if I’m wrong.

            But getting back to planet earth, the primary effect of global capitalism has been the lifting of hundreds of millions in China out of abject poverty; the kind of poverty we haven’t seen in the West for centuries. The fact that you’re complaining about that indicates you don’t think the life of a poor Chinese is worth as much as a West Virginia coal miner; maybe you are a trumpie after all?

            Check your privilege.

    2. Any progressive who proclaims themselves too pure for the tawdry compromise of politics is a phony. Politics is the art of the possible. Real progressives want to make progress, rather than signalling their shining virtue.

      Pinker is a centrist, establishment progressive. We need as many of those as we can get. Anyone who is too pure and virtuous to make the Pinkers an ally is a trumptard.

  32. Much has been commented and I agree with most of it, but what really riles me is the cartoon. So gross and badly drawn, awkward.
    Naipaul’s remark of a few threads back comes to mind: it is not “fashioned with love or even skill; there is as a result nothing on which the eye rests with pleasure.’

  33. “It must be because of envy and narcissism.”

    The words you put in others’ mouths say more about you than them.

  34. Tbh though the only time I ever hear Pinker brought up is when he’s used precisely to diminish existing problems and rationalize injustices. He seems to be read that way fairly consistently by his supporters.

  35. I wonder who poked Robinson’s hemorrhoids?

    If Robinson is an editor in chief for his own vanity magazine, he should be ashamed by the overall poor editing that further reflects poorly on the whole affair. Besides the profanity of the text, the illustrator does not know the difference between flu and ebola viruses – or makes a joke in poor taste – and also is suggesting that Pinker believes in ‘afterlife’.

  36. I am not super familiar with Pinker, but definitely skeptical of Nathan and his ilk. Anyone who appeals to the wisdom of crowds and not evidence, is a person not worth engaging.

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