Steven Pinker: Defending Reason
In his most recent book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, experimental psychologist Steven Pinker explores the question on everyone’s mind: why are things so totally insane right now? As we use science and reason to continually learn more about the universe, we are seemingly tripped up at every step by misinformation, infighting, and plain irrationality. Political polarization has made talking about our society’s most pressing issues increasingly difficult.
In 2020, Pinker found himself embroiled in a controversy over some old tweets. An open letter to the Linguistic Society of America, signed by more than 550 academics, requested the removal of Pinker from its list of LSA Fellows and media experts because Pinker had allegedly minimized racial injustices.
The Linguistic Society responded by clarifying that they were “committed to intellectual freedom and professional responsibility. It is not the mission of the Society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression. Inclusion and civility are crucial to productive scholarly work.” The Atlantic columnist Conor Friedersdorf observed how the letter revealed that the “desire to significantly narrow the bounds of acceptable speech is not a fringe proposition; it is a project that hundreds of people in a single academic field are willing to pursue openly,” and warned of the “chilling effect” this desire could have on academics who are less established than Pinker.
Censorship campaigns like the one that targeted Pinker not only have disturbing implications for academic freedom, they are also emblematic of a larger societal intolerance of unpopular ideas which may jeopardize the advancement of humanity. Pinker explained, “Moves to punish, censor, cancel, and demonize heterodox opinions are in danger of disabling the only means our species has to approach the truth, given that none of us is infallible, omniscient, or perfectly rational, namely to broach ideas and evaluate their logical coherence and empirical warrant.”
Pinker began his career in the field of visual cognition, before his interests led him to linguistics, where he focused particularly on language development in children. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist has also published work in genetics, neurobiology, and human nature. The shift in focus over his career, Pinker explained, “was really a transition from pursuing both topics from the time I was a graduate student to concentrating only on psycholinguistics starting in the 1990s. I made the shift because I felt that there were many researchers in visual cognition (some of them former students) who were pursuing the same research questions as I was, whereas in psycholinguistics, I was asking questions and doing research that felt more original and unique.”
Pinker has since taken on the role of the “public intellectual,” communicating complex academic theories and concepts in ways more approachable for the general public. Nine of his sixteen books are intended for a general audience. “I try to avoid ‘the curse of knowledge’: the inability to imagine what it’s like not to know something you know,” said Pinker. “And I try to describe things in concrete, vivid, visual terms rather than ‘metaconcepts’ (concepts about concepts).”
One of his most popular books, The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), proposes that violence has decreased over time due in large part to the expansion of human reason. This book was cited in the open letter to the Linguistic Society of America as an example of “downplaying violence” because of a passage in which Pinker refers to a subway shooter as a “mild-mannered engineer.” That this description is now cause for public petitioning shows just how restrictive our discourse has become.
Pinker joined the FAIR Board of Advisors after being approached with the opportunity by fellow board member Bari Weiss. He hopes that FAIR’s pro-human movement will embolden those who wish to resist the more pernicious aspects of “cancel culture,” but are worried that they will be alone in their opposition.
I think [FAIR’s] efforts are vital because many of the repressive and regressive movements in cultural and educational life are prosecuted by a relatively small number of ideologues who can count on the acquiescence of a majority who feel disgruntled by these efforts but don’t want to pay the costs of resisting them—they’d rather go along than become the targets of vituperation or cancellation. We need an organization that defends the vitality of the marketplace of ideas against such bullying.
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