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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Steven Pinker having it both ways as usual

Reviewers of Steven Pinker's work notice his logical inconsistencies, which is especially amusing when Pinker's work is about logic.

Back in September when Pinker's book "Rationality..." was released, Ted McCormick, writing in Slate, noted the inevitable Pinker logic fail, which has been characterized by other reviewers as Pinker "having it both ways":

Rather than argue for his own liberal, technocratic goals, however, Pinker lets their presumed superiority color his use of “rational” and “irrational” throughout. This creates a recurring dissonance, since what is irrational (or “cockamamie,” or “stupid”) from his perspective often turns out to be eminently rational by his initial definition: That is, it serves the purposes of those who hold to it effectively. 

I give other examples of Pinker's critics noticing Pinker trying to have it both ways here.

The article also notes Pinker's (inevitable) hypocrisy, combined with his inevitable support for far-right, race pseudoscience-promoting organizations:

Blaming universities’ “suffocating leftwing monoculture” for popular mistrust of expertise, Pinker mentions two examples in the text: University of Southern California professor Greg Patton’s removal from a course after using the Chinese ne ga, which can sound like the N-word, and testimony from unnamed personal “correspondents.” (In a footnote, he invites readers to look to Heterodox Academy, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and Quillette—all of it—for further examples.) The very next paragraph warns of “illusions instilled by sensationalist anecdote chasing.” Doctor, heal thyself!

And although Pinker, along with right-wing media, trumpeted the Greg Patton controversy far and wide, in the end, the university found in Patton's favor:

After weeks of an internal investigation by USC’s Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX (EEO-TIX), however, Patton was found to have acted appropriately, as Garrett announced to students and the rest of the Marshall School community in a September 25 email. The EEO-TIX found that “the concerns expressed by students were sincere,” the dean wrote, “but that Professor Patton’s actions did not violate the university’s policy. They have also communicated this to the professor and he allowed me to share their conclusion with you.

One or more hyper-sensitive students made an absurd charge against a professor, the university investigated the issue, and the professor was found to have acted appropriately. 

So is Steven Pinker's right-wing fear-mongering an example of rationality? I suppose if your goal is to curry favor with the deep pockets of the racist right, then yes, it is rational.

But going back to Pinker having it both ways. I mentioned recently that anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson introduced me to the work of another anthropologist, Douglas Fry, who sent me a link to his review of Pinker's 2012 book "Better Angels of Our Nature." 

I enjoyed Fry's review especially because he also noticed Pinker's trait of having it both ways:

Pinker’s evident fondness for state-based solutions also seems to make for greater analytical confusion as he tries to supply an anatomy of peaceable instincts that may inhere in human subjects apart from the imposition of state control. Pinker proposes that along with self-control, a moral sense, and the capacity to reason, a fourth “better angel” in our nature is empathy. But Pinker can’t seem to make up his mind about empathy. On the one hand, he quotes Charles Darwin in his final chapter’s epigraph, thereby appearing to give a last word to the great natural scientist’s hopeful formulation: 
As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
However, Pinker concludes earlier in the book, after much discussion, that it is actually rights, norms, and policies—not empathy—that are important for protecting people from violence. Pinker also concludes that “empathy can subvert human well-being when it runs afoul of a more fundamental principle, fairness.” If that’s the case, then why isn’t fairness promoted to angel status and empathy demoted? It’s hard to avoid the impression that Pinker is just jumping, halfheartedly, onto the empathy bandwagon in the wake of best-selling treatments of the subject such as Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization (2009) and Frans de Waal’s The Age of Empathy (2009)—both of which are far more thorough and lucid treatments of the subject than one finds in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Whatever else you can say about Pinker, he's consistent.

Fry shared his review of Napoleon Chagnon's self-aggrandizing autobiography "NOBLE SAVAGES My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists." The autobiography was called "a lively and paranoid romp through the thick jungles of the Amazon and the thicker tangles of academic and religious intrigue" by the NYTimes.

Fry's review can be accessed via JSTOR here. Fry critiqued Chagnon's claim that Yanomami men who killed more also fathered more children, explaining why Chagnon's calculation is incorrect, which concurs with Ferguson's paper Materialist, cultural and biological theories on why Yanomami make war

The critique was enough to get Fry on Chagnon's enemies list:

I had begun to think that somehow I had escaped being put on the "detractor list" for my mathematical recalculation of Chagnon's unokai data (Fry 2006; Miklikowska and Fry 2012), but then I discovered that he cites a book I co-edited (Kemp and Fry 2004) as a supposed example of an ad hominem attack related to his 1988 unokai article (Chagnon, 2013: 278). However, Chagnon got the basic facts wrong. The only mention of Chagnon in the edited book involves his use of the label "fierce," has nothing to do with his 1988 article, and says nothing that could be considered ad hominem (Kemp and Fry 200422: 5). 

Regular visitors to this Pinkerite site will not be surprised to learn that Steven Pinker (and other supporters of sociobiology) is a big fan of Chagnon.

Fry also shared a link to an interview with Phillip Dwyer, author of The Dark Angels of Our Nature, which raises many of the objections that Ferguson did in his Pinker's List and adds a few more. Check it out.

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