I thought enrollments were supposed to be down?

Yikes. It’s the first day of spring term registration, first thing in the morning, and my genetics class is already full…plus I’m giving a few students permission to take it beyond capacity (I’m splitting all the labs to meet pandemic requirements).

Spring: all the anxiety and overwork of the fall, only with crappier weather. They better cure this pandemic soon, or I may keel over from the stress.

Oh, wait. Pandemics don’t happen anymore.

Well, if a Harvard Professor says so, it must be true.


  1. says

    “Well, if a Harvard Professor says so, it must be true.
    Professor of what? I’m guessing physics from the subtext of his handle. So not an expert on microbiology, medicine, genetics, virology or epidemiology. It’s a bit like putting a brain surgeon in charge of a major government agency… Oh wait, that happened.

  2. wzrd1 says

    @PZ, fair is fair, come up with an obvious poem physics pronouncement to top that idiocy. Maybe, earth isn’t an oblate spherical, it’s really flat and gravity makes it look like it’s a spheroidish. ;)

  3. says

    Oh god, that’s even worse. Don’t get me wrong. Psych majors definitely have their place in the world. If he wants to talk about the current mental health crisis that is a side effect of the epidemic, that’s fine. But leave the actual handling of the epidemic itself to the people who dedicated their lives to handling epidemics.
    Never thought I’d see a Harvard Prof. display such blatant Dunning/Kruger.

  4. nomadiq says

    Pinker is good at constructing grammatically correct sentences and then stringing them into paragraphs, then chapters, then books. That is all. Oh, one more ingredient… motivated reasoning.

    And apparently this is all that is needed to be highly respected. Counter evidence, even as massive as a global pandemic, will not tarnish this respect – because meritocracy is a lie.

    Happy Election Day! Is my anxiety showing?

  5. PaulBC says

    That is a very funny thing to say more than 3 quarters of a year into a pandemic. Empiricism anyone? I guess magical thinking isn’t just for the White House anymore.

    BTW, organ failure isn’t a problem anymore because, like, “nanotechnology” or maybe it’s “stem cells”. I forget. The “good guys” with all their “advances” and stuff are just ready to start 3D-printing organs. No transplant waiting lists, no antirejection drugs.

    I love the advanced high-tech society I live in. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a 90 minute trip to Paris “undersea by rail.”

  6. raven says

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a 90 minute trip to Paris “undersea by rail.”

    Did you misplace your flying car?

    When I was growing up in the 1950’s, the future had flying cars, jetpacks, and colonies on Mars.
    Here it is 2020, and I’m playing the latest game, coffin dodging, and trying to stay alive until the Covid-19 vaccines come out. While a mad man who is our president wrecks the country I live in.
    The future is overrated.

  7. nomadiq says

    In Pinker’s ‘defense’ he wrote that in his book ‘Enlightenment Now’, before the pandemic. But this is exactly the problem with Pinker’s thesis – he paints a rosey picture of the modern world, in this case how awesome medicine is and therefore disease is not an issue anymore. But he fails time-again to acknowledge that all the wonderful technology in the world will not save humanity from its inhumano element. Pinker can not see a Trump coming down the road because he is blinded by the advances of science. He is naive at best and probably just stupid when it comes to the nature of humanity’s problems.

  8. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    And then there was the whole load of Freeze Peach people complaining because the Linguistics Society of America wanted to remove Pinker from their list of ‘people to talk to when you want to talk to a linguist’ because he kept talking about things well outside his area of expertise, usually as an ultracrepidarian.

  9. says

    In Pinker’s ‘defense’ he wrote that in his book ‘Enlightenment Now’, before the pandemic. But this is exactly the problem with Pinker’s thesis – he paints a rosey picture of the modern world, in this case how awesome medicine is and therefore disease is not an issue anymore.

    Don’t worry, he’ll update it and say “Now, apart from Covid 19…”, which doesn’t count, because nobody could have foreseen such a thing happening, apart from all the experts who did exactly that.
    Remember, that’s the guy who decided to simply ignore two world wars so he could declare the 20th century to have been the most peaceful by far.

  10. raven says

    He is naive at best and probably just stupid when it comes to the nature of humanity’s problems.

    What Pinker did is pick two time points. The stone age. And yesteday.
    Then he drew a line between them and came up with a conclusion.
    Things are better now. Progress happens!!!

    .1. It’s not wrong for long enough time intervals.
    In fact, it is a trivial observation that anyone could make.
    .2. It also ignores a huge amount of zigzagging in between. The fall of the Roman empires. The Dark Ages. The Black Plague, World War II. The election of Ronald Reagan. The election of Donald Trump.
    Progress isn’t a linear straight line.
    .3. It also ignores the causes.
    An important one is a lot of very brave people pushing us forward often against a huge amount of resistance by other humans.
    What progress we have made wasn’t inevitable, it was a lot of hard thinking and hard work by a minority of humans.

  11. PaulBC says


    When I was growing up in the 1950’s, the future had flying cars, jetpacks, and colonies on Mars.

    Yeah, but did anyone even dream you could send a photo of your noodle bowl to millions of people around the world? Did they even dream you’d be eating a noodle bowl? I think it was all gross stuff like vienna sausages in aspic back then.

    And my work is already just like the Jetsons except I can resize Mr. Spacely.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Ray Ceeya @2:

    I’m guessing physics from the subtext of his handle

    Did you (and wzrd1, apparently) think @physicspod was quoting Pinker approvingly? There may be medication available for that jerking in your knee.

  13. seedye says

    @11 Ariaflame


    Nice term, going to pocket that for later. Although, while tracking down the Pinker quote, I found another term that I like better, from German: Fachidioten. Subject/field idiot.

    My boyfriend & I had an argument about Fachidioten yesterday. He’s a computer scientist with a degree in physics, and one of the smartest people I know, certainly smarter than I am. I’m a computer scientist with degrees in CS and English. We were talking about anthropology (specifically, I was saying how it’s hard to make universal generalizations about human behavior caused by genetics, because colonialism has erased a lot of cultures that differ from ours) and he complained that the soft sciences don’t really have any facts, and practically everything they hold to be true is merely conjecture held together by individual biases.

    I said that was a common perception, particularly from people from hard sciences, but flatly wrong. My English lit classes were just as intellectually rigorous as the CS classes. Anthropologists correcting for colonialist interpretations of cultures aren’t simply replacing colonialist biases with modern PC biases, but re-examining evidence with more skepticism, or at least are trying to. He said a lot of that post-modern skepticism is just contrarianism for the sake of standing out in the crowd. I said, sure, that can be a motivation for someone to publish, but it isn’t automatically accepted as plausible much less probable in the field until it’s gone through the gauntlet of peer review. Also, the shitty news coverage of the contrarian view and the shitty layman understanding and viral spread of the shitty understanding of the contrarian view aren’t substitutes for how the field understands it. The people in the field are well aware of the limits of their field, certainly better so than those outside it.

    Possibly the worst people at misconstruing the knowledge of a field are the Fachidioten. Scientists who are household names are routinely embarrassing themselves by opining outside their fields, sometimes shamefully giving ammo to regressives, which could be avoided by asking the people in the field what they know and how they know it, and fucking reflecting a bit before passing judgement.

    I don’t know if we settled the argument, but we managed to steer things back to agreeing that the episode of whatever Walking Dead universe show we were watching, like most episodes, was exceedingly dumb.

  14. says

    I agree that Pinker is consistently guilty of making glib assertions that are poorly supported. But to be fair, in context, he didn’t say that pandemics are impossible; the literal implication is only that at least some of them are averted, and this is true. (I.e., he didn’t say “all pandemics do not happen.”) Viz. SARS1, MERS, Ebola. That’s important to keep in mind because public health preparedness does matter, as do the sciences of virology and microbiology. If we invest wisely in science and public health infrastructure, deploy resources smartly, and implement sound policies, we can indeed avert a lot of pandemics and control others much better than we did this one. So while panglossianism is not indicated, neither is fatalism and despair.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    Pinker’s not wrong about “advances in biology” – but his assumption that “the good guys” would run things fails hard.

  16. PaulBC says

    Ariaflame@11 “Ultracrepidarianism is the habit of giving opinions and advice on matters outside of one’s knowledge.”

    Before I bothered to look it up, I assumed it just meant “ultra creepy like the sort of person who would hang out with Jeffrey Epstein.” Learn something new every day!

  17. unclefrogy says

    I think a lot of confusion could be resolved if these statements of absolute knowledge of the truth could be taken as questions instead of a grand revelation inspired by genius.
    The way it is now it looks to me is some kind of competition between individuals which often terns political and personal in tone. It often becomes as much about the maker of the statement then about the truth of the statement with more vigorous defense instead of simply honest questioning of reality. Of course there are those who think it is their belief over reality and do not believe in any objective reality.
    we do act on our beliefs regardless of what reality is often with results we do not expect.
    uncle frogy

  18. PaulBC says


    I think a lot of confusion could be resolved if these statements of absolute knowledge of the truth could be taken as questions instead of a grand revelation inspired by genius.

    That sounds like a good start. There are many ideas that aren’t totally crazy but aren’t really supported by current evidence, or if it’s an engineering question may or may not be feasible, or (like I said above, things like artificial or “3D-printed” organ replacements) are almost certainly feasible assuming technology that we unfortunately just don’t have yet, and might not have in time to be relevant to the interested party.

    Personally, I love wild ideas, but I can’t stand it when they are repeated with an air of authority. There needs to be some kind of disclaimer… we usually know when something is science fiction I hope… but the people doing the hard work of solving real problems right now aren’t the same as the people writing best sellers or founding vaporware institutes about nanotechnology and the like.

  19. =8)-DX says

    Just a note @raven #13 the so-called Dark Ages weren’t called dark due of a lack of progress (both social and technological), but because of the lack of extant literary sources, so “dark” as in “we don’t know that much about them”. In many ways later periods were much more socially repressed, censorious and prudish.

  20. PaulBC says

    @23 Years back I read… I think in Scientific American… about innovations in agriculture during the Middle Ages. One thing that is true is that public works like roads and aqueducts fell by the wayside (at least I think so) but apparently small technology progressed just fine, such as more effective plows. It’s not even obvious to me that rights were worse than they had been in Rome, where slavery was institutionalized. I’m not really sure about that.

    There is also an interesting theory that the Chinese wheelbarrow (large central wheel and balanced cargo) gave China a major advantage in productivity and standard of living, because it was possible to maintain extensive trade routes without wide roads like Europe lost after the end of the Roman empire. Disclaimer: I just read this stuff. I don’t do it for a living and I have no idea how seriously to take any of it. I am convinced, though, that the cartoon picture we might have learned in school is almost certainly wrong.

  21. Rob Curtis says

    Epidemics are studied by epidemiologists.

    Pandemics are studied by pandemiologists.

    I’ve never heard of a pandemiologist.

    Therefore pandemics don’t exist!


  22. jrkrideau says

    @24 PaulBC
    A bit of a rant about the “Dark Ages” and Middle Ages (not exactly the same thing as the Dark Ages are “very” roughly 475–1000 AD) by a real medieval historian which as =8)-DX points out was “Dark” due to a lack of written sources.
    and a bit more serious essay on medieval science

    There was a surprising amount of learning and “science” in our terms going on in the Middle Ages especially if one includes the Islamic scholars in the Near East and Central Asia. There was a fairly constant exchange among all these scholars in Christian Europe and the Islamic World.

    There was some loss of technology–especially road-building and aqueducts—but this way have been due to societal changes that resulted in less demand for them rather than actual technological regression.

    I would not be too surprised that the Chinese wheelbarrow gave China a major advantage in productivity and standard of living.

    The Chinese wheelbarrows were even equipped with sails at times. I have read somewhere that when first invented it was a military secret.

    Apparently a network of high quality paths, sometimes stone-paved, linked a lot of villages. The paths were maintained by locals or by merchants. IIRC, wheelbarrows are not in evidence in Europe until the 13th or 14th century and even then, they are the small ones we see in the West. handy on a farm or a building site but not the logistic tool the Chinese wheelballow was/is.

  23. chrislawson says


    The quote is “diseases don’t become pandemics anymore.” If Pinker meant that to be a qualified statement, it’s up to him to put the qualifiers in, not me to assume them.

  24. chrislawson says


    Nope, no sympathy from me. Pinker wrote Enlightenment Now in 2018. There had been the swine flu pandemic as recently as 2010. The HIV pandemic has been with us uninterrupted since the 1980s (it goes back before that, but not as a global pandemic). And there’s the steady increase in MRTB around the world.

    Combine that with the fact that we have failed to develop an HIV vaccine despite decades of effort. We have never had a coronavirus vaccine. We do not have a malaria vaccine, again despite decades of effort.

    Then there’s the fact that the MRTB epidemic is spreading directly because of political idiocy. The science is well understood. The solution is well understood. But the US and Russia continue to cram prisoners and refugees in crowded conditions without medical support. This has been warned against for more than twenty years now.

    So there’s no point in Pinker crowing about how smart people can solve anything (which they can’t anyway, see vaccine failures above) when the times they can solve things they are being sidelined for abhorrent political reasons. Obviously Trump has taken this to an extreme, but it was Reagan who started appointing creationists to top medical and scientific positions, so Pinker had >30 years of experience to ignore when he wrote that drivel.

  25. PaulBC says

    From just as ultracrepidarian a position as Pinker, my gut reaction would be that in current world, connected by high speed travel and international trade, we are far more vulnerable to a disease turning into a pandemic. In the past, these things spread a lot more slowly. Technology does advance, but not always the technologies that do us the most good.

    But your friends far away can see the noodle bowl you are about to eat, so there’s that. Who would have ever imagined?