Maybe it was the infusion of Pinkerism that helped atheism fizzle out

I’m going to call the relentless, performative celebration of something called “rationality” Pinkerism now. I’ve noticed it before: every YouTube channel that considers it a sufficient declaration of their worthiness to simply label themselves “The <insert adjective for “smart” here> Atheist”, all the lists of logical fallacies, the books about how everyone else is so stupid, the insistence that we get better by just being more logical (even when they’re contradicting themselves), the Mr Spock envy. It got old. It just seemed so joyless.

Well, you can trust good ol’ Steven Pinker to come along and dial it all up to 11. His new book is titled Rationality, and every smug wanker in the fading atheist movement will snatch it off the shelves. I won’t be one of them, so I’m going to have to rely on getting my impressions second hand, unfortunately. But oh boy, this review is stinging.

For someone who so frequently and serenely proclaims that he’s right, Steven Pinker can get curiously defensive. In “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters,” Pinker writes as if he’s part of an embattled minority, valiantly making the case that “the ability to use knowledge to attain goals” is so underappreciated these days that the reading public needs a new book (by Pinker) “to lay out rational arguments for rationality itself.”

He’s very disappointed that we aren’t all down on our knees praising Saint Steven.

Still, Pinker is troubled by what he sees as rationality’s image problem. “Rationality is uncool,” he laments. It isn’t seen as “dope, phat, chill, fly, sick or da bomb.” As evidence for its diminished status, he quotes celebrations of nonsense by the Talking Heads and Zorba the Greek. (Pinker is also vexed by the line “Let’s go crazy,” which he says was “adjured” by “the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”) It’s precisely this cultural derision of reason, he says, that prevents us from appreciating rationality’s spectacular accomplishments. “Human progress is an empirical fact,” he writes. “‘Progress’ is shorthand for a set of pushbacks and victories wrung out of an unforgiving universe, and is a phenomenon that needs to be explained. The explanation is rationality.“

You know the Talking Heads is a rather cerebral band, right? That dadaism was an intellectual movement? And that Prince was a joyful celebrant of art? I guess we’re not supposed to be happy. We’re supposed to be like Martians, with “intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”.

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

We all know how the Martians ended up.

Some of Pinker’s observations on racial issues are similarly blinkered. Are mortgage lenders who turn down minority applicants really being racist, he muses, or are those lenders simply calculating default rates “from different neighborhoods that just happen to correlate with race?” (A long history of racist redlining may “happen” to have something to do with this too, but Pinker doesn’t get into it.) He goes on to ask why “race, sex, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation have become war zones in intellectual life, even as overt bigotry of all kinds has dwindled.”

Anyone paying attention to what’s been happening in the last few years might wonder where he got his information. In support of his vague claim, Pinker directs the reader to a footnote citing two sources: a study, whose data ended in 2016, that measured a person’s “explicit attitudes” based on self-reporting (i.e. the respondents had to admit their bigotry); and a few (unhelpful) pages from “Enlightenment Now.”

It looks like he’s well on the path to self-referential insertion of his head up his own rectum. Perhaps the walls of his colon prevent him from noticing the increases in hate crimes in the US.

Poverty is also negligible in Pinker’s brain, and he’s always ready to indulge in the small pleasure of wagging a finger at fat people enjoying lasagna. He’s very petty that way.

The trouble arrives when he tries to gussy up his psychologist’s hat with his more elaborate public intellectual’s attire. The person who “succumbs” to the “small pleasure” of a lasagna dinner instead of holding out for the “large pleasure of a slim body” is apparently engaged in a similar kind of myopic thinking as the “half of Americans nearing retirement age who have saved nothing for retirement.” His breezy example elides the fact that — according to the same data — the median income for those non-saving households is $26,000, which isn’t enough money to pay for living expenses, let alone save for retirement.

So what’s the source of these “problems”? If you’ve read any right-wing media in the last few decades, you know the answer: education. I’m a little surprised that a Harvard professor would so readily find common cause with Prager U.

He repeatedly says that by promoting rationality he’s promoting “epistemic humility,” but you’d be hard-pressed to find much humility here, as he pronounces that among the biggest barriers to rationality’s triumph is “the universities’ left-wing suffocating monoculture.”

Oh, I know. I’ve noticed that biology departments across the country suffer from a suffocating monoculture of evolutionists, and math departments still persist in suffocating students with calculus, and chemists, those old fuddy-duddies, still strangle students with stoichiometry and bonds and thermodynamics. I dare not look across campus to the humanities and social sciences, where everyone is in zombie-like lockstep, there is never any dissent, and no one has any ideas, other than ones that might make comfortable Harvard professors uncomfortable, and which may therefore be ignored and belittled.

Has he ever considered that maybe left-wing philosophies thrive on college campuses because a) we like diverse ideas, and b) we like to challenge those ideas, two principles that are anathema to conservatives? And, apparently, anathema to Pinker, who has The Answer to everything. Rationality. Don’t you dare go crazy or question the status quo. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. That’s “epistemic humility”.

But don’t worry. Pinker is a smart man who will make a good sum of money out of his schtick. And that’s what matters, although I have to recommend that he put on Remain in Light or Purple Rain and listen for a while. He’d be a better person for it.

Pinker does automatically love the Patriarchy

Steven Pinker rushed to defend an overpaid Eton school teacher who had been fired for making a video called “The Patriarchy Paradox”. You can watch it if you must, but it’s incredibly bad — he seems obsessed with movie portrayals of men as being an accurate representation of True Masculinity. His first examples are of Marvel superheroes: The Marvel movies showed that in popular culture, masculine archetypes, such as Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man, described by the philosopher Edward Feser as a patriotic soldier, the son of a heavenly father come to Earth, and a strutting capitalist alpha male, retain their appeal. The whole thing sounds like that. He relies mainly on fictional sources, bad statistics, and biased presentation of data to make a case for the intrinsic superiority of men, therefore justifying patriarchy. I mean, really, how can anyone be persuaded by this bullshit?

He then uses a clip from Goodfellas of Henry Hill beating up his neighbour for molesting his girlfriend as evidence that ‘male aggression is a biological fact… whether we like it or not’ (25:42). He also seems to agree with Scarface’s Tony Montana’s observation that ‘first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women’ (29:12), as if psychotic, murderous, cokehead gangsters are a valid voice of reason.

It is notable that many of Knowland’s arguments would not look out of place on an incel Reddit forum. Knowland repeatedly says that women use their sexuality to their advantage, stating that they can ‘exploit their power of sexual choice to get males to compete to do things for them’ (22:32). This is classic incel rhetoric: believing that women use their sexual appeal to manipulate and control men, and that if men can’t get sex, it’s because of women withholding it from them. This is a terrible message to teach teenage boys. The problem is not a discussion of such claims, the problem is with Knowland’s presentation; his lack of analysis, his failure to question the assertions made in his video. If this incident raises questions of free debate, then where’s the debate?

If you’re so deluded that you can’t tell that Henry Hill and Tony Montana are psychopathic monsters and the villains of those movies, you aren’t fit to be a teacher.

But, surprise surprise surprise, Steven Pinker was among the very first well-known academics to try and defend this guy and make ludicrous claims of protecting academic freedom, and even bigger surprise, he now admits to never having even seen the video!

Keep this in mind if ever you have to evaluate Pinker’s opinion on anything.

I heard about this case last week as I was deep in the throes of grading, and the first thing I did before judging this Knowland guy was to check out his video, and then I judged the hell out of him.

By the way, that video has 5.7K upvotes and only 524 downvotes. YouTube remains a cesspool of misogyny.

Someone noticed Pinker’s sleaziness

There’s a petition making the rounds to have Steven Pinker’s recognition by the Linguistic Society of America removed. I don’t expect a petition to accomplish much of anything, but this one is nicely written.

As we demonstrate below, Dr. Pinker’s behavior is systematically at odds with the LSA’s recently issued statement on racial justice, which argues that “listening to and respecting [the experience of students of color] is crucial, as is acknowledging and addressing rather than overlooking or denying the role of the discipline of linguistics in the reproduction of racism.” Instead, Dr. Pinker has a history of speaking over genuine grievances and downplaying injustices, frequently by misrepresenting facts, and at the exact moments when Black and Brown people are mobilizing against systemic racism and for crucial changes.

Though no doubt related, we set aside questions of Dr. Pinker’s tendency to move in the proximity of what The Guardian called a revival of “scientific racism”, his public support for David Brooks (who has been argued to be a proponent of “gender essentialism”), his expert testimonial in favor of Jeffrey Epstein (which Dr. Pinker now regrets), or his dubious past stances on rape and feminism. Nor are we concerned with Dr. Pinker’s academic contributions as a linguist, psychologist and cognitive scientist. Instead, we aim to show here Dr. Pinker as a public figure has a pattern of drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence, in particular in the immediate aftermath of violent acts and/or protests against the systems that created them.

It then proceeds to document instances where Pinker played fast and loose with the facts to advance his dogma of progress constantly marching forward, as long as we ignore the inconsequential suffering of poor minorities. It’ll be ignored, but maybe a few people will wake up to his dishonest messaging.

Pinker parodies himself

We’re in a time of crisis, when a sense of injustice is acute, when communities are in flames and people march in protest, when white supremacists run the country and the police have willingly become a tool of fascism. What we really need right now is some clueless dweeb from Harvard to come along and reassure us that it’s all an illusion, the country is really becoming less racist, therefore all you white bigots out there can relax and not feel guilty because the statistics say you are all becoming better angels, even if you’ve institutionalized social norms that allow black concerns to be minimized even as you’re throwing huge numbers of them into an inhumane prison complex. That dweeb is the self-appointed guru of white denial, Steven Pinker. You can always count on him to show up at a cataclysmic failure of the system to let us know that this terrible event doesn’t really expose an ugly reality. Everything is getting better, don’t you know. So he takes to twitter to make his usual Pollyannaish pronouncement.

Good god. He’s a psychologist. He has to know that people are really good at rationalization, making self-reported attitudes difficult to trust. Look at this one graph he shows (as if a graph is more powerful than one photo of a cop with his knee on a black man’s neck):

What, exactly, is that supposed to demonstrate? That white people have become less racist since the 1970s, or that racists have been shifting their rationalizations since the 1970s? Are “Inequality is due to lower motivation among blacks” and “Inequality is due to lower ability among blacks” the only two excuses white people give for discrimination, so those two responses encompass the totality of the rationalizations? Has he even considered that both responses are pretty damned racist and are centered on explaining the othering of black people? Has he considered that a shift in what is socially acceptable to say in public doesn’t necessarily imply a shift in underlying attitudes?

Also, wow, over half the white respondents are making those two equally racist arguments. I don’t find this at all reassuring.

Pinker is referencing a black social psychologist (also a big shot at Harvard, which ought to be a caution to anyone reading their work — he’s black, but also in a highly privileged position) who is also cautiously optimistic about the future, but isn’t trying to bury the lede in happy-clappy noise.

We had all thought, of course, that we made phenomenal strides. We inhabit an era in which there are certainly more rank-and-file minority police officers than ever before, more African American and minority and female police chiefs and leaders. But inhabiting a world where the poor and our deeply poor communities are still heavily disproportionately people of color, where we had a war on drugs that was racially biased in both its origins and its profoundly troubling execution over many years, that has bred a level of distrust and antagonism between police and black communities that should worry us all. There’s clearly an enormous amount of work to be done to undo those circumstances and to heal those wounds.

Pinker really is the Norman Vincent Peale of our generation. We don’t need some racist-leaning, evo-psych-loving, IDW-associated professor telling us that everything will just get better gradually over time if we’re patient and wait for white people to become more tolerant. Action is the agent of change. Every incremental shift is the result of people standing up, speaking out, shoving reality in the face of the complacent and demanding change. There is no magic internal trend towards less racism, especially not among the people who hold all the power.

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.

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.

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.

I do enjoy a good Pinker-dunking in the morning

Did you know that Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is full of misleading claims and false assertions? It is! And this article takes an interesting approach to documenting it: the author focuses on one chapter, on a topic he knows well, and contacts a bunch of people Pinker references and asks them if he represented their views correctly. A surprising number say no, and explain why.

I am not a fan of neo-liberal techno-optimism, as you might guess. It’s always just some well-off dude trying to persuade people that we can ignore systemic injustice because he’s doing just fine.

Do not ever read Steve Pinker’s Twitter feed

I made the mistake. His latest 3:

  • Stop worrying about the opioid crisis! It’ll get better! Heath Ledger and Prince will rise from the grave!

  • You should probably vote for some Democrats, even though they have problems. Maybe there are a few problems on the Republican side, but I don’t see them, because my rose-colored glasses make red parties invisible.

  • It’s only a few bombs! We don’t need to worry until at least 0.05% of the public are sending bombs through the mail to elected officials.

So, really, just don’t bother reading Pollyanna Pinker. It’ll make you angrier, and we’ve got a surplus of rage right now. Just read this and laugh.

At least he’s the favorite scientist of cockroaches everywhere.

Steven Pinker and the New York Times are making us dumber

Because I exposed Steven Pinker’s atrociously bad arguments, I have now been accused of “smearing” and “distorting” Pinker’s words, and gotten all kinds of fun hate mail. Alas, nobody has been able to show where my arguments actually distort Pinker’s claims; he really does argue that “political correctness” is driving people to the alt-right, and that there are all these “facts” that Leftist Academics refuse to discuss on campus, which drives students further right when they discover that they’ve been lied to. It is a bullshit contrafactual, wrong and dishonest in every way, and the best people can do is say, “well, there’s some parts afterwards that are more nuanced, and you ignored those”. Nope, that’s irrelevant. When someone states outright lies, it doesn’t matter if later they say something else.

But that’s the fallback everyone is resorting to: it’s the logical equivalent of someone pointing out that Trump said something that was outright racist, while others refuse to acknowledge it and instead like to mention how he had a taco salad, so he’s not that bad. It’s not relevant. Quit dancing around the facts. I addressed Pinker’s lies, specifically. No one has refuted the fact that he did speak dishonestly.

If you want a perspective that’s less pissed-off than mine, I recommend Thomas Smith’s latest podcast. He thinks maybe I was a leetle too aggressively in-Pinker’s-face, to put it mildly, but then I think he’s a leetle too charitable, but then I also think maybe he’s new to Pinker’s history of making shitty arguments. Pinker is an advocate for evolutionary psychology, he criticized the March for Science as anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric (gosh, how many dog-whistles can you pack in a phrase?), he invoked the second law of thermodynamics to explain poverty, he endorsed the absurdities of Gamergate and Christina Hoff Sommers, and wrote the most arrogant piece on scientism ever. I say this not as a rabid anti-Pinker zealot — you can also find articles praising bits and pieces of Pinker’s work in my archives — but as someone who doesn’t just assume that Harvard confers infallibility with tenure, and who actually suspects that many aspects of Harvard reinforce an ugly sense of entitlement. He’s just really bad at thinking about way too many things.

Smith does point out something I could have been clearer about. If you look at the kinds of arguments Pinker often makes, they reduce to blaming the Left/Progressives/Liberals for things that the Right/Republicans/racists do. Somehow it’s always possible to make the worst things the alt-right does entirely the fault of those who oppose them, and also, he never bothers to say what we’re supposed to do instead. Encourage racists? Say kind things about them? Compromise on fundamental issues: suggest that maybe black people are only a little bit inferior rather than a lot inferior?

Even when they vaguely puzzle out this point, Pinker supporters don’t understand it. What does Jesse Singal say in the New York Times?

The clip was deeply misleading. If you watch the whole eight-minute video from which it was culled, it’s clear that Mr. Pinker’s entire point is that the alt-right’s beliefs are false and illogical — but that the left needs to do a better job fighting against them.

No. He clearly says that the alt-right’s beliefs are the fault of the “PC” Left, which says nothing about making better arguments to oppose them, and is a falsehood. His talk was about doling out the blame to the Left, not about fighting the alt-right. If you listen to the whole 8-minute video, what you hear is Pinker first saying that you can’t voice certain facts on campus, then stating those facts (self-refutation, anyone?), then explaining that his facts are more complex than he let on,
which is what the college professors he’s blaming already do.

But then this kind of disingenuous denial of reality, of focusing superficially on he said/she said note-taking, is exactly what the New York Times specializes in.