Steven Pinker, “Historian”

It’s funny, if you look back over my blog posts on Steven Pinker, you’ll notice a progression.

Ignoring social justice concerns in biomedical research led to things like the Tuskegee experiment. The scientific establishment has since tried to correct that by making it a critical part. Pinker would be wise to study the history a bit more carefully, here.

Setting aside your ignorance of the evidence for undercounting in the FBI’s data, you can look at your own graph and see a decline?

When Sargon of Arkkad tried and failed to discuss sexual assault statistics, he at least had the excuse of never having gotten a higher education, never studying up on the social sciences. I wonder what Steven Pinker’s excuse is.

Ooooh, I get it. This essay is just an excuse for Pinker to whine about progressives who want to improve other people’s lives. He thought he could hide his complaints behind science, to make them look more digestible to himself and others, but in reality just demonstrated he understands physics worse than most creationists. What a crank.

You’ll also notice a bit of a pattern, too, one that apparently carries on into Pinker’s book about the Enlightenment.

It is curious, then, to find Pinker breezily insisting that Enlightenment thinkers used reason to repudiate a belief in an anthropomorphic God and sought a “secular foundation for morality.” Locke clearly represents the opposite impulse (leaving aside the question of whether anyone in period believed in a strictly anthropomorphic deity).

So, too, Kant. While the Prussian philosopher certainly had little use for the traditional arguments for God’s existence – neither did the exceptionally pious Blaise Pascal, if it comes to that – this was because Kant regarded them as stretching reason beyond its proper limits. Nevertheless, practical reason requires belief in God, immorality and a post-mortem existence that offers some recompense for injustices suffered in the present world.

That’s from Peter Harrison, a professional historian. Even I was aware of this, though I am guilty of a lie of omission. I’ve brought up the “Cult of Reason” before, which was a pseudo-cult set up during the French Revolution that sought to tear down religion and instead worship logic and reason. What I didn’t mention was that it didn’t last long; Robespierre shortly announced his “Cult of the Supreme Being,” which promoted Deism as the official religion of France, and had the leaders of the Cult of Reason put to death. Robespierre himself was executed shortly thereafter, for sounding too much like a dictator, and after a half-hearted attempt at democracy France finally settled on Napoleon Bonaparte, a dictator everyone could get behind. The shift to reason and objectivity I was hinting at back then was more gradual than I implied.

If we go back to the beginning of the scientific revolution – which Pinker routinely conflates with the Enlightenment – we find the seminal figure Francis Bacon observing that “the human intellect left to its own course is not to be trusted.” Following in his wake, leading experimentalists of the seventeenth century explicitly distinguished what they were doing from rational speculation, which they regarded as the primary source of error in the natural sciences.

In the next century, David Hume, prominent in the Scottish Enlightenment, famously observed that “reason alone can never produce any action … Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” And the most celebrated work of Immanuel Kant, whom Pinker rightly regards as emblematic of the Enlightenment, is the Critique of Pure Reason. The clue is in the title.

Reason does figure centrally in discussions of the period, but primarily as an object of critique. Establishing what it was, and its intrinsic limits, was the main game. […]

To return to the general point, contra Pinker, many Enlightenment figures were not interested in undermining traditional religious ideas – God, the immortal soul, morality, the compatibility of faith and reason – but rather in providing them with a more secure foundation. Few would recognise his tendentious alignment of science with reason, his prioritization of scientific over all other forms of knowledge, and his positing of an opposition between science and religion.

I’m just skimming Harrison’s treatment, the rest of the article is worth a detour, but it really helps underscore how badly Pinker wants to re-write history. Here’s something the man himself committed to electrons:

More insidious than the ferreting out of ever more cryptic forms of racism and sexism is a demonization campaign that impugns science (together with the rest of the Enlightenment) for crimes that are as old as civilization, including racism, slavery, conquest, and genocide. […]

“Scientific racism,” the theory that races fall into a hierarchy of mental sophistication with Northern Europeans at the top, is a prime example. It was popular in the decades flanking the turn of the 20th century, apparently supported by craniometry and mental testing, before being discredited in the middle of the 20th century by better science and by the horrors of Nazism. Yet to pin ideological racism on science, in particular on the theory of evolution, is bad intellectual history. Racist beliefs have been omnipresent across history and regions of the world. Slavery has been practiced by every major civilization and was commonly rationalized by the belief that enslaved peoples were inherently suited to servitude, often by God’s design. Statements from ancient Greek and medieval Arab writers about the biological inferiority of Africans would curdle your blood, and Cicero’s opinion of Britons was not much more charitable.

More to the point, the intellectualized racism that infected the West in the 19th century was the brainchild not of science but of the humanities: history, philology, classics, and mythology.

As I’ve touched on, this is so far from reality it’s practically creationist. Let’s ignore the implication that no-one used science to promote racism past the 1950’s, which ain’t so, and dig up more data points on the dark side of the Enlightenment.

… the Scottish philosopher David Hume would write: “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.” […]

Another two decades on, Immanuel Kant, considered by many to be the greatest philosopher of the modern period, would manage to let slip what is surely the greatest non-sequitur in the history of philosophy: describing a report of something seemingly intelligent that had once been said by an African, Kant dismisses it on the grounds that “this fellow was quite black from head to toe, a clear proof that what he said was stupid.” […]

Scholars have been aware for a long time of the curious paradox of Enlightenment thought, that the supposedly universal aspiration to liberty, equality and fraternity in fact only operated within a very circumscribed universe. Equality was only ever conceived as equality among people presumed in advance to be equal, and if some person or group fell by definition outside of the circle of equality, then it was no failure to live up to this political ideal to treat them as unequal.

It would take explicitly counter-Enlightenment thinkers in the 18th century, such as Johann Gottfried Herder, to formulate anti-racist views of human diversity. In response to Kant and other contemporaries who were positively obsessed with finding a scientific explanation for the causes of black skin, Herder pointed out that there is nothing inherently more in need of explanation here than in the case of white skin: it is an analytic mistake to presume that whiteness amounts to the default setting, so to speak, of the human species.

Indeed, connections between science and the slave trade ran deep during [Robert] Boyle’s time—all the way into the account books. Royal Society accounts for the 1680s and 1690s shows semi-regular dividends paid out on the Society’s holdings in Royal African Company stock. £21 here, £21 there, once a year, once every two years. Along with membership dues and the occasional book sale, these dividends supported the Royal Society during its early years.

Boyle’s early “experiments” with the inheritance of skin color set an agenda that the scientists of the Royal Society pursued through the decades. They debated the origins of blackness with rough disregard for the humanity of enslaved persons even as they used the Royal African’s Company’s dividends to build up the Royal Society as an institution. When it came to understanding skin color, Boyle used his wealth and position to help construct a science of race that, for centuries, was used to justify the enslavement of Africans and their descendants globally.

This timeline gives an overview of scientific racism throughout the world, placing the Eugenics Record Office within a broader historical framework extending from Enlightenment-Era Europe to present-day social thought.

All this is obvious via a glance at a history book, something which Pinker is apparently allergic to. I’ll give Harrison the final word:

If we put into the practice the counting and gathering of data that Pinker so enthusiastically recommends and apply them to his own book, the picture is revealing. Locke receives a meagre two mentions in passing. Voltaire clocks up a modest six references with Spinoza coming in at a dozen. Kant does best of all, with a grand total of twenty-five (including references). Astonishingly, Diderot rates only two mentions (again in passing) and D’Alembert does not trouble the scorers. Most of these mentions occur in long lists. Pinker refers to himself over 180 times. […]

… if Enlightenment Now is a model of what Pinker’s advice to humanities scholars looks like when put into practice, I’m happy to keep ignoring it.