Although Steve Pinker is perfectly capable of defending himself against insane charges by the Woke, as instantiated in a letter asking the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) to remove him from the position as a Distinguished LSA Fellow and designated media expert, I figured that I’d save him the trouble. After all, I’m just a lay reader who is able to compare what the letter said with the actual evidence supporting its indictments. My verdict: the letter should be dismissed with prejudice.
Since I posted my critique of the letter, two more defenses of Pinker have appeared. The first is from a famous linguist, Barbara Partee, who was not only an Inaugural Fellow of the LSA, but also a former President. In 2014 she got an honorary degree from The University of Chicago, which awards such degrees only to distinguished scholars (no movie stars or Garrison Keillors, thank you). Her opinion, especially as a linguist who was chosen to be LSA President, carries considerable weight.
Her response, published on Medium, can be seen by clicking on the screenshot below.
Her responses are generally similar to mine, but she is a colleague of Steve’s and knew some things I didn’t. Further, she thinks, as did I, that the signatories of the letter showed no awareness of what Pinker wrote in his books. A quote from Partee:
I was shocked and surprised when I learned of this petition, since in my own experience Steven Pinker works hard for racial justice. Steven and I have been working together in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to help increase the number of Black linguists, and women, in those academies. He’s been playing a leading role in these efforts. I have no doubts about his commitment to social justice. Others who know him better than I do would probably be able to cite more of his work in advocacy and mentoring. The complaints in the petition seem related to the positions he has taken in his books The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, positions about progress which are controversial but sincerely held and backed by arguments that may be imperfect but should be answered with other arguments, not with censure, in my opinion. It’s not clear whether the petitioners have read any of those books.
Partee and I differ in only one very trivial matter: in one of the six indictments of Pinker, all involving a total of five tweets and one word (“mild-mannered” for Bernard Goetz)—a ridiculous social-media rationale for demanding his dethronement from the LSA. Our minor difference is based on this New York Times article.
Pinker issued this tweet about the article:
Data: Police don't shoot blacks disproportionately. Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings. http://t.co/HDoLJ3hT3p via @UpshotNYT
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) October 17, 2015
And the Purity Posse took issue with Steve’s saying “Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately”, saying this:
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.\
In fact, if you read the bit after the quote, the article goes on to say that while African-Americans are being killed disproportionately, it may have nothing to do with race per se, but with a higher encounter rate between police and black suspects, for which there’s evidence. (We’ve recently discussed this at length.) As the article said:
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.
Right now we don’t know whether this, rather than the racism of police (for which there’s other evidence) is responsible for the “disproportional”. Partee says that Pinker was “hasty/sloppy” in constructing that tweet, but, she adds, as I did:
It looks to me that Pinker did make a misleading statement in his tweet, but that the petitioners also make a misleading statement by omitting the context of their quote from the article.
Pinker’s tweet: “Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately. Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.”
Petitioners’ quote from the article: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.”
Larger quote from the article: (doesn’t support Pinker’s statement, but it shows that their quote doesn’t represent the article’s point.)
Also, the meaning of “disproportional” is ambiguous here, which could account for Pinker’s tweet. Blacks could be killed by cops disproportionately to their percentage in the general population, which is true, but—and I think this was Steve’s point—they could be killed disproportionately even taking into account a higher encounter rate. That is, if cops on duty encounter blacks twice as often as whites, but kill blacks four times as often as whites, that would be a different form of disproportionality.
But it hardly matters. To me, the signatories’ deliberate distortion of the article’s point—and Steve’s—is far worse than Steve using “disproportional” in a sense different from the article. If you read the article, the point is clear.
And that’s about it. At the end, Dr. Partee expresses sadness that she seems largely alone in her defense of Pinker:
That’s it. I stopped there except for this one last paragraph on July 4th (now on July 6 I’m changing only tenses) so I could share this with my colleagues before I went to bed, since this was so current right then. There was already an interesting long thread on David Pesetsky’s Facebook page. David was careful in his post to not weigh in on the justice of the accusations against Pinker, but to talk only about the wisdom of the two proposed remedies — stripping him of his Fellow status or removing him from the LSA-approved list of media contacts — if the accusations were sound. Most people on the thread said that the LSA should do at least something to acknowledge that they don’t approve of that behavior of Pinker’s. I saw very very few others who seemed to share my opinion that they should do neither because he has done nothing that is inconsistent with the LSA’s principles. I seem to be in a small minority, but I feel quite strongly about it. I may be influenced in part by my husband’s opinions, which derive from his growing up in Communist Russia.
I will add on July 6 only that I no longer feel quite so alone; a few colleagues have expressed agreement with what I’ve written and suggested that I share it more widely, which I am hereby doing.
Beside me, another defender is the estimable Scott Aaronson, who on his website pulls no punches (click on screenshot):
Scott is steamed!
Again and again, spineless institutions have responded to these sorts of ultimatums by capitulating to them. So I confess that the news about Pinker depressed me all weekend. The more time passed, though, the more it looked like the Purity Posse might have actually overplayed its hand this time. Steven Pinker is not weak prey.
Let’s start with what’s missing from the petition: Noam Chomsky pointedly refused to sign. How that must’ve stung his comrades! For that matter, virtually all of the world’s well-known linguists refused to sign. Ray Jackendoff and Michel DeGraff were originally on the petition, but their names turned out to have been forged (were others?).
Note that at least two people’s names were forged or added to the original letter without permission. How did that happen?
Scott goes on:
But despite the flimsiness of the petition, suppose the Linguistics Society of America caved. OK, I mused, how many people have even heard of the Linguistics Society of America, compared to the number who’ve heard of Pinker or read his books? If the LSA expelled Pinker, wouldn’t they be forever known to the world only as the organization that had done that?
I’m tired of the believers in the Enlightenment being constantly on the defensive. “No, I’m not a racist or a misogynist … on the contrary, I’ve spent decades advocating for … yes, I did say that, but you completely misunderstood my meaning, which in context was … please, I’m begging you, can’t we sit and discuss this like human beings?”
It’s time for more of us to stand up and say: yes, I am a center-left extremist. Yes, I’m an Enlightenment fanatic, a radical for liberal moderation and reason. If liberalism is the vanilla of worldviews, then I aspire to be the most intense vanilla anyone has ever tasted. I’m not a closeted fascist. I’m not a watered-down leftist. I’m something else. I consider myself ferociously anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-homophobic and pro-downtrodden, but I don’t cede to any ideological faction the right to dictate what those terms mean. The world is too complicated, too full of ironies and surprises, for me to outsource my conscience in that way.
Good for Scott. It’s time that all of us stand up against the madness of the Purity Posse and the Authoritarian Left. Each of us who calls them out empowers others to speak up.
42 thoughts on “Two more people take up the cudgels for Pinker”
“…outsource my conscience…” I like that phrase.
Yes, Aaronson’s final sentence is brilliant.
Boy, are you gonna get the nasty letters now from Lake Wobegone. Okay, maybe not really nasty letters, considering they’ll be coming from that neck of the Minnesota woods, but you’ll be getting a piece of their minds, Mister, just you wait and see, darn it.
Very good to hear from more voices. I worry that many other victims of less stature may suffer bitterly from the nonsense. If the woke are seriously rebuked in the Pinker case, maybe it will signal their dissolution and sad melting into the dust, like the Wicked Witch of the West.
That final quoted paragraph of Aaronson’s is the issue in a nutshell. The idea that we need to cede to strict ideological interpretations of how to make sense of (and to deal with) the many problems the world is absurd. The more I see the rabid certainties and vindictive delight being displayed by people on issues I care about, the more I see the parallels to religious moralism.
What’s difficult for me to understand is how people can be so damn sure that the positions they are advocating are going to lead to the world being a better place, and the positions they are criticising are making the world a worse place.
When I’ve questioned some of these moral exemplars, they’ve told me the solution is to “just listen” to (group in question). I find this strange because it assumes that I haven’t been out even considered it up until they piously pointed it out, but also because people recounting their experiences doesn’t necessarily universalise or suggest practical solutions. So I’ve left these encounters none the wiser about how these problems can be addressed, and fairly confident that the condensing moralist doesn’t know either. They just wanted an opportunity to signal their moral superiority.
(Perhaps it’s similar to the street preacher who tells Western citizens about Jesus like they’re hearing it for the first time – the only possible reason people aren’t following Christianity is ignorance, so someone’s got to spread the word.)
It frustrates me because in almost all cases I also care about the issue in question, and would love to see a real improvement for the people in question. It sucks.
I really hate that “just listen” line. It’s telling you that what you think doesn’t matter or is likely wrong. It’s the teacher trying to get their eight year-old pupils to pay attention to the lesson. It’s the antithesis of peers exchanging thoughts on a subject of mutual interest.
It started with the idea that everyone have their own version of “truth” and the elevation of personal experience over rational study. This enabled the Critical Theorists to construct an elaborate network of truths that, while perhaps internally consistent, don’t connect with everyone else’s reality.
Sorry, please ignore my reply. It was a general comment, not in response to what you said.
There’s a Linguistic Society of America? Never heard of it.
They are currently at war with the Society of American Linguistics.
It’s been around since 1924: https://www.linguisticsociety.org/
Hats off to Scott Aaronson, especially for his gibe at the defensive/apologetic posture all too typical of conventional Liberals.
Note that our president is currently bashing all left leaning folk as if they were all “the woke”. There is no grey…..
This is what we have become.
Thanks to Scott Aaronson for expressing my own views much more clearly and forcefully than I ever could.
There was also a open letter to be published in the October edition of Harper’s Magazine and just published online. It doesn’t address Pinker’s LSA situation specifically but comes out against the larger attempt by the Woke to suppress discourse. In fact, it is signed by Pinker and lots of other “big names”:
That’s a good one! I recognize many names.
Which is great, and I admire it, but…it’s also sad that this is what the defense of an excellent academic researcher has come to. It’s not enough to say he should be a fellow of the society because of his body of work. We have to add that he’s sufficiently committed to social justice to make the grade too.
Jerry, think of this in the light of your complaints about University hiring practices overemphasizing social justice vs. in-field expertise. Isn’t this similar? Prof. Partee’s defense IS excellent, but at the same time, perhaps unconsciously, concedes to the rowdy crowd their core point – i.e. that awarding fellowship in such an academic society is to be based, at least in part, on ones’ social activism.
I feel like this is what happens when bureaucratic institutions become aggressively mediocre. They go after those who pull away from the pack by actually doing original, innovative work, because it detracts from the idea that the endlessly analyzed, conference-and-meeting-and-seminar-generating groupthink people spew back and forth is profoundly important. The underlying message is “Join us, drink the Kool-Aid, or get out.”
“I am a centre-left extremist. Yes, I’m an Enlightenment fanatic, a radical for liberal moderation and reason”.
I’m borrowing that!
Me too! What a perfect summation of the Enlightenment now idea. “I’m an Enlightenment fanatic, a radical for liberal moderation and reason.” Words to be quoted again and again!
That final paragraph of Aaronson’s is the issue in a nutshell. The idea that we need to cede to strict ideological interpretations of how to make sense of (and to deal with) the many problems the world is absurd. The more I see the rabid certainties and vindictive delight being displayed by people on issues I care about, the more I see the parallels to religious moralism.
It’s difficult for me to understand how people can be so damn sure that the positions they are advocating are going to lead to the world being a better place, and the positions they are criticising are making the world a worse place.
When I’ve questioned some of these moral exemplars, they’ve told me the solution is to “just listen” to [group in question]. I find this strange because it assumes that I haven’t been out even considered it up until they piously pointed it out, but also because people recounting their experiences doesn’t necessarily universalise, nor suggest practical solutions. So I’ve left these encounters none the wiser about how these problems can be addressed, and fairly confident that the condensing moralist doesn’t know either. They just wanted an opportunity to signal their moral superiority.
(Perhaps it’s similar to the street preacher who tells Western citizens about Jesus like they’re hearing it for the first time – the only possible reason people aren’t following Christianity is ignorance, so someone’s got to spread the word.)
It frustrates me because in almost all cases I also care about the issue in question, and would love to see a real improvement for the people in question.
“I find this strange because it assumes that I haven’t been out even considered it up until they piously pointed it out”
This should say “I find this strange because it assumes that I haven’t even considered it (let alone done it) up until they piously pointed it out”.
That’s what I get for typing comments on my phone 😛
Your last paragraph is apt. Almost always the broad topic is something that really matters, and the way it goes off is *seriously* annoying. I was accused during the 1990s “science war” as not caring about the social context of science. I do, of course, I replied, but I don’t think that misunderstandings or misrepresentations of the *content* of the fields in question can help us figure those things out. For example, if (say) women are underrepresented in physics, do not claim (without a ridiculous amount of argument – more on that in a bit) that Newton’s laws are a “rape manual” because at the very least that untruth makes you look terribly uninformed in general.
As for “argument” I also got pushback on “well, arguing is a very [white, male, whatever] way to interact.” I told them I regard it as a human universal to debate and discuss views and courses of action. This usually silenced all but the anthropology sorts, who claimed (paradoxically!!!!) that it wasn’t. I think this (factually wrong as far as I can tell) statement is effectively the racist view that members of group X don’t think like “we” do in the worst sense of that phrase.
It is rather disturbing that the views held by the signatories on that ‘letter’ are increasingly common in academia.
Them, and the likes of PZ Myers, are to be treated with complete DISDAIN.
How can anybody justify the huge fees students have to pay with these jokers and planks running amok in out institutions.
Wokeness these days is mostly radical left-wing people attacking moderate left-wing people for not being left-wing enough. Conservatives generally remain unscathed by the entire thing, because they don’t care what the woke think of them anyway.
(NOT) sorry to blow my own horn but I wrote about this a week or so ago – about the effects of the protests here.
In the moderate voice and reprinted elsewhere later.
(2nd half of the article, the first is reportage of some of the stuff we endure here in Gotham)
To (again, arrogantly) quote myself:
“They’re marching in the right direction but barking up the wrong tree.”
What has happened to Prof Pinker is reprehensible.
D.A., J.D., NYC
The LSA Executive has sent the following e-mail to its membership:
We on the LSA Executive Committee feel it is important at this time to affirm some of our shared values.
The Linguistic Society of America is committed to intellectual freedom and professional responsibility. It is not the mission of the Society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression. Inclusion and civility are crucial to productive scholarly work. And inclusion means hearing (not necessarily accepting) all points of view, even those that may be objectionable to some.
The LSA does oppose, in the strongest possible terms, statements and actions of racism, misogyny, and other forms of hate. We would of course condemn the misuse of linguistic science and other scholarly ideas, tools, and resources to justify hateful statements and actions.
The Executive Committee has been meeting to discuss current concerns. A task force is being appointed to establish clear policies and procedures for ensuring transparent, equitable, and inclusive nominations, awards, appointments, and elections. A second task force is being appointed to establish clear policies and procedures for transparent, equitable, and inclusive public communications via social media and other means. The work of these teams will be reported in an open forum at the next Annual Meeting.
The Executive Committee
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A bit late to respond. My quandary with Pinker is that while he is a great explainer about human language (his 2007 book Stuff of Thought is one of the best general explanations of a field of scholarship that I have ever read), he can remarkably obtuse as a social thinker. Mixing allusions, he is a procrustean Panglossian (though he has denied the Panglossian label in print), determined to counter evidence of bad news by reframing things to make the seem better. And what makes it especially disturbing is a narcissism, or perhaps it is a solipsism, that consistently minimizes, through rhetoric or selective reporting of data, the current suffering of big swathes of humanity. A recent example (cited in the LSA petition) was his deeply weird decision to post tweets about how white people are becoming less comfortable with explicitly racist statements (the implication being that racism is on the wane, so can’t we all just chill out?), and do do so in the IMMEDIATE aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. More generally, the following article appraising of the quality of Pinker’s social thought needs to be considered by anyone who wants to grapple seriously with his ideas: https://www.currentaffairs.org/2019/05/the-worlds-most-annoying-man?fbclid=IwAR3m89ZRhobYi82hC7u86TdsrUD_Jm2RFaqkkJFIWcaup_h6quC5EwcoEQY
I do think that many of the criticisms in the LSA petition are overheated and in some cases unfair. It is up to that organization whether they want him as a spokesman for their field. As for me, I have increasingly tuned him out.
I’m no Pinker expert, but I’ve read several of his books and listened to hours of interviews and discussions. I don’t recognize your portrait of him in your remarks or the linked essay. He comes off as intelligent, sincere, and supportive of human progress. I think his response to critics is correct, and his explanation that his message of progress being made is seen by many as opposed to some recent incident they can sight. Pinker is talking in terms of decades, centuries, and millennia. Usually the critics sight something that happened on the news last week.
I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that he is anything other than intelligent, sincere, and supportive of human progress. I do think he is selective in how he presents data so as to support the conclusion he has arrived at. Specifically, I think he has minimized the suffering caused by wealth inequality, fossil fuel consumption, systemic racism, etc. Also, whether he intends it or not, pointing to how much progress has been made ON AVERAGE (over whatever time scale) provides comfort to the privileged (tiny) minority whose disproportionate and not necessarily deserved gains have pulled up the average, thereby insulating them from a sense of responsibility to mitigate the damages of inequality.
There’s no evidence he uses data other than to show his main thesis. He may not be minimizing suffering as much as he is trying to move people to understand the larger trends. Most of us are embedded in the daily chaos which can lead to disrepair. People can easily throw up their hands and stop trying. His message, seems to me, is basically, don’t give up. Keep working toward a better world. It’s easy to see him as being insensitive and cruel, but his actual message is anything but. The privileged will find comfort in many things. Can we justify censoring an important point of view because it might give comfort? The overall meaning of Pinker’s message is a very important one that should encourage cultural improvement. He is not a friend of the status quo.
I just don’t understand why the far left spews so much venom at Pinker. The vitriol is completely out of proportion to any offense he might have given. If people want to attack opponents of social justice, there are far better target than a mild-mannered academic like Steven Pinker.
far better *targets*
I think the linked article goes a lont way toward explaining why there is such ire about Pinker’s social theorizing. Also, I actually don’t see him as an opponent of social justice, but I do worry sometimes distorted emphasis on how things have gotten better could provide ammunition to those who may feel that we don’t need to worry about social justice any more.
*long way (and apologies for any other typos)
I can understand why you might be worry about how Pinker’s thesis might provide ammunition to enemies of justice. Maybe he should have balanced each chapter of Better Angels with another taking up a related area needing urgent attention. But, then it wouldn’t be the same book at all. Almost any bit of scientific research that bears on the human condition could potentially provide ammunition to somebody. I’d rather just work through the consequences rather than suppress the research.
Unfortunately, many people — on both ends of the political spectrum — judge the merit of ideas based on their consequences, not on whether the ideas actually correspond to reality. That partly explains some of hostility toward Pinker, maybe.
I’d agree. We’d all like the rest of the world to write books that align perfectly with our current agenda. Not happening though.
Pinker goes out of his way to explain that past progress only offered in support of the methods that made that progress. I have to think those that are against Pinker have bought into the Woke philosophy that group membership trumps facts and argument. Pinker won’t use their methods and buy into their process so he’s the enemy.
Good point. Woke philosophy sees Pinker (and everybody else) as either for us or against us.
If you spend your days drumming up support for liberal causes by portraying the coming apocalypse, you aren’t going to like Pinker. In general, Pinker supports those same liberal causes, but with facts and rational argument, not emotion and scare tactics. His approach takes the air out of their sails.
This nonsense again.
See, here’s the thing, though. Politically speaking, I am a radical leftist. Quite openly an anarcho-communist with a side of radical transhumanist… and I can’t stand the pro-censorship nonsense people who claim to have the same broad ideological direction have been spouting as of late.
Unlike some people on the left who seem to think that science is elitist and that subjective experiences and feelings take priority over objectivity, I am also a believer in logic, reason, and evidence, and a proponent of political nonviolence. I am a rational anarchist, who believes simply that the dismantling of hierarchy is a logical and necessary next step in the development of society. But that also means much of the contemporary left, with its emphasis on essentializing identity labels and purity policing, goes against everything I believe in.
There’s a simple reason for that: What people like this are espousing is conservatism, and not the sort that means “caution and restraint”, but rather the sort that means fearful, narrow-minded resistance to change and hatred of difference. The ideas of ideological purity and absolute devotion to a collective identity belong under the umbrella of religious zealotry, not progressive and critical thought. And yet many leftists obliviously leap to defend what is obviously a system of authoritarian moralism when they try to drum up these attempts to silence dissenting opinions (or even, in this case, insufficiently complete and perfect assent), the same way they often lionize the draconian Chinese state as an exemplar of communist praxis.
Logically, this is nonsense, a betrayal of anything resembling genuine leftist values of fairness, freedom, and equal opportunity. Logically, purity should be the farthest conceivable stance from anything resembling anarchism. But still, in a way that completely manages to perplex me, I find so-called fellow anarchists partaking of cancel culture and litmus testing, adopting attitudes almost indistinguishable from right-wing conspiracists and religious fundamentalists if you strip away the specifics and leave the rhetoric.
Look, I may be an anti-racist, but I’m a Kwame Appiah sort of anti-racist – race itself has to go out the window, not become a deeply internalized set of excuses. I may generally hold the postmodern belief that truth is not absolute or universal – but that doesn’t mean it’s nonexistent or irrelevant, only that different facets of objective reality may be observed through different perspectives. After all, science is founded on skepticism and willingness to alter beliefs based on new information. The idea that facts and reason must be abandoned in order to question universalizing and essentialist doctrines is absurd.
In sum: Censorship is an active betrayal of professed leftist values in every way, and so is ideological purity. Any attempt to advance even a left-leaning cause through them is doomed to miserable failure and a fundamental widening of inequality.