A long read on Pinker

September 29, 2021 • 10:15 am

The Guardian has one of its “long reads” on Steve Pinker, and it’s pretty absorbing. For one thing, if you’re interested in what Steve’s life is like, especially in his Cape Cod home where he’s spent most of the pandemic, it’s quite enlightening. I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know about him (I’ll put a few excerpts below).

Second, it’s a summary of reactions to his work (it also gives a precis of his new book, Rationality) and it’s not fawning. In fact, it’s rather critical, painting him as almost a servant of capitalism, a man determined to maintain the status quo while ignoring crises like global warming. I also detect criticism of his materialism and implied self-regard, but I may be overly sensitive since he’s a friend.

While I know know that some of the criticisms are misguided (like the grossly misleading letter people wrote trying to get him demoted at the Linguistic Society of America), others I can’t adjudicate, like claims that he distorts data in some of the graphs in his latest books. At any rate, in a piece he wrote for Quillette, Steve defended himself against many of the criticisms of his book Enlightenment Now.  You’ll be familiar with many of the these criticisms, but the readers of the Guardian probably weren’t. I’d be curious to see whether readers think that, overall, it paints a positive picture of Steve, a negative one, or a mixed one.

Click on the screenshot to read it for free:

A quote on his increasing propensity to do intellectual combat:

Since Enlightenment Now came out, in early 2018, Pinker has been engaged in almost unceasing conflict with what he considers his many intellectual enemies, who include intellectuals (“intellectuals hate progress”), progressives (“intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress”), and universities full of progressive intellectuals (a “suffocating leftwing monoculture”). He has also taken aim at postmodernism (“defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness”), a stretch of the green movement running all the way from Al Gore to the Unabomber (“quasi-religious ideology … laced with misanthropy”), contemporary identity politics (“an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values”), and the many people who “lack the conceptual tools to ascertain whether progress has taken place or not”. In these conflicts, Pinker sometimes presents himself as the lone contrarian in a sea of irrationality. He has written in the past that arguments that are “completely reasonable to me, yet blazingly controversial to everyone else” are “the story of my life”.

And a few personal things. It’s clear that he’s made a lot of dosh from his books, though I think writer Alex Blasdel is deliberately pointing to his perks as a flaw:

This summer, I flew to Provincetown, on Cape Cod’s northern tip, to observe up close the intellectual habits of a man considered by some to be one of the most influential thinkers of our time. I arrived on a warm morning at the start of tourist season, and when Pinker picked me up he had the top down on his Volvo convertible. Provincetown has long been a summer resort, especially for LGBTQ people; it is the sort of liberal idyll – commerce meets individual rights meets cappuccinos – that Pinker extols. Fourth of July celebrations had ended the previous day, and the clothing boutiques and cafes along the main drag were festooned with American flags and pride banners. Men in thongs with tanned pectorals cycled by the waterfront.

His widespread interests. You should look up his photography page. I was chuffed to hear about his love of “The Last Waltz”, which is my favorite rock-concert movie and one of my favorite documentary movies:

Pinker recognises the dangers of being trapped within the comfortable perspective of such a comfortable world. The antidote, he says, is an empirical mindset. In Rationality, he notes that in 2019, following the first shark fatality in Massachusetts in 80 years, towns up and down the Cape invested in expensive shark warning and control measures, even though car crashes kill 15 to 20 people there every year, and “cheap improvements in signage, barriers and traffic law enforcement could save many more lives at a fraction of the cost”. That actuarial approach to human life has caused some to think he is bloodless, which he is not. He loves classic rock, says his favourite genre of movie is the concert film or rock documentary, and has watched The Last Waltz, about the largely Canadian band the Band, at least a dozen times. He is a keen landscape and wildlife photographer. “He just takes an infinite delight in the world as it presents itself,” his mother, Roslyn, told me.

His penchant for food. I’ve never eaten at Peter Luger’s which has a huge (though declining) reputation for ribeye steak. I approve of his food choice, though I’d have wine rather than beer, and fie on the San Pellegrino water:

When we stopped to order sandwiches at a deli in the small town of Truro, he brought up a study from the 80s that identified two species of vegetarian – those who eschew meat for moral reasons, and those who do it for health. Pinker, who ordered a smoked turkey sandwich with muenster cheese, described himself as a “reducetarian” and reckons that, morally speaking, he probably shouldn’t eat meat. (If he could choose his final meal, he told the aspiring jet-setter’s magazine Monocle, it would be a rib steak, beer and bottle of San Pellegrino at the Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger.)

His bike (and sense of humor):

Having toured the house, Pinker and I suited up for a bike ride. “I like to go fast,” he told me. He rides a several-thousand-dollar carbon frame, which he bought secondhand on eBay. For many years, he used to check the weight of everything that went on his bike, including his water bottle. “It was truly obsessive compulsive, because we know that, when it comes to speed, aerodynamics are a far bigger factor than weight,” he said. Before the advent of GPS tracking apps, he used to measure his routes out on a map and record his rides in a journal. He still weighs himself every morning.

“We’re a pair of Mamils,” Pinker joked as we cycled out of his garage. “Middle-aged men in Lycra.”

And his boots and fancy loafers—a bit I couldn’t leave out because I put him together with Lee Miller, who made my own custom boots:

Pinker and I had planned to go up to Harvard to see his office, which he hadn’t entered since the start of the pandemic, nearly a year and a half earlier. Before we left, I asked to see a pair of black caiman-leather cowboy boots he had custom made for him by the legendary bootmaker Lee Miller, part of his signature look at public events. (“He told me he likes cowboy boots because it’s the only way a man can get away with wearing high heels,” Pinker’s friend the biologist Jerry Coyne told me. “He likes mostly reptile boots, I think.”) Pinker showed me the boots, but opted to wear a pair of driving loafers designed by Nicolas Sarkozy’s son Louis, for whom Pinker is a celebrity model.

I’ve left out a lot of stuff out about his ideas and the criticism he’s received, as Steve is capable of dealing with that himself. I suppose I’ve highlighted the “People Magazine” aspects of his life because I didn’t know about them, and it’s no secret that I greatly admire him—he’s perhaps the smartest public intellectual I’ve ever met (my meeting with Hitchens doesn’t count because it lasted about five minutes). But whether you want info about his work, his life, or both, I do recommend the piece.  I’m also a bit nosy about what it’s like to be a famous public intellectual, and both the perks and flak you get.

A young Pinker; his trademark hair had already gone gray when I first met him:

Pinker in 1999. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

63 thoughts on “A long read on Pinker

  1. As a fellow MAMIL, I feel some kinship with Mr. Pinker. I would also call myself a “reducetarian” as I still eat meat but not at every meal.

  2. I think that overall it’s a pretty good and pretty positive assessment of Pinker (about as much so as one could expect from The Guardian). Most of the criticisms of Pinker mentioned are pretty silly and inconsequential (and mostly amount to “… but my feelings …!” in response to Pinker’s facts). Minor gripes:

    In presenting Pinker as defending the “status quo” it implies that he wants things stuck as they are, rather than looking to improve them. But Pinker’s whole point is that in the current system, things do get better, and get better at a pretty fast rate. The currently system entails self-improvement (as Pinker has shown).

    The suggestion in one of the quotes that Pinker’s argument is a “desperate rearguard action” in defense of the current system is also pretty silly — the basic model of Western societies: liberal democracy, a capitalist market economy, and some redistributive taxation to fund a welfare state, is accepted by the vast majority of voters. Parties wanting to overthrow that (and ditch capitalism) get nowhere in elections (despite the fond hopes of far-left academics).

    And yes, climate change is a real problem, but no alternative system (that we know about) would be doing a better job of dealing with it (e.g. the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were far worse at ecological destruction).

    Lastly, Quillette is not “right wing”, it’s more “contrarian”, and consists mostly of centrists and center-left writers criticising the woke left and similar targets.

    1. Surey, you are joking.

      And yes, climate change is a real problem, but no alternative system (that we know about) would be doing a better job of dealing with it (e.g. the Soviet Union and Mao’s China were far worse at ecological destruction).

      The US is by far the leading driver of climate change — no contest. It’s such clear that the US should have some sort of recognition for this achievement — “leading causes of human demise: 1st place” in the not-too distant future. It’s really abysmal.

      Not only did the US top the charts in pollution easily for decades, at one point amounting to a third of world-wide emissions. The US is also the source of some of most (needlessly) devastating inventions. Some of them can be comically attributed to one American, Thomas Midgley Jr., of course became standards through the USA.

      The US also the leader in climate change denial today, and the leading cause of inaction — worldwide. Whereas virtually every nation ratified the historic Kyoto Protocoll (1992), the USA stood alone and famously never did. The follow-up Paris Agreements of 2015 was watered down crucially by the USA and essentially crippled. The original version demanded binding action. The US threatened to not sign again, and it was changed to non-binding.

      One US American pollutes the planet about twice as much as an indivudual in other developed nations. Only in emissions per country, the US was overtaken by China, in 2015 I believe. Of course, China has a lot more people and took over not only US emission top spot, but also the manufacturing of many countries.

      I wonder what made you think otherwise?

      1. You are not being very clear as to what Coel is “joking” about, but I will assume it is the paragraph you quote. If that is the case, it refers to capitalism vs communism and not necessarily the US above everybody else. Being that the case your response is somewhat biased. If we take all communist countries on one side and all capitalist countries on the other, which “side” has done better in improving/ameliorating the damage from development as well as improving human life.

        1. I don‘t care about Cold War rhetorics. The facts I mentioned are not biased, and if they are, show where. You can quickly find out whether the USA ratified the Kyoto Protocoll, or the other things I mentioned.

          Also striking is the unwillingness to consider a type of consequence that directly comes out of the benefits of capitalism. Everyone gets a new shiny phone every year, hurray, but don‘t dare to mention the waste.

          Is it also truly a better life as a cobalt miner to unearth the resources for the new phones, compared to a life as a herder? I am not here for easy answers or simplistic hot-takes, I argue against such them.

          To sum up, you are just wrong.

          1. I am referring to the erroneous equivalence of USA = West = capitalism. Coel mentioned Western countries in general not the US specifically. Please read the previous posts and you will see that you are not actually engaging in the topic.

            1. Western capitalist consumerism is a cause of climate change, it’s preposterous to declare it as a solution. The annoying part is that I don’t regard Soviets as in any way superior, or better equipped to solve problems. But you can’t glance over the obvious obviousness that waste and pollution mainly come from western nations, with the USA far ahead. This is a problem, not a solution. And how much a problem this is, not a solution, is very obvious in the facts I mentioned.

              1. Your points don’t follow a logical sequence. To begin with you keep changing the target. “Western consumerist capitalism” is the only one? I thought it was the US specifically, in which case you are making another dubious equivalence. Are the Scandinavian countries equally as bad in your books? Can you point to a functioning alternative instead? Also declaring that it is preposterous to reform capitalism because of the most egregious examples that you can conveniently pick is akin to saying that humans can’t be part of the solution since they are, without exception, the source of the problem. I reject this on the basis that there are enough examples of how to properly direct capitalism to achieve societal goals faster and more efficiently than any other method: acid rain, CFCs, carbon tax,…

              2. Certainly not. The assertion was that no alternative system would be able to solve climate change than the Western one, by implication the US through the contrast with its Cold War counterpart, and that “Soviet Union and Mao’s China were far worse at ecological destruction”. I did quote that part at the outset.

                Now that claim was not even wrong. The Cold War ended by 1990. At that time, the US produced a third of worldwide emissions, followed with some distance mostly by European economies. You can move goal posts around as you wish. It doesn’t make a difference in this respect. Per head-count, the US is still far ahead.

                In 1992 everyone else signed the Kyoto Protocoll, including the former East Bloc and existing “alternatives” (whatever is meant here, communist China, dictatorships etc), but the prime capitalistic “winner” — the United States did not. It produced the most and was evidently not able to solve anything there. The reasons are manifold, but also systemic. The capitalistic model, especially once unleashed, really doesn’t need to care. If you pollute one area, move to the next. If there is a Bhopal disaster, pay some, blame a subsidary and move on.

                The western capitalistic model, especially the US version of it, did wreck the planet the most, clearly, no matter how you slice it, and it is demonstrably not even close to a solution. This not say that I would prefer a radically different system, or even any other system. I responded to assertions, which were false in many different ways.

      2. The US version of the Western system is horribly broken. At this point, it’s hard to describe the USA as a liberal democracy and some of its citizens are actively undermining the welfare state.

        From this side of the Atlantic, it looks like the USA is characterised by a “fuck you” attitude where people think that their self gratification trumps the quality of life of their neighbours. How else do you explain the tragic failure of the US government to get enough of its citizens to get vaccinated and to mask up?

        Bringing Thomas Midgely into it is a bit unfair. He invented two things that were environmental catastrophes, but at the time we didn’t know any better and, when we did know better, the USA was at the forefront of efforts to ban the use of tetraethyl lead and freon. I can’t imagine the USA taking the same lead today.

  3. Increasingly I think a distinction must be made between the written word and quotes from talks.

    Talks – perhaps as ubiquitous as literature now – contain an unwritten expression of thought in many different ways. So quoting Pinker as saying “intellectuals hate progress” – which I am certain was in a number of his talks as I heard them (online) – misses his clear wit and figurative-ness and such in the talk as it was expressed in spoken words and, possibly, a slide. IOW he didn’t literally express literal hate of progress in peer-reviewed literature, it was definitely more in the “kids hate broccoli” conversation sense. Put into writing, it can sound almost chilling – “kids hate broccoli” – BWAH HA HA HA!!

    This sort of thing irks me.

  4. His sunny outlook on human nature and the wonderful progress we’ve supposedly made rings hollow to me, especially these past few years. But I will also admit to spending more of my time than the usual person absorbing information about how badly things are going, with climate change, with this never-ending pandemic of ours, with the descent of the country I love into a soft civil war between timid Democrats and a party that seems determined to obtain permanent minority rule by any means necessary.

    I also don’t mind criticizing a Harvard professor about these differences we have, since as a retired electrical engineer I have exactly the same qualifications as a professor of linguistics to address them. Actually more, when it comes to the limitations of renewable energy and the intermittent power production problems it raises, which no remotely foreseeable battery storage solutions are adequately prepared to address.

    We need our optimists around to give us hope, I suppose. After listening to one of Pinker’s public lectures in Spokane during the Before Times, I certainly felt that glow of hope from a compelling speaker. But I had that same feeling leaving church on many a Sunday morning, with an equally specious basis for it.

    1. I also find his rather sunny outlook on human nature a bit hollow. And I do worry that he has a tendency to be a bit selective in his examples. Many of my Anthro friends have noticed this particular excerpt about the foraging San people of South Africa in his latest book (Rationality — which I admit I have not yet read, although I do plan to):

      “Yet for all the deadly effectiveness of the San’s technology, they have survived in an unforgiving desert for more than a hundred thousand years without exterminating the animals they depend on. During a drought, they think ahead to what would happen if they killed the last plant or animal of its kind, and they spare members of the threatened species. They tailor conservation plans to the vulnerabilities of plants, which cannot migrate but recover quickly when the rains return, and animals, which can survive a drought but build back numbers slowly.”

      I like a lot of what PInker writes. But this smacks a bit of the romanticism of traditional societies that is all too common in popular science writing. Of course, Anthropologists have long observed how the San also turn to infanticide and abortion to limit population when times are tough, or to maintain birth space (for same reason – to help preserve resources). Jared Diamond notes this practice. He’s a bit more familiar with traditionally foraging societies, having spent time among them in New Guinea. I don’t know if Pinker has actually spent any time among the San (and whether that would be any use, today).

      1. Although I haven’t read Rationality either, I don’t think he’s trying to romanticize traditional ways of living, since he argues against that vision of the “Noble Savage” in The Blank Slate.

        1. Well, the passage is about how the San people make rational decisions. It seems a mention of abortion and infanticide would demonstrate such thinking would also include some hard and cold calculated decisions about life and death.

          1. This is to me is very interesting and I am also wondering why he (Pinker) does not write about the ‘negative’ aspects of the Sans practice. Other indigenous peoples follow similar practices or have in the past, they may be wealthier now, perhaps foreign aid etc.
            We could call this painful rationality.
            But, always there is a BUT, I feel we do the same with domesticated animals, all cute and loving, powerful defenders of self and property (to some) BUT in the wild its brutal (who doesn’t know this) and sometimes, nay frequently horrifying. For instance, WARNING I’ve seen footage of a zebra mother trying to give birth while African wild dogs eating her alive as the birth happens, and the baby zebra?… well it shows how far we humans have come and how far we have not.
            We do the equivalent except with technology we are brutal in our disposal of each other. I just can’t be bothered being nice about it when I appraise (internally) how progress moves.
            No one wants to see it or hear OR be reminded of this “tooth and claw” existence.
            Perhaps this is why Pinker stays away from this as he describes the rationality of the Sans, the emphasis is on the positive rationale of overcoming problems.
            I am a Pinker fan and helped to pay for his boots.

      2. “I also find his rather sunny outlook on human nature a bit hollow..”

        Is it hollow that the probability of being murdered on a London street has decreased by a factor of 100 in the past millennium (see “Better Angels…”)? This despite the horror of very recent news, and the exaggerated general interpretation of its implications for safety by many of the naive and easily excitable, not surprisingly.

        “San’s technology…… smacks a bit of the romanticism of traditional societies..”

        This is a complete and very clear misunderstanding of the reason, related to observation of basic human nature, which Pinker has commented on in the 1st chapter of the new book (as far as I have had time to read). Maybe you should read it again more slowly. But perhaps it arises later with your interpretation?—though I very much doubt that.

  5. As with his other books, Pinker’s new one has already garnered much attention in the press. I have looked at some reviews; they are basically favorable with some minor quibbles. Undoubtedly, more negative ones will emerge because of Pinker’s controversial nature. However, it does look like a book well worth reading
    Pinker’s prominence has raised in my mind a question about public intellectuals in general. To what extent do they influence public policy or thinking? Certainly, a few have done that: Adam Smith, Darwin, Karl Marx, Keynes, Dawkins. But, what about the vast majority of public intellectuals? I don’t know. Certainly, people such as Pinker have raised great discussion among other intellectuals. However, I fear that public discussion is more influenced by the ranting of the likes of Trump than serious thinkers. If this is the case, than Trump is a more important person than any ten public intellectuals combined.

    1. It would be nice to achieve a society in which the likes of Pinker, Dawkins, Smith, Darwin, Keynes, and even Marx really were paid more attention to–short term and long term–than he of the flatulent name. Even when they’re wrong, at least they attempt to achieve rationality and they often engender thought in those who take in their work. But I fear you’re right about the impact of the donald on general public discourse. And that fact REALLY doesn’t help my chronic depression.

      That being said, “Rationality” showed up in my Kindle yesterday morning, having been pre-ordered, and though I’m only 3% of the way through it, it’s quite good so far. But I am a “fan” of Pinker and his overall style (I reviewed the “Better Angels” audio book by saying, “35 hours…not one single dull moment” which was true for me), so I admit to bias. Still, at least he provokes thought. Controversies regarding Pinker’s work are so much more uplifting, even when they’re maddening, than the constant gibbering from both sides of the political aisle.

    2. The fact that Pinker can be considered in any way controversial shows just how screwed we are. If he is controversial, then truth, honesty and rationality are controversial. To me, he is the embodiment of what a public intellectual should be. The fact that he can be labelled alt-right or be denounced and harassed by his fellow (and thoroughly mendacious) linguists is just depressing.

    3. It is hard to quantify how much contemporary intellectuals influence politics, but considering that powerful people like Bill Gates read Pinker’s books, he must be quite influential.

      1. I think that they probably play a rather large role, thought it might not always be obvious. For example, I grew up reading the books of Isaac Asimov, who was certainly a public intellectual. (I’ve read his science fiction, but I came to his non-fiction first, and that is what I’m referring to here.). Not only was that the foundation (pun intended) for my later career as a professional scientist, but, coming from a back-woods extremely conservative environment, pushed me in the direction of classic liberalism (in the social, not economic, sense). I’m sure that he also influenced some politicians directly, but more important is probably influencing the electorate.

  6. I also detect criticism of his materialism and implied self-regard …

    What, The Guardian has suddenly become a beacon of asceticism and false humility?

  7. I’ve soured on Pinker since Enlightenment Now. I was a huge fan of The Blank Slate, but EN — particularly the chapter on environmentalism — struck me as a facile and cliched contrarianism. That critics have since called him Professor Pangloss is fitting.

    1. Can you give an example of one such critic calling him “Pangloss”, and at the same time giving an actual well argued example of his misconception(s)? Sticks and stones ….

      Without such examples, nothing else here from you as far as I can see, people should ignore you as being on a par with childish name-callers, nothing more.

  8. I did like this quote:
    “I am not the descendant of a long line of rabbis (as an improbably large proportion of Jews claim to be),” Pinker has written, “but of makers or sellers of gloves, neckties, auto parts and women’s garments; I grew up with the belief that God made the Jews as a light unto the nations, and made the gentiles because someone had to buy retail.”

  9. Off and on I have exchanged emails with Pinker,mostly in agreement. But his chapter on the environment, especially nuclear power, in Enlightenment Now reveals either his ignorance, contrarianism or, most likely, conversations with his peer group, i.e. pro nuclear scientists and economists who refuse to see the handwriting on the wall that is strangling nuclear power and still perpetuate the deliberate lies of the nuclear gang that were exposed as such decades ago. I sent my harsh critique of this chapter to him and told him I’d be glad to help enlighten him on the truth about nuclear power. Otherwise I like his books and especially The Blank Slate, and am glad there is some public intellectual to rake the wokesters and loony left over the coals for their destruction of a sane social science curriculum. I met Pinker once in NYC after his lecture on language and I introduced myself and my late husband Eric, to which he said: “Oh, atheist Jews!”. I conclude that he is the smartest person in this country (Steve Weinberg just died) and his wife the second smartest.

    1. I disagree with your comment on nuclear energy. There are many experts (like James Hansen and Vaclav Smil) that think favorably of it. There are websites like Our World in Data that show you lots of relevant data about it. I also recommend the videos by this professor from Illinois: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1QmB5bW_WQ&t=302s&ab_channel=IllinoisEnergyProf

      In sum, nuclear is much less dangerous than most people think, and it has enormous energy density, which is essential for combating climate change.

      1. Right: without seeing some detail of Lorna’s “harsh critique”, one can only place her with the panicky ignorami (is that really a word?) with weak to non-existent knowledge of the ongoing years of life lost to carbon pollution, and its vastly greater extent than the, admittedly alarming and hopefully eventually avoidable, results of nuclear accidents. I assume she is more serious than the ‘virtue strutters’ who also infest this anti-nuclear camp.

  10. Although I was disappointed with Pinker’s take on the climate crisis in Enlightenment Now, and the author of the article was right to highlight the criticism Pinker received for this, amongst other things, I felt the article was a little snide and didn’t properly acknowledge the contribution that Pinker has made to public debate over the last couple of decades. There was also a bit of damning with faint praise about the article.

  11. The Guardian article was certainly critical of Pinker in places, but I think overall it was pretty fair and gave a reasonable account both of his own views and those of his critics? Clearly it was based on a decent amount of face-to-face interactions between subject and interviewer over a period of days and not the usual brief telephone chat padded out with clippings from the archive (although there was arguably an element of the latter, too).

  12. Dear All,

    In many ways, the Age of Enlightenment has been built upon or achieved via the subjugation and exploitation of the third and fourth worlds, whose numerous citizens are still paying the terrible price more than 500 years later.

    In any case, I have mentioned to some folks in the not-too-distant past that as much as I have admired and respected Canadian-American cognitive scientist Steven Pinker (the author of his 2018 book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” and his considerable contributions through his research and publications, I am afraid that many, if not all, of his oversights and biases are indefensible, and worse still, can be misleading and/or untenable. In the aforementioned book, Pinker could have written in a far more balanced approach, stating both the pros and cons, or do an in-depth SWOT analysis. Instead, he sanguinely defends the Enlightenment project to the detriment of being adequately impartial, unbiased, longitudinal, consilient and multidisciplinary. Compared to his earlier books, those recent ones, including “Enlightenment Now”, have fallen (far) short, especially to experts and readers who are more punctilious, holistic, multidisciplinary and consilient than he has ever been.

    Though very well-written, Steven Pinker’s books are not without some serious problems, for he has cherry-picked a lot of data, and also left out and overlooked relevant information as well as counterarguments and contrary data. Many analyses and projections showing that all is not (nearly or remotely) as well as Pinker claims, plus a plethora of information, statistics and analyses that are absent from his books. His data are also quite Eurocentric, and data from other continents are scant or lacking by comparison.

    Another writer with similar and numerous problems in his findings, formulations, discussions and conclusions is Jordan Peterson, also a psychologist.

    Yours sincerely,

    1. Pinker has addressed the charge that the figures of the Enlightenment were nowhere near perfect moral examples by asserting that his call for Enlightenment Now is _not_ “Enlightenment-olatry”.

    2. I’m not sure why, but reading that comment brings to mind George Orwell’s six rules for writing. Particularly rules two and three 😉 . That said, if you’re making claims he’s guilty of indefensible misdoings, you should also offer some evidence to substantiate them.

      1. This is my second attempt at submitting this comment. Thank you for your reply. You are very welcome to conduct some research and investigations yourself, regardless of how conversant you are or have been with the nature and quality of Pinker’s oeuvres.

        Further to what I have stated earlier, I would like to add that Pinker seems to have beaten off far more than he can comfortably chew. Indeed, he should have given himself far more time to write his recent books, and/or employed or deployed some decent research team(s), research assistant(s) and/or think tank(s).

        1. The typo “beaten off … chew” is quite hilarious.

          More seriously, do you never give specific examples in a bit of detail in whatever you write? I realize this is very convenient in forcing your critics to never be able to “get their teeth into” (not unintended to refer back to my 1st sentence!) whatever it is you are trying to claim (criticize Pinker here), making it difficult to answer you in anything but the vague running off at the pen that they disagree with.

          What about nuclear fission as a (hopefully stopgap) measure to help fight climate change? Is that one of the more specific examples where you think Pinker falls short? If so, how about saying so in detail, and then I and/or others can likely show quite specifically why you’re full of shit on that particular issue.

          But maybe that isn’t one of your examples? Perhaps you do not really have any? I’ll guess the latter, unless hearing otherwise from the horse’s mouth.

          1. To Peter Hoffman and whomever it may concern,

            Your request is well beyond what I could afford to expand via the format restriction of commenting here, compared to what I normally do on my websites and in my research.

            Your reply is indeed very revealing, but for the wrong reasons. Your claiming me to be “full of shit” and your composing such a problematic comment aside, you are free to agree or disagree with me on any points for any reason, and yet I still shall not pre-empt your own findings or lead you down any particular direction(s) through mentioning any further specific problems and issues in Pinker’s books and also specific objections from his critics, which should not be your only or predominant guides or starting points in taking a far more critical and multidisciplinary look on Pinker’s books.

            Nowadays, I have neither the time nor the inclination to engage with and inform people of what they have not been able to fathom or find answers for themselves, not to mention often having to deal with their behavioural problems and attitudes when I chose to engage in such matters in the past. Having said that, I would sooner risk being summarily deemed as “intellectually dishonest” or anything worse than remaining completely silent and not giving them just a little nudge when someone has not bothered to do their own due diligence to reach far better discernments of what they have read, even in “magnum opuses” such as those by Pinker, never mind that there are and have been far more imposing and bigger research undertakings by other intellectuals. It would make little or no difference to my readings of the books whether or not such books have been penned by a well-known giant like Pinker or a relatively or completely unknown person. Furthermore, that you are so ready or eager to judge or come to some conclusions about my intentions or reasons for not leading you down in any directions is somewhat revealing. Indeed, you seem to be willing to conflate someone’s reticence to ease you into what you have yet to show veritable interests or motivations in unearthing yourself, with what you seem to deem or dismiss as a matter of “cough up or shut up”. Somehow, I doubt that our difference is just a matter of style.

            Still, I wish you all the best in finding out sooner or later that even the likes of Pinker can err significantly and multitudinously, should you genuinely wish to pursue any further. And perhaps then you would be surprised and bowed over by the enormity of the tasks ahead, and by the depths and intricacies of some of Pinker’s inadequacies. In any case, you don’t even have to start with Pinker. Perhaps you can start with one of the many well-known figures such as Jordan Peterson.

            Then again, perhaps you may find yourself better off in not pursuing any further, for it is far easier and convenient for you or anyone to opine that SoundEagle may indeed be “intellectually dishonest”, “fake”, “disingenuous”, “hypocritical” or something similar or worse, however you or anybody might wish to conclude.

            It would be far more prudent to cast your net further and wider to look for not just specific links to criticisms of his works and claims, but also other miscellaneous sources dealing with contrary claims and data, as well as many analyses and projections showing that all is not (nearly or remotely) as well as Pinker claims, plus a plethora of information, statistics and analyses that are absent from his books, plus those from other continents and non-Western writers and thinkers, plus those from other historical periods.

            Pinker’s privileged upbringing aside, has fame and fortune got the better of the esteemed writer and researcher in recent years? I gave a strong clue in my very long and detailed, book-length post entitled The Quotation Fallacy “💬”, especially in the section of the post entitled “Authority Bias and Author Bias: Expert Influence, Creator Persuasion“.

            Moreover, had you indeed been vigilant, adequately sceptical and truly multidisciplinary, you would have done your due diligence much sooner as you first read Pinker’s writings, or indeed anybody’s writings for that matter, regardless of whether I or anybody else is willing to actually defend their claims. Furthermore, you would have also instantly recognized or identified the chinks, flaws, oversights, oversimplifications and omissions, should you already possess prior experiences and previous studies accrued professionally or otherwise. In addition, I can and could often anticipate what would happen if I were to provide links, sources, recommendations and/or advices, whether they are solicited or not, and the results and responses are not always desirable or positive, behavioural problems and attitudes notwithstanding. Furthermore, even if I were to supply you with ten or more links, that is still barely scratching the surface, and there is still no guarantee that you will definitely fare considerably better in cases pertaining to Pinker as well as others (including external validities), as the outcomes often depend on many other factors, including your upbringing as well as intellectual and cognitive constitutions.

            In any case, we won’t be having any of these discussions here and elsewhere had I indeed been perfunctory, condescending, misguided, vexatious, idiosyncratic, insistent or whatever else you or anybody would like to conclude, believe or imagine. Whether or not good words have fallen on deaf ears remains to be seen.

            1. This lengthy reply again makes my point about an utter lack of specificity.

              If you get down to brass tacks (e.g. re nuclear reactors and climate change) in these online efforts re Pinker, let’s have a few URLs.

              Surely that is not “beyond what I could afford to expand” nor is it asking too much of someone with many paragraphs of word salad here on Pinker’s shortcomings despite them having “neither the time nor the inclination to engage with and inform people of what they have not been able to fathom or find answers for themselves.”

              1. This is my second attempt at submitting this comment.

                Have you understood and addressed any of the numerous outstanding issues that I have highlighted in your comment(s) and in your approach? Have you bothered to read my other comments on this blog post and understood them? Have you visited any of the links that I have provided in other comments here, elsewhere and on my websites? Have you properly read some if not all of my posts and pages? Have you consistently and cogently done your due diligence in finding and examining both the pros and the cons of the contents in articles and books as well as quotations and statements?

                Please refrain from replying to any of the questions that I have just asked, as one can already gauge very well what those answers are judging by your latest reply to me.

                It is all too obvious that you have been long on your fixation in wanting quick answers and information, but short on examining your approach to knowledge acquisition, let alone being adequately aware of the forces of socialisation and behavioural pitfalls, and to say nothing of being informed and guided by, as well as practising and benefiting from, a high degree of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary plus humility, empathy, reflexivity and consilience, including transformative knowledge production and new modes of accountability, conceived more as engaging knowledge than just mastering information.

                It is patent that you have largely wasted my time, effort, advice and good will. Indeed, good words seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

            2. Though not replying to me, yes, I saw your three identical contributions to the internet by others below, after my first challenge to you. They were making the same point of which Pinker has been well aware, as is every mathematician as well, namely that a noticeable amount of low earlier life expectancy is a result of childhood death.

              This is pathetic if claimed to be a criticism of Pinker. Do you really think his academic discipline in linguistics makes him less able in statistical arguments than these people? Have you actually read the three books by Pinker at issue here?

              Whether or not you do, I doubt that many regard this vast improvement in childhood death rate fails to be a striking improvement in the present situation of the human species. Nor do many doubt that this is a result of its discovery of scientific thinking, with the more vigorous adopting of it and of Rationality beginning with the Enlightenment, and indeed the lessening of belief in actual Angels.

              It’s a shame, and likely will be a tragedy for our species, that more of it, e. g. in US and Germany, do not think clearly about the statistical aspects of nuclear power versus deaths brought on in huge numbers, though not dramatically, by carbon pollution.

              1. First of all, my addressing certain aspects of Phillip Helbig’s comment should not be flippantly, summarily or conveniently linked to, conflated with, or designated as a critique on Pinker’s claim of longer human lifespan, which is a common knowledge. The mistake committed by Helbig is very common and has been often cited by others in various contexts and matters that have nothing to do with Pinker’s book(s).

                More importantly, please be informed that you are still severely mistaken, grossly negligent and wilfully recalcitrant in trying to boil down the issue to just what you have stated in your previous comment, which again is disregarding and sidestepping the contents of my previous comments directed to you. Your previous replies clearly indicate that the respective connections, significances and implications of what I have mentioned are eluding you. Therefore, it is pointless for you to believe or disbelieve and agree or disagree with me here and elsewhere. You may ignore me and respond no further. Indeed, there is even a distinct possibility or high probability that you may never see how your statements and your approaches as in any way problematic. And indeed, I don’t even mind that you deem for whatever reason(s) that I have been largely or wholly mistaken. Furthermore, your not being truly multidisciplinary and having multiple tertiary degrees can be a definite and distinct disadvantage. Even if you are truly interested and really eager to discover, uncover and understand how the likes of Pinker and others have erred, there are plenty of intellectual terrains and disciplinary grounds to cover so as to equip yourself adequately for the daunting tasks. Furthermore, I would like to inform you that Pinker’s inadequacies are not just in diverse areas pertaining to environmental, socioeconomic and sociopolitical matters. In addition, his account of and approach to “enlightenment” are also highly problematic, insufficient, limited, biased, lopsided, selective and circumscribed.

                Have a lovely weekend and happy October to you!

              2. Perhaps this is a little app, not actually a human, which writes these massively multi-adjective-infested, utterly uninformative replies? Could this be possible with WEIT?

    3. Yeah I have to say that his work in his main area of research (psychology and language) is pretty solid but as he’s strayed into pop-science and areas where he’s not an expert, the work has suffered.

      1. …areas such as …? Tell us what you mean, please. At least one would surely be an area where you have expertise, or could refer to such an expert’s work.

    4. As we critique the Enlightenment in our warm houses, on our computers, having lived beyond 30… we should run the counter-factual of “No Enlightenment.” It is a grim place: waaay worst than a Chriiiistian version of ISIS-land or Talibanistan because even they use a lot of Enlightenment based technologies. We’d be living in a Jesus version of Mecca 7th C. or the Middle/Dark Ages.

      I’ll take the pollution and “screen angst” for all the benefits and the recursive ability to change bad things – which we DO.
      I’m a big Pinker fan having read and listened to most of his books a few times each and though our opinions do differ in places (I’m a generalist), it is rare.



      1. I mentioned Asimov in another comment above. I still have a cassette recording (made via a microphone in front of a speaker; this was the 1970s) of a speech “I, Thou, and the Computer” by Asimov in which he rebuts various criticisms of computerization (which, compared to today, was actually minimal at the time). He mentions that someone had written an editorial in Nature saying that while science had turned a few tricks such as long-playing records and tinned food (“that’s the way the British say canned food, you know” in a mock mocking tone), what has it done to add to the happiness of man’s three score years and ten? Asimov wrote a rebuttal, which Nature published, pointing out that before science, the typical life span was more like one score years and ten—if you don’t want it, don’t take it.

        1. Furthermore, your citing that people in the past had an average lifespan of just 30 is also highly problematic and misleading, and is a very common mistake committed by folks who are ignorant of or unfamiliar with demography. I have no time to elaborate the details, but will supply a few links, selected on the basis that they are presented in a way that is understandable by most general readers.

          Here’s one from BBC:


      2. As mentioned, in the interest of covering a topic with fairness, impartiality, sagacity, factuality and integrity, one also needs to present the various costs and the flipside of a subject matter, and must not cherry-pick data and perspectives. After all, there are numerous indices and studies that have shown substantial and even alarming declines throughout many regions in the world. Otherwise, the results and the picture presented are lopsided, incomplete and misleading, not to mention that a significant number of the claims and trends included by Pinker will deviate substantially due to increased volatility, unpredictability, multifactoriality and escalating pressures.

    1. I agree. I think the author of the piece was going for a hitpiece, which is despicable. But apart from that, I also enjoyed to learn more about his personal life, including deeply personal things like his wish to be cremated.

  13. It’s a remarkably uninteresting article considering its subject. A proper hit piece would be less boring.

    He is depicted as an Enlightenment and science-minded contrarian at odds with certain progressive currents around him, who became an apologist of neo-liberalism and an apparent favourite of some liberal billionaires. Some people don’t like this and have expressed words to that effect. I guess it’s okay to mention critics, but kept wondering what the point was, as the whole article is just a juxtaposition of assertions, occasionally wildly out of conext.

    Noam Chomsky comes up twice, but is rushed through the paragraphs as if there was nothing worth noting. You’d think this stems from Pinker’s roots in linguistics, but he’s cited as one of his “major intellectual influences”. A second time, Pinker spoke of a “moral awe people feel for Noam Chomsky”. And the billionaires? Gates and Zuckerberg? A more capable article would have explored how neo-liberalism and billionaires gel with Chomsky.

    I loved Pinkers books before Better Angels, but I share the view that his two enlightenment polyanna books left me also a bit sour, too. That could have been interesting, too: to which degree can an author tell a particular story? Can you write a book about kindness, fill it with examples, and tell there’s much overlooked kindness in the world? Is the accusation of a bias justified, when leaving out cruelty and violence? I don’t think it is justified per se. But Pinker’s take was not as clear-cut. His usual clarity and eloquence is missing in the larger outline of these books. He did write them like a corrective; a counter-narrative to a gloomy news-cycle. But then he also wanted to present them as a kind of adequate summary since the enlightenment. I think this is where the critics have a point.

    There is a climate change and a sixth extinction. Why would you marvel at the newly furnished living room when the roof is on fire? Something is amiss when people basically live like their parents, same work weeks, more stress, but are left with less despite most remarkable innovations in computers, automation and the internet. I read somewhere that productivity nearly doubled from the 80s until now. Where did all the productivity go? What’s more, most people developed routines and ways of working in their leisure time; systems evolved based on such feedback. Our culture developed massive responses. Everyone levelled up. Nobody is compensated for these efforts, but apparently a small elite is living off these gains. Where is the harsh criticism of a system that ravages the planet, to create a flow supposed to keep everyone busy, which is then building up in some opaque accounts of billionaires. Billionairs ought to not exist in the first place.

    If you are a younger person, you can feel the loud screeching of the brake disc on metal, with sparks flying about, as all forces of capitalism, with politicians and elites at the steering wheel, stomp on the brake pedal, and their heels into the ground. They don’t want to do anything. I already see the next wave of propaganda of a pernicious neo-liberal variant that already tries to blame Ordinary Jane and her once-a-decade vacation flight. If each of us would just shave off a few seconds in the bathroom, some electricity, and the planet, could be saved! But let’s not seriously regulate industries, or waste production. It would have been much better with Pinker on our side.

    1. Dear Aneris,

      I have taken the time to savour your latest comment here, which you have expressed in great vividness of the abject predicament of many devoid of hope and decency, plus the looming global ecological crisis and its many severe implications and ramifications, which Pinker has largely and repeatedly sidestepped. Moreover, democracy is on the wane for some times, having supplanted by kakistocracy, which has been looming large in recent years, but seemingly oblivious to Pinker to such an extent that such a climacteric matter has not merited its proper place in any one of his books.

      The problems have been deeply entrenched. Whilst Pluto has been demoted to a dwarf planet, the planet of America has already ascended to plutocracy.

      According to Wikipedia:

      Plutocracy (Greek: πλοῦτος, ploutos, ‘wealth’ + κράτος, kratos, ‘rule’) or plutarchy, is a form of oligarchy and defines a society ruled or controlled by the small minority of the wealthiest citizens. The first known use of the term was in 1631. Unlike systems such as democracy, capitalism, socialism or anarchism, plutocracy is not rooted in an established political philosophy. The concept of plutocracy may be advocated by the wealthy classes of a society in an indirect or surreptitious fashion, though the term itself is almost always used in a pejorative sense.

      The term plutocracy is generally used as a pejorative to describe or warn against an undesirable condition. Throughout history, political thinkers such as Winston Churchill, 19th-century French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th-century Spanish monarchist Juan Donoso Cortés and today Noam Chomsky have condemned plutocrats for ignoring their social responsibilities, using their power to serve their own purposes and thereby increasing poverty and nurturing class conflict, corrupting societies with greed and hedonism.

      Historic examples of plutocracies include the Roman Empire, some city-states in Ancient Greece, the civilization of Carthage, the Italian city-states/merchant republics of Venice, Florence and Genoa, and the pre-World War II Empire of Japan (the zaibatsu). According to Noam Chomsky and Jimmy Carter, the modern day United States resembles a plutocracy, though with democratic forms.

      More from Wikipedia:

      Effects on democracy and society
      Economists Jared Bernstein and Paul Krugman have attacked the concentration of income as variously “unsustainable” and “incompatible” with real democracy. American political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson quote a warning by Greek-Roman historian Plutarch: “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” Some academic researchers have written that the US political system risks drifting towards a form of oligarchy, through the influence of corporations, the wealthy, and other special interest groups.

      Also from Wikipedia:

      United States
      Further information: Income inequality in the United States § Effects on democracy and society
      See also: American upper class and Wealth inequality in the United States

      Some modern historians, politicians, and economists argue that the United States was effectively plutocratic for at least part of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era periods between the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the Great Depression. President Theodore Roosevelt became known as the “trust-buster” for his aggressive use of United States antitrust law, through which he managed to break up such major combinations as the largest railroad and Standard Oil, the largest oil company. According to historian David Burton, “When it came to domestic political concerns, TR’s Bete Noire was the plutocracy.” In his autobiographical account of taking on monopolistic corporations as president, TR recounted

      …we had come to the stage where for our people what was needed was a real democracy; and of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of a plutocracy.

      The underlying opposition is not so much between the Democrats and the Republicans as between the rich plutocrats and the rest of the population. The Democrats need to (re)form their party to unite the 90% of the people living at an entrenched economic and political disadvantage in order to deal with the Plutocrats. In any case, it is going to be a very tall order for Biden to turn things around. It would have been much easier if some Republican senators had been far more honest and incorruptible, for they have been very greedy, uninspired, cowardly and lack criminal, moral and political accountabilities. It is all quite a big mess in danger of getting bigger still. Even a global pandemic still cannot unite folks in the USA and wake them up. Perhaps it will take an even bigger crisis to do so, such as a series of unrelenting climate change disasters.

      I have been featuring an exemplar of a politician, statesman and chancellor so upright and unflinching in their integrity and honesty that if any of those senators had even just a fraction of his goodness and decency to perform their duties and to go against the former POTUS, the USA would not have sunk to such an intractable, dangerous and protracted quagmire. The upright character of this particular politician, statesman and chancellor has been immortalized in a poem, which is featured and explained in my post entitled Strong Wind Knows Tough Grass” published at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2020/11/11/strong-wind-knows-tough-grass/

      This politician, statesman and chancellor had been fired six times and rehired six times, and still he persisted in his upright approach and upstanding ideal. He even surrendered and dedicated his own lands, real estates and military power! If only many more people in the financial, business and political spheres can learn from the upright character that I feature in my said post. In my own words, this historical figure is the personification of enduring loyalty, integrity, bravery and forthrightness achieved with benevolence and righteousness, but without favouritism and transgression. He was certainly not afraid of being fired half a dozen times. And such a person would certainly speak up and oppose corrupt politicians and policies without any fear of losing their job and reputation.

      Enlightenment has been indeed in very short supply where it is needed most.

      Happy October to you and everyone here!

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