Santa came early, and left Steve Pinker a lump of coal

I woke up at 5am this morning, grumble grumble grumble, and trudged off to the kitchen to make the coffee, like usual. Then as usual I fired up the iPad and browsed while waiting for the water to boil and the coffee to steep, when…

That song had been running through my head since the Watchmen finale the other night, but it erupted into full symphonic orchestral sound in my head when I found Jessica Riskin’s article in the LA Review of Books, Pinker’s Pollyannish Philosophy and Its Perfidious Politics. Oh god yes. It’s so good to see that fraud exposed. I have been irritated by Pinker for years — he’s constantly going on about “progress” and “liberal ideals”, but what he really means is “crush our enemies in the East” and a pattern of conservative thought that would make Ben Shapiro comfortable. His books are propaganda for the Right, to allow them to pretend that they are the True Progressives.

You need to read the review for yourself. It’s delightful.

“INTELLECTUALS HATE REASON,” “Progressives hate progress,” “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery.” No, wait, those last two are from a different book, but it’s easy to get mixed up. Steven Pinker begins his latest — a manifesto inspirationally entitled Enlightenment Now — with a contrast between “the West,” which he says is critical of its own traditions and values, and “the Islamic State,” which “knows exactly what it stands for.” Given the book’s title, one expects Pinker to be celebrating a core Enlightenment ideal: critical skepticism, which demands the questioning of established traditions and values (such as easy oppositions between “the West” and “the bad guys”). But no, in a surprise twist, Pinker apparently wants us over here in “the West” to adopt an Islamic State–level commitment to our “values,” which he then equates with “classical liberalism” (about which more presently). You begin to see, reader, why this review — which I promised to write last spring — took me all summer and much of the fall to finish. Just a few sentences into the book, I am tangled in a knot of Orwellian contradictions.

Enlightenment Now purports to demonstrate by way of “data” that “the Enlightenment has worked.” What are we to make of this? A toaster oven can work or not by toasting or failing to toast your bagel. My laser printer often works by printing what I’ve asked it to print, and sometimes doesn’t by getting the paper all jammed up inside. These machines were designed and built to do particular, well-defined jobs. There is no uncertainty, no debate, no tradition of critical reflection, no voluminous writings regarding what toaster ovens or laser printers should do, or which guiding principles or ideals should govern them.

On the other hand, uncertainty, debate, and critical reflection were the warp and woof of the Enlightenment, which was no discrete, engineered device with a well-defined purpose, but an intellectual and cultural movement spanning several countries and evolving over about a century and a half. If one could identify any single value as definitive of this long and diverse movement, it must surely be the one mentioned above, the value of critical skepticism. To say it “worked” vitiates its very essence. But now the Enlightenment’s best-selling PR guy takes “skepticism” as a dirty word; if that’s any indication, then I guess the Enlightenment didn’t work, or at any rate, it’s not working now. Maybe it came unplugged? Is there a paper jam?

Riskin goes through Pinker’s evocation of major thinkers of Enlightenment philosophy and shows that he gets them all wrong. Kant, Hume, Diderot — somehow, Pinker distorts them all into cheerleaders for a version of the Enlightenment in which all we have to do is think hard and do science, and like Mr Spock, we will all get the right answer, and it will be the same answer for everyone. It’s weird. The only book by Kant that I ever struggled through was his Critique of Pure Reason, and, I don’t know, isn’t just the title a great big hint?

In fact, every one of Pinker’s boosters of reason and science was a skeptical analyst of these. It’s not that they were anti-reason or anti-science. Rather, it was the twinning of reason and skepticism that most definitively characterized Enlightenment thought and writing. In particular, Enlightenment authors were keenly aware that knowledge is inseparable from the knower, composed not only of the thing known, but of the knower’s perspective, passions, experience, interpretation, and instinct. Skepticism was the means by which they acknowledged this truth and put it to work. By eliminating skepticism from his rendition of the Enlightenment, Pinker has done the equivalent of removing every second word of a book: what’s left behind is not half the sense of the original, but just nonsense.

And then there’s Pinker’s worship of data. Every scientist knows that data is only part of the story; interpretation shapes that data, but even more, methods and sources select what data you see, and no amount of data can describe the totality of the phenomenon you’re attempting to describe. We are all peeking at the universe through pinholes, and attempting to summarize its nature with theories and models. Pinker, though, is trying to convince the reader that his graphs and charts and tables are comprehensive and tell a uniform message of a perfectable and perfecting world, which is really just a way of belittling real problems to tell us that everything’s all right.

Then there are the graphs that do not appear in the book: graphs showing rising sea levels, rising temperatures, the resulting natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires, mass shootings, and the list could go on. Indeed, it should set off alarm bells that every single graph in the book points in the same direction: every day in every way, better and better. My point is not that things are getting worse rather than better, but that history is not a straight line up or down, and that presenting “data” as though it produces and speaks for itself is worse than useless: it is profoundly dishonest. What we need in this time of political, environmental, and cultural crisis is precisely the value Pinker rejects but that his Enlightenment heroes embraced, whatever their differences of opinion on other matters: skepticism, and an attendant spirit of informed criticism. Skepticism is kryptonite to the sort of demagogue who brandishes something — a cross, a flag, a MAGA hat … or a graph — and calls anyone who questions it a delusional know-nothing. Pinker’s story is Manichaean, good versus evil, and the bad guys are intellectuals, progressives, and the misleading news media. Any of this sounding familiar? With friends like these, the Enlightenment doesn’t need enemies.

I am looking forward to the squawks of indignation from the usual crowd of neo-conservatives masquerading as neo-liberals masquerading as honest seekers of the truth. The apologists for Pinker will be loud…and wrong, as usual.


  1. profpedant says

    Pinker would point to the fact that for all of my life anytime that someone has gone to bed hungry it was because of a decision that a human made and – rightfully – call it an improvement over our earlier cycle of famines. However he ignores the fact that for all of my life people who would prefer to eat have had to go to bed hungry. Unfortunately a – hopefully temporary – side effect of many of the improvements that we’ve made has been an increasing human responsibility for human suffering. Pinker is not helping to make this a temporary side effect.

  2. nomadiq says

    The thing I can not stand about Pinker is, just because he can point out that there is less hunger, let’s say, globally, doesn’t mean hunger is not increasing somewhere, hunger can not be a problem in the future nor does the data explain why hunger is lower. Hunger is not even a very precise term. Nor is malnutrition. This is where the Pinkers of the world fail. They fall for scientism.

    Is the nutritional health of a people better when they can only consume 75% of the WHOs recommended daily caloric intake, or when all they can afford to eat is McDonalds and they consume maybe 200+% of their daily caloric intake in the form of processed food? Doctors will disagree. So the pretty graphs are only a map of what the data collector saw, it is never the actually territory. Good faith skepticism will always wish to explore what may have not been captured by the numbers. Pinker will always hate this – it means the numbers always need to be thought about, not just accepted.

  3. bayesian says

    Citations Needed had a great episode on this from last year too.

    It’s fascinating how much of the popular consensus these folks like to peddle gets the facts just completely backwards in a self-serving way. An example:

    “[I]n 2012, developing countries received a total of $2 trillion US dollars in total inflows from the Global North, right? That includes aid, foreign investments, loans, remittances, everything, every bit of money, which is a lot, but in the same year, some $5 trillion flowed the other direction from South to North. So in that year there were $3 trillion in net outflows from South to North, so the South is in fact a net creditor to the North rather than the other way around. So we might be able to say that it’s, in fact, the Global South that’s developing the North rather than the North developing the South. And that really does flip the aid narrative on its head. And if we compare those outflows to aid, what we see is that for every dollar of aid that the South receives from the North, they lose $24 in net outflows, which is a tremendous reversal of the way we normally think about the situation”

  4. Eirik van der Meer says

    PZ: “all we have to do is think hard”
    I’ve made a similar observation lately. We have a group of “celebrity scientists” that act like they are experts on everything. They butt in, call out and evoke any scientific fact or hypothesis that support their claims even though they have little to no formal training in the field.
    It looks like they’ve bought their own hype and concluded that “I am a great logic thinker, therefore I cannot be wrong”.

  5. microraptor says

    Eirik van der Meer @5: And it’s not at all helped by the media acting like “science” is done by a single man (and it’s always a man) working alone in his laboratory (British pronunciation) to prove the world wrong when they said his theories were mad.

  6. garnetstar says

    As the article suggests, Pinker conveniently left out Voltaire, one of the greatest of Enlightenment “thinkers” and part of the “Western” canon. What is Pinker’s excuse for that? Especially since Voltaire’s masterpiece is a vicious satire of exactly the position that Pinker advocates.

    I’d really like to see Pinker try to twist to justify Voltaire’s work as a optimistic confirmation of our Enlightement values! It’d be rather the equivalent of Barr saying that the IG’s report showed an FBI conspiracy. Now, there’s enlightenment at work for you.

  7. garnetstar says

    And, Eirik van der Meer @5 and microraptor @6, what these celebrity scientists do in their pronouncements of the truth on every question is exactly anti-science: they ignore all the data. Not only are they not formally trained in the field, they do not even learn what data has been accumulated in it by those who are. And, if someone brings up an inconvenient data point that conflicts with their logical ideas, they ignore it.

  8. garnetstar says

    Now I think of it, that’s a good moniker for the guy: Dr. Pangloss Pinker. If he is teased with it often enough, perhaps he’ll finally read Candide.

  9. Eirik van der Meer says

    @garnetstar: Well said.
    These charlatans are usually easy to spot by their followers, if you can’t antagonize idiots, sexists, racists and bigots there’s something fundamentally wrong with your message. And the rest by the way they and their accolades handles criticism.

  10. ORigel says

    We can accept that the main thesis of Better Angels is correct, that violence has decreased throughout history and things are really the best they’ve ever been, or thereabouts.

    And we can accept that Pinker has let his politics blind him so that he now dismisses real issues and twists the data to support so-called classical liberalism, especially in Enlightenment Now!

    Loved Better Angels where the above flaws were minor. Disliked Enlightenment Now! “Polyanna Pinker” definitely fits for the latter work.

  11. says

    In the course of my life as a music promoter, I’ve encountered more than a few once-stellar players who fell into the trap of reading their own promotional packages and taking them literally. Pinker strikes me as one of those guys.

    It’s too bad. His early writing on language had a lot to recommend it.

    It reminds me more than a bit of Sam Harris’ descent into irrelevance.

  12. Zeppelin says

    Pinker’s job is to tell the technocrats running the world that they’re already perfect, and to discourage everyone else from rocking the boat lest we interrupt the inexorable march of Progress.
    Nevermind that we could feed everyone right now if we made some systemic changes — these graphs say that if we just let the capitalists get on with it, barely any children will starve to death in their parents’ arms two hundred years from now.

  13. hemidactylus says

    @7- garnetstar

    Pinker didn’t exactly leave out Voltaire. In his view Voltaire was satirizing theodicy where the world as it stands if created is far from perfect and indicates a piss poor Creator. Pinker puts an interesting spin (or gloss) on the caricature of Pangloss asserting he would be deemed a pessimist now in that humans have made improvements on the god-given world. Pinker is no doubt familiar with the Panglossian epithet given the well worn polemics of Gould and Lewontin toward adaptationist thinking in the spandrels paper and the dustup between Gould, Pinker, Dennett, Wright, and others in the mid 90s. Pinker has been in this brouhaha for decades, especially as the EP wars heated up.

    I agree that Pinker has major shortcomings in addressing the historic Enlightenment. I can’t recall if he focused any on the far more interesting to Renaissance as did a similar book by Goldin and Kutarna. But that deeper more challenging Enlightenment history stuff (Hume’s passion play or Locke’s and Kant’s racism- see Jamelle Bouie’s critique) wasn’t much on his agenda.

    You would think Enlightenment Now was the worst book ever written and there is nothing of value or pearls in the mud contained within given the blog pastime of piling poop on poor Pangloss Pinker. Tsk tsk. That’s a Manichean vantage point and an ironic mirror image of the IDW polemic.

    One would do well to recognize the book arose from a tedious and contentious back and forth between Pinker and Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic and Pinker is fashioning himself after CP Snow in The Two Cultures. The rest largely flows from those nascent foundations. Its pretty much a implicit slam on lit crit with graphs and a blurb from Gates. But it is an apt antidote to pessimism and throw your hands up in the air futility. Stuff has worked, but the outcomes not well distributed and as Hickel argues (???) the counternarrative about post-colonial exploitation, debt strictures, and net flows from the Global South are largely overlooked and it sounds too much like a Cato pitch piece in places, though Pinker does go counter-libertarian and point to the relatively better setup in Nordic social democracies versus anomalous sputtering of the US on some measures. Pinker suffers from lack of balance, poor social optics outside the TED and IDW crowds, and a not so good handle on fielding criticism, because anyone not thoroughly bulldozed by his book is a benighted SJW regressive leftist.

    But where it stands this is not a book to be treated either critically or fairly. It’s either uncritically praised and fawned over or put through the cultural shredder largely unread and mainly addressed second or third hand. Most of the reviews of the book are either gushing or vindictive. Few are fair and reasonable.

  14. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    @18: So… it’s okay that the book plays fast and loose with philosophy, facts and graphs, advancing an agenda that palpably contributes to a reduction in the urgency on everything from combating climate change to ending hunger to doing something about the lack of available medicine and health care, because it emerged from a pissing match between him Wieseltier? A debate, by the way, where Wieseltier repeatedly points out that Pinker deliberately conflates science with scientism and strawmans the point being made by those who argue that there’s independent value in the liberal arts, social sciences and other areas that people academically dismiss?

    No one serious denies that there’s been real progress (though Noam Chomsky had a good point when he noted that a lot of the conditions of Paleolithic people were better than much of human history, so Pinker’s claim basically remains true if you ignore 99% of the data – not really a good start, especially since Pinker’s argument about resource scarcity and entropy is actually central to his claims and not just a footnote). That’s not the point. The point is that Pinker selectively ignores areas where things have gotten worse, including the incredibly serious risks of WMD conflict and climate change, all in order to try to argue that his preferred economic and political reforms are demonstrably superior. In fact, if one were consistent, one would look at Pinker’s data and see that radical, even revolutionary, social change can absolutely work, and demand institutional reforms that do much more than let plutocrats keep on deciding the fate of the planet. But Pinker can’t even admit that the debate can be framed that way because then we have to start asking questions like “Who is actually gaining? Are some people actually objectively losers in our global market? Why should the gains be so badly skewed?”

    If Pinker were just trying to make a reasoned, careful, limited case against Wieseltier, that’d be one thing. He’s not. And so he deserves to be held to the same standard as anyone else of his intelligence and education who makes sweeping statements that aren’t true.

  15. charleendadams says

    I am saddened to see the number of posts you have attacking Steve Pinker, who happens to be someone whose integrity and character I admire as much as his intellect.

    The body of Steve Pinker’s work focuses on what has gone well in the world. He decided early on as a psychologist that he would focus on human nature–especially the aspects that were non-pathological. There are, of course, many psychologists and therapists who specialize in what’s gone wrong. In my fields of genetics and epidemiology, it is the same. My paycheck is based on the study of disease; I get paid to think about what goes wrong. Pinker focuses on what is going well. We need people doing this. Focusing on the positive is like prevention science versus pharmacological intervention: there just isn’t much money in prevention and there is a lot for drugs. Pinker became famous for his ability to write and communicate about interesting aspects of the human mind. He did not get famous for pointing out, like most of the rest of us, what is wrong.

    Your posts come off as vitriolic, small, and unprofessional, like someone whipping up mobs. And I say this as a woman in science on the left.

    Charleen Adams