The New York Times has a new profile of Steve Pinker, with a photo that, while nice, doesn’t include his cowboy boots. It concentrates mostly on the letter signed by 550+ academics calling for the Linguistic Society of America to rescind Pinker’s “distinguished fellow” and “media expert” status. Since I’ve discussed that letter in detail, I won’t go over it here, but simply give my take on some of the statements in the NYT’s generally fair profile. I’ll just add, by way of self-aggrandizement, that you read about that here (as well as the letter in Harper’s that Pinker signed) well before it appeared in the paper of record. And the NYT’s report adds little to what I said. Further, you can read me for free!
Click on the screenshot to read.
The Times comments are indented, while mine are flush left.
The linguists demanded that the society revoke Professor Pinker’s status as a “distinguished fellow” and strike his name from its list of media experts. The society’s executive committee declined to do so last week, stating: “It is not the mission of the society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression.”
Good for them! That’s a slap in the face to the letter signers. But then there’s this:
But a charge of racial insensitivity carries power in the current climate, and the letter sounded another shot in the fraught cultural battles now erupting in academia and publishing.
What power did it carry if it didn’t accomplish what it set out to do? The “power of Twitter”? (I’d add that “sounded another shot” is bad writing. “Fired another shot” would be better.)
In an era of polarizing ideologies, Professor Pinker, a linguist and social psychologist, is tough to pin down. He is a big supporter of Democrats, and donated heavily to former President Barack Obama, but he has denounced what he sees as the close-mindedness of heavily liberal American universities. He likes to publicly entertain ideas outside the academic mainstream, including the question of innate differences between the sexes and among different ethnic and racial groups. And he has suggested that the political left’s insistence that certain subjects are off limits contributed to the rise of the alt-right.
This is the kind of wording that I read differently from others, perhaps because I think the Times has an agenda. Why does somebody have to be “pinned down? What are the “pins” on which we’re to be impaled? “Progressive woke leftist,” “Liberal”, “Centrist,” “Conservative, and “Nazi”? Pinker is a left-centrist, I suppose, but one who thinks for himself and is unwilling to accept “received wisdom” without data behind it. The description of his intellectual independence is positive to me, not “something hard to pin down,” and why bother to pin someone down in the first place? All they had to say is that he’s a liberal but has independent opinions that often don’t jibe with the mantras of progressive Leftism. The Times would prefer somebody to be pinned down because it fits better into their Manichaean ideology.
The origin of the letter remains a mystery. Of 10 signers contacted by The Times, only one hinted that she knew the identity of the authors. Many of the linguists proved shy about talking, and since the letter first surfaced on Twitter on July 3, several prominent linguists have said their names had been included without their knowledge.
Several department chairs in linguistics and philosophy signed the letter, including Professor Barry Smith of the University at Buffalo and Professor Lisa Davidson of New York University. Professor Smith did not return calls and an email and Professor Davidson declined to comment when The Times reached out.
These people are a bunch of yellow-bellied cowards. Why would they sign such a strong letter and then refuse to talk about it, or decline to comment? I suspect it’s because their “accusations” proved to be a bunch of nonsense and that many of them are embarrassed to have signed it. I’d love to chat with some of them and ask them, for instance, why referring to Bernie Goetz as “mild-mannered”, when several liberal media did at the time he shot people on the subway, is such a sin. And who included people’s names without their knowledge?
The linguists’ letter touched only lightly on questions that have proved storm-tossed for Professor Pinker in the past. In the debate over whether nature or nurture shapes human behavior, he has leaned toward nature, arguing that characteristics like psychological traits and intelligence are to some degree heritable.
The heritability of the traits mentioned, like IQ, is not in question. IQ is at least 50% heritable within populations, becoming more heritable with age—up to 80%. What you do with those data is contentious, but the NYT implies here that the data simply reflect Pinker’s “arguments” rather than real scientific evidence. It’s like saying this: “In the debate about whether evolution or creation is true, Pinker has leaned toward evolution, arguing that observations like the fossil record and biogeography support evolution.” This way of describing real data as a sort-of-opinion is implicitly anti-science.
The clash may also reflect the fact that Professor Pinker’s rosy outlook — he argues that the world is becoming a better place, by almost any measure, from poverty to literacy — sounds discordant during this painful moment of national reckoning with the still-ugly scars of racism and inequality.
Partly, I’m sure, but note that Pinker was demonized by the far Left long before George Floyd was murdered. And his claims about the moral improvement of humanity are more than arguments, as they’re based on data. That’s why Better Angels is filled with graphs. Many of his claims about things getting better are simply uncontestable.
Finally, a telling omission:
The linguists insisted they were not attempting to censor Professor Pinker. Rather, they were intent on showing that he had been deceitful and used racial dog whistles, and thus, was a disreputable representative for linguistics. . . .
Umm. . . here’s what the original said (my emphasis):
We want to note here that we have no desire to judge Dr. Pinker’s actions in moral terms, 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.
There’s more than just “censorship” here; in particular there’s the claim that they aren’t judging the morality of Pinker’s actions. That claim is laughable in view of the letter’s repeated accusations of racism and sexism against Pinker, and the implicit accusation that Pinker knew exactly what he was doing with his “dog whistles”. Aren’t those connected with morality? I think the funniest sentence in the letter, and the most duplicitous, is the first sentence in the paragraph above.
As I said, I think the profile, by and large, is pretty good and objective. But it leaves out crucial parts of the kerfuffle, and irks me by implying that data-based claims are simply “arguments”.