Steven Pinker gets the treatment he has earned

Well, this just made my morning: Nathan Robinson shreds the most annoying man in the world, Steven Pinker. I thought I’d pull out one brief quote to illustrate, but it was nearly impossible — I just wanted to pull out the entire dang thing and frame it and hang it on my wall.

But OK, one tiny bit:

I do not mean to dwell too much on the tone of Pinker’s writing, but it’s important to see how dishonest centrist critics of social justice rhetoric can be. Pinker treats the left as hysterically overstating its case, of calling everybody racists and despoilers, even as he brands them Nazis and Stalinists. One of the common themes I see in critics of social justice politics is engaging in the very thing they’re accusing the left of doing. There are countless examples of this in Pinker’s work. For example, in The Blank Slate, which is strongly critical of mainstream feminism, he cites Gloria Steinem saying: “What you need is people who see through literature like Andrea Dworkin, who see through law like me, to see through art and create the uncompromised woman’s visual vocabulary.” Pinker concludes from this quote that Steinem is “oblivious to the danger inherent in a few intellectuals’ arrogating the role of deciding which art and literature the rest of society will enjoy.” This is an incredibly audacious remark for a book with entire sections on which art is the Good Art and which art is “ugly, baffling, and insulting art”:

“In this chapter I will diagnose the malaise of the arts and humanities and offer some suggestions for revitalizing them… Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reasons for their decline and fall become all too obvious.”

When you say it, it’s dangerous elitism. When I say it, it’s Science!

The Blank Slate was the book that ended my interest in paying attention to what Pinker was saying. Even the title was a gigantic straw man, and the internal contradictions were overwhelming. Robinson goes on to point out something I’ve seen repeatedly in the atheist community:

Hypocrisy doesn’t make the underlying arguments untrue, but I think it’s critical to explaining why the left can end up with an unwarranted reputation for being unreasonable and emotional: Our critics operate just as much from “feeling” and instinct, but insist that they’re just being Objective. My colleague Aisling McCrea has written about how mere invocation of the word “logic” is used as proof that one is being logical. “Reason” becomes a brand rather than a description of an actual process by which the other side’s arguments are carefully analyzed and responded to fairly. (I’ve shown how both Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro mangle basic reasoning.)

The path to popularity always seems to be tag your identity with a lot of buzzwords, even if you don’t actually implement them. It was a gigantic tactical error on my part not to call this site “The Amazing Logical Reasonable Rational Skeptical Atheist White Man” instead of boring ol’ “Pharyngula”. I’d be rich and popular today! There sure are a lot of successful atheists who parade their virtuous identity politics in the name of their channel.

At least Pinker doesn’t do that. He doesn’t have to — his name has become synonymous with Calmly Misleading Apologist for the Status Quo.

Go read it. It’s a work of art.


  1. anthrosciguy says

    Projection may be the most common thread among pseudoscience and fringe science proponents. That’s so in my experience. I think people like Pinker easily qualify.

  2. says

    I was initially intrigued by Pinker after Matt D. mentioned his book “Better Angels” a while back on TAE. After a bit of a read and the odd critique (such as this one) I’m quite convinced Pinker spends most of his time sequestered deep in his own rectum, and the rest doing his hair.

  3. René says

    The Amazing Logical Reasonable Rational Skeptical Atheist White Man

    “Boreal” seems to be missing.

  4. alixmo says

    I have not read Pinker’s books or articles, neither did I listen to him on YouTube. But I heard that he is down-playing the many ecological calamities that we are facing, including Climate Change. I do not know if that is true. But if it is, that alone is (maybe more than any other conceivable reason) enough for me to have a problem with that guy’s popularity.

    The ecological problems (plural!) of our time are immense and have to be tackled right now, internationally. This should be right on top of any political to-do list (also of utmost importance: nuclear disarmament, reduction of the wealth gap).

    It is fine to spread a bit of optimism; many things did get better (as proven by history) and we should of course celebrate that. But it is dangerous to be too comfortable with the status quo. Especially the environmental problems can destroy all the gains that we made, undo all the progress. This, in combination with our nuclear weapons of mass destruction, could mean the end of civilization.

    So, optimism is fine (too much negative thinking can be demotivating and even paralyzing) – but only if it animates people to change the things that are going awfully wrong.

  5. says

    It’s long been a source of bemusement to me how many people who deride “identity politics” have their identities plastered all over their Twitter bios.

  6. Allison says

    My brother gave me Better Angels a while back. (I’ve come to dread it when he sends me a book — by now I know I’m going to be at least frustrated by it, if not utterly alienated or angered.)

    The first part of the book seemed okay to me, probably because it more or less coincided with my own thinking, but then it hit a part where I disagreed, and I realized that he offers no evidence for what he claims. It’s just “proof by assertion,” as we mathematicians say. The part that really struck me was when he claimed that any reduction in violence was due to a change in our genetic programming (evolution in action!) and that’s why lower-class people were more violent — they had the wrong genetic programming; and moreover, the reason that they were lower-class was that they weren’t as evolved (as Harvard professors, I assume.) He even acknowledged the theory that it might be due to environmental factors, only to simply dismiss it as a fringe view!

    At that point I decided that all he offers are rationalizations for his prejudices. You get the feeling that he believes that if he thinks something, it must ipso facto be true, and anyone who disagrees with him can be dismissed as simply wrong. He doesn’t seem to be able to imagine that he could ever be wrong. (BTW, that’s a terrible attitude for a scientist. If you’re going to produce anything that’s worth anything, you have to be your own harshest critic, since you are better than anyone else at fooling you.)

    I get the appeal of his thinking to those who agree with him, though. It’s like the appeal of Fundamentalism — he promises you certainty, plus the satisfaction of “knowing” you’re right (and everyone else is wrong.)

  7. thirdmill says

    Even if Pinker is right that over time things are getting better, it’s moving at a glacial pace compared to the speed with which we face potential destruction from climate change, the rise of fascism, and the presence in the White House of a megalomaniac who will.probably be disappointed if he doesn’t get to use nuclear weapons. Yes, it may be that in another 10,000 years or so we will finally have evolved past racism, misogyny, and religious nuttery. Unfortunately, we may not have another 10,000 years to wait.

  8. raefn says

    Someone who writes sentences like this –

    “He said it was “quiet” desperation, not “desperation you tell strangers about when they call you to ask you how happy you are.” ”

    is definitely worth reading! It’s a lengthy article, but worth the time.

  9. hemidactylus says

    @6- Allison

    I don’t recall Pinker saying differences in violence between human groups was due to genetics or that “lower class” were less evolved than other groups such as Harvard professors. Are you sure Pinker argued that? He may acknowledge recent adaptive evolution of lactase persistence, which is value free and not controversial. He may have toyed with the views of others vis a vis Ashkenazim having some propensities due to sequestering in Europe but if I recall was noncommittal to that, which is controversial, but not eugenic.

    Pinker is an ev psycher which implies humans have roughly the same mental toolkit across populations. We are all more or less equally flawed (same crooked timber). It was historic factors that rode atop our common swiss army knife psychology to send us on a more nonviolent path.

    “Pinker argues that the radical declines in violent behavior that he documents do not result from major changes in human biology or cognition. He specifically rejects the view that humans are necessarily violent, and thus have to undergo radical change in order to become more peaceable.”

    Strong states, trade, female influence (???), Gutenberg/literacy/fictionally induced empathy, and reason ratcheting (including Pinker’s affinity for Singer’s expanding moral circle of concern) were all alleged as nongenetic factors.

    Pinker’s Better Angels may suffer defects but I can’t recall him going down the nativist path you ascribe to him. Egads. Criticize what he actually argues instead.

    The demon of revenge is why we like to punish people for wrongdoing. I think Pinker highlights decline of capital punishment in EN in a manner not flattering to the US as an outlier. So this latter book has some decent parts.

  10. DanDare says

    “Things are getting better”. The politics of inevitability. If you believe it then you don’t have to do anything to make it so. A form of political coma.

  11. hemidactylus says

    I found where Pinker in Better Angels addresses potential for recent adaptive evolution to have impacted human propensity toward violence. He gives fair shake to two views: 1. Warrior Gene in Maori and 2. British success at capitalism and industrial revolution (which would apparently go along with stuffy tea and crumpet self-control and less proneness to violence). Pinker finds both ideas to fall way short and says: “So while recent biological evolution may, in theory, have tweaked our inclinations toward violence and nonviolence, we have no good evidence that it actually has. At the same time, we do have good evidence for changes that could not possibly be genetic, because they unfolded on time scales that are too rapid to be explained by natural selection, even with the new understanding of how recently it has acted.”

    I could be overlooking something in this way oversized book, but what I found backs up what I say in @9.

    Here’s Pinker’s more cringe inducing article on Ashkenazim intelligence I alluded to above:

  12. says

    Pinker is an ev psycher which implies humans have roughly the same mental toolkit across populations.

    Does not follow. Racists use evolutionary psychology to argue for genetic differences between groups all the time.

  13. hemidactylus says

    @13- PZ

    So we judge all of ev psych solely by low hanging fruit or worst case scenarios? Granted their propagandists are unfair to the “standard social science model” of bogey Durkheim et al, but still.

  14. raven says

    Steven Pinker:

    In this chapter I will diagnose the malaise of the arts and humanities and offer some suggestions for revitalizing them… Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reasons for their decline and fall become all too obvious.”

    This is Jordan Peterson class gibberish!!!

    .1. I’m unaware that the arts and humanities are even sick.
    One could argue with more data that they are in the middle of a Golden Age instead.
    Generally rising incomes and the mass media and internet has made the arts and humanities available to everyone in our Hi Tech culture.
    For Cthulhu’s sake, tens of millions carry around powerful computing machines with colorful screens, cameras, and video cameras known as smart phones.

    .2. Postmodernism is a strawperson.
    Postmodernism is more or less dead.
    It’s basically imaginary like “cultural Marxism”. or “demons”.
    Postmodernism failed long ago and you would have a hard time finding anyone who admits to being a Postmodernist these days.

    I’ve never paid any attention to Steven Pinker.
    Too many crackpots and not enough time in my life to follow very many of them.
    I can see that I haven’t missed anything.

  15. microraptor says

    hemidactylus @13: When the original statement is a No True Scotsman, yes.

  16. electrojosh says

    hemidactylus @11
    I have read Better Angels and you are quite correct that Pinker does not argue for genetic differences and, instead, dismisses them.
    I have to assume that the person you were responding to can’t possibly have read the book or has some of the worst reading comprehension I have seen outside of creationist interpretations of Darwin.
    The only other thing I’ll say in defence of Pinker is that, in Better Angels, he the declines were neither inevitable nor are guaranteed to continue. He argues that they have occurred and then states what factors he thinks caused them and why those things should be encouraged in case we go backwards. All of those points are legitimately disputable of course.

    That said: I actually was a bit disappointed in Enlightenment Now and think the article PZ posted makes some very valid points around Pinker.

  17. hemidactylus says

    @15- microraptor

    My understanding is that EP is a conservative approach to our mental architecture in that pretty much all our modules were set in stone during the Pleistocene (aka Environmental of Evolutionary Adaptedness).

    And I was asserting said conservativism in response to a (mis)characterization of Pinker’s views in @6 that doesn’t square with what I have presented here. That response has not been addressed, just the brief snippet within where I summarized the EP view (a view of which I am NOT a proponent). But I did follow that summary with the very apt: “ We are all more or less equally flawed (same crooked timber). It was historic factors that rode atop our common swiss army knife psychology to send us on a more nonviolent path.” That sets more context that was chopped away.

    Here’s a classic outlay of EP:

    Note the “psychic unity of humankind” and contrast with behavioral genetics. And obnoxiously obligatory bashing of The Standard Social Science Model strawman.

    Before going down this path the post I responded to should have been addressed, no?

  18. hemidactylus says

    @16- electrojosh

    I read through most of the article PZ posted earlier today. I bookmarked in in my extensive Pinker critique collection for later perusal. I can only guess how long before Pinker replies with heavy self-serving snark in reply to an email from his Ceiling Cat Fanboy as before when these things happen. Should be funny if so.

    EN was a mixed bag. To paraphrase a critique I found most apt, Pinker focuses on how far we have come, but his critics point out how far we have to go to make a truly better world.

  19. Sonja says

    On Nextdoor, I waded into a dangerous debate on lawn chemicals. How would you describe an environmentalist argument which was “No chemical is safe, organic or not”? I had to nicely explain what organic chemistry is and at least got several “thanks” for it. Irrational, uneducated environmentalists do exist and there are tons of websites out there which prey on their ignorance and fear. I do think Pinker has fallen into some lazy arguments with his critiques of the Left, but there are a few subject areas where the Left needs criticism (such as when environmentalist Robert Kennedy Jr promoted the anti-vaccine hysteria). Don’t worry, I understand how small this group is compared to the completely credulous Right.

  20. says

    The linked Aisling McCrea piece is also excellent. Sample:

    But I suspect the reason the reaction to Elevatorgate was so vitriolic was not just about general sexism, but also about the threat it posed to the New Atheist sense of moral superiority. It was much less fun for them to reckon with say, the complex social structures within the skeptic community, and the way that might affect the movement, than it was to make fun of some hick who couldn’t get his head round evolution. Those were the people who had some learning to do — for the New Atheists themselves, there was nothing more to learn. If people from marginalised groups within the movement started speaking about issues which involved listening and learning, or self-reflecting on one’s biases… well, that was unacceptable, since it would require wider reading and understanding of issues that were not immediately accessible or aesthetically pleasing to many New Atheist men.

    In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that a lot of New Atheism devolved into reactionary, antifeminist, and even white supremacist thought, because it was never really about the things it claimed to be about. The dominant affect of New Atheism wasn’t humility, or reflexivity, or curiosity, all the things one truly needs to improve intellectually. It was smugness.

    Spot on.

  21. imback says

    @DanDare, #10, indeed that is my main problem with Pinker.

    We have progressed, but that was due to progressives back in the day who realized their world’s present circumstances were not acceptable and fought the good fight to make them better, while conservatives at the time had found the status quo acceptable. It is also confounding that conservatives through the years always seem to adore the progressives of earlier days but abhor the progressives of their present time.

    A moral hazard occurs when there’s a likelihood of risky action or inaction taken under the supposition that any negative consequences would be covered by others or by fate of some kind. We are all put in a moral hazard when our modern Dr. Pangloss here says that progress is inevitable, and therefore we need not fret so much about our climate crisis and stuff because, to mash quotes by Voltaire and Theodore Parker: All will turn out for the best in this best of all possible moral arcs of the universe.

  22. T Pink says

    This guy seems like the Father of all Gaslighters. He maligns the very people who are now fighting for the very progress a future version of him will claim has made things better than ever before. What would that future be like if all those people just went home? Oh, the crappy past which we’ve all progressed out of.

    I’ve seen d-list Hollywood movies that do time travel paradoxes better than him.