Did you know that Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is full of misleading claims and false assertions? It is! And this article takes an interesting approach to documenting it: the author focuses on one chapter, on a topic he knows well, and contacts a bunch of people Pinker references and asks them if he represented their views correctly. A surprising number say no, and explain why.
I am not a fan of neo-liberal techno-optimism, as you might guess. It’s always just some well-off dude trying to persuade people that we can ignore systemic injustice because he’s doing just fine.
Yeah, I read that. It’s sort of weak tea in that it does find that he misrepresented the views of some of the people he refers to, but it doesn’t engage substantively with Pinker’s arguments. Of course that’s a legitimate project, and he shouldn’t get away with that kind of sloppiness or deception, whichever it is. But we also need a serious discussion of the ideology of progress, particularly in light of your other post today. This is just a procedural takedown.
cervantes, I’m not sure I fully understand. If Pinker is supporting his arguments by misrepresenting the views of the sources he (claims to be) citing, doesn’t pointing that out fundamentally challenge the substance of Pinker’s argument? If, for instance, you can characterize someone’s argument as a straw man, isn’t that a critique of the argument qua argument? Further, the author of the Salon article DID link to a more thorough critique of the chapter in Pinker’s book that dealt with “Existential Threats” that the author wrote, but the purpose of the Salon article was to illustrate the pervasiveness of Pinker’s misrepresentation of others’ work and views.
Just a procedural takedown? I dunno, cervantes. That procedural takedown ends up being an incredibly useful filter about how to proceed. Given that it is a given that Pinker is willing to deceive his readers by misrepresenting the views of others, I’m done. That takedown tells me I can’t trust him; as a result, I don’t need to waste any more time time with his arguments.
Now, if you can point to someone else making the argument without presenting it while misrepresenting the views others, cool, cool. Unlike Pinker, that person will at least be worth engaging.
Scott Petrovits says
If it was one or two mistakes in attribution, I could write it down as sloppiness. But based on my reading of the article, these mistakes look a whole lot more like intentionally misrepresenting views to support a (likely incorrect) viewpoint. How can you support a hypothesis with bad-faith quotations from people who know way more about the subject than you do? Pinker’s out of his depth, and it shows.
Cat Mara says
On reading the title of this post, I was hoping that it would be about the existence of some hitherto-unknown baked good called a “Pinker” that one could pleasurably “dunk” in one’s morning tea or coffee, in the manner of the Hob-Nob (UK & Ireland), the Tim Tam (Australia) or the Speculaas (Belgium and Netherlands). This hypothetical “Pinker” would be robust in the manner of such delicacies, and capable of repeated immersion in a hot caffeinated beverage. Instead, to my surprise and no little disgust, I find this “Pinker” in question to be hollow, flaky and insubstantial– barely worthy of being dunked at all! Most disappointing. I’ll stick to the Hob-Nobs.
— Cat Mara
I didn’t, but after the exercise in motivated reasoning that was the Better Angels, I expected it.
Well again, my purpose was not to say that it’s not important that Pinker misrepresented his references. Of course it is. But it is a logical fallacy to claim that invalidates his argument.
Specifically, this is a form of ad hominem fallacy called poisoning the well. It’s more important to take him on substantively, that’s my point.
The problem is that Pinker has been poisoning his own well.
Well that reduces my confidence in Pinker even more. I place a degree of trust in an author to not mislead me and if there’s issues with a chapter in the critic’s wheelhouse and how Pinker uses references that coupled with some reservations I’ve been accumulating really makes me wonder the motivations behind the work. After listening to the podcast on a recent thread interviewing Jason Hickel about how extreme poverty is quantified I am perplexed given much of what Pinker writes about are outside my knowledge zone. Kinda violates my expectations a bit.
Nope. Poisoning the well is “to commit a preemptive ad hominem attack against an opponent. That is, to prime the audience with adverse information about the opponent from the start, in an attempt to make your claim more acceptable or discount the credibility of your opponent’s claim”.
It is not a logical fallacy to show that the evidence used by an opponent is incorrect or biased.
John Morales says
Technically, the truth-value of the premises have nothing to do with validity (that only refers to the inferential chain), but an argument is unsound when the premises are demonstrably false.
In either case (whether an argument is unsound or invalid), that argument is flawed.
Frederic Bourgault-Christie says
@1/7: Yes, I agree small nitpicks may not imperil an author’s broader argument. However, if there’s a substantial amount of academic dishonesty and/or inaccuracy, it does mean that, in the real world, skepticism is necessary. You can no longer trust their claims of fact because what they tell you about what a source says or what the data is.
But these aren’t minor footnotes. The article effectively undermines the logic of an entire chapter and indeed what Pinker himself states in the introduction to be his claim. Pinker’s techno-utopianism helps rebut a huge part of his position. If technology has serious risks that he’s downplaying, then the claim that capitalism will fix everything by promoting innovation is even more flawed than it already was: the innovation could end up being quite bad. And if techno-utopianism is not automatic, then political utopianism (in other words, revolutionary change) becomes in comparison quite good. In other words, in the Pinker v. Chomsky choice, Pinker being wrong in this chapter isn’t a small point.
The trashing of Pinkers argument is good, since it is flawed. However that tells us little about the truth value of his conclusion other than that his argument doesn’t get us there. I would be interested in alternate thesis and supporting arguments. E.g. his dissing of concerns about the global climate fuckup. It’s pretty substantially modelled now and we are in deep doo.
Matt G says
The Fallacy Fallacy: just because someone has made a fallacious argument doesn’t mean that their claim is wrong.
Torres does respond indirectly to Pinker here:
A response from Steve Pinker to Salon’s hit piece on “Enlightenment Now”
Matt Dillahunty keeps citing Pinker’s “Better Angels” in talks with theists, in order to counter their claims that the world is broken and sinful, with Pinker’s claim that we’re living in the best possible world.
Not only do I find that bullshit on its face, but Pinker’s scholarship in “Angels” has been sharply criticised, as has “Enlightenment,” for its Pollyanna tone and sloppy scholarship.
Looking forward to public atheists abandoning the Dork Web and all who sail in her.
Not so coincidentally, my reaction the parts of Better Angels dealing with subjects in which I consider myself to have some expertise was rather similar. So I guess one could say that Pinker is at least consistent.
John Morales says
Thanks, starfleetdude. Informative “rebuttal”.
“Phil Torres is trying to make a career out of warning people about the existential threat that AI poses to humanity. Since EN evaluates and dismisses that threat, it poses an existential threat to Phil Torres’s career. Perhaps not surprisingly, Torres is obsessed with trying to discredit the book, despite an email exchange in which I already responded to the straws he was grasping.”
(Oooh… pedantic! Strongest rebuttal of all)
And Jerry Coyne buys it. Informative, also.
I was listening yesterday to NPR and they had a brief bit on Marketplace about the possible threat of AI and – it was vapid and gave no real clue about how AI could cause harm, other than a passing mention of unemployed truck drivers. I think the dread “AI” isn’t all it’s being made out to be and that what’s really being developed by programmers are expert systems that perform specific tasks that are fairly sophisticated but are a far cry from anything that’s intelligent enough to have actual agency like human beings do. Robots aren’t actually intelligent, no matter how much they may seem so. That robotic dog certainly does enter uncanny valley territory, but it’s not a conscious being. So I think Torres is basically a crank playing on people’s fears. I’m fine with criticizing Pinker’s techno-optimism but you don’t have to invent fantastic AI threats to do that.
At what point does somebody become such an unreliable narrator that their work should simply be ignored? I remember that after “Better Angels”, the very people whose studies he cited felt the need to publicly oppose Pinker’s conclusions, saying that thier work does not support them. Surely, if there was good ans solid support for the arguments put forward, then somebody with the skills, education and resources of Pinker should have found them.
Just for the record, I’m definitely not an exponent of neo-liberalism! And I am very, very, very cautious in my hope that technology could make the world a better, safer place. :-) Thanks for posting about this, PZ!
So if my argument for God existing is fallacious, then you can’t tell me that God doesn’t exist? That’s clever. Not.
Kip T.W. says
On that basis, you could tell them that they have not proven God’s existence, but absence of proof isn’t proof of absence. Indeed, this whole God thing seems to have been constructed so as to be non-falsifiable, but that’s a different alley.
I don’t think I have the firepower to prove that The Godster hasn’t been keeping quiet for thousands of years just to jump out and yell “Surprise” at me an hour from now. All I can do is look at all the proofs offered so far and state that none of them is convincing.