Why is Pinker demonized?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a new and longish article by Tom Bartlett about the character, achievements, and demonization of Steve Pinker. Click on the screenshot below to read it.

Let me give my own take on Pinker first. It’s no secret that I consider him a friend and admire him hugely. Among all those in the atheist-sphere with whom I’ve interacted, he’s the most empathic, the most intellectually productive, and the most thoughtful. Dawkins is a marginally better writer, but not by much. I’ve never seen Steve commit a shoddy act nor engage in ad hominem arguments. I’ve read nearly all his books (save the linguistic ones except The Language Instinct), and can’t find much to quibble with.

But people still dislike him—even hate him. This is puzzling to me as he’s a nice guy and can’t be accused of Misogyny and Nazism Through Tweeting. As best I can understand, people don’t like him because he’s famous and they’re not, because he attacks a “blank slate” view of human nature (a view to which much of the Left is ideologically wedded), and because he has documented continuing material and moral progress in humanity (which “riskologists” don’t like because they make their lives crying that the sky is going to fall). I’m not a sociologist, and accept his figures as given, but even his critics can’t find much to quibble with about the data he shows. Rather, they make false claims about his “rosy” view that society will always be improving without effort, and about his ignoring existential threats like atomic wars. If you read his books, though, especially the last two big ones, you’ll see he does take these issues into account.

People like John Gray and others go after him, but I fault them for ignoring the palpable fact (which Pinker documents with endless data) that society is indeed getting better, and has gotten better on average over the last four or five centuries. I doubt John Gray and Pinker’s other critics would want to live in 16th century France, for instance, unless they were royalty or a nobleman. For one thing, they’d be sick a lot of the time, and their life spans would be shorter. Their teeth would hurt and rot. Their food and general well being, not to mention their education, would also be much worse.  Which would you choose: to be a European peasant in 1600 or an American, French, or British farmer today? I think the choice is clear.

A few excerpts. The article begins by raising the same issue that has puzzled me:

It’s not like he was uncontroversial before. His 2002 bestseller, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Viking), ruffled egalitarian sensibilities by arguing that our tabulae are far from rasa. He’s also dipped into contentious debates about gender differences, infanticide, and IQ. But the pushback against his more recent work, beginning with The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), feels harsher, more personal, at times tinged with real anger. Which is surprising, in part because his message — that, hey, despite some significant challenges we’re making progress as a species — seems benign enough. Pinker doesn’t come off like a bomb-thrower; friends and colleagues describe him as generous, curious, eager to share credit. He carries himself with none of the swagger of an academic rock star, though he’s on a short list of those who could reasonably claim that title.

So how did such a nice guy become such a big target?

Before summarizing the criticisms of the Two Big Books, the Chronicle recounts Pinker’s career and his arduous (and, for me, unattainable) work habits:

When he’s at work on a book, Pinker writes obsessively, to the exclusion of almost everything else. “I tend to write morning, noon, and night until I’m finished,” he says. “There’s a low level state of anxiety that keeps me going until the project is done.” Gary Marcus, once Pinker’s student and now a professor of psychology at New York University, remembers working on a paper with him years ago. “He would write for 12 straight hours,” says Marcus, who struggled to keep up. “He could just go and go.”

Yes, that’s what I’ve learned: Pinker told me that when he’s writing, it’s full time except for meals and exercise. And he just keeps doing it. I admire that but I could never emulate it, nor, given my constitution, would I want to. But of course he’s famous and I’m not: that’s the trade-off, even if I did have the brainpower to do what he’s done.

Some of the criticisms:

Pinker isn’t shy about taking on his more substantive critics. Among the most persistent is the philosopher John Gray, whose firmly pessimistic outlook feels like the precise reverse of Pinker’s approach. Gray has called Enlightenment Now“embarrassing” and a “parody of Enlightenment thinking at its crudest.” Gray told me he considers Pinker a “not terribly interesting thinker.” The feeling appears to be mutual. Pinker shrugs off Gray’s critiques as “the kind of argument only an extremely articulate sophist would make.”

Another longtime nemesis is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the best-selling author, statistician, and former Wall Street trader who made his fortune betting against optimism. Taleb accuses Pinker of “unstatistical reasoning” and of disregarding so-called fat-tailed variables — that is, when Pinker contends that we’re living in an extended period of relative peace, Taleb laughs and points out that a nuclear war or other cataclysm could wipe out those gains, just like the subprime mortgage crisis upended the stock market. Pinker responded at length to Taleb in an essay titled “Fooled by Belligerence,” a play on the title of Taleb’s book Fooled by Randomness, writing that Taleb has not read his work carefully and that “accurate attribution and careful analysis of other people’s ideas are not his strong suits.” When asked if he’d ever debate Taleb, Pinker shrugs. “He’s more of a bully than an intellectual,” he says. It’s possible that Taleb, who likes to compare himself physically to a bodyguard, would take that as a compliment.

But Taleb’s not the only one who makes this case. Even some scholars who know Pinker and respect his work, like Niall Ferguson, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, are concerned that his undeniably eloquent tone has turned dangerously reassuring: “I have this really awful feeling that one day we’ll all be sitting in a bombed-out bunker saying, ‘Hey, remember Steven Pinker’s book?”

Well, these criticisms are lame. “Not a terribly interesting thinker”? Maybe not to the arrogant and condescending Gray, but a lot of us enjoy Pinker’s books. He writes a lot better than the leaden and mind-numbing Gray, whose picture appears beside the word “hauteur” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Steve did more than just summarize data, you know: he analyzed the reasons for the world’s moral and material improvement. Gray and others may disagree about those reasons, but let them provide alternative explanations for the same indisputable trends. Taleb and Ferguson’s arguments that Pinker neglects nuclear war are misguided: he takes the threat as real and says we have to work on it. Nowhere does he say that we’re on a fast track to Everything Will be Better; his lesson is that things have gotten better, they’ve gotten better because of the assiduous adoption and employment of Enlightenment values, and we have to uphold those values to keep the world from getting worse. Pinker keeps saying that, and people keep ignoring him.

The one criticism that Bartlett sees as valid doesn’t look so valid after all (my emphasis):

But Pinker complains that it’s often his critics who garble his arguments, and then set about torching straw men of their own creation. For instance, a review in The Nation by David Bell, a Princeton historian, quotes Pinker as asserting that “there really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” as if the committed atheist had expressed faith in unseen forces. In fact, in the quoted passage, Pinker is saying the opposite: that social and political advancement only make it seem as if such an arc exists. Bell stands by the quote, telling me that Pinker disregards the reality that societal improvements “take conscious political action” and that in the book Pinker evinces “contempt for intellectuals and what intellectuals do.”

There’s something to that last charge. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker writes that intellectuals hate “the idea of progress” while happily enjoying its multitudinous comforts (“they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia”). He also mocks academics for embracing Marxism, dismissing science, and for being more interested in crafting critiques than searching for solutions. “It’s easy to take an oppositional stance if you’re not responsible for getting clean water to run through the pipes, sewage to be taken away, electricity to be provided, and police to ensure safety,” Pinker says.

I’ve read both of Pinker’s latest big books (Better Angels and Enlightenment Now), and in fact they are the works of an intellectual, providing copious statistical data as well as rational analysis of the data and reasons for societal trends. The “contempt” that Pinker evinces is not for “intellectuals and what intellectuals do”, but for that subset of intellectuals who are protective of their intellectual turf, who cannot bear to see naked data refuting their hypotheses, and who raise the hue and cry of “scientism” when facts are adduced alongside arguments.

He’s also been accused of being an alt-righter, and that’s the most mendacious accusation of all. Pinker is on the Left, though more toward the center than are, say, the Justice Democrats. He donated a sizable sum to the Democratic Party during the last election cycle, and I know from conversations with him that he’s not the neo-Nazi you’d guess from reading, say, Ph*ryng*l*.

Read the piece for yourself if you wish. I have been accused of being Pinker’s Bulldog or an uncritical fanboy, but I reject those charges. I’ve been critical of plenty of my atheist colleagues when I think they say something wrong or act badly. Some of them, like Michael Shermer, Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins, I remain friends with although I take issue with some of their ideas; others, like Lawrence Krauss, I’ve broken off with completely.  I just haven’t found anything to dislike about or disagree with vis-à-vis Pinker.

I’ll finish with something that we Pinkerphiles always wonder about: what his next book will be. For there will always be a next book until they lay the man in the ground. And here’s the answer:

The book he’s working on now, tentatively titled “Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo,” will attempt to unpack the psychology behind such outsized responses. “One of the reasons that you get shaming mobs, and conspicuous outrage, especially on social media, is when there is some common knowledge that’s an affront to an understanding that is shared in some faction,” he says. When that understanding is under threat, Pinker says, members of that faction “feel obliged to challenge it because their own identity is at stake.”

As Bartlett notes, this sounds a bit like Steve is trying to make intellectual sense of the new opposition he’s encountered, which is a bit defensive. But I don’t mind it, for I’m sure his take on social media, scientism, and the like will be both interesting and readable.

 

149 Comments

  1. Ken Phelps
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    It’s the hair.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

      And the stylish threads — a tonsorial/ sartorial one-two punch.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      You got it.

      • Ann German
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        My first thought

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. (And what’s the bet a lot of those critics are balding and insecure about it.)

      I think Jerry’s point about Pinker being able to write is a good one too. People who think they should be in the top echelon often can’t see that they can’t write as well as people like Pinker, Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens. It’s not just being worth reading that makes a writer. It’s the ease with which you can read their work.

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

      The Woke ain’t cool with cowboy boots.

  2. Posted March 13, 2019 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this.

  3. Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    He’s also been accused of being an alt-righter, and that’s the most mendacious accusation of all.

    The woke faction could never admit that a world dominated by white, male capitalists could ever get better for people in general (as opposed to getting better for white males and worse for the oppressed everyone else).

    Anyone who asserts that the world has got better while being dominated by white, male capitalists is thus necessarily an alt-righter.

    And as for the facts that Pinker adduces, well, to quote the Queen of Wokedom, “my feelings don’t care about your facts”.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      “My feelings don’t care about your facts”, that really summarises it perfectly! It is a great truth, AOC is right, for most people it appears to be so, and obviously is the cause of much unnecessary, nay, deluded hatred.

  4. Larry Smith
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    I think the “not a terribly interesting thinker” charge is because Pinker is always lucid, and employs common sense. Wrap one’s thoughts up in difficult, paradoxical, and even nonsensical prose, and you are now deep.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:34 am | Permalink

      Or it’s just a slam that he knows would be annoying to a thinker. I’ve seen Steven Pinker on shows like Real Time and he’s really quick and able to answer coherently under pressure. I find this a really impressive trait about him. He can keep track of what he is trying to say while being interrupted constantly, while being challenged, and by simply being in an environment with lots of lights and a live audience.

    • GBJames
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      Heh. Gray’s was a not terribly interesting comment, IMO.

  5. Thanny
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    Pinker was called a neo-con on this very web page, in a seriously deluded comment, a number of years ago.

    I’m pretty sure most of the irrational hatred against him is due to his failure to observe illiberal left-wing dogma. Such as not denying the factual IQ differences between races (which prevents discussing the many possible and actual reasons for them, none of which serve the interests of racial supremacists of any stripe). Or not adhering to the absurd belief that everyone is born equally able to succeed in life, if only they could get the right upbringing in every conceivable way.

    In other words, Pinker dares to constrain what he believes with his best understanding of reality. As opposed to believing what the illiberal left demands must be true, to serve their fact-deprived ideology.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      That is how I have thought about the matter. The elements of the left who dislike him say why they feel that way, and we should take their word for it. Very few really believe in a truly blank slate, although I assume there may be some outliers who do. So I had not thought that that issue was important, in general.

      • Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        Destroying the blank state is anathema to the Left as it minimizes their efforts to “make a difference”. In their minds, it is tantamount to saying that there’s nothing one can do to “fix” children as it is all predetermined by their genetic heritage. Of course, that’s a an overheated interpretation and, regardless, if it is true then it would be silly to pretend otherwise.

        The Left have a similar problem with his more recent Enlightenment work. They see it as taking the wind out of their sails. Never mind if it’s true. Never mind if Pinker says that the improvement is all due to good hard work so keep it up.

  6. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    “Let me give my own take on Pinker first. […] (I) can’t find much to quibble with.”

    (If this isn’t too much quote-surgery):

    I think this is precisely the reason the crowd who “loves to hate” Pinker’s ideas stands out, and I propose the criticism is bait – bait to get Pinker to lose it, to get a raw, nasty parry from him, to show he’s a … something… anything… like … well, let’s not go there.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      I think there is something to the “he is famous and they are not” but I think it’s more “he is smart and they aren’t as smart as he is”. So many people are threatened by people who are better at something they are not as good at. Few actually enjoy being in the company of those who are smarter. Few see knowing that person or reading their work as something they can take for themselves so that they can become better and smarter….instead they see such things as only highlighting their own flaws and so they lash out.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

        To your point – There is something about this :

        “Steve did more than just summarize data, you know: he analyzed the reasons for the world’s moral and material improvement. ”

        … I think it’s easier to looks at the same data and come up with alternative thoughts and views about them, than it is to build genuinely competing explanations – though it’s all words on a page, and looks the same, there’s a higher order process to do that.

        So the notion that Pinker is … what you said … I think has something to do with the discrepancy I suggest…

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

        ‘“he is smart and they aren’t as smart as he is”. So many people are threatened by people who are better at something’

        I think you’re right. People all want to think they are the smartest person in the room.

        cr

  7. TJR
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    It is bizarre alright.

    I even remember one commenter saying that Pinker “rarely opens the bible he is thumping”. Really?!

    Anyone who does not think that the world is vastly better now (postwar) than ever before has not read remotely enough history.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:40 am | Permalink

      Because Steven Pinker mentioned it in his Better Angels book, I bought the Big Book of Bad Things. I love that book! And it does give you perspective.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Those who claim that Steven Pinker naively provides an optimistic view of the future haven’t read his books very carefully, or at all. He says often in The Better Angels that all our progress can be wiped away quickly with a catastrophic event like an environmental disaster or a nuclear war. He simply shows that, looking at the big picture, we are progressing steadily toward something better (more moral, more healthy, etc). I think people deliberately miss his point simply because they like the idea of humanity going down the crapper much more than they like the idea of humanity progressing toward something better.

    • randy bessinger
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Many use fear as a motivator to advance their narrative.

    • Historian
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      You note that Pinker concedes that progress can be wiped out by a catastrophic event, such as nuclear war or environmental disaster. But, what can we do to prevent this? It is my estimation that the evidence indicates, not much. For example, the age of nuclear weapons is less than 75 years old – a blink of the eye in historical terms. Can the world prevent a rogue actor from starting a nuclear conflict when it has become easier to get a hold of such weapons? I am not optimistic. This is why, as I have stated in previous comments, that Pinker has written history books. His conclusion that the world has gotten better (on average) is incontestably true. But, it is a snapshot in time. It says nothing about the future because nobody can predict with confidence. For the world to avoid a catastrophe sometime in the future, we don’t know when, would be a major break from the “lessons” of history.

      There is one reason that Pinker has received criticism that I have not seen discussed much. Namely, these critics seem to associate world progress with the rise of capitalism. For those folks who don’t like capitalism, Pinker’s analysis is quite disturbing.

      Finally, one must ask, do the “common folk” really care if the world has gotten better? My answer is only to the extent that they perceive it as such. They do not care that objective analysis reveals that they live much better than most people of even 100 years ago. For them, everything is relative to the world they see around them. If they cannot pay the mortgage or pay for health care, historical allusions mean little. This leads me to conclude that while Pinker’s book has created a furor among intellectuals and people interested in such matters, for the masses it has barely created a ripple, even if they are vaguely aware of it. For the overwhelming majority of people, whether they are pessimistic or optimistic, this book will have no impact. Social media and their favorite cable news outlet will have many more times impact on their thinking. This is too bad, but I can’t think of anything to do about it.

      • Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        IMO, capitalism inculcates several virtues which improved things (for a while and selectively) and also several vices (which are ruining things still). Consequently, the meta-virtue of the Enlightenment kicks in: revise the system to improve it, and that, IMO, means removing economic growth. Does that entail removing capitalism? Perhaps, perhaps not. There is a case to be made for a bunch of socioeconomic systems which have yet to be tried – but it is hard.

        As for the “common folk” – the “subjectivity of better” is an interesting idea and seems to be supported by the sociological findings about income disparity, etc.

        • Posted March 13, 2019 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

          As a person who has lived under a non-capitalist socioeconomic system, I wish to be as far as possible from any place where such systems are being tried.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think the intent of the book is to predict the future. I don’t think Pinker makes any such claim in the book.

        As for “the common folk”, anyone educated enough to understand what Pinker explains in his sections about statistics is educated enough to understand that the anecdotal evidence of the world around them doesn’t show them what the big trends are – that’s why we have statistics. The “common folk” you describe wouldn’t read Pinker’s book and therefore wouldn’t comment on what he writes.

      • rickflick
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

        what can we do to prevent this?…I can’t think of anything to do about it.

        Pinker’s solution is to advance enlightenment values. Enlightenment values are responsible for the progress we’ve made so far. It will not guarantee our future, but it is the best hope of surmounting bad outcomes.

    • RPGNo1
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

      “I think people deliberately miss his point simply because they like the idea of humanity going down the crapper much more than they like the idea of humanity progressing toward something better.”

      Hear, hear!

      This is a very good explanation. Why are especially evangelical Christians often so obsessed with the end of the world, with Armageddon? Pinker ruins their business.

      • Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        I agree with you and Diana. Fear and apocalyptic hype are primary tools in maintaining control, especially when faith in a long-standing myth is on shaky ground. So to posit that things aren’t really all that bad—or, heaven forbid, getting better—is to deprive the doomsayers of leverage and incur their wrath. This is true whether one is challenging the reality of, say, hellfire or climate change. Cages will be rattled.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, he is very well aware that the progress is not ‘automatic’ and vulnerable to the catastrophic events mentioned. I hate it when people are attacked for something they did not contend.
      I’m halfway “Enlightenment Now”, but it appears just as factual and brilliant as his earlier works.
      About all the criticism of Pinker I can only ascribe to ‘reading’ him superficially, not really reading, but just glancing over what he writes.

  9. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    How could it be any other way in the tribal world today. We all get our values and opinions from the same book, that’s face book.

    We should have the results on Manafort very soon. Another beloved fellow. Will wait for the pardon later.

    • Ann German
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      You saw he was just indicted in NY, right?

  10. Robert
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne on Steven Pinker:
    “his lesson is that things have gotten better, they’ve gotten better because of the assiduous adoption and employment of Enlightenment values, and we have to uphold those values to keep the world from getting worse.”
    Thanks, for the above summary. Pinker’s book is a long, detailed argument but easy to follow if you keep the thesis in mind.

  11. JB
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    I think some are concerned that Pinker takes such a calm view of things like climate change (in EN he correctly asserts that it’s very unlikely that no scientific progress on climate science will be made in the next 50 years). I think the alarmists hate him for this. And I think the rational people are concerned that his statements will foment complacency (“I guess I’ll just drive this polluting gas car and let the scientists figure things out later.”)

    Pinker emphasizes that we must push vigorously forward to address these problems, but I think people ignore these words and cast him as someone who thinks the world is all fine and dandy and we can just go play golf.

  12. Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  13. Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    I read his book Enlightment Now. I did not care for his style of writing. And somehhing about his attitude was annoying.
    It is interesting that he writes non stop. That eplains tge impresdion I had while reading his book. It was like listening to someone speaking non stop.

    That is my general impression with out a lot of detail. All I have time for. Maybe more later.

    I also watched one of his videos speaking about the book before I read the book.

    His personality may be just to optimistic for my tastes.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

      Iirc Pinker wrote that he’s adopted Hans Rosling’s answer to “are you an optimist or a pessimist?”

      He’s a “possibilist.” He thinks it’s possible that things will continue to improve if we do what works.

  14. Patricia
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I really appreciate what Pinker did: his two last Big Books were built around very interesting Big Ideas, despite what John Gray says.

    There’s not much I agree with Gray when it comes to atheism/religion, and yes he sounds terribly pompous. There are two points in his review of Enlightenment Now for the NewStatesman that I agree with, though:
    1) Gray touches upon one area of criticism that Sapolsky engages at great length in his discussion of Better Angels: “Nothing is said about human kindness, or fairness, in his formula. Indeed, the logic of his dictum points the other way.”
    2) As someone from the humanities, I find Pinker’s discussion of philosophers and philosophical ideas often head scratching. “Like the faithful who tell you Christianity is ‘a religion of love’ that had nothing to do with the Inquisition, Pinker stipulates that the Enlightenment, by definition, is intrinsically liberal. Modern tyrannies must therefore be products of counter-Enlightenment ideologies – Romanticism, nationalism and the like. Enabling liberals to avoid asking difficult questions about why their values are in retreat, this is a popular view. Assessed in terms of historical evidence, it is also a myth”.

    Other than that, Nassim Taleb is a bully with an exquisite understanding of statistics and not everything that he says can be easily dismissed.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      By “Enlightenment”, Pinker does not really mean a period of history, he means certain values (values which are, indeed, liberal).

      • Patricia
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        That’s right, but he does link that to his understanding of specific philosophical ideas like those of Kant or Nietzsche.

    • JB
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Make sure you watch Nassim Taleb in the 2009 La Ciudad de los Ideas debate. It’s priceless. My cat makes more sense.

      • Patricia
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        I guess I’ll have to look into that.. I’m fine with Taleb’s books, but find all his other forms of speech (Twitter included) cringeworthy.

    • Curtis
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      Taleb is a man with one great idea and sees the whole world through that lens whether it fits or not. He sees Black Swans everywhere and ignores everything else.

      He opposes Golden Rice because of chance GMOs might cause a some problem that an economist cannot possible articulate. Meanwhile millions die and most Nobel Prize winners call the opposition a “crime against humanity.”

  15. Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    In Sapolsky’s Behave, he mentions Pinker a couple of times, generally kindly; but he did point out an inaccuracy in Pinker’s take on isolated tribes. Don’t recall exactly what it was. So it is possible to disagree in a respectful manner.

    • Patricia
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Agreed!

    • Thanny
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      You mean he claimed Pinker said something inaccurate.

      I don’t know the specifics of what you’re referring to, but I’m not going to take Sapolsky’s word on it.

      He’s generally quite good on the human brain, but has made his own errors.

      For example, he actually referred favorably to the “study” about hurricanes with female names causing more death than those with male names, with the proposed cause that people don’t take them seriously when they have female names. The study was a farce, which didn’t even attempt to account for the fact that hurricanes were given exclusively female names for 25 years after official naming began in 1953 (one of many problems).

      He also supports the implicit bias test, which rests entirely on question begging.

      • Patricia
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        It is true that many of social-psychology studies cited uncritically in Behave failed to replicate or have dubious results.
        Nonetheless, there’s an entire chapter (War and Peace) discussing the same issues as The Better Angels. I highly recommend it and this quote stuck to me: “Anyone who says that our worst behaviors are inevitable knows too little about primates, including us”.

      • Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        IIRC, even Johnathan Haidt cites the implicit bias test uncritically.

        • Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

          Gah! Jonathan Haidt, that is.

          • Patricia
            Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

            Well… Sapolsky is a primatologist and a neuroendocrinologist, his main arguments are from those areas of expertise. It is still bad that he is so uncritical of many problematic results, but not as bad as when social psychologists refuse to acknowledge blatant problems in their favorite studies.

    • mrclaw69
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      The bit that Sapolsky particularly criticises is Pinker’s classification of some tribes as hunter-gatherers when more modern anthropologists classify them as hunter-horticulturalists. Sadly I can’t give a page ref as my copy of Behave is in e-book and it only gives % completion or ‘location’ (whatever that is to mean!)

      Okay, fine, let’s grant this. I still don’t think this invalidates Pinker’s central message of the moral arc over time, or his take on pre-state societies vs modern Leviathans / Rousseau vs Hobbes.

      • Patricia
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Sapolsky’s disagreement with Pinker on his chapter War and Peace is more subtle, but should also be mentioned. That chapter makes it clear why Pinker’s analysis of violence among hunter-horticulturalists is flawed, according to Sapolsky.

  16. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Looks like 3.5 years for Manafort. With 3 years from the previous sentence so it looks like roughly 6 years total. You heard it hear first.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      See, things are getting better already. Pinker is right. 🙂

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Yes, and this judge was much better than the other one. She really put it to Manafort and his lawyers on several things. She said their pronouncements of no collusion was a non sequitur and had nothing to do with this case.

        Now she gets to deal with Roger Stone.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          Takes away any excuse that Trump might’ve had to pardon Manafort because the justice system punished him too harshly for his crimes.

          • rickflick
            Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

            I still think Trump will pardon Manafort(and any others that may be in the hoosegow when Trump waves goodby) wherever he has pardon power. Not so much Cohen. I think it’d be an ego thing with him.

            • Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

              Manafort has just been charged with 16 crimes by NY State. If convicted, Trump can’t make those go away.

              • rickflick
                Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

                Yes. And that’s a very good thing.

            • merilee
              Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

              Isn’t everything an ego thing with Trump? Hadn’t heard the lovely word hoosegow in ages🤓

              • rickflick
                Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

                His ego belongs in the hoosegow. 😎

              • merilee
                Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

                His ego and all the rest of him😖

          • Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

            Trump won’t bother giving an excuse with his pardons beyond “He is a good guy and was treated unfairly”. He knows that the Constitution doesn’t require it and it portrays more power if he can omit “due process”. It wouldn’t surprise me if his decision to ground the planes today was because he found out he could do it without anyone’s permission. He never misses a chance to flaunt the power of his office.

            • rickflick
              Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

              Doing it without anyone’s permission must be an aspect of narcissistic personality disorder.

            • rickflick
              Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

              He’s remarkably consistent.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

              Re grounding the 737 MAX – I don’t normally defend tRump but I think this step was inevitable.
              https://edition.cnn.com/2019/03/13/politics/donald-trump-boeing-faa/index.html

              Every other country including Canada has now grounded them. It would seem that the FAA, which previously declared the 737MAX airworthy ‘until further information was available’, has now reversed and says that information (from the FDR and CVR) is in. How much of the FAA’s position was technically motivated and how much a matter of realpolitik (including not wanting to be the last holdout) I wouldn’t care to speculate.

              Trump is known to be a big booster of Boeing. I suspect his decision this time was not so much a ‘look what I can do’ attitude as not wanting to be forced into it later.

              (Re the 737 MAX it would seem that, in putting bigger engines on, which had to be placed further forward and higher, the handling qualities of the 737 have been degraded to the point where this MCAS system had to be installed to maintain acceptable handling under certain conditions. It is a runaway of the MCAS that is suspected of causing the crashes.

              Really the whole plane should have been redesigned (and probably given a different type number) but that would have meant pilots had to retrain and recertify to fly it and the launch customer – Southwest Airlines – reputedly wanted to avoid that.)

              cr

  17. DrBrydon
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I think it’s pretty obvious why people don’t like Pinker. It seems to me that much of the ideology of the current Left rests on the idea that things now are terrible, they’ve always been terrible, and they will continue to be terrible as long as we embrace white, European, capitalist ideas (which are all really synonyms to them). For Pinker to say that things have gotten better is a direct challenge to that formulation, and undercuts the imminence argument for radical change.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      The left also has an unhealthy disdain for modernity that plays into what you just stated.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Worse than that, the Enlightenment values, and the improvement in our human condition were mainly due to ‘patriarchal’ white males. Anathema! Gotspe! That must be Alt-Right!

    • Sastra
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      I once tried to summarize Pinker’s Better Angels book to some of my crunchy granola liberal friends. When I explained that he says the world today is more peaceful than at any time in history, they frowned and shook their heads. There’s been no improvement and can be no improvement without radical change not yet attempted, they said.

      When I explained that he said that one reason for the decline of violence is that the Peace Movement is actually working, they smiled and nodded. They belong to that!

      Then they looked confused.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        That reminds me of this cartoon.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      I think they also have an aversion to clear writing, and Pinker is an exemplar in that respect.

  18. Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The other thing that surprises me is that in the Blank Slate, Pinker clearly states it’s a mixture of nature and nurture that drives us. To me this is not a unreasonable conclusion. Again If I recall correctly he was saying about 50/50 for the parts of our lives where we can gather evidence.

  19. Richard Sanderson🤴
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    “Why is Pinker demonized?”

    Simples.

    He puts truth and facts ahead of snowflake tears and narrative.

    That’s why far left extremists really dislike him. This includes the usual dimwit trolls such as PZ Myers, Dan Arel, and Peter Ferguson, all of whim threw science, logic, and facts under the SJW bus a long time.

    We will Resist them.

    • chrism
      Posted March 14, 2019 at 7:19 am | Permalink

      If one wants to inflict radical change on society, one must first create a perception that change is required because the current situation is unsatisfactory. This is the function of agitprop in a revolution. Consequently anyone pointing out change has occurred for the better must be shouted down – they are the modern equivalent of the mensheviks. It’s not just Pinker – try announcing the stunning progress of the WHO initiative to reduce extreme poverty and hunger by half, which hit its target five years early, and see what happens. Consider the massive steps taken to near complete equality and acceptance of all sorts of minorities in western society – yet we hear more complaints on behalf of (rather than from) those minorities than ever. Facts must be ignored, or sometimes created, when political goals are in play.

  20. Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I spotted Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, at (a Canadian) Costco the other day. So if you want to pick it up at a discounted price, you might want to hurry.

    I picked up the ‘Skeptics Guide to the Universe’ there before Christmas, really enjoyed it, decided to buy some extra copies for friends/relatives, and was disappointed to find that Costco no longer carries it. It was about half the price of what it sells for in bookstores.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I got a hard cover copy of The Better Angels of our Nature for something like $5 at Indigo-Chapters a couple years ago. Sometimes you just get lucky. I think I bought my dad a copy too when I saw it.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      For UK readers it’s in the ‘buy one, get one half price’ offer in Waterstones.

  21. Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I’ve always thought there was a simple explanation for Pinkerphobia: the steady improvements in the West have correlated with increased secularism. Its not a mere coincidence, many improvements I think can be tied specifically to a decrease in religious thinking. Theists, as well as faith-sympathizers dont want to admit this.

    I suppose a second reason is that he’s such a clear, powerful thinker he presents a juicy target to those who fancy themselves the type of intellectual that sees beyond the facade to how things really are. Its pretty much the same reason that so many guys would challenge Mike Tyson to a fight when he was in prison.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I read something about bullying the other day that also fits – it said that kids bully the weak while adults bully the strong. I’ve found this to be true in life & I think it fits some of the attacks on Pinker.

  22. jhs
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Though I am not sure if people love to hate Pinker, if people do, it probably has to do with vanity, pride and arrogance. And competition, which might not be bad if it involves “healthy” competitors.

    This post reminds me of a phrase that I learned in my high school Chinese literature class. I was too nerdy to understand what it means then. It can be translated into “Two of a trade can never agree.”

  23. kurtzs
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, human successes over the past 200 years, thanks to technologies like sanitation, green revolution, and modern medicine, permitted an 800% increase in our numbers. Each of us, no matter how simply we live, displaces habitat for other life forms excepting human parasites and things thriving on our waste and planetary alterations. No other exceptions I’m aware of!

    Read Ronald Wright’s _A Short History of Progress_. It is his 6 Massey Lectures (U of Toronto) There are tipping points in resource depletion and biosphere toxification that Pinker ignores to the best of my knowledge. Pollinators, aquifers, topsoil, fish stocks, are in serious declines. There are many others.

    Lastly, read this from the 90s:
    https://homerdixon.com/eps/
    He was head of Peace and Conflict Studies at U of Toronto, and has written several best selling books utilizing system thinking at a level laymen can understand.

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that could be a criticism of Pinker, but he’s well aware of those threats though (yes, he does not always go into the specifics). But the fact we are aware of them is in itself reason for some optimism, I’d say.

  24. Gasper
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    People will generally accept facts as truth only if the facts agree with what they already believe.
    —Andy Rooney

    • Historian
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      I think this is generally true. To the extent that this is true, it provides an important lesson for those concerned about winning elections. It is not cost efficient to waste resources trying to change the minds of those who voted for the people you don’t like. Rather, the best strategy is to increase turnout for your candidate through getting to the polls people sympathetic to your candidate, but didn’t turn out to vote. This observation is important for those who hope to defeat Trump. Despite the urging of certain liberals that efforts should be expended to change the minds of Trump voters, polls have shown that such efforts have largely failed. The 2018 election had a large turnout and that largely made the difference for Democratic gains.

  25. Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Looking back at the main themes of Pinker’s work, it is fairly easy to see why he gets such a large pushback. He chose to explode several widely held big ideas that just happen to be wrong: the blank slate, human speech system (often opposing the hugely influential Chomsky), and intellectual pessimism. Looks like he’s tilting his lance at another one now.

    He’s also very good at crushing his chosen targets. His skill in argument and data analysis don’t give his intellectual opponents much wiggle room. Finally, I suspect his calm, respectful replies to their criticisms frustrate them no end.

    He’s definitely one of my heroes.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      I don’t remember him opposing Chomsky’s theories.

      He explains them with more clarity and more enthusiasm than Chomsky does.

      • Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

        From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Language_Instinct:

        “Pinker argues that humans are born with an innate capacity for language. He deals sympathetically with Noam Chomsky’s claim that all human language shows evidence of a universal grammar, but dissents from Chomsky’s skepticism that evolutionary theory can explain the human language instinct.”

        I think Pinker also disagrees with Chomsky’s particular mechanism choices for universal grammar but I’ve forgotten the details. I’m no linguistics expert but Chomsky seems to think that the processing is more structured and Pinker seems to think it is more arbitrary. I find Pinker has a better appreciation for the details of speech processing in the brain.

        • Posted March 13, 2019 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

          I don’t think that’s disagreeing with Chomsky about the structure of language. It’s just that Chomsky, being a cognitive scientist rather than an evolutionary biologist, isn’t interested in the origin or anatomy of language, and regards the brain as a black box. For him it’s all input and output; the brain might as well be clockwork. There’s no difference I can see between Pinker and Chomsky on grammar.

  26. norm walsh
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed both of Pinker’s latest big books, but found Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens somewhat easier to read.

  27. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Ph*ryng*l*

    Hey, what’s a “y” gotta do to get a sometimes asterisk around here?

    • DrBrydon
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      I actually had to stop and think about what that was supposed to be when I read it.

  28. Curtis
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    I love Pinker’s early writing especially Blank Slate but I found Better Angels a slog. Convincing, powerful and necessary but not really enjoyable. I find it hard to believe that most people actually finish it. I prefer two other books about things getting better.

    Non Zero by Robert Wright. It looks at history from non-zero sum game theory point of view and why cooperation works.

    Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. It goes through the data about how life is improving in ways other violence.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know…I listened to the audiobook version of Better Angels. Thirty-five plus hours and not a dull moment. Some of the credit no doubt goes to his narrator, but I found the book riveting.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

        I actually really looked forward to reading it each evening. I did find it a big commitment to read even though I liked it, simply because it was so long. I’m a slow reader and I only read at night when I’m going to bed because I tend to fall asleep reading… so that is my challenge.

  29. Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    There’s also that many academics consider a lot of Pinker’s work to be “popularizations” in the bad sense: they run rough-shod over developments in many different fields and so are (said to be) oversimplifying. (Bunge said this about _How The Mind Works_, for example, because it failed to seriously engage with criticisms of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.)

    I agree with this charge about *parts* of _Enlightenment Now_ (for example), particularly the parts about certain threats and about the historical Enlightenment. I would be willing to let the latter go; the first is serious, since it does cut to the heart of what to do next. IMO perhaps that should have been a break in the book; what have we done as a first book, what next as a second. That’s because I do not see any attempt to engage (as I’ve mentioned) either philosophers of technology or IT security practitioners on their take on (say) robotics and AI. (I happen to be both: trained as the former, now work in the latter. This is to disclose my professional biases, if any.)

    I do not know how to address the question of oversimplification in either of (a) massively interdisciplinary work and (b) popularizations that are also meant to be reasonably cogent contributions to the relevant scholarly literatures.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      Can you give us a hint as to where Pinker has it wrong regarding “certain threats”? Because of the topic, I feel we should go some length toward making things clear.

      • Posted March 15, 2019 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        His discussion of AI, for example, and software in general.

        • Posted March 15, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

          If you are talking about Pinker’s opinion on the coming AI apocalypse then it can easily be dismissed, IMHO. Every talking head has an opinion on whether we are approaching the AI Singularity or similar nonsense because people ask them about it. The opinions are all over the map. Sometimes the opinions differ solely because of differences in the timeframe being considered. Some are really responding to the question, “Should we study the potential problem?” Clearly the answer is “yes”. Sometimes it’s “Are robots going to take over the world?”. Probably not but who knows?

          If I recall correctly, Pinker thinks we will focus on creating AI that complements our own skills rather than duplicates them. I agree with that but still worry that bad people will use AI to do bad things.

          The future is notoriously hard to predict. Since we’re not close to producing a true AI with capabilities that would challenge us, it is a hard question to answer.

        • Posted March 15, 2019 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

          To be specific – he did not cite the work of any IT security practitioners about their view of the risks that are out there. I’ve seen this sort of dismissal of work elsewhere in his work – he doesn’t do it consistently but sometimes he ignores or poopoos other experts. For a (minor) example, he seems to have dismissed Jean Briggs’ _Never in Anger_ without reading it (the “never angry” attitude of the Inuit, which can be over romanticized is not a descriptive claim that Briggs, but a recognition of the Inuit *normative* attitude).

  30. Joe Dickinson
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I look forward to reading “Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo,” as soon as it’s out.

  31. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Some millenarianists, including some of the secular variety, aren’t happy unless they’re miserable, especially about humanity’s prospects.

  32. Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    A tiny part of the reason: he quotes Christina Hoff Sommers in his work (Blank slate) (which I think is fine, but she is hated by many on the regressive left)

  33. Posted March 13, 2019 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    If you’re as known and prolific as Steven Pinker, it would be surprising if there weren’t detractors.

    But it seems a current fashion to judge people by the totality of what someone knows about them, which might be little. I appreciate both Taleb and Pinker, and others sorted into opposing camps.

    I greatly enjoyed Pinkers other books, from How the Mind Works to Sense of Style, but was much less interested in the two recent books on historical progress, which still sit on the shelf. In recent years, for better or worse, he was endorsed by the rich and powerful, like Bill Gates. He crossed over into global politics, and together with his earlier criticism of the left, it might have created an impression of greasing global investment and exploitation.

    • Patricia
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      I think those endorsements, along with what many saw as a too optimistic (or naive) analysis of current threats, are some of the reasons for scepticism.

      That’s because most people have the feeling that the rich and powerful are doing Something Very Wrong. Or at least unfair. To quote the (very good) TLS review of EN: “this never has been, and never will be, the best of all possible worlds”. Who would dare disagree?

      I do believe we need to think harder about the conditions under which enlightenment values flourish. It seems Pinker is not going in that direction with his next book.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

      Many of Pinker’s critics see him as an apologist for capitalism. For example, in EN he argues that economic inequality per se doesn’t impinge on happiness. His point is then taken from context extrapolated onto the mindset of a rich bigot who would enjoy hearing that.

      That, and they don’t like the company he keeps.

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      I preferred his earlier books too, but I think it’s just the subject matter.

      They are necessary rejoinders to trendy pessimism but I just don’t find ‘progress’ that interesting.

  34. Nicolaas Stempels
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    “Which would you choose: to be a European peasant in 1600 or an American, French, or British farmer today? I think the choice is clear.”
    Stronger, would you rather be a European nobleman in 1600 or an American, French, or British farmer today? I think most of us would still choose the latter, if you think about it carefully.
    (Just think of George Washington’s dentures -albeit later than 1600….)

    • Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      I’d rather be a modern day peasant than a king in the days before the toothbrush.

      • Patricia
        Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

        It’s amazing what human beings can get used to. Anecdotally, my 92 years old grandfather hasn’t had any teeth for decades, never been to a dentist, not sure if he ever brushed his teeth much (we’re not from a developed country). He must have been in quite some pain for some time but developed the ability to eat “normally” after that (no dentures). On the plus side, not wearing shoes much and vigorous work have kept his joints in quite good shape so far.

  35. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    The basic question of why people in non-trivial numbers express a dislike for a nice guy like Pinker doesn’t excite much interest for me. If I consider that many, perhaps most, people are not very nice, then I fail to see cause for surprise.

    He carries himself with none of the swagger of an academic rock star, though he’s on a short list of those who could reasonably claim that title.

    Hmmm, “Fantasy Science Rockstars”? Sounds like a round for ISIHAC.
    Obviously the Two Brians (Cox and May) can cover the physics world quite adequately. Andrea Sella for the Department of Bangs and Bad Smells? I’m perfectly happy for Pinker to cover the Linguistics wing and a significant chunk of Headshrinkology too.
    Who for the Squishy Department – well I’m sure our Host could cover the medium-sized Squishies, but who for the Big Squishies and Micro-Squishies?
    Dead Big Squishies has a number of candidates – Shubin and his Inner Fish spring (flop?) to mind. Dead little Squishies – I can’t think of anyone better than Professor Fortey and his Thousand-Trilobite Stare. As long as you can stop him from eating the exhibits.
    There’s a lot of mileage yet in this.

    • Neil Wolfe
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

      Dark Helmet: I knew it. I’m surrounded by assholes! [Closes helmet] Keep firing, assholes!

  36. merilee
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  37. danstarfish
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I think one of the reasons that some people dislike Pinker is because so many other people find him so convincing.

    Another reason is that he has built a highly credible case for things that deeply challenge some people’s worldview.

    I think he is actually pretty popular and well-regarded overall. I think he got more flak after his last book, but before that I was always amazed at how he could wade into controversial topics without setting off firestorms. He has an amazing ability to be very clear, honest, and forthright and yet diplomatic and respectful at the same time. If you have seen his debate with Elizabeth Spelke, it was amazing to see how he made it clear that he deeply respected her and her work even as they disagreed on a contentious issue.

  38. TD2000
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been a fan of Pinker since “The Blank Slate,” and I of course agree with the thesis of EN, but his chapter on the environment reminded me of the juvenile contrarianism of a Slate article.

    As I’ve said before on this site, Pinker is a Panglossian technophile, which is exactly what we don’t need in our current historical moment.

    I wish he was correct, but the trends on biodiversity, population, atmospheric carbon, global land and ocean temperature, etc aren’t going in the direction that his other plots are. In fact, the massive decline in environmental quality we’ve seen over the past 200 years are the reason most of the other metrics are improving.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      You are right. The Earth is dying. The most trends are all the wrong way. On the other hand, military weapons have increased their power over human history, yet, so far, we’ve found ways to manage them. Let’s hope the same is true of environmental degradation. Awareness of the climate issue is very widespread and actions are being taken worldwide, which is a good sign. We’ve got to act fast. Let’s hope some threshold has not already been passed.

    • Lorna Salzman
      Posted March 13, 2019 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

      Pinker was dealing with the human condition, and did not address the condition and fate of other species and the planet’s ecosystems. His reliance on nuclear physicists was surprising and deplorable. American anti-intellectualism is still rife, and if you are
      an intelligent atheist who believes in science and reason you are automatically suspect. I think attitudes towards him as well as Dawkins are anti intellectual but they also reek of jealousy. At this point in time anyone who is free of ideology and doctrine and supports science and reason is considered an enemy for not allowing one’s personal gripes and preferences to shape his/her politics. Naturally public intellectuals who speak out or publish are
      targeted for scorn. PS: John Gray is an idiot.

      • Posted March 13, 2019 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

        His reliance on nuclear physicists was surprising and deplorable.

        “Deplorable”?

        -Ryan

  39. Raskos
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    jared Diamond gets a lot of hate from the academic left as well. Part of it appears to be for reasons similar to those applied to Pinker – he’s a quantitative empiricist trespassing on their sacred ground. And he gets it from the right because he makes the case that environmental issues are important and can contain serious threats, and gives evidence that earlier cultures have succumbed to them. Which is unacceptable to the cornucopians.

  40. Christopher
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I agree with other comments about Pinker upsetting people’s preconceptions or ideologies, but there may be another reason: not being able to understand his arguments. I have not read his book, “The Blank Slate”, but listening to him lecture or be interviewed about it I found it difficult to follow his reasoning. In part this is no doubt due to my own stupidity clashing with his education, in part due to my preference towards reading rather than listening, or perhaps I should take notes like I’m in class. So that’s my two cents.

  41. Posted March 13, 2019 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know any of Dr. Pinker’s critics so I don’t know why they vehemently disagree with much of what he says. They do often engage in argumentum ad hominem, so by the standards of rhetoric they have lost the arguement. Is it possible that the motivation is mainly jealousy? I wonder.

  42. Senthil Narayan
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

    Elephant in the room: failures of socialist policy.

    Pinker’s work proves, with data which would’ve been attacked horribly by Leftists if it was inaccurate, that the Left’s economic ideas have failed miserably and liberalism works and has won.

    Not just in the West – wherever private property rights were introduced and socialist controls were relaxed, wealth increased and poverty and suffering reduced dramatically and it continues.

    The Left does not want a formidable critic like Pinker, so they can go on with their nonsense like ‘it was run by the State, so it wasn’t socialism’.

    The responses to Pinker have been pathetic. In this age when kids have sadly caught the bug yet again, and their ideas will fail (and worse) again, Pinker is even more relevant.

  43. Nope
    Posted March 13, 2019 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    “others, like Lawrence Krauss, I’ve broken off with completely. I just haven’t found anything to dislike about or disagree with vis-à-vis Pinker”

    Both apparently friends with Epstein, with Pinker in particular flying on Epstein’s infamous plane. There’s some things to dislike about Pinker’s behavior it seems…

    • Posted March 14, 2019 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      Umm. . . . this is about as low a blow as you can level. Until you have evidence that Pinker engaged in sexual malfeasance, keep your damn insinutations to yourself. There have been NO intimations that Pinker engaged in malfeasance or knew about it.

  44. Posted March 14, 2019 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    You are being too tender about a friend and certainly more tender than your friend is about it. He is a sometime-contrarian and offers provocation. By taking the view that there is no need for sensitivity or social conscience in academic/intellectual arguments he invites harsh and heated responses. Perhaps his critics overdo their irritation but the heat in this kitchen is caused by Pinker’s style of cooking.

    • Posted March 14, 2019 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      I utterly reject your characterization. As the article said, Pinker is the least confrontational of scholars. So don’t blame the heat he takes on his style. It’s based on what he said. And I further reject your claim that I am too easy on him because he’s a friend: I addressed that claim in the text.
      “Provocation”? Ha!

  45. a.morphous
    Posted March 14, 2019 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    He’s being “demonized” because of the company he keeps — Quillette, Jordan Peterson, and the rest of the alt-right-adjacent intellectual dork web.

    This may be unfair, but it is not in the least bit mysterious.

    • Posted March 14, 2019 at 4:28 am | Permalink

      Sorry, but he was attacked and criticized LONG before the intellectual dark web. That’s just a further excuse for going after him.

  46. Ole H
    Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    Evolutionary psychology is an inconvenient truth, so let’s shoot the messenger.

  47. Posted March 14, 2019 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    I don’t demonize Pinker, nor do I hate him. I do think he got the history of the Blank Slate wrong. The Blank Slate may well be the greatest debacle in the history of science, so it’s important to get the facts straight. In Chapter 6 of “The Blank Slate,” Pinker portrays E. O. Wilson as the knight in shining armor who slew the Blank Slate dragon. That’s nonsense. By the time Wilson published “Sociobiology” and “On Human Nature,” the Blank Slate orthodoxy was already well on the way to collapsing. The heroes in its demise were actually men like Konrad Lorenz, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and, most prominently of all, the outsider and “mere playwright” Robert Ardrey. They had written influential books in the 60’s, pointing out the absurdity of the Blank Slate, and making it a laughing stock among intelligent lay people. However, for their sin of shaming the academic tribe, they had been ostracized as “fascists,” and “racists,” in the manner we have become so familiar with today. Pinker, a member of the academic tribe himself, decided to airbrush them out of history.

    He accomplished this remarkable feat in a single paragraph in Chapter 7 of “The Blank Slate,” where he declared that they had been “totally and utterly wrong.” He did not mention exactly why. However, a footnote cites Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” as the authority for this claim. It turns out Dawkins never claimed they were “totally and utterly wrong” about human nature, the major theme of their work. His claim was actually limited to group selection, a topic that never played more than an ancillary role in any of their work. In one of the more ironic twists of history, Pinker’s “knight in shining armor,” Wilson, has now outed himself as a greater proponent of group selection than any of those denounced by Pinker as “totally and utterly wrong.” In a puff piece on Wilson that recently appeared on public TV, Pinker was actually portrayed as a “bad guy” for supporting the “Selfish Gene,” whereas Wilson was a “good guy” for supporting “altruistic” group selection!

    The paragraph in question also claims that those Pinker attempted to reduce to unpersons believed in “archaic hydraulic theories” of behavior. As far as I know, Lorenz was the only one who ever mentioned anything close to a “hydraulic theory,” but not as a theory. He did have a simple hydraulic model to illustrate aspects of behavior. The accuracy of the model can be confirmed by anyone capable of raising a few fish or geese. Lorenz’s model was transmogrified into a “theory” by one Daniel Lehrman in a paper entitled “A Critique of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior,” published in 1953. Lehrman actually had the gall to claim that, because Lorenz was fond of his model, and used it often, he therefore must believe that the model was literally true, making it a “theory.” The reason for this shameful lie is clear when one reads the paper, which is available online. Lehrman was a Blank Slate nut case of the first water, who even denied instinctive behavior in rats and geese! He hated Lorenz for insisting such ideas were nonsense.

    Other than Pinker’s bowdlerization of the history of the Blank Slate, I have a problem with his belief in “moral progress.” Anyone who takes Darwin seriously cannot possibly take the notion of “moral progress” seriously. In Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man” Darwin makes it perfectly clear that morality is subjective, and an artifact of natural selection. It follows that anyone claiming the possibility of “moral progress” must also believe that natural selection had a purpose and a goal, which is nonsense. How can there be “progress” if there is no goal towards which one “progresses?” What Pinker means by “moral progress” is actually “progress towards what I want.” Belief in “moral progress” is completely equivalent to a statement of faith in objective morality, and un-Darwinian to the core.

    I realize this comment violates “Da Roolz,” so won’t be disappointed if you delete it. I mainly intended it FYI.

    • Patricia
      Posted March 14, 2019 at 8:46 am | Permalink

      Even if natural selection has no purpose or goal, societies do come up with goals which most people, most of the time agree they would like to achieve eventually. It doesn’t need to be a statement of faith in objective morality. But I agree that we should be careful with our faith on those more or less consensual goals.
      Enlightenment Now is “a book of statistics about the age of statistics, a book of graphs about the age of graphs. If we live in a world in which, by all sorts of measures, things get better and better, that is in part because we pay attention to measurements and judge success and failure by quantifiable outcomes”.

    • Posted March 14, 2019 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      Your comment on “moral progress” and evolution seems wrong to me. While evolution doesn’t have a goal, its trajectory certainly bends towards greater complexity and capability, at least from our vantage point as a species who managed to go to the moon.

      Furthermore, while cultural and moral evolution has similarities to biological evolution, it also has differences. Unlike evolution, we do have explicit goals and think about how to reach them. While it is a messy process, it bends toward greater morality. Of course, we don’t all agree about those goals but, looking back, it is easy to see that progress has been made.

  48. Vita206
    Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Anecdote:

    I’ve just finished reading Diderot and the Art of Critical Thinking by Andrew S Curran. Diderot (1713 – 1784) had long standing intestinal issues. Diderot insisted that an autopsy be done upon his death (Ha! Not before!!). He had fluid in his lungs, an enlarged heart and 21 gallstones (one the size of a hazelnut). Now, if one recalls their biology, then the connection between gallstones and intestinal issues is obvious. Image living with an ‘abundance’ of gallstones in 2019! I would say we’ve made a bit of progress.

    • Vita206
      Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Sorry!

      The correct title of Curran’s book is: Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely.

  49. Roo
    Posted March 14, 2019 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if this is specific to Pinker or if there is just something hateful about our online culture in general. These days a YouTuber says something that mildly rubs people the wrong way and people feel the need to make vitriolic videos so angry you’d think the person had stolen their dog, not disagreed with them on some minor point. That his last book is most criticized may simply be about where it falls on the timeline, as some of his work was pre-internet culture and some of it is from a time when the internet was far more interested in celebrities and models than academics.

  50. Cecil Taylor Swift
    Posted March 14, 2019 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Speaking as someone who read both The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works and found them both engrossing and enlightening, but who thinks Pinker started to go off the rails with The Blank Slate, and also as a “far” leftist in American terms (i.e. European social democrat)who has absolutely no objection to innatist approaches to human psychology, here’s my objections to Pinker, offered in good faith:

    – “The Blank Slate” notion is a bit of a straw man. I don’t know of any contemporary scholar in the humanities or social sciences who defends a hard constructionism. Even Karl Marx, the arch-bogeyman of the supposed “Standard Social Science Model” that ev. psych. people rail against, believed in an innate human “essence” or endowment (the entirety of the 1844 Manuscripts is full of a defense of this “essence”, and Dan Dennett is fond of quoting a passage from Capital about how precisely humans differ from bees)

    – Often, when railing against various intellectual figures in the humanities or social sciences, it’s obvious that, at best, Pinker has maybe skimmed some secondary literature, and at worst hasn’t really engaged with such thinkers at all. I can elaborate if anyone wants me to, but I’ll pick one example I happen to know a lot about: his depiction of Adorno and Horkheimer as “anti-Enlightenment” thinkers is laughably wrong, and is obviously so to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of their work. Their collaborative book, “Dialectic of Enlightenment”, is a _defense_ of Enlightenment reason against its purported enemies, which they regard as the hollowing out of the values of the European Enlightenment in favor of a stunted, “instrumental” rationality. But Pinker casts them as some kind of Nietzschean or Heideggerian counter-Enlightenment thinkers.

    – I’d agree that in politics, Pinker is basically a centrist, neoliberal Democrat. But I think he’s disingenuous in terms of the company he keeps. For example, pretending that Quillette is some kind of disinterested publication of open debate, when in fact Clair Lehmann’s Alt-Right past is pretty well-documented, and it’s readily apparent that Quillette pushes a certain constellation of politics. There’s nothing wrong with political advocacy, but political advocacy dressed up as merely as disinterested “reason” is highly disingenuous. And Pinker tends to give a pass to these types while not extending the same principle of charity to thinkers on the left.

    Also, Pinker tends not to respond to professional critics in the fields that he intrudes upon (historians, anthropologists). There’s something disingenuous about how he only engages with the weakest critics of his work, like John Gray, while completely ignoring the stronger ones.

    So, those are some brief points. I can elaborate further if anyone wants. There is plenty to object to in Pinker’s work without accusing his critics of all being hysterical leftists or professionally jealous. Personally, I kind of wish he’d stick to writing cognitive science and linguistics, his actual fields, since I think he’s great at that, and refrain from amateurish pop history and pop social science.

    • Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

      “I don’t know of any contemporary scholar in the humanities or social sciences who defends a hard constructionism.”

      Perhaps not but there are plenty of Lefties who believe that sex is a social construct. I’m guessing there are still papers written by scholars that rest on this and similar ideas.

      “Clair Lehmann’s Alt-Right past is pretty well-documented”

      I read Quillette articles quite often, as does our host based on the number of mentions here. While they cover a lot of territory, they do seem to follow a general theme of supporting rationality over shoddy thinking, which is also a big theme on WEIT and one reason I visit here.

      “Also, Pinker tends not to respond to professional critics in the fields that he intrudes upon (historians, anthropologists)”

      The reviews of Pinker’s Enlightenment Now from historians and anthropologists tend to only pick on minute details of his characterization of the Enlightenment. They invariably run along the lines of “The Enlightenment was not as simple a time as Pinker makes out. His summary leaves out x, y, and z.” These kinds of complaints are made by experts in fields when reviewing a summary by someone outside the field. While what they point out may be true, IMHO, they fail to subtract substantially from what Pinker is saying.

    • chrism
      Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      If Claire Lehmann is alt-right then I must be too. Or are we using the definition of alt-right that defines it as “anyone I disagree with is alt-right”?

      • Cecil Taylor Swift
        Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        Paul Topping:

        Everyone of every political and intellectual tendency claims to “support rationality over shoddy thinking”, whether they’re Marxist-Leninists, Libertarian free marketeers, or European fascists. Have you ever encountered anyone claiming to promote the opposite, i.e. “supporting shoddy thinking over rationality”? Of course not. Claiming to be for rationality at that level of generality is meaningless. It’s something all people of all persuasions claim to support. Saying a publication does so tells us nothing about the concrete positions it promotes.

        In Quillette’s case, they promote a melange of economic Libertarianism, concern-trolling about “free speech”, and watered-down right-wing talking points. Again, that’s fine, but they do so from the bad faith perspective of pretending it’s disinterested and non-partisan.

        chrism:

        Lehmann’s past as a correspondence for Rebel Media is well-documented. If your or Lehmann want to claim she’s since left behind such politics, fine, but she never really addresses it publicly and continues to pretend to be some sort of neutral, good faith observer.

        • Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          Of course everyone claims to be a rational thinker but sometimes it takes good articles like those generally in Quillette to point out where they’re wrong.

          I don’t know or care about Claire Lehmann’s history. I thought we were really talking about the articles in her publication. I don’t find your labels to be anywhere close to what I read in Quillette so I guess that’s end of this discussion. Based on the articles she chooses for her publication, I find her to be a “neutral, good faith observer” to use your words. If you want to carry this further, you are going to have to point to a Quillette article that you don’t agree with.

      • Cecil Taylor Swift
        Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

        Paul Topping:

        Everyone of every political and intellectual tendency claims to “support rationality over shoddy thinking”, whether they’re Marxist-Leninists, Libertarian free marketeers, or European fascists. Have you ever encountered anyone claiming to promote the opposite, i.e. “supporting shoddy thinking over rationality”? Of course not. Claiming to be for rationality at that level of generality is meaningless. It’s something all people of all persuasions claim to support. Saying a publication does so tells us nothing about the concrete positions it promotes.

        In Quillette’s case, they promote a melange of economic Libertarianism, concern-trolling about “free speech”, and watered-down right-wing talking points. Again, that’s fine, but they do so from the bad faith perspective of pretending it’s disinterested and non-partisan.

        chrism:

        Lehmann’s past as a correspondence for Rebel Media is well-documented. If you or Lehmann want to claim she’s since left behind such politics, fine, but she never really addresses it publicly and continues to pretend to be some sort of neutral, good faith observer.

        • rickflick
          Posted March 14, 2019 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

          Cecil, you seem to be contradicting yourself.
          On the one hand you recognize that everyone assumes they are the center and are rational, clear thinkers(even Fox news?). On the other hand you complain that Quillette holds an opinion of itself that you find a pretense and in bad faith. Why aren’t they entitled to the same solipsism? Your first contention protects Quillette from the second concern.

    • Posted March 14, 2019 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      @Swift

      So you think the Blank Slate was a “straw man?” Seriously? You’re going to have to destroy a lot of source material before that lead balloon ever flies. Check out, for example, “Man and Aggression,” a collection of Blank Slate essays edited by Ashley Montagu that appeared in 1968. Therein Montagu, one of the most prominent public scientists of the mid-20th century delivered himself of such tidbits as,

      “Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired from his culture, from the man-made part of the environment, from other human beings.”

      “In fact, I also think it very doubtful that any of the great apes have any instincts. On the contrary, it seems that as social animals they must learn from others everything they come to know and do.”

      Then you can take a look at “Not in Our Genes” by Prof. CC’s advisor Richard Lewontin. As Pinker accurately put it in “The Blank Slate,”

      “Gould and Lewontin seem to be saying that the genetic components of human behavior will be discovered primarily in the generalities of eating, excreting and sleeping.”

      I find it very difficult to believe you’ve ever read “The Blank Slate,” because Pinker cites many examples of extreme denials of human nature therein, all footnoted. If that’s not enough for you, there are other good histories of the affair that are as well researched and documented as “The Blank Slate,” written from both a pro- and anti-Blank Slate point of view. For “pro” see, for example, the superbly documented “The Triumph of Evolution” by Blank Slater Hamilton Cravens published in 1978, wherein the perfectly ingenuous Cravens cites all kinds of Blank Slate dogmas as (you guessed it) “The Triumph of Evolution.” For “anti” see the equally well-documented “In Search of Human Nature,” published in 1991 by Carl Degler.

      If you’d care to see an example of how far the controversy had already penetrated the culture by the 1930’s, I suggest you have a look at “Hoi Polloi,” by The Three Stooges.”

  51. Posted March 14, 2019 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Some think Pinker has intellectualized all human pain and suffering into a bunch of stats and they hate it. I seriously doubt that the man has not contemplated the implications of human endevours and consequences and I’m pretty sure he knows he does not have a crystal ball lodged in his head.

  52. Michael Scharenberg
    Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    Well, indeed, who would in earnest want to live in the misery of those past centuries? And mind you, as much as human rights may get under attack time and again: there is no way of going back to before the French Revolution and the declaration of universal human rights; that’s the benchmark our ancestors could not live by.

  53. Posted March 14, 2019 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    It seems that the short summary is: he did buy into the old version of Narrative, and now that it got changed, he is being branded Literally Hitler.
    But then, that’s where all American Conservatives come from — they are those who couldn’t keep up with Cthulhu swimming leftward and became the punching bags for those who did. Perhaps it’s the turn of those like him and Dawkins to take the place of now-obsolete Walter Scott Christians as scratching posts for crazy cat ladies.

  54. Andrew
    Posted March 16, 2019 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    It is very simple: He takes away the left’s moral equivalent of war – the excuse of the world getting worse that leftists use to justify tearing down society and the most successful economic system ever devised (capitalism).


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