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.
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.