Pinker speaks up at last about Epstein!


Finally. Pinker has a letter posted on another blog in which he strongly repudiates Jeffrey Epstein. I’m glad to see it.

I’m happy to share my encounters with Epstein.

The annoying irony is that I could never stand the guy, never took research funding from him, and always tried to keep my distance. Friends and colleagues described him to me as a quantitative genius and a scientific sophisticate, and they invited me to salons and coffee klatches at which he held court. But I found him to be a kibitzer and a dilettante — he would abruptly change the subject ADD style, dismiss an observation with an adolescent wisecrack, and privilege his own intuitions over systematic data. I think the dislike was mutual—according to a friend, he “voted me off the island,” presumably because he was sick of me trying to keep the conversation on track and correcting him when he shot off his mouth on topics he knew nothing about. But Epstein had insinuated himself with so many people I intersected with (Alan Dershowitz, Martin Nowak, John Brockman, Steve Kosslyn, Lawrence Krauss) and so many institutions he helped fund (Harvard’s Program in Evolutionary Dynamics, ASU’s Origins Project, even Harvard Hillel) that I often ended up at the same place with him. (Most of these gatherings were prior to the revelation of his sex crimes, such as the 2002 plane trip to TED with Dawkins, Dennett, the Brockmans, and others, but Krauss’s Origins Project Meeting came after he served his sentence.) Since I was often the most recognizable person in the room, someone would snap a picture; some of them resurfaced this past week, circulated by people who disagree with me on various topics and apparently believe that the photos are effective arguments.

In the interests of full disclosure, there was another connection. Alan Dershowitz and I are friends and colleagues, and we taught a course together at Harvard. He often asks me questions about syntax and semantics of laws, most recently the impeachment statute. While he was representing Epstein, he asked me about the natural interpretation of one of the relevant laws, and I offered my opinion; this was cited in a court document. I did it as a favor to a friend and colleague, not as a paid expert witness, but I now regret that I did so. And needless to say I find Epstein’s behavior reprehensible.

Since some of the social-media snark insinuates that I downplay sexual exploitation, it may be worth adding that I have a paper trail of abhorrence of violence against women, have celebrated efforts to stamp it out, and have tried to make my own small contribution to this effort.

My review of the history of rape and battering in The Better Angels of Our Nature begins:

“Rape is one of the prime atrocities in the human repertoire. It combines pain, degradation, terror, trauma, the seizure of a woman’s means of perpetuating life, and an intrusion into the makeup of her progeny. It is also one of the commonest of atrocities.”

The lengthy section lauds feminist writers like Susan Brownmiller who first documented the prevalence of rape and the historic indifference to it, and who called for concerted measures to eliminate it. I then refute the cynical assumption that those measures are idealistic or utopian, that nothing can be done to combat violence against women until some distant day in the future in which the patriarchy is finally dismantled or human nature changes. On the contrary, I show that this campaign has achieved considerable success: rates of sexual assault and domestic violence against women have dropped dramatically since data were first kept by Bureau of Justice Statistics, and societal tolerance has plummeted as well. (I updated the data In Enlightenment Now.) As far as I know I’m the only writer who has documented and celebrated actual progress in reducing violence against women, and argued that this progress shows that the effort is not futile and should embolden us to press for greater reductions still.

Given my longstanding distaste for everything Epstein, it’s galling to be publicly associated with him based on some photos and mutual associates, but I suppose this is one of the dubious perquisites of fame (by academic standards). And it’s a particular hazard in the era of social media — last year I was featured in a New York Times op-ed by Jesse Singal called “Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here’s Exhibit A”; this year I appear to be Exhibit B.

There’s still a problem. He “disliked” and had a “longstanding distaste” for Epstein, and finds his behavior “reprehensible”, yet still he appeared at multiple events with him, assisted in an indirect way in his defense (which he now regrets), and this is the first time he has openly repudiated him. This is confirmation of what people have found objectionable about Pinker, that he is silent in the face of repulsive behavior, that he let Epstein associate himself with Harvard and took advantage of the Epstein jet, and only now, after he’s finally getting dragged off to his just reward (maybe), does he come out with this stuff. I first publicly criticized Jeffrey Epstein in 2011, and I didn’t even know him and have never met him! What took Pinker so long?

Also repulsive: that Pinker uses this opportunity to plug his book, to argue that somehow describing how violence against women has generally declined is somehow a defense of his failure to address violence against women in a specific case, and most annoyingly, that he is “the only writer who has documented and celebrated actual progress in reducing violence against women”. Right. Because everyone but Steven Pinker has been just fine with the status quo.

Wanker.

By the way, the author of that blog who famously insists on civility and honesty, has allowed a comment to stand in which it is claimed that I have been accused of rape. Not mentioned is that the guy who made the comment, Rich Sanderson, is also the guy who made the accusation, and has an unsavory reputation as an obsessive liar. He is, of course, a longstanding member of the commentariat there, as are several slymepitters.

Comments

  1. Ridana says

    As far as I know I’m the only writer who has documented and celebrated actual progress in reducing violence against women, and argued that this progress shows that the effort is not futile and should embolden us to press for greater reductions still.

    What the hell is he saying here? That he’s the only one who’s noticed any progress? That he’s the only one who’s happy about it? That he’s the only one who thinks we shouldn’t just throw our hands up in the air and wail “O, nothing can be done!” Because I’m pretty sure he’s far from the only one. Unless women writers don’t count?

    Or is he saying, “Why aren’t those demanding women more grateful for the reduction in violence? Don’t they know that it’s all because I, a man, said it wasn’t hopeless and thus made it all possible (since of course no one was going to listen until a man said the same thing women had been saying)? Why do they keep wanting to reduce it more without following my stellar leadership on this? They should be celebrating (me) for all that’s been accomplished.”

    I don’t know, I don’t know much about Pinker and have never commented on him before, but the embedded arrogance in that really rubbed me the wrong way.

  2. twarren1111 says

    Thank you for posting that. I read the entry on Dr. Coyne’s page. While I share your criticisms of evolutionary psychology in general and Pinker’s work specifically, I want to counter one of your arguments: I completely ‘buy’ Pinker’s linkage regarding Harvard, Jews and the social situations in which he frequently found himself in with Epstein. The fact that Epstein (whom I understand never graduated from university and ended up in high finance via tutoring the son of one of the Wall Street firms CEOs in math when he was on faculty at the school William Barr’s dad was headmaster in New York) was donating to causes linked to this circle of academic Jews is plenty reason to see him being invited by everyone to their shindigs. I also buy that Pinker would be highly visible. Why? How often do you see a Tall thin white man with his hair!!! My point is simply that convicting Pinker by association falls flat based upon what Pinker shared.

    With that being said, it may turn out that Pinker, Krause, Dawkins, Bennett knew exactly what was going on; or heard rumors. Time will likely tell the truth as it is won’t to do.

  3. twarren1111 says

    Ridana: FYI your post was not up when I started commenting. My thank you for the post was to Dr. Myers.

    As for your post, yes, I think you are picking out the arrogance of Pinker that is spot on. Indeed, it is this same type of arrogance that served so much to drive the criticism for the very book he plugs in his response. It is extremely well documented in multiple places by those who can be considered ‘peers’ of how he consistently misrepresented data from just about every source he used. And if you thumb through the book, just check out the number of references he uses!

  4. says

    Pinker’s terrible, but I feel like you’re being overly optimistic about human nature if you expect people to make public repudiations before they absolutely have to. For instance, I do not feel that FTB has historically been so quick to repudiate problem people in its own network.

  5. anchor says

    There’s a massive ‘BUT…’ stain of self-defense streaks all over that…”disclosure”.

    Must preserve one’s celebrity status, ya know.

    You know what they say about rats and sinking ships. ‘BUT..’ one can’t blame those that bail just because they BOARDED them as an unrelated matter of convenience or opportunity, right?

  6. anchor says

    #4Siggy says, “I feel like you’re being overly optimistic about human nature if you expect people to make public repudiations before they absolutely have to. For instance, I do not feel that FTB has historically been so quick to repudiate problem people in its own network.”

    You mean like as soon as they find out about them? That something fishy has been going on for some while under the radar of notice?

    When are you starting the clock? Isn’t the noticing quick enough for you? Perhaps you think clairvoyance has been under-utilized.

  7. andyo says

    Well this is something I certainly wasn’t expecting to find, but mildly interesting. First, there’s a subreddit for Sean Carroll. Second, he actually comments there. Nothing wrong with those two. I was disappointed to hear about Lisa Randall being in the island so I went googling if she’d said anything about that or Epstein in general, and instead found someone asking point-blank to Sean Carroll if he’d taken money from him (spoiler: no) https://www.reddit.com/r/seancarroll/comments/cbsy00/sean_did_you_take_money_from_epstein/

  8. Michael says

    PZ, I’ve yet to see an apology or similar statement from a public figure that you haven’t found fault with.*

    The first paragraph is to explain why he appears in photos with the guy – that they attend similar events. I don’t know about you, but if there is a conference I want to go to, perhaps to see a guest speaker I’m interested in, I’m not going to go just because it’s likely that someone I don’t like is also going to be attending. I’ll just try to avoid them as much as I can.

    I also don’t think he was deliberately plugging his book. He was trying to give evidence that he has a history of abhorring violence against women with examples.

    *It would be an interesting experiment if the next time a public figure makes an apology, if you were to create the apology you would have liked to have seen, and post it as though it were real, to see what the reaction was. Later post the real one for comparison. I’d be curious to see whether it gets ripped apart and criticized as not being good enough.

  9. Hj Hornbeck says

    As far as I know I’m the only writer who has documented and celebrated actual progress in reducing violence against women, and argued that this progress shows that the effort is not futile and should embolden us to press for greater reductions still.

    That’s because there’s a good case to be made that violence against women has not been reduced, and the only way to get around that argument is to cherry pick. And, sure enough, that’s exactly what Pinker does.

  10. chigau (違う) says

    …the seizure of a woman’s means of perpetuating life, and an intrusion into the makeup of her progeny…
    Yeah.
    That is the main problem with rape.

  11. anchor says

    @10 chigau – that ain’t the only problem with rape.

    @8 Michael says, “PZ, I’ve yet to see an apology or similar statement from a public figure that you haven’t found fault with.”

    Whew, for a moment there I thought there might be such a thing as an “apology or similar statement” coming from shameless scum that were sincere. Maybe some are worth bothering taking to task and some aren’t. If you’re trying to fight a cancer you don’t bother critiquing the non-cancerous. Or does that upend your sense of fair play?

  12. says

    #2: What do you think Pinker was accused of? No one, as far as I know, has ever accused him of participating in any of the criminal acts Epstein was up to — all I’ve seen is irritation that he seemed to close his eyes to what was going on.

  13. says

    @anchor #6,

    When are you starting the clock? Isn’t the noticing quick enough for you? Perhaps you think clairvoyance has been under-utilized.

    I mean, when I raised the alarm about Anjuli, other FTBloggers already knew about her for a while, and had just been dithering without taking action. And PZ initially defended Ophelia Benson, and to my understanding he regrets it. Perhaps they just didn’t seem like major issues at first. But that’s commonly the case with these things–you don’t know that they’re major problems until they are.

    Personally, I never even heard of Epstein before a week ago. I’m not sure what evidence was available before and what new information has put him in the news again. Was Pinker even paying attention to this news before getting a bunch of tweets demanding he say something? Prior to this news cycle, would it have made any sense for him to out of the blue publicly repudiate an acquaintance of his that most people have never even heard about? Either people are failing to communicate some key context that condemns Pinker, or these expectations on Pinker are unreasonable.

  14. anchor says

    #14 Siggy says “Personally, I never even heard of Epstein before a week ago.”

    That’s too bad. I have. Lots of people have. Lots of people noticed rather disturbing things about him SINCE 2008.

    At least.

    Perhaps such a limited familiarity of a subject would have warranted a similar limit on supplying an opinion about it. Just saying.

  15. chrislawson says

    I don’t buy it. First of all, this is about 14 years too late. Pinker should have written something like this when Epstein was first charged with statutory rape in 2005-6. Even if he missed that opportunity, he should definitely have spoken out when Epstein got his ridiculous sweetheart deal that was clearly more about protecting co-conspirators from investigation than helping the prosecutor make a case against others.

    And since when does a famous Harvard Law professor use Pinker as a source of argument about “the natural interpretation of one of the relevant laws”? This goes beyond informally helping a friend. Pinker wrote a letter clearly for the purpose of being included as a defence exhibit.

    Finally, while Pinker is busy pretending his opinion was given without knowing it would be part of Epstein’s defence (which I find personally unconvincing), he must have known it was in defence of a person charged with procuring underage sex. He was asked to comment on U.S. Code § 2422(b), which reads:

    (b) Whoever, using the mail or any facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, or within the special maritime and territorial jurisdiction of the United States knowingly persuades, induces, entices, or coerces any individual who has not attained the age of 18 years, to engage in prostitution or any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense, or attempts to do so, shall be fined under this title and imprisoned not less than 10 years or for life.

    Meanwhile Pinker’s opinion as quoted by Dershowitz is:

    …an English speaker, reading the statute, would naturally understand it as applying only to persuasion (etc.) that is done while “using the mail” (etc.). To understand it as applying to persuasion (etc.) done subsequent to the use of the mail, phone, etc., would be an unnatural and grammatically inaccurate reading of the language.

    Speaking as a native English speaker reading the statute, I have to disagree that the only grammatically correct reading is that if someone induces or entices a minor into sex that the original induction/enticement doesn’t count unless it specifically mentions sexual acts. To me it’s clear that if you entice someone with a promise of, say, paying them to give you a massage and then coerce them into sexual services after they arrive at your property, then the original enticement was part of the modus operandi. Pinker’s interpretation would be an absolute boon to sex traffickers.

    Even if Pinker was not aware that this was to be used in Epstein’s defence (again, implausibility alert!), he must have been aware that he was creating a legal argument for the purpose of protecting someone who had sex with a minor from prosecution. Furthermore, as a trained linguist, he should never have offered his personal opinion as something that every English speaker would agree with — if anyone should be aware of the syntactical and grammatical complexities of English, he should. He had absolutely no evidence to back up his assertion. What he should have done, as a good scientist, was to conduct a test of non-legal English speakers to give him their interpretation of the statute. But no. He imposed his own personal interpretation as if it was the divine word on how 100% of plain English speakers would interpret it.

  16. chrislawson says

    Can I ask a question of anyone with legal knowledge — is it at all common for lawyers to ask linguists to give syntax/grammar interpretations of statutes?

  17. anchor says

    #14 Siggy – that limited familiarity does however explain your readiness to deflect the subject away from the post onto some odd presumption of FTB’s ethical standards. What a zowie of a counterpunch! It was almost as effective as witnessing a juvenile breaking his hand punching a wall or a tree out of an impulse to, you know, relieve a deep-seated frustration or to even the score, or similar reactive behavior. Gee, wonder how that might have been triggered.

  18. John Morales says

    anchor @15 to Siggy:

    Perhaps such a limited familiarity of a subject would have warranted a similar limit on supplying an opinion about it. Just saying.

    Siggy’s comment @4 did not rely on familiarity with Pinker, so whence speculation?

    (Meta: Clearly, nobody without extensive familiarity with something should profess an opinion when first encountering that something, in your estimation. Perhaps you are wrong. Just saying)

  19. says

    @anchor #15&18,

    Perhaps such a limited familiarity of a subject would have warranted a similar limit on supplying an opinion about it. Just saying.

    I am of the opinion that I don’t have enough information to judge Pinker, but you say I don’t have enough information to form an opinion, so I guess my opinion must be wrong. Thanks for that, you have won the argument.

    I referred to former FTBloggers because I am a current FTBlogger, and it happens to be something that personally affects me. I won’t discuss it further, since I’m sure PZ doesn’t appreciate it, and clearly you don’t either.

  20. John Morales says

    Hey, Siggy, lemme see if I got you.

    Or perhaps not ;)

    OP: “There’s still a problem. He “disliked” and had a “longstanding distaste” for Epstein, and finds his behavior “reprehensible”, yet still he appeared at multiple events with him, assisted in an indirect way in his defense (which he now regrets), and this is the first time he has openly repudiated him.”

    you (to PZ, presumably): “Pinker’s terrible, but I feel like you’re being overly optimistic about human nature if you expect people to make public repudiations before they absolutely have to. For instance, I do not feel that FTB has historically been so quick to repudiate problem people in its own network.”

    A cynical view of humanity, but one which I share.

    OTOH, I don’t think PZ has great expectations either, but rather is highlighting that either Pinker was naive or else was looking out for #1 first and foremost, and (as you noted) finally decided to adopt a new public stance.

  21. says

    Siggy is right. There have been several instances where I’ve resisted joining the consensus — Ophelia is one case, Richard Dawkins is another. In both situations, I was slow to come around because I had friendly, personal relationships with them, which I was reluctant to lose.

    Where that differs from Pinker is that he claims to have disliked Epstein from the beginning, yet until now he never spoke up.

    Another thing is that as an institution, FtB is reasonably good at responding to bad actors. Individuals like me might be slow to recognize where the personal conflicts with the ideal, but I trust the group as a whole to act in the interests of a greater goal. There were so many people arguing with me about Ophelia! They were right, too.

    Anjuli was a bit different. I think we had general agreement that she was saying detestable things, and we were discussing it early…we took our time acting to give her a chance. I don’t think anyone turned a blind eye to what she was doing, once it was pointed out to us, but were concerned about how to cope with a problematic blogger.

  22. hillaryrettig says

    Unless I missed something, Pinker doesn’t actually deny knowing about or witnessing the sexual abuse. He just says he hung out with Epstein prior to the “revelation” of the crimes.

    Also: another prominent, rich white man playing the victim.

  23. anchor says

    @19 John Morales says, “Perhaps you are wrong,”

    Not as wrong as you were. Nice pivot recovery attempt on your #21, though.

    Perhaps you were confused by Siggy’s mistake in #20, who strangely suggests I was referring his lack of familiarity with Pinker [?] instead of with Epstein as he actually states in his #14.

  24. KG says

    Alan Dershowitz and I are friends and colleagues – Pinker

    A damning admission if ever I saw one!

  25. PaulBC says

    “Since I was often the most recognizable person in the room …”

    Possibly factually correct, but still, what an asshole.

  26. Matt G says

    Dershy admitted to getting a massage, BUT HE DIDN’T LIKE IT!! Which of course makes everything totally legit.

  27. PaulBC says

    The main rhetorical flaw I have with Pinker’s defense is “the lady doth protest too much”, notably

    it may be worth adding that I have a paper trail of abhorrence of violence against women

    When you refer to a paper trail that nobody has yet asked to see, it sounds like you’ve been building the trail to cover something up.

    For all that, I have no idea what to think of Pinker or his connection to Epstein. His explanation is badly written and I wonder who the intended audience is. His key claim is that there is an innocent explanation for why he appears in pictures with Epstein. I would believe that more if he had summarized the salient points in a short paragraph and merely asserted that he could back it up if needed.

    I find his description of Epstein believable, but it’s a contrast with Dershowitz (secondary quote in Slate:

    “Alan Dershowitz says that, as he was getting to know Epstein, his wife asked him if he would still be close to him if Epstein suddenly filed for bankruptcy. Dershowitz says he replied, ‘Absolutely. I would be as interested in him as a friend if we had hamburgers on the boardwalk in Coney Island and talked about his ideas.’ ” — Vanity Fair, June 2011

    Not that I give Derpowitz much credibility, but they seem to be talking about two different people.

  28. PaulBC says

    Granted (my comment in 31), one person’s “insufferable” is another’s “fascinating”, but Pinker’s description of Epstein and its contrast with Dershowitz is telling. I am convinced that Dershowitz is a complete fraud. He may have been a principled defense attorney at one time in the distant past, but he now seems a lot more interested in being a celebrity.

  29. Matt G says

    Another (possibly) principled person who succumb to the disease of celebrity is Mehmet Oz.

  30. jack16 says

    I think someone should say something in praise of PZ’s accomplishment. How he keeps it all together is the wonder of the age.

    jack16

  31. PaulBC says

    I think someone should say something in praise of PZ’s accomplishment. How he keeps it all together is the wonder of the age.

    It’s all about family values. When there are millions of hatchlings to take care of, everything else falls into perspective.

  32. Reginald Selkirk says

    By the way, the author of that blog who famously insists on civility and honesty

    I gave up on him a while ago, after I was banned from his blog for behavior he himself engages in.

  33. says

    Every single time I boarded Epstein’s jet, appeared with him at this or that gala or danced the night away on his island, I thought to myself “I can not STAND Jeffrey Epstein!” Just the other day, my close friend Filthowitz told me Epstein forced him to have sex with underaged girls. Terrible.

    Thank God the world is getting more peaceful and civilized by the nanosecond, as my fabulous book categorically proves.

  34. Jim Henley says

    *It would be an interesting experiment if the next time a public figure makes an apology, if you were to create the apology you would have liked to have seen, and post it as though it were real, to see what the reaction was.

    Ooh, I’ll play!

    “I could tell you that I never liked Jeffrey Epstein and it would be true, but my public behavior never gave any indication of that so why would anyone believe me. I could tell you I presented my expert testimony in Epstein’s defense not out of loyalty to him but out of friendship for Alan Dershowitz, and that would be true as far as it goes. But I failed to do due diligence about either the case against Epstein or my own duty to society.

    “Jeffrey Epstein was rich and gave a lot of money to my university. He was also something of a ‘buff’ and collected scientists like little prizes. We all had at least some social contact with him at his residences. We all saw the very young women and even younger girls. We all talked among ourselves about our shared experiences, as friends and colleagues do. Epstein was useful to our work and his attention was flattering to many, so the line of least resistance was to keep my bad opinion to myself, and that’s the line I took.

    “I did not suspect Jeffrey Epstein was grooming, raping and prostituting the girls in his care. But that was my failure. I should have suspected that. I need to introspect about how hard I might have worked, subconsciously, not to suspect that. My experience was similar to most of my peers, but that doesn’t let me off the hook. That represents a failure of the culture of Harvard specifically, and ‘Big Science’ generally, two institutions for which I share responsibility. To say ‘we all failed’ is to say I was right there failing with them.

    “In the years after the plea deal I gave Epstein little thought, which in itself is nothing praiseworthy. And as he found ways to slyly slip money our way again, I once again found ways to take the path of least resistance. If Epstein finally faces justice commensurate with his reprehensible crimes, it will not be because of anything I did, and arguably, at some ways, in spite of my own actions.

    “I am very sorry for this. I am sorry for the girls I failed – girls I saw without seeing, heard about without hearing. I failed you, and I was a pillar of cultures that failed you. I’m sorry for all the girls and women whose world is more dangerous because of failures like mine. I’m sorry for the students and admirers who had a right to expect better of me. I am even sorry for those friends and fans rushing to make defenses I don’t deserve. It was convenient to me to fail you – intellectually, socially, culturally, financially. I need to reflect on why I failed, and how I can atone. It isn’t enough to simply apologize, but it’s the necessary start. I am sorry.”

  35. mountainbob says

    Slymepitters! A new and useful word. No extended discussion required. ThanX!

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