Authors of anti-Pinker letter, having failed to discredit him, now write a 35-page academic paper claiming that the media and public misunderstood them

August 31, 2020 • 10:00 am

In July, a group of linguists sent a letter to the Linguistics Society of America (LSA) trying to get Steve Pinker’s status withdrawn as both an LSA distinguished fellow and a designated media expert. I analyzed the letter here and found it totally without merit—just a bunch of tweets that were misinterpreted as racist and misogynistic.

That’s old news, and the LSA of course didn’t do anything to Pinker. Many besides me defended Steve, including his fellow linguists Barbara Partee and John McWhorter, who even cited my “deconstruction” of the risible letter to the LSA:

But now there’s new news: some of the signers of the original letter have written a 35 page paper complaining about people’s and the media’s reactions to the letter—a paper that they’ve submitted to an unspecified academic journal. This link explains their rationale, has a link to a FAQ page, and a link to the pdf of the paper. I can’t embed the link, but this should take you to the paper (click on “pdf”). A screenshot of the title and abstract:

 

I love the “anonymous” author—someone too scared to put out their name in public. At any rate, the paper beefs about Pinker’s reaction to the original letter, the media’s general taking sides with Pinker, the misconception that the letter was made to “cancel” Pinker (I certainly didn’t say that!), the ad hominem attacks on the letter and its signatories, etc. etc. etc. What the paper does not do is expand on the accusations against Pinker, trying to show that they were just. They can’t, because the accusations were wholly unjust.

The paper is in fact tedious, immature, and obsessed with minutiae: it’s a crybaby paper that simply can’t accept the fact that the original letter was rebuffed, that the LSA didn’t do anything about it, and that the media supposedly distorted its claims. Well, its claims were ludicrous, as is this 35-page attempt to keep the controversy alive.

I don’t know which journal has the unpleasant task of evaluating this screed, but given the quality of journals in the social sciences, I’m sure somebody will publish the paper, if for no other reason than to get clicks. Read it for yourself. I did (quickly), and found nothing buttressing the original claims about Pinker’s supposed bigotry, but much about the hurt feelings of the authors. This isn’t even a tempest in a teapot now—it’s a tempest in a thimble.

 

h/t: James

61 thoughts on “Authors of anti-Pinker letter, having failed to discredit him, now write a 35-page academic paper claiming that the media and public misunderstood them

  1. I’m not in this field, but in my area it would be preposterous to publish a 35 page “research” paper in a journal that essentially complains that an attempted hatchet job wasn’t treated the way we wanted. This is just political whinging and couldn’t remotely be considered science.

    1. These days one doesn’t have to actually get a paper accepted in a journal. They are just using the scientific paper format in a transparent attempt to garner respect for their “work”. It reads to me as, “We are serious, goddammit!”

    2. Yeah you’d think people would seriously start questioning what these academics are spending time on.

  2. I don’t know if you noticed this, Jerry, but according to the authors, you are an evolutionary psychologist. The level of incompetence displayed by the clowns who wrote this pathetic list of complaints extends, apparently, to their not even knowing who the critics they complain about actually *are*.

    My guess is that they wanted to lump you together with Pinker so that the implicit message of good ol’ boy evo-psychers sticking together comes through. This whole affair, and the behavior of its initiators, has reached a level of farce that is flat-out embarrassing—like a really bad amateur theatrical performance in which the actors forget half their lines.

  3. I think the paper makes one valid point in respect of the ‘cancellation’ hyperbole when it quotes Isackson who writes:

    “P​inker’s platform at Harvard and in the literary world far surpasses LSA’s​.”

    That’s hard to refute.

  4. IMHO, the original letter DID try to cancel Pinker by calling for his ouster as an LSA Fellow. The authors’ justification had nothing to do with Pinker’s qualifications for that honor. In fact, they specifically stated that they weren’t “concerned with Dr. Pinker’s academic contributions as a linguist, psychologist and cognitive scientist.” Presumably, these are the reasons he was made an LSA Fellow.

    As I see it, this is the very definition of cancellation, the taking away of some honor as punishment for having opinions with which the cancellers do not agree.

  5. I think your headline is slightly misleading. The FAQ claims that the author of the paper are not the same people as the authors of the letter.

    Are you the same group that wrote TOL?

    No. The authors of TOL chose to remain anonymous, and while we don’t know who they all are, this paper was written by a different set of authors.

    The FAQ also claims that some but not all of the authors of the paper signed the letter.

    1. Wait, so they claim both that none of them were authors of the letter, but that some of them did sign it? If you sign a letter like that, you might as well be an author. It’s not a change.org petition. It was a letter written by academics from a specific organization, signed by people in that organization. This whole thing seems intentionally misleading.

      Also, if they don’t know who the authors are, how do they know that one of them wasn’t an “author”? Regardless, just as I consider the signatories to the Harper’s letter to be functionally equivalent to “authors” of that letter, I consider signatories to the LSA letter to be functionally equivalent to “authors” of it. If you signed it, you were signalling you agreement with everything it said.

      NOTE: I am not disagreeing with your statement that the headline is a bit misleading. Definitionally, they are not “authors” of the LSA letter (assuming their claim on this is true).

        1. I’m sorry but that is not true. The author of a piece is the person (or people) who wrote it. Signing it is a declaration that you agree with and support the content, not that you had any input to the construction of the content. In my life, I’ve signed plenty of documents that I did not write. (NB I’m not arguing that the non author signatories are somehow less culpable for the errors in the letter.)

          Furthermore, the authors of the paper claim that not all of them even signed the letter.

      1. The authors of a work are the people who had input into its content, not everybody who signed it. Signing just signifies you agree with the content.

        This letter was, if fact, a petition. Not all petitions are hosted at Change.org.

    2. If they don’t know who those authors are, how can they know that his set of authors does not include one or more of the originals. 🧐

      1. It’s their claim that they are not the authors of the letter. I would assume that they would know if they wrote it and, until I see evidence that they are lying, I’m going to take their word for it.

        1. What does that have to do with the fact that they don’t know who the authors are but claim to know that those same authors they don’t know didn’t write this?

          1. This is what the authors of the paper wrote concerning the authorship of the letter:

            The authors of TOL chose to remain anonymous, and while we don’t know who they all are, this paper was written by a different set of authors.

            Each of the authors of the paper must know if they are one of the authors of the letter. Also, the authors of the letter must know who the other authors of the letter are, or they would not have been able to collaborate on the letter.

            The statement in the FAQ therefore means the set of authors of the letter and the set of authors of the paper are disjoint.

            If anybody of the set of authors of the paper knew who the authors of the letter were, the statement I quoted is a lie. Granted, this is a distinct possibility, but for the moment, I see no reason not to believe it.

            Note that even under BJ’s definition of “author”, the headline of this article is misleading because not everybody who authored the paper even signed the letter.

            1. It’s still sloppy if you ask me. They should have expanded on how they know they aren’t the authors. That would only take another sentence. It’s evidence of sloppy thinking and lazy writing.

              1. Sloppiness seems to be a theme in this whole affair. The paper seems sloppy to me, but I’ve only skimmed it. Jerry demonstrated that the letter is also sloppy. The whole cancel culture thing is permeated with sloppy thinking. I want it to go away.

  6. If you follow the FAQS link you can find a list of online comments that they say are threatening. Most are not that at all, but I would not want to receive a few of them so I can see how some authors would want to be anonymous.
    Still, most comments say over and over how their letter was unfounded and hyperbolic. They listed some comments from WEIT, btw.

    1. The authors of this piece pretty much explicitly take all criticisms to be attacks, and use they word ‘attack’ in referring to any criticism they received. Well, one of the things you learn at university is that a criticism of a position may be an attack on that position, but it’s not in itself an attack on the person(s) *holding* that position. The author’s deliberate conflation of challenges to the factual basis and logical coherence of their content with ad hominem attacks on them gives you some idea of their level of intellectual maturity and integrity…

      1. What I consider to be a bit threatening are the comments that in effect said ‘we know who you are and we are going to do something about your signing this’. Nothing physical, mind you. But threatening career-wise.

  7. “Why are some of you anonymous?

    The paper discusses some of the negative reactions to TOL, which include threats of professional consequences…”

    Oh, the irony! They wanted to try and destroy someone else’s career, but they want to remain anonymous while doing so because they’re afraid of professional consequences. It’s even more cowardly when you consider which group has more power in academia, and that group clearly stands with people like them.

  8. I find it queer that the rebuttal of criticism to the initial letter is written under the guise of being a scholarly article. This might be possible, but that it is being done by signatories of the letter seems like they are acting as judges in their own case. Then again, I notice that several of the article’s authors seem to have no academic affiliation, so they probably had nothing better to do. I wonder what peer review will make of it?

  9. I think it’s rich that a bunch of linguists can’t express themselves well enough so that there’d be no misunderstanding their words. Then they feel compelled to write 35 more pages of words to try to explain and justify their previous words.

    They’re the ones who ought to be drummed out of the LSA.

  10. After skimming the paper and reading the conclusion, what stands out to me is that they want it both ways. They complain that their original letter was only meant to be consumed by the linguistic community but certainly not the general public. At the same time, they want everyone to learn a lesson from this episode while still asking “Pinker and his supporters [take] a step back from their harmful behavior to act on uniting the field in respectful dialog”. What a bunch of sore losers!

    1. They signed a letter trying to boot a man from the group for dissent, but now want a “respectful dialog.” Which is it? Do you want people who disagree with you cancelled, or do you want conversation? Or does “respectful dialog” simply mean “respectful dialog about how our views are the only right ones”?

      1. Everyone who agrees is lauded. Anyone who disagrees is cancelled along with the target. Criticism is considered threatening.

      2. It is clear they didn’t expect the backlash or its strength. Now after their over-the-top call for Pinker’s cancellation, they are complaining about how over-the-top the backlash was. These people don’t know when it’s time to just slink away. Their call for “respectful dialog” is way too late.

  11. I don’t know which journal they’ve submitted this to, but the attempt to have a paper published in a peer-reviewed journal by an author who wishes to be anonymous should lead to an *automatic* rejection.

  12. The likelihood that any woke “call-out” is eventually consumed by controversy over alleged “harassment” against those who called out approaches 1.

    In other words: whenever woke authors whip up a brigade against an individual to be cancelled or called-out, it is NEVER their brigading that is deemed harassment, obsessive, an attack and so forth, but the instigators will inevitably cry that others do this harassment against them (kind of like projection). Woke orthodoxy paired with the cry-bully behaviour make it so that the woke would never have to tolerate ANY criticism or even address any of it, for their critics are beyond the pale anyway.

    I assume there is a threshold: if the critics are too few, they get bullied, ostracized and carpet bombed by the woke mob. When they are however too numerous or influential, the woke standard procedure is to fall on the back, cry terribly and hope that media and others will side with them, so they have the upper hand again, to resume the bully procedure.

    I have observed this curious behaviour hundreds of times in the past near-decade, and it is always the same.

    1. Some people are quite happy to dish it out but don’t like receiving it.

      Pretty much like every failed bully or cowardly mob everywhere.

      Plus whoever wrote the latest ‘paper’ hasn’t yet learned about the Streisand effect.

  13. I like the way they say that they won’t engage with the academic literature on cancel culture as it falls outside the scope of their paper, then slip in a (presumably supportive) citation about the effect of being cancelled on junior researchers when it suits them.

    The tortuous litany of their grievances is an own goal that will haunt the paper’s authors (except the courageous anonymous ones) more than being described by Pinker as unknown to him.

    Classy touch that they reproduced Pinker’s tweet in which he had a typo in the LSA’s full name – to which they had gleefully added “sic” – three times!

    1. Some papers have more than 1,200 supposed authors (the ones originating from CERN are amongst the worst exemplars, IIRC). I remember seeing a forlorn tweet quoted in Times Higher Education a few years ago, in which an academic author explained, “No, not the 37th author – the 37th author called Wong!”

  14. A small step, but at least this type of thinking encountered some manner of boundary here, the adults in the room giving something like a firm ‘no’.

    1. Does ‘WP’ mean Washington Post?

      I agree with Jerry that the letter is immature and tedious.

      It’s also appalling, claiming victim status to declare their position unassailable.

  15. One of the authors claimed on her twitter feed that the LSA had removed Pinker’s status as a media expert. I don’t know if this is true or not.

      1. The LSA is spineless. Watching this ordeal has persuaded me that the socialist, Sanders-like use of “power-of-the-power”, “ground-up” movements are merely ideological tools.

        It’s far better to have experts with years of expertise, accolades, honors, and track-records becoming of knowledge mavens than it is to let whining authoritarians vent sadistic impulses in the name of “the people.”

        1. I assume the LSA’s media experts is a list of luminaries in the field for the press to contact when they want someone to explain something linguistic to them. It sounds like the letter triggered a reassessment of the need for such a list. The LSA may have decided that picking winners and losers from among its membership in that manner was just not a business they ought to be in. Unlike awards for past achievement in the field, a media experts list seems a bit too classist.

          1. Yet the complaints weren’t about achievements. The complaints centered on their beliefs that Pinker doesn’t represent them and should be demoted for things like associating with David Brooks and Epstein and for promoting so-called “race science”.

            They obviously do want to rise up the social hierarchy ladder. In that sense, yes, it is about “class”.

            1. The LSA may have decided that removing the list would not be acceding to the letter’s demands which only wanted Pinker removed. If the list no longer served the association’s aims then it was easiest to just get rid of it. I doubt Pinker cares about the elimination of the list.

          2. I assume that the “media experts” list is there as a resource for news reporters looking for an expert on a particular (linguistic) topic.

            If there is a news story related to language, most news reporters don’t always know who to talk to (they’ll often go to speech therapists or dialect coaches rather than to experts in linguistics). So it’s good to have that resource.

            I actually don’t see a problem with the current solution, to have a central e-mail address managed by someone who knows something about the topic and can refer inquiries to the appropriate expert.

            Notably, the LSA has not rescinded Pinker’s Fellow status.

            1. “I assume that the “media experts” list is there as a resource for news reporters looking for an expert on a particular (linguistic) topic. ”

              Yes, that’s my understanding too. I don’t find your suggestion that someone at LSA put the media in contact with someone. That just makes things even more elitist. By eliminating the list entirely, the press can find their own expert. I would guess most linguistics faculty would jump at the chance to be interviewed by a reporter. Finding the right person to talk to can’t be that hard.

              IMHO, the media list is not so much a service to the media but a way to reward favored members and control the message.

              1. I don’t see anything ‘elitist’ about it – if you don’t know anything about molecular biology and you have a question, wouldn’t it be better to contact the professional association of molecular biologists to put you in touch with the appropriate person? Steven Pinker is an expert in one area of linguistics (psycholinguistics) but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily the best person to talk to about every topic in linguistics.

                In my experience, reporters don’t know enough about linguistics to know who to talk to about a particular topic, so they’ll often grab the first person they can find, usually by searching the websites of their local universities. Because they usually have no background in linguistics, they don’t even know how to frame the question in a way that linguists can answer, and they want someone to talk *now*, because they have a very short turnaround time. Despite what many people seem to think, academics are very busy and can’t always drop everything to talk to a reporter right away.

                In addition, academics are trained in their particular fields, not in journalism, and often aren’t good at talking about their work to the general public. I think this explains a lot of the problems both the original letter (which really didn’t have much to do with linguistics) and this overlong paper.

  16. Again they say this sloppily. I’m going to assume, based on this, they are sloppy thinkers and lazy writers.

    1. Agreed.

      They are sloppy postmodernists aimed at gaining power by dismantling what they see are current power structures. They are using victim narration and pressures to do it.

  17. This is great. Those jackass signatories and authors were trying to cancel Pinker who had too much integrity to overcome. I love when individuals in these virtue-signaling mobs get identified and confronted with their bullying tactics and discredited accusations.

    ‘And what will you do when they come for you?’ Suck it up, buttercups!

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