I guess I just can’t be happy with bad data

I used to be a fan of Steven Pinker’s work. He speaks fluent academese, he just sounds so reasonable, and his message of optimism is something I want to be true. I’d love to be able to go to my grave thinking the world was going to be a better place for my grandchildren and great-grandchildren and all the children of the world. I wanted to believe.

O sweet irony, that an atheist could be tempted by hope and faith.

But as I read more, I became disenchanted. Hope is great, but it has to be backed by reason and evidence, and as I read more, it became obvious that Pinker is kind of the Norman Vincent Peale of atheism, and that there wasn’t any substance to him — he starts with a happy belief and works to fill in the gaps in the evidence with cherry-picked data and his own indefensible interpretations.

So now he’s written a book about the Enlightenment, reviewed by Peter Harrison. It is not a good review.

The Enlightenment may seem an ambitious topic for a cognitive psychologist to take up from scratch. Numerous historians have dedicated entire careers to it, and there remains a considerable diversity of opinion about what it was and what its impact has been. But from this and previous work we get intimations of why Pinker thinks he is the person for the job. Historians have laboured under the misapprehension that the key figures of the Enlightenment were mostly philosophers of one stripe or another. Pinker has made the anachronistic determination that, in fact, they were all really scientists – indeed, “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists.”

In short, he thinks that they are people like him and that he is thus possessed of privileged insights into their thought denied to mere historians. The latter must resort to careful reading and fraught interpretation in lieu of being able directly to channel what Enlightenment thinkers really thought.

Uh-oh. This reminds me of that ghastly essay Pinker wrote that made me recoil in horror, it was so bad, so egocentric, so ignorant of the humanities and social sciences, I bet it was the foundation of his new book. The book that gets this summary:

For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don’t be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers – just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction. If challenged at any point, do not mount a counter-argument that appeals to actual history, but choose one of the following labels for your critic: religious reactionary, delusional romantic, relativist, postmodernist, paid up member of the Foucault fan club.

For their part, historians have found the task of tracing the legacy of the Enlightenment more difficult, not least because even characterising what the Enlightenment was has proven challenging. It is now commonplace to speak of multiple Enlightenments and hence multiple and sometime conflicting legacies. Obviously, moreover, not everything that came after the Enlightenment has been sweetness and, well, light. Edmund Burke and G.W.F. Hegel, for example, drew direct connexions between the French Enlightenment and the reign of terror. In the twentieth century the German-Jewish philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer described what they called “the dialectic of the Enlightenment” – a mixed inheritance that included the technical mastery of nature along with a conspicuous absence of the moral insights that would prevent that mastery being turned to barbarous ends. In their view, this led ultimately to the horrors of Nazism.

That bit about picking things you like and stuffing them into graphs reminds me of someone else: maybe Pinker is actually the hybridized clone of Norman Vincent Peale and Ray Kurzweil.

I think, to be a good honest atheist and scientist, I have to respect the work of philosophers and historians and all those people who have deep domains of expertise that I lack, and recognize that when people who say things I wish were true, yet disrespect and don’t even acknowledge the historical breadth of humanity’s thought, they are probably full of shit. Or at least the living personification of the Alexander Pope poem:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

A little humility would help, and you don’t approach the Pierian spring with a sippy straw.


  1. whywhywhy says

    Often when folks describe their personal idea of god, the god is amazingly a version of themselves. For writers, god is an artist. For soldiers, god is a general. For engineers, god is a builder. For shallow neuro-philosophers, god is an expert on evolutionary psychology.

  2. cartomancer says

    To be fair certain celebrity historians do this as well. The less said about David Starkey’s guff on Magna Carta for the octocentenary three years ago the better. You could have predicted how a pompous conservative imperialist whose field is the Tudors and Stewarts would have dealt with Angevin history – an uncritical buying into Parliamentarian propaganda of the 1620s about how wonderful and foundational and completely ex nihilo Magna Carta was, no thought paid to the well-worn traditions of Twelfth-Century legalism that provided context and content for it. Or to the fact it was largely forgotten and unmentioned for the succeeding four centuries, until Sir Edmund Coke dug it up again to use as a battle standard against the overweening personal power of Charles I.

  3. says

    What baffles me, coming from some of his fans (Maybe not of Pinker himself) is how some libertarian/capitalist-minded people try to argue that enlightment values trough capitalism alone is what makes the world better.

    For instance, a couple of weeks ago Christina Sommers was reeving about how the illiteracy rate has fallen on Africa (things getting better….) and I simply asked: “Great!, what has had to do with the “Free Market”(tm)?”.

    Because when you think about it, most of humankind larger achievements that became improvements in the quality of life, came from government funded research or quasi-altruistic endeavors… Hygienic measures, the discovery of proper ways of land-fertilization, Vaccination (like when they kept the polio vaccine un-patented), the Green revolution…. even the germ theory and space exploration….

  4. brutus says

    My first encounter reading Pinker was exactly what you described: fluent academese. But something felt off, and because the world is quite full of interesting ideas from all quarters, I turned my attention away from him without regret. No loss, it seems, as his ambitions seem to have turned toward self-aggrandizement (a step short perhaps of fame whoring). A recent interview I caught had Pinker arguing some version of the best-of-possible-worlds conceit with respect to liberal Western values descended from the Enlightenment as though material conditions were all that truly mattered – especially since they can be graphed better than spiritual or moral life.

  5. paxoll says

    The raise of Pinker and Jordan has led me to the sad realization that the era of 15 minutes of fame is over. In the past we had our magical land called the “Ivory Tower” that was self governing. Serious errors in thinking were ridiculed, and while they might persist for a while among devotees we had a good gate system to keep them out of the masses of the undereducated. Rigorous peer review kept the number of papers small, and unproven claims were merely subjective opinion in a papers conclusion (a part of a paper often simply ignored in academics). The originators of these thought crimes were safely locked up in the ivory tower, only rarely able to escape in a news story or tv appearance that were properly labeled as tabloids, opinions, or talk shows and everyone understood that they represented entertainment, not reality. The ivory tower community would shuffle out, apologize to the public, correct the errors, and haul the criminal back into academic obscurity.

    Obviously this is nostalgia and rose tinted glasses speaking, but that was how things felt. Publishing a paper required years of back and forth with the journal to correct things that were wrong, entire experiments had to be redone to correct for some variable to make the value of the data big enough to publish. Now departments have essentially publishing experts, the journals have become near meaningless pay to play publishing houses. Books used to be jokes in the research world because anyone could publish anything, and now these journals have done that with academic papers. The academic fields understand this, journals they use now have a hierarchical system but the whole system is tainted. The ivory tower is gone, replaced by the city of academia where hard working neighborhoods with well manicured lawns fade into ideological slums on one side and industrial paper mills on the other. Where big business gentrify and kick out everyone who can’t afford their paywall. There are no boundaries to protect the public from bad ideas, and those ideas commute in and out in a daily cycle. The academic rogues are no longer 15 minutes of fame on the Phil Donahue show, they are popularly elected officials in the academic city on the hill.

  6. says

    This is a minor point but if Pinker has actually read and understood chapter 13 of Leviathan I will destroy my several copies of that book.

    There’s no way someone can read Hobbes and think he was an evolutionary psychologist.

  7. petesh says

    Could we persuade Pinker and Niall Ferguson to take a long vacation together on some isolated island and undertake an experiment to see if a person can really bore another person to death? The rest of us could possibly place bets, in order to finance this endeavor.

  8. says

    My first association with Steven Pinker, is with his attacks on modern art. And that comes from The Blank Slate in 2002. I think he’s just always been terrible.

  9. bryanfeir says

    Edmund Burke and G.W.F. Hegel, for example, drew direct connexions between the French Enlightenment and the reign of terror.

    I’ll admit I’m not a historian, but I’d be surprised if this wasn’t a fairly common view amongst historians. Robespierre always struck me as the sort of person who believed in his own rationality and rightness with a religious fervour.

    Which I suppose would mean that Pinker might actually understand him quite well. Pinker’s just in less of a position to dispose of any contradictory evidence if that evidence involves people.

  10. Sonja says

    I feel like I’ve gone through the looking glass. PZ is endorsing the review of a religious apologist Peter Harrison and is opposing reason, science and progressivism. I’ve been with you forever PZ, but you’re starting to lose me. Look closely at the argument Harrison is using — you could use YOUR Courtier’s Reply to nullify most of his critique. Then he goes to straight to Nazis. I remember when you used to mock such poor arguments.

  11. bachfiend says

    I’m currently listening to the audiobook of ‘Enlightenment Now’ (audiobooks fill in the tedium of walking the dog and the daily exercise at the gym).

    I tend to find that I’m reading my beliefs into the book – the stuff I believe in I accept without question and remember as being a good feature of the book, and the stuff I don’t I ignore and forget immediately.

    I’m going to have to go back and reread the printed version sometime when I have the time.

  12. hemidactylus says

    One point made by Pinker as far as I have read is something those of us who aren’t alt-med and anti-vax may still take for granted. Many of us “regressive snowflakes” are here to whine about his book because we haven’t been cut down by stuff that is better preventable in our time period. Raise your hand if you think you might have already succumbed to maternal death in childbirth, childhood illness, famine/starvation, or childhood illness several generations ago. I never contracted smallpox or polio, but a generation before me were more at threat. I get flu shots for personal protection and a sense of personal responsibility. This year has been a rough one though, regardless.

    Pinker is too optimistic, but he does focus on what humans (albeit wearing Western biased lenses) have gotten right. And I am not sure he has adequately addresses his critics from the previous book. Though his invocation of Singer’s expanding circle and notions such as reading fiction as a byproduct of improved literacy has increased general levels of interpersonal sympathy in the everyday world have made me pause and reflect. He has warts, but taken with a grain of salt he has some interesting stuff (excluding the cringeworthy).

  13. hemidactylus says

    Another way to look at it is how people worry how the plastic containers holding bottled water may release somewhat dangerous chemicals with long term effects but at least we are not drinking water from a fouled natural, untreated source with sickening or deadly short term effects.

  14. hemidactylus says

    The Enlightenment had its counterpoles. Burkean conservatism was one if we are conflating Enlightenment with the Jacobin strand of French Revolution that imprisoned Paine. That conservative counterrevolution (contra Paine) leads to Buckley. And ironically Glenn Beck fashioned himself after Paine.

    Romanticism was another. And that antipode was distant predecessor to anti-reason aspects of post-modernism. And that antipode arguably if you follow the volkstory provided by Viereck in Metapolitics is a contributor to the Nazis along with the pseudoscientific eugenics.

    And we cannot discount Hume nor Hobbes for their views just because they published so long ago. Was Popper imposing himself on Hume. Pinker on Hobbes?

  15. Ichthyic says

    *reads Paxoll @ #8*

    You have very eloquently spelled out in two paragraphs exactly what has happened to academia while I was there.

    You should turn that into a permanent op ed piece, and extend it.


  16. paxoll says

    @Rob Grigjanis Good article, I do not envy those who have continued in academia.

    @Ichthyic Thank you, I enjoy putting together analogies, too bad they often require a level of understanding of the original problem that makes then superfluous to the people who recognize their validity. So I’m just preach’n to the choir.