Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Looking for gemstones in the gutter

Just the other day, I’d mentioned to a friend that Steven Pinker was one of those rare people whose ideas couldn’t be appreciated by proxy, such as through the opinions of other authority figures, but had to be processed individually. This is because Pinker has found as much support as he has detraction – from Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True on the one hand to P.Z. Myers’s Pharyngula on the other. As an aspiring rationalist, it’s hard for me to place Pinker on the genius-lunatic circle because it’s hard to see how his own ideas are self-consistent, or how all of his ideas sit on a common plane of reason.

2013 article Pinker wrote in The New Republic only added to this dilemma. The article argued that science was not an enemy of the humanities, with Pinker trying to denounce whatever he thought others thought “scientism” stood for. He argued that ‘scientism’ was not the idea that “everything is about science”, rather a commitment to two ideals: intelligibility and that “the acquisition of knowledge is hard”. This is a reasonable elucidation necessary to redefine the role and place of science in today’s jingoistic societies.

However, Pinker manages to mangle the rest of the article with what I hope (but can’t really believe to be) was pure carelessness – even though this is also difficult to believe because we all seem to have this fixation at the back of our minds that Pinker is a smart man. He manages to define everything he thinks is in this world worth defining from the POV of natural science alone. Consider these lines:

Though the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities. By stripping ecclesiastical authority of its credibility on factual matters, they cast doubt on its claims to certitude in matters of morality. The scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces undermines practices such as human sacrifice, witch hunts, faith healing, trial by ordeal, and the persecution of heretics.

Pinker has completely left out subjects like sociology and anthropology in his definition of the world and the values its people harbour. Though he acknowledges that “scientific facts don’t by themselves dictate values”, he’s also pompous enough to claim scientific reasoning alone has undermined human sacrifice, witch hunts, etc. Then why is it that senior ISRO officials, who are well-educated rocket scientists, offer rocket models at temples before upcoming launches? Why is it that IT employees who migrate from Chennai and Bangalore to California still believe that the caste system is an idea worth respecting?

He continues:

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet.

This seems to make logical sense… until you pause and wonder if that’s how people actually think. Did we decide to take control of our own welfare because “the laws governing the universe lack purpose”? Of course not. I’m actually tempted to argue that the laws governing the universe have been stripped of the ability to govern anthropic matters because we decided to take control of our welfare.

In fact, Pinker imputes the humanities and social sciences with intentions most institutions that study them likely don’t have. He also appropriates the ideas of pre-18th-century thinkers into the fold of science when it would’ve been wrong to do so: Hume, Leibniz and Kant (to pick only those philosophers whose work I’m familiar with) were not scientists. In fact, somehow, the one person who would’ve been useful to appropriate for the purposes of Pinker’s argument was left out: Roger Bacon. Then, deeper into the piece, there’s this:

The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness. And they have failed to define a progressive agenda. Several university presidents and provosts have lamented to me that when a scientist comes into their office, it’s to announce some exciting new research opportunity and demand the resources to pursue it. When a humanities scholar drops by, it’s to plead for respect for the way things have always been done.

With sweeping statements like these, Pinker leaves his head vulnerable to being bitten off (like here). At the same time, his conception of “scientism” burns bright like a gemstone lying in the gutter. Why can’t you be more clear cut like the gem, Pinker, and make it easier for all of us to get the hang of you? Can I trust in your definition of ‘scientism’ or should I wonder how you came upon it given the other silly things you believe? (Consider this: “The definitional vacuum [of what ‘scientism’ means] allows me to replicate gay activists’ flaunting of ‘queer’ and appropriate the pejorative for a position I am prepared to defend.” When was ‘queer’ ever a pejorative among gender/sexuality rights activists?) Oh, why are you making me think!

As I languished in the midst of this quandary and contemplated doing some actual work to get to the bottom of the Pinker puzzle, I came upon a review of his book Enlightenment Now (2018) authored by George Monbiot, whom I’ve always wholeheartedly agreed with. Here we go, I thought, and I wasn’t disappointed: Monbiot takes a clear position. In a bristling piece for The Guardian, Monbiot accuses Pinker of cherry-picking data and, in a few instances, misrepresenting facts to reach conclusions more favourable to his worldview, as a result coming off as an inadvertent apologist for capitalism. Excerpt:

Pinker suggests that the environmental impact of nations follows the same trajectory, claiming that the “environmental Kuznets Curve” shows they become cleaner as they get richer. To support this point, he compares Nordic countries with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. It is true that they do better on indicators such as air and water quality, as long as you disregard their impacts overseas. But when you look at the whole picture, including carbon emissions, you discover the opposite. The ecological footprints of Afghanistan and Bangladesh (namely the area required to provide the resources they use) are, respectively, 0.9 and 0.7 hectares per person. Norway’s is 5.8, Sweden’s is 6.5 and Finland, that paragon of environmental virtue, comes in at 6.7.

Pinker seems unaware of the controversies surrounding the Kuznets Curve, and the large body of data that appears to undermine it. The same applies to the other grand claims with which he sweeps through this subject. He relies on highly tendentious interlocutors to interpret this alien field for him. If you are going to use people like US ecomodernist Stewart Brand and the former head of Northern Rock Matt Ridley as your sources, you need to double-check their assertions. Pinker insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.

To make sure I wasn’t making a mistake, I went through all of Coyne’s posts written in support of Pinker. It would seem that while there’s much to admire in his words, especially those concerning his area of expertise – psycholinguistics – Pinker either falls short when articulating his worldview or, more likely, the moment he steps out of his comfort zone and begins addressing the humanities, goes cuckoo. Coyne repeatedly asserts that Pinker is a classic progressive liberal who’s constantly misunderstood because he refuses to gloss over matters of political correctness that the authoritarian left doesn’t want you to discuss. But it’s really hard to stand by him when – like Monbiot says about Enlightenment Now – he’s accused of misrepresenting rape statistics in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011).

Anyway, the Princeton historian David Bell also joined in with a scathing review for The Nation, where he called Enlightenment Now a 20-hour TED talk pushing history as having been “just so” instead of acknowledging the many people’s movements and struggles that deliberately made it so.

Pinker’s problems with history are compounded even further as he tries to defend the Enlightenment against the many scholarly critics who have pointed, over the centuries, to some of its possible baleful consequences. Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.

Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted.

It seems Pinker may not be playing as fast and loose with facts, philosophy and the future as sci-fi writers like Yuval Noah Harari (whose Homo Deus is the reason I’ve not read historical surveys since; I recommend John Sexton’s takedown) have, but he’s probably just as bad for riding a cult of personality that has brought, and continues to bring, him an audience that will listen to him even though he’s a psycholinguist monologuing about Enlightenment philosophy. And what’s more, all the reviews I can find of Enlightenment Now have different versions of the same complaints Monbiot and Bell have made.

So I’m going to wilfully succumb to two of the cognitive biases Pinker says blinkers our worldview and makes things seem more hopeless than they are – availability and negativity – and kick Enlightenment Now off my todo list.

In sum: what keeps Pinker au courant is his optimism. If only it weren’t so misinformed in its fundamentals…

Hat-tip to Omair Ahmad for flagging the New Republic article. Featured image: Steven Pinker. Credit: sfupamr/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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