The Woke are after Pinker again, and if he’s called a racist and misogynist, as he is in this latest attempt to demonize him, then nobody is safe. After all, Pinker is a liberal Democrat who’s donated a lot of dosh to the Democratic Party, and relentlessly preaches a message of moral, material, and “well-being” progress that’s been attained through reason and adherence to Enlightenment values. But that sermon alone is enough to render him an Unperson, for the Woke prize narrative and “lived experience” over data, denigrate reason, and absolutely despise the Enlightenment.
The link to the document in question, “Open Letter to the Linguistic Society of America,” was tweeted yesterday by Pinker’s fellow linguist John McWhorter, who clearly dislikes the letter. And, indeed, the letter is worthy of Stalinism in its distortion of the facts in trying to damage the career of an opponent. At least they don’t call for Pinker to be shot in the cellars of the Lubyanka!
After I read the letter and decided to respond to it, I contacted Steve, asking him questions, and he gave me permission to quote some of his answers, which were sent in an email. (Steve, by the way, has never asked me to defend him; I do so in this case because of the mendacity of the letter.)
An organization dedicated to linguistic analysis must punish a leading, brilliant scholar @sapinker because in the wake of George Floyd's murder, his politics aren't sufficiently leftist? Folks, it's time to stand this gospel down. https://t.co/OrkHiLrMJ5
— John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) July 4, 2020
The letter, on Google Documents, is accumulating signatories—up to 432 the last time I looked. You can access it in McWhorter’s tweet above, or by clicking on the letter’s first paragraph below:
Many of the signatories are grad students and undergrads, members of the Linguistics Society of America (LSA), which may explain why the vast amount of criticism leveled at Pinker comes from his social media, all tweets from Twitter. The letter shows no familiarity with Pinker’s work, and takes statements out of context in a way that, with the merest checking, are seen to be represented duplicitously. In the end, the authors confect a mess of links that, the signatories say, indict Pinker of racism, misogyny, and blindness to questions of social justice. As the authors say:
Though no doubt related, we set aside questions of Dr. Pinker’s tendency to move in the proximity of what The Guardian called a revival of “scientific racism”, his public support for David Brooks (who has been argued to be a proponent of “gender essentialism”), his expert testimonial in favor of Jeffrey Epstein (which Dr. Pinker now regrets), or his dubious past stances on rape and feminism. Nor are we concerned with Dr. Pinker’s academic contributions as a linguist, psychologist and cognitive scientist. Instead, we aim to show here Dr. Pinker as a public figure has a pattern of drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence, in particular in the immediate aftermath of violent acts and/or protests against the systems that created them.
In truth, Pinker as a public figure is hard to distinguish from Pinker the academic, for in both academia and in public he conveys the same message, one of progress (albeit with setbacks) and material and moral improvement, always using data to support this upward-bending arc of morality. And in both spheres he emphasizes the importance of secularism and reason as the best—indeed, the only—way to attain this progress. After indicting Pinker based on five tweets and a single word in one of his books, the signatories call for him to be stripped of his honors as a distinguished LSA Fellow and as one of the LSA’s media experts.
So what is the evidence that Pinker is a miscreant and a racist? I’ll go through the six accusations and try not to be tedious.
The first is about blacks being shot disproportionately to their numbers in the population, which, as I’ve written about recently, happens to be true. Emphases in the numbered bits is mine:
1.) In 2015, Dr. Pinker tweeted “Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately”, linking to a New York Times article by Sendhil Mullainathan.
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) October 17, 2015
Let the record show that Dr. Pinker draws this conclusion from an article that contains the following quote: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.” (original emphasis) We believe this shows that Dr. Pinker is willing to make dishonest claims in order to obfuscate the role of systemic racism in police violence.
Actually, Pinker’s tweet was an accurate summary of the article. Have a look at the quote in its entirety, reading on after the first extracted sentence.
The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin. And police bias may be responsible. But this data does not prove that biased police officers are more likely to shoot blacks in any given encounter.
Instead, there is another possibility: It is simply that — for reasons that may well include police bias — African-Americans have a very large number of encounters with police officers. Every police encounter contains a risk: The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat. The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all these risks.
Such risks exist for people of any race — after all, many people killed by police officers were not black. But having more encounters with police officers, even with officers entirely free of racial bias, can create a greater risk of a fatal shooting.
Arrest data lets us measure this possibility. For the entire country, 28.9 percent of arrestees were African-American. This number is not very different from the 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims who were African-Americans. If police discrimination were a big factor in the actual killings, we would have expected a larger gap between the arrest rate and the police-killing rate.
This in turn suggests that removing police racial bias will have little effect on the killing rate. Suppose each arrest creates an equal risk of shooting for both African-Americans and whites. In that case, with the current arrest rate, 28.9 percent of all those killed by police officers would still be African-American. This is only slightly smaller than the 31.8 percent of killings we actually see, and it is much greater than the 13.2 percent level of African-Americans in the overall population.
The signatories, not Pinker, stand guilty of dishonest quote-mining. I would argue that the cherry-picking here is intellectually dishonest—and deliberate.
2.) In 2017, when nearly 1000 people died at the hands of the police, the issue of anti-black police violence in particular was again widely discussed in the media. Dr. Pinker moved to dismiss the genuine concerns about the disproportionate killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement by employing an “all lives matter” trope (we refer to Degen, Leigh, Waldon & Mengesha 2020 for a linguistic explanation of the trope’s harmful effects) that is eerily reminiscent of a “both-sides” rhetoric, all while explicitly claiming that a focus on race is a distraction. Once again, this clearly demonstrates Dr. Pinker’s willingness to dismiss and downplay racist violence, regardless of any evidence.
Police kill too many people, black & white. Focus on race distracts from solving problem, as we do w plane crashes. https://t.co/fUxJipp3Fr
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) August 13, 2017
In light of the recent police killings of blacks, I’m pretty sure that this tweet would look worse today than it did in 2017. But the article Pinker is referring to is about general improvements in police departments, not ways to make cops less racist. It does note that there’s racism in police killings, but says that the fix, as Pinker notes, comes from general improvements in policing (along the lines of general improvements in airline safety), not by focusing on racism itself:
Police violence is tangled up with racism and systemic injustice. We desperately need to do more to address that, foremost by shoring up the criminal-justice system so that it holds police officers accountable when they kill. But it’s also true that deadly mistakes are going to happen when police officers engage in millions of potentially dangerous procedures a year. What aviation teaches us is that it should be possible to “accident proof” police work, if only we are willing to admit when mistakes are made.
. . . The routine traffic stop, like the one that killed Mr. Bell’s son, is especially in need of redesign because it contains so many potential failure points that cause confusion and violence. In the computer science department at the University of Florida, a team of students — all African-American women — have developed a technology that they hope might make these encounters far safer.
. . .How can we fix this system that puts civilians and the police officers who stop them at risk? The obvious solution is to take the officers — and their guns — out of the picture whenever possible.
The technology developed by the African-American women has nothing to do with race, but limns general principles that should be followed in all traffic stops. Now I doubt Steve would, given the recent events and protests, post the same tweet today, but his summary of the article is not at all an “all lives matter” trope. Remember, there’s still no good evidence that the killing of black men by police reflects “systemic racism” in police department, and that needs to be investigated, but in the meantime perhaps some general tactical changes should be considered as well.
I asked Steve to respond to the claim that this is an “all lives matter trope.” Here’s what he emailed back (quoted with permission):
Linguists, of all people, should understand the difference between a trope or collocation, such as the slogan “All lives matter,” and the proposition that all lives matter. (Is someone prepared to argue that some lives don’t matter?) And linguists, of all people, should understand the difference between a turn in the context of a conversational exchange and a sentence that expresses an idea. It’s true that if someone were to retort “All lives matter” in direct response to “Black lives matter,’ they’d be making a statement that downplays the racism and other harms suffered by African Americans. But that is different from asking questions about whom police kill, being open to evidence on the answer, and seeking to reduce the number of innocent people killed by the police of all races. The fact is that Mullainathan and four other research reports have found the same thing: while there’s strong evidence that African Americans are disproportionately harassed, frisked, and manhandled by the police (so racism among the police is a genuine problem), there’s no evidence that they are killed more, holding rates of dangerous encounters constant. (References below.) As Mullainathan notes, this doesn’t downplay racism, but it pinpoints its effects: in drug laws, poverty, housing segregation, and other contributors to being in dangerous situations, but not on in the behavior of police in lethal encounters. And it has implications for how to reduce police killings, which is what we should all care about: it explains the finding that race-specific like training police in implicit bias and hiring more minority police have no effect, while across-the-board measures such as de-escalation training, demilitarization, changing police culture, and increasing accountability do have an effect.
Fryer, R. G. (2016). An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Papers(22099), 1-63.
Fryer, R. G. (forthcoming). Reconciling Results on Racial Differences in Police Shootings. American Economic Review (Papers and Proceedings).
Goff, P. A., Lloyd, T., Geller, A., Raphael, S., & Glaser, J. (2016). The science of justice: Race, arrests, and police use of force. Los Angeles: Center for Policing Equity, UCLA, Table 7.
Johnson, D. J., Tress, T., Burkel, N., Taylor, C., & Cesario, J. (2019). Officer characteristics and racial disparities in fatal officer-involved shootings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(32), 15877-15882. doi:10.1073/pnas.1903856116
Johnson, D. J., & Cesario, J. (2020). Reply to Knox and Mummolo and Schimmack and Carlsson: Controlling for crime and population rates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(3), 1264-1265. doi:10.1073/pnas.1920184117
Miller, T. R., Lawrence, B. A., Carlson, N. N., Hendrie, D., Randall, S., Rockett, I. R. H., & Spicer, R. S. (2016). Perils of police action: a cautionary tale from US data sets. Injury Prevention. doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2016-042023
Of course the signatories credit themselves with the ultrasonic ability to discern “dog whistles” in arguments that displease them, a license to throw standards of accurate citation out the window and accuse anyone of saying anything.
Back to the letter:
3.) Pinker (2011:107) provides another example of Dr. Pinker downplaying actual violence in a casual manner: “[I]n 1984, Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car.”—Bernhard Goetz shot four Black teenagers for saying “Give me five dollars.” (whether it was an attempted mugging is disputed). Goetz, Pinker’s mild-mannered engineer, described the situation after the first four shots as follows: “I immediately looked at the first two to make sure they were ‘taken care of,’ and then attempted to shoot Cabey again in the stomach, but the gun was empty.” 18 months prior, the same “mild-mannered engineer” had said “The only way we’re going to clean up this street is to get rid of the sp*cs and n*****s”, according to his neighbor. Once again, the language Dr. Pinker employs in calling this person “mild-mannered” illustrates his tendency to downplay very real violence.
After I’d read Accusation #1 and this one, and saw the way the letter was distorting what Pinker said, I decided to write Steve and say that I was going to write something about the letter. I began by asking for the whole Goetz passage from The Better Angels of Our Nature (which you can see at the letter’s link) so I could embed it here. Steve sent it, along with these words:
The Goetz description was, of course, just a way to convey the atmosphere of New York in the high-crime 79s and 80s for those who didn’t live through it — just as the atmosphere was later depicted in The Joker. To depict this as sympathetic to a vigilante shooter is one of the many post-truth ascriptions in the piece.
Here’s the entire passage from Better Angels:
The flood of violence from the 1960s through the 1980s reshaped American culture, the political scene, and everyday life. Mugger jokes became a staple of comedians, with mentions of Central Park getting an instant laugh as a well-known death trap. New Yorkers imprisoned themselves in their apartments with batteries of latches and deadbolts, including the popular “police lock,” a steel bar with one end anchored in the floor and the other propped up against the door. The section of downtown Boston not far from where I now live was called the Combat Zone because of its endemic muggings and stabbings. Urbanites quit other American cities in droves, leaving burned-out cores surrounded by rings of suburbs, exurbs, and gated communities. Books, movies and television series used intractable urban violence as their backdrop, including Little Murders, Taxi Driver, The Warriors, Escape from New York, Fort Apache the Bronx, Hill Street Blues, and Bonfire of the Vanities. Women enrolled in self-defense courses to learn how to walk with a defiant gait, to use their keys, pencils, and spike heels as weapons, and to execute karate chops or jujitsu throws to overpower an attacker, role-played by a volunteer in a Michelin-man-tire suit. Red-bereted Guardian Angels patrolled the parks and the mass transit system, and in 1984 Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car. A fear of crime helped elect decades of conservative politicians, including Richard Nixon in 1968 with his “Law and Order” platform (overshadowing the Vietnam War as a campaign issue); George H. W. Bush in 1988 with his insinuation that Michael Dukakis, as governor of Massachusetts, had approved a prison furlough program that had released a rapist; and many senators and congressmen who promised to “get tough on crime.” Though the popular reaction was overblown—far more people are killed every year in car accidents than in homicides, especially among those who don’t get into arguments with young men in bars—the sense that violent crime had multiplied was not a figment of their imaginations.
Now if you think that this passage excuses Bernie Goetz for the shooting, and does so by using “mild-mannered” as an adjective, I feel sorry for you. Pinker’s doing here what he said he was doing: depicting the anti-crime atmosphere present at that time in New York City. Only someone desperately looking for reasons to be offended would glom onto this as evidence of racism. In fact, in 1985 the Washington Post called Goetz “the unassuming, apparently mild-mannered passenger who struck with force” . You can find the same adjective in other places. Complaint dismissed.
4.) In 2014, a student murdered six women at UC Santa Barbara after posting a video online that detailed his misogynistic reasons. Ignoring the perpetrator’s own hate speech, Dr. Pinker called the idea that such a murder could be part of a sexist pattern “statistically obtuse”, once again undermining those who stand up against violence while downplaying the actual murder of six women as well as systems of mysogyny.
Here’s the “incriminating” tweet:
The idea that the UCSB murders are part of a pattern of hatred against women is statistically obtuse | http://t.co/ZbWuSVLy6p
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) June 1, 2014
First, a correction: the 2014 Isla Vista killings by Eliot Rodger involved four male victims and two female victims, not six women. But that aside, Rodger did leave a misogynistic manifesto and a YouTube video clearly saying that he wanted to exact revenge on women for rejecting him, and whom he hated for that.
I couldn’t find the statistically obtuse link, and asked Steve about it, and he didn’t remember it either. But his point was clearly not to say that this murder wasn’t motivated by hatred of women, but to question whether it was part of a general pattern of hatred of women. That’s a different issue. I’ll quote Steve again, with his permission:
I don’t remember what it initially pointed to, but I’ve often argued that reading social trends into rampage shootings and suicide terrorists is statistically obtuse and politically harmful. It’s obtuse because vastly more people are killed in day-to-day homicides, to say nothing of accidents; news watchers who think they are common are victims of the Availability Bias, mistaking saturation media coverage of horrific isolated events for major social trends. Every victim of a murder is an unspeakable tragedy, but in trying to reduce violence, we should focus foremost on the phenomena that harm people in the largest numbers.
It’s possible — I don’t remember — that I mentioned data showing that uxoricide (the killing of women by husbands and romantic partners) has been in decline.
Focusing on rampage shooters and suicide terrorists is harmful because it gives these embittered losers exactly what they are seeking—notoriety and political importance—thereby incentivizing more of them. Also, the overreactions to these two smaller kinds of violence can have dangerous side effects, from traumatizing schoolchildren with pointless active shooter drills, to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The legal scholar Adam Lankford is the one who’s written most compellingly about the drive of rampage shooters to “make a difference,” if only posthumously — a good reason not to grant undue importance to their vile final acts.
Again, Pinker’s attempt to make a general point is parsed for wording (do they even know what “statistically obtuse” means?) to argue that Steve is a misogynist. Steve added, “The difference between understanding the world through media-driven events versus data-based trends is of course very much my thing.”
5.) On June 3rd 2020, during historic Black Lives Matter protests in response to violent racist killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many many others, Dr. Pinker chose to publicly co-opt the academic work of a Black social scientist to further his deflationary agenda. He misrepresents the work of that scholar, who himself mainly expressed the hope he felt that the protests might spark genuine change, in keeping with his belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity. A day after, the LSA commented on its public twitter account that it “stands with our Black community”. Please see the public post by linguist Dr. Maria Esipova for a more explicit discussion of this particular incident.
First, “co-opting” is a loaded word for the simple act of citation, both in Pinker’s books and in his tweet below, citation that shows a decline in racist attitudes among white people over time. This involves answers to questions—not actions like murders—but attitudes must surely be seen as manifestations of “racism”.
The incriminating tweet:
Harvard Social Science Dean Lawrence Bobo did the research I've cited on the decline of overt racism in the US. Here he reflects (w cautious optimism) on race relations in the the context of police killings of black men https://t.co/LAJeFjtCey via @Harvard pic.twitter.com/zXdejdBv3q
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) June 3, 2020
As for Bobo’s article in the Harvard Gazette, yes, there is cautious optimism, but there’s also despair.
On the one hand, I am greatly heartened by the level of mobilization and civil protests. That it has touched so many people and brought out so many tens of thousands of individuals to express their concern, their outrage, their condemnation of the police actions in this case and their demand for change and for justice, I find all that greatly encouraging. It is, at the same moment, very disappointing that some folks have taken this as an opportunity to try to bring chaos and violence to these occasions of otherwise high-minded civil protest. And I’m disappointed by those occasions where in law enforcement, individuals and agencies, have acted in ways that have provoked or antagonized otherwise peaceful protest actions.
It’s a complex and fraught moment that we’re in. And one of the most profoundly disappointing aspects of the current context is the lack of wise and sensible voices and leadership on the national stage to set the right tone, to heal the nation, and to reassure us all that we’re going to be on a path to a better, more just society.
. . .We had all thought, of course, that we made phenomenal strides. We inhabit an era in which there are certainly more rank-and-file minority police officers than ever before, more African American and minority and female police chiefs and leaders. But inhabiting a world where the poor and our deeply poor communities are still heavily disproportionately people of color, where we had a war on drugs that was racially biased in both its origins and its profoundly troubling execution over many years, that has bred a level of distrust and antagonism between police and black communities that should worry us all. There’s clearly an enormous amount of work to be done to undo those circumstances and to heal those wounds.
And if the following isn’t a statement by Bobo that justifies Pinker’s characterization above, I don’t know what is, for while indicting Trumpism for fomenting racism, Bobo does indeed say he is “guardedly optimistic”, even using the phrase “higher angels of our nature”. (My emphasis.)
The last three years have brought one moment of shock and awe after the other, as acts on a national and international stage from our leadership that one would have thought unimaginable play out each and every day under a blanket of security provided by a U.S. Senate that appears to have lost all sense of spine and justice and decency. I don’t know where this is. I think we’re in a deeply troubling moment. But I am going to remain guardedly optimistic that hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the higher angels of our nature win out in what is a really frightening coalescence of circumstances.
Finally, Steve went into more detail about that tweet:
The intro to the tweet was context: introducing Larry Bobo and my connection to his research. It was followed by the transition “Here he ….”, so there was no implication that this interview was specifically about that research. Still, I’d argue that it’s hardly a coincidence that a social scientist who has documented racial progress in the past (including in a 2009 article entitled “A change has come: Race, politics, and the path to the Obama presidency”) would express guarded optimism that it can continue. After all, if 65 years of the civil rights movement had yielded no improvements in race relations, why should we bother continuing the fight?
Now, one can legitimately ask (as Bobo does) whether responses to the General Social Survey are honest or are biased by social desirability. I address this in Enlightenment Now by looking for signs of implicit racism in Google search data (it’s declined), and more recently, have cited new data from my colleagues Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji (in Psychological Science last year) that implicit racial bias as measured by Banaji’s Implicit Association Test has declined as well.
I’ve become used to incomprehension and outrage over data on signs of progress. People mentally auto-correct the claim that something bad has declined with the claim that it has disappeared. And they misinterpret evidence for progress as downplaying the important of activism. But of course progress in the past had to have had a cause, and often it was the work of past activists that pushed the curves down — all the more reason to continue it today.
I also asked Steve for the references to Bobo’s research showing “the decline of overt racism in the U.S.” Here they are:
Bobo, L. D. 2001. Racial attitudes and relations at the close of the twentieth century. In N. J. Smelser, W. J. Wilson, & F. Mitchell, eds., America becoming: Racial trends and their consequences. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press.
Bobo, L. D., & Dawson, M. C. 2009. A change has come: Race, politics, and the path to the Obama presidency. Du Bois Review, 6, 1–14.
Schuman, H., Steeh, C., & Bobo, L. D. 1997. Racial attitudes in America: Trends and interpretations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Finally, the last indictment:
6.) On June 14th 2020, Dr. Pinker uses the dogwhistle “urban crime/violence” in two public tweets (neither of his sources used the term). A dogwhistle is a deniable speech act “that sends one message to an outgroup while at the same time sending a second (often taboo, controversial, or inflammatory) message to an ingroup”, according to recent and notable semantic/pragmatic work by linguistic researchers Robert Henderson & Elin McCready [1,2,3]. “Urban”, as a dogwhistle, signals covert and, crucially, deniable support of views that essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals. Its parallel “inner-city”, is in fact one of the prototypical examples used as an illustration of the phenomenon by Henderson & McCready in several of the linked works.
The two tweets at issue:
Another expert on urban Crime, Ron Brunson, points out: Protests focus on over-policing. But under-policing is also deadly. https://t.co/BvuoYDBPaH
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) June 14, 2020
Don’t abolish the police. Patrick Sharkey, researcher on urban violence & its decline, writes: “Cops prevent violence. But they aren’t the only ones who can do it.” https://t.co/L8e4EIIyfb
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) June 14, 2020
Umm. . both Patrick Sharkey at Princeton and Rod Brunson at Northeastern University are indeed experts in urban crime, and have taught and written extensively about it. If there’s a “dogwhistle” here, blame Brunson and Sharkey, not Pinker. But there is no dogwhistle save the use of that phrase by the Woke to provoke cries of racism from their peers.
In the end, we have an indictment based on five tweets and the phrase “mild-mannered” in one of Pinker’s books, all of which distort or mischaracterize what Pinker was saying. That five social-media tweets and one word can lead to such a severe indictment (see below) is a sign of how far the termites have dined. I’m really steamed when a group of misguided zealots tries to damage someone’s career, and does so dishonestly.
The end of this pathetic letter:
We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms [JAC: oh for chrissake, of course they do!], or claim to know what his aims are. Nor do we seek to “cancel” Dr. Pinker, or to bar him from participating in the linguistics and LSA communities (though many of our signatories may well believe that doing so would be the right course of action). We do, however, believe that the examples introduced above establish that Dr. Pinker’s public actions constitute a pattern of downplaying the very real violence of systemic racism and sexism, and, moreover, a pattern that is not above deceitfulness, misrepresentation, or the employment of dogwhistles. In light of the fact that Dr. Pinker is read widely beyond the linguistics community, this behavior is particularly harmful, not merely for the perception of linguistics by the general public, but for movements against the systems of racism and sexism, and for linguists affected by these violent systems.
The people who are deceitful and who misrepresent the facts are the signatories of this screed, not Pinker. File this letter in the circular file. I hope that the LSA doesn’t take it seriously, but if they do, the organization should be mocked and derided.
h/t: Many people sent me this letter; thanks to all.