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Lessons of the Pinker Affair: The Problem with the Academy is False Beliefs, Not Intolerance

Earlier this summer, over 600 signatories signed an open letter to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), denouncing Steven Pinker for “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.” I tweeted a link to the letter, and was glad to see my tweet gain traction as people were able to see the absurdity of the charges for themselves.

I had largely forgotten this episode, when in early September I received a Google Scholar alert saying that my name had appeared in an academic article. Instead of being a reference to an academic paper I had written, as I expected, it was a citation to my tweet making fun of the LSA letter. Written by 10 authors, three of them anonymous, the article (hereinafter referred to as Kastner et al.) seeks to address the controversy and set the record straight.

Much of the paper is devoted to correcting what they call Pinker’s misrepresentations and complaining about people being mean to them on social media. The title is “Who Speaks for Us?,” and the tone and content of the article show that the letter writers feel bullied by the responses from me, Pinker, editors at Quillette, and others in the press. They complain that Wikipedia and the media have taken Pinker’s side in the debate, that nobody will publish their op-ed responses, and that the psychologist is represented by a public relations agency while they mostly are not. They attack Pinker for both complaining about cancellation, while seeming to contradict himself when noting that the signers of the letter were so unimportant that he only recognized one person on the list.

The authors also supply a statistical analysis showing that 42 percent of the signers were students, and 20 percent were tenured or retired. The online appendix is a collection of screenshots of tweets and e-mails of of negative responses to the letter.

Among the self-pity and neurosis, I did discern one argument that was actually interesting, and addressing it can tell us something about what has gone wrong with the academy.

As Kastner et al. point out, Steven Pinker is more prominent than anyone on the list. He proved in the aftermath of the affair that he was more than capable of defending himself. How, then, could he complain about a witch hunt carried out by a group that is mostly made up of graduate students and junior scholars? I received my PhD in 2018, and know that most graduate students do not feel particularly powerful. They have finished a four-year degree and are still making $20,000 a year, with years of additional study and postdocs ahead of them before they can have any hope of finding a job. If and when they do, they will have little control over where they live and make less money than a manager at Walmart. When they attack Steve Pinker, one of the most prominent public intellectuals of our time, grad students and junior scholars can understandably feel like they are actually speaking truth to power.

Of course, such an argument would imply that a low-ranking member of the Cheka with uncertain career prospects would be justified in complaining about a kulak who used his wealth to hire a security guard. The typical young academic—not all of them, but the type that sign letters like this—does not see it this way. To Kastner et al., the LSA is a self-governing organization of the field, meant to create standards for diversity and inclusion. Pinker’s comments are out of step with the mission of the organization, and serve to alienate women and minorities.

In this telling, the signers of the letter are not the cancellers. It is Steve Pinker and those outside the academy who have power in this case.

As far as I can tell, this argument is correct. The letter signers point out in Kastner et al. that they did not call for Pinker to be fired, only for the LSA to distance itself from him. It seems reasonable to accept that a professional organization can, in the abstract, create standards it expects its members to live up to.

So what, then, was the real problem with the original letter? Fundamentally, it is what they were denouncing Pinker for, not their attitudes towards speech.

In their indictment against Pinker, the 600-plus linguists pointed out that he believes in natural differences between men and women, and the importance of genetics in influencing human behaviour more generally. He doubts that one mass shooting is evidence of patriarchy in the United States, points to statistical evidence showing racism against African-Americans is decreasing, and argues that the attention given to police shootings of black men is disproportionate. Pinker is accused of “dog whistling” by talking about “urban crime/violence,” and “co-opting” the work of a black scholar by giving his own interpretation of the latter’s data.

Reading the letter, what I am struck by is not its dismissiveness towards free speech. All they asked was for the LSA to stop listing Pinker as a fellow and media expert. In principle, practically no one disagrees that academics who promote particular positions in public should face consequences for them. Few would argue that a homeopath is entitled to a position in a medical school, or that the work of an astrologist should be promoted by a professional organization of astronomers. While we may draw a bright line against government restrictions on speech, once you recognize flat-Earthers should face professional consequences in academia based on their views, there is no principled position against deplatforming people for other opinions.

To the cancellers, racism and sexism are the most fundamental aspects of American society, and humans are all born with equal capabilities. A person who refuses to recognize things so clearly obvious and true can only do so as a result of bad motives. (If you find this strange, consider how you would respond to knowing that someone who believes that vaccines cause autism was working as a professor in medicine.)

What is it that distinguishes, then, cancellation campaigns that cause outrage (talking about sex differences, IQ, genetics) and those that do not (flat-Earthers, creationists)? As far as I can tell, the targets in the former cases are saying things that are scientifically valid, while those in the latter are saying things that are not. For many thoughtful people this is the hill to die on, not the abstract commitment to platforming all voices, a standard that virtually no one will ever live up to. As Tyler Cowen wrote in response to the Harper’s letter of earlier this year, in deciding who to invite to sign the document, “the organizers had to ‘restrict free speech’ in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.” They were therefore not objecting to restrictions on speech when they complained about “cancel culture,” but something else.

The correct response to the cancellers is not simply to say that they should respect free speech. Rather, one must say to them that you are attacking people for stating things which are true, while you are stating things which are false. It does not matter which side of the debate is more prominent, or which side has more minorities and women. The identity politics view of the world fundamentally misunderstands reality, and people who respect truth should be on the side of whoever stands against it, whether a grad student is attacking a famous intellectual, or vice versa.

This is not for their benefit, but for that of everyone else. We’ll likely never reach the signers of the LSA letter. Someone who does not believe that there are any innate differences between boys and girls is too disconnected from reality to ever give a fair hearing to an argument in favor of the free marketplace of ideas. A few set out on the long path towards an academic career do so because they have a passion for understanding how the world works. In many fields, the vast majority do not, and are enthusiastic participants in and shapers of the culture that has been created in the universities, as it is their compensation for years of low pay and uncertain career prospects.

While certain fields and disciplines continue to seek truth, it is simply time we accepted that many do not, and are committed first and foremost to a false view of the world. Instead of engaging with such people, what those in the press and outside the academy should do is focus on marginalizing the unhealthy parts of the academy that have been conquered by what Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology.” Kastner et al.’s self-pitying paper reads as if it was written by an isolated community that could never have imagined that the outside world might intrude on their internal discussions, and ultimately laugh at and set aside their most cherished beliefs. They feel overmatched by the response, and realize they have been discredited outside their narrow circle.

Maybe this affair will lead some signers of the letter to form doubts, prompting them to inject new ideas into their fields, or leave graduate school altogether for the private sector. But for those who do not, these insular academic cultures will need to be discredited, rather than reasoned with. Large swaths of the academy may deserve to be ignored or even mocked, but in other fields, in think tanks and newspapers, and on blogs, social media, and websites like Quillette, real debate and the search for truth continue.

Richard Hanania, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @RichardHanania


  1. @quillette

    While certain fields and disciplines continue to seek truth, it is simply time we accepted that many do not, and are committed first and foremost to a false view of the world. Instead of engaging with such people, what those in the press and outside the academy should do is focus on marginalizing the unhealthy parts of the academy that have been conquered by what Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology.”

    By mockery and contempt, for example. Not by silencing or cancelling.

  2. “The correct response to the cancellers is not simply to say that they should respect free speech. Rather, one must say to them that you are attacking people for stating things which are true, while you are stating things which are false. It does not matter which side of the debate is more prominent, or which side has more minorities and women.”

    I couldn’t agree more. This is precisely why people need to push back on so much of this nonsense. It’s never a question of being on the “right side of history”… an argument which presumes that history is somehow always “right”. Instead, it is a question of being right or wrong. The woke are wrong. The anti-woke may be wrong about many things, but the woke are still wrong.

  3. On my wish list for the near future is the growing of spines among the chancellors of our universities.

    Many of them need to say, in public, that they believe their critical studies programs to be terrible mistakes and that the people running them are malicious charlatans.

    Their colleagues need to vigorously defend them. Parents need to vigorously defend them.

  4. “these insular academic cultures will need to be discredited, rather than reasoned with.”
    I think the author means that we should discredit these attitudes by poking fun at them.
    For example: I think that people who believe there is a supernatural entity that evaluates all their thoughts and actions before eventually consigning them to either eternal happiness or pain are foolishly misguided , The author asks me to discredit these attitudes presumably by poking fun at them.
    But where i grew up that would be considered impolite and extremely bad manners. Good manners are important. They are the drops of oil in the gears of society.
    For sure one must resist the various silly beliefs that come our way but in day to day life this is not something we need to address with ridicule. If i meet someone who presents as a woman but after a few moments reflection i perceive them as someone who has chosen that presentation rather than being born to it i will politely allow them to maintain the fiction. My politeness will not make them a woman.
    If that same person required me to wax their penis and testcles on the grounds that my job was to depilate women’s genitalia and that they were a woman then i would (politely) tell them to go elsewhere and fornicate with themselves. If then this person claimed that their human rights had been violated by my refusal to wax their balls then clearly ridicule is called for.
    like so much it all depends on circumstances.

  5. A good article, which goes a long way towards divining the real heart of the issue. However, I would go further in the diagnosis and suggest many within academia believe that some truths are harmful, whilst some falsehoods, although being somewhat intellectually unpalatable, can tend to have generally positive effects. A good example of the latter might be a child with singularly unremarkable academic talent. It may seem ultimately cruel to suggest that she might possess talents without any evidence to support the claim, but can we really imagine a scenario in which she doesn’t benefit somewhat from the application of hard work?

    I wonder whether it also isn’t possible to make the case that some truths really are harmful, when robbed of their broader context. In a singular case of unintended foresight, Stephen Pinker actually made this argument himself in a Spiked Online panel discussion:
    The point he quite eloquently makes is that if someone were to come across the fairly stark contrast in disparate levels of crime by race, they might come to the improper conclusion that some races are simply inherently more prone to certain forms of crime. However, a broader knowledge of history, knowing that the American Irish were once tarnished by a historically high rate of violent crime within their communities, but have since largely overcome this historical tendency, might provoke a more healthy search for the causative roots of a particular social problem, with a view to alleviating the condition.

    So, from the viewpoint of some younger academics, it might be the case that they believe a little knowledge is dangerous, and to be avoided, whilst greater knowledge should be reserved for an intellectual priestly class who are able to negotiate the subtleties and nuances of a particular issue to achieve a positive outcome.

    They may well have a point. Narratives such as those espoused in the nineties in relation to “Super Predators”, had an incredibly harmful effect upon the American Criminal Justice system, when magnified by the lens of media scrutiny and applied through the mandate of constituency- especially when one considers that taking a relatively disruptive and unruly teen and exposing him to the correctional influence of a group of older young men prone to antisocial personality disorder (with psychopaths and sociopaths at the extreme), might be tantamount to enrolling him in a college for criminals.

    The problem with this type of argument is that it makes exact same error which was made in the past. The goal is twofold. First, for the intelligentsia to generate prescriptions to societal ills. Second, to overwhelm the opposition with carefully crafted metanarratives in order to enforce a particular set of policy agendas. What these young academics have unfortunately fallen into is the trap of history- the erroneous belief that they somehow possess the embedded wisdom to provoke positive change, where others before them have always failed.

    The late eighties and early nineties policy prescriptions for youth crime which emerged from the conservative branch of academia, were a direct result of earlier failed policy prescriptions enacted from more liberal sources in the sixties and seventies. What the young do not understand, was the extent to which the sixties mantra of liberation and breaking down social mores, also directly harmed the most vulnerable in society.

    Whilst it might have been relatively plausible for largely white, middle class kids to drink, shag like bunnies and take drugs with little negative repercussions, the fact that this would unleash poorer communities to the Typhon of unregulated markets and the competition implicit to making a thousand bucks a day, where other economic opportunities were scarce on the ground, was something that academics in their Ivory Towers, never could have predicted.

    And here’s the thing. There is ample evidence that we are all collectively making the same mistake that we have made throughout the latter part of the Twentieth century and beyond. From the Left, it’s naive to believe that Police Officers are the key driver in Mass Incarceration, whilst sweeping disparate rates of violent crime under the rug, and simultaneously thinking that economic opportunity alone will solve the problem.

    For the Right, it should be impossible to ignore the fact the a country like Britain, which really isn’t that far away from America, in terms of Crime and Punishment, has managed to achieve recidivism rates almost nothing like America’s congenitally bad recidivism rates. If we really want to affect positive changes in order to address the fact that homicide is the leading cause of death for African American males under the age of 44, that this statistic is simply not true of other races and that the study victimology proves that most people who are murdered, are killed by members of their own race- then we need to get the leading experts, the best minds from both the Left and the Right together, far from the prying eyes of the media and the temptation of competing media narratives, to solve the problem.

    Because it’s unlikely that there is a silver bullet solution. Economic opportunity alone probably won’t solve the problem, nor will enlightening teenage girls of the abysmal prospects their boys will face growing up without a father, or, more properly, in a community largely bereft of fathers- both in terms of higher susceptibility to gang grooming and in terms of incredibly poor social mobility. Plus, its important to remember that many African American communities are thriving, with 60% of African Americans now in the middle class.

    One thing to consider, is that there might be some utility in looking at the issue from the viewpoint of an alcohol abuse issue. In Britain, we know that around 50% of 999 calls relate to domestic disputes, regardless of race, where one or more of the parties have been drinking, and that often concerns over financial matters can lie at the root of both the problem drinking, and the difficulties within the relationship. In the US, recent studies have shown that whilst most of the differences in driving behaviours by race might have disappeared, drink driving stubbornly persists at nearly twice the rate for African Americans as for non-hispanic Whites.

    Taken together, these two statistical trends might tend to indicate that African Americans might be more exposed to factors which might cause them to drink as a coping strategy. We know from psychology that whilst drinking socially, as a reward for a hard days work, or to celebrate might be relatively benign, drinking to forget, as a relief for chronic stress or because of underlying financial worries is generally not a good idea- and is more likely to push drinking behaviour over the line between use to abuse. And we know from disparate rates of hypertension by race, or John Henryism, that African Americans might be more prone to the life stressors which might cause drinking as a coping strategy to become problem drinking.

    From Wikipedia: Robbery and violent crimes often involve alcohol use, and there is a positive correlation between such crimes and alcohol use.[1] 15% of robberies, 63% of intimate partner violence incidents, 37% of sexual assaults, 45-46% of physical assaults and 40-45% of homicides in the United States involved use of alcohol. I was unable to locate data on alcohol and violent crime by race, but one has to wonder, given the overall correlation between violent crime and alcohol use, whether either counselling to avoid drinking as coping strategy, or treatment programs for lower level offenders, might help reduce violent crime generally, and prevent high crime communities already under distress, from losing more of their young men, either as victims or offenders.

    Of course, this is probably only one small piece of a much larger jigsaw puzzle, but hopefully it’s illustrative in terms of both the level of detail focus which might be required, as well as the level of honesty in subtlety and nuance needed to formulate a holistic and all-encompassing multi-variate approach.

    Another solution that might be worth bearing in mind is that whilst attempts at learning to code, might have failed in the past- largely because of the fact that the highly cognitive tend to self-select out of the coalmining communities where these training programs were first deployed- the use of vocational training programs for young men in the 2% of districts where 50% of violent crime occurs might be another case entirely.

    First, these jobs are generally not highly cognitive. Second, there is desperate need for these skilled operators in the American economy- a shortage of around seven million workers in 2019. Third, these young men are not middle class, and thus are less likely to sneer at a job paying around sixty thousand dollars a year. Plus, if we really want to change the patterns of single motherhood in high crime communities, which leads to a high degree of susceptibility to gang grooming in an ongoing and intergenerational manner, it be worth providing the next generation of young women with a surplus of young men worth marrying.

    We need to develop a new form of humanism which is both brutal in its candour, but non-punitive in its attempts to finger point or apportion blame. There needs to be friction between conservatives and liberals, in terms of the battle of ideas, but it can’t degrade in the usual fashions towards the petty point scoring and desire to win arguments which has categorised the past. All previous attempts to address these thorny issues in the past have failed- if not in detail, then in totality- but it might be possible to highlight approaches around the world which have at least been marginally success, and assemble an iterative solution which does work.

    But activists be warned, if you really want to surmount the attitude which failed so miserably in the past, by pursuing the unidimensional grand narrative, you will need to sidestep the failure implicit to ideological approaches. You will need to ask senior Police Officers for there advice, even if you deeply distrust them. You will need to look at data sources generally only perused by conservatives, and rapidly becoming a diminishing resource on the verge of academic extension. Because some of the goals you have set yourself are not only hard, but would present a challenge to the wisdom of Solomon. And in order to achieve positive and lasting change for the general good, you will need to confront unpalatable truths, which cannot be glossed over in the public domain, if you ever want to have a chance of solving these thorny problems, from their roots upwards.

  6. While the Harper signatories, Pinker et al, see Trump as the greater threat, some with cooler heads and a wider gaze, myself included, see him as the greatest hope. First he cancelled Critical Race indoctrination at the Federal level.
    Now he is going after the guys with manbuns indoctrinating our kids.

  7. “How, then, could he complain about a witch hunt carried out by a group that is mostly made up of graduate students and junior scholars?” Tell that to Bret Weinstein who was canceled and removed from his career at Evergreen College in Washington because he refused to go along with a campus woke event that he disagreed with. Most of whom were undergraduates. He was labeled a racist and was fired. Yes racist, sexist, bigoted people need to be called on their behavior, but when Dr. Pinker states there are innate differences between the sexes and he backs it up with data, the argument should be about the data, not the person. It is just a cancel culture form of an Ad hominem attack.

  8. Pinker forgets that “those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities” - the woke, believing nonsense, will try to silence the truth by force. The more obvious the truth, the greater the force will be.

  9. I fully agree with the thrust of this article that we should not be fighting the woke for free speech so much as for truth. Couching behind the free speech barricade when the mob comes knocking seems like a low-key way of saying we are not fully prepared to defend the merits of the argument the woke are attacking. Free speech, of course, is important, but as the author illustrates it’s not the principal issue at play for most of these cancellations. Pretending it is only weakens our stance, because the woke can make the obvious observation we would not, say, be defending the right of a Creationist to be hired on as a paleontology professor.

    I agree with Geary that there’s a subset of people on the left who know what they are saying is not true, but think it is important to maintain the fiction such that it can be made to be true. This cohort brought us such laughable slogans as “Islam is the religion of peace.” These typically well-intentioned people are victims of a culture that believes everything to be socially constructed, and eventually life experience demonstrates to them that wishing for things to be true does not make them so. Idealism is a game for the young.

    The woke, I think, are something different. They are true believers. They really think capitalism is racist and trans women are women. They aren’t hiding some deeper understanding of why their beliefs are wrong beneath their fanaticism. Generally younger, these people are the culmination of the systemic efforts to undermine Western society, and they know nothing except the leftist narrative. Worse, they are programmed to be hypersensitive to wrongthink, such that they will either fall into hysterics or be worked into a frenzy before any counterfactual information can penetrate their psyches.

    The woke don’t value free speech, and they never will until their worldview has been shattered and the scales fall from their eyes. Making a free speech argument is pointless. We must casually sweep aside the racism/sexism charges they will hurl as their first and last defenses and clearly demonstrate to them precisely why they are wrong. Only once they realize they have been lied to all their lives will more philosophical ideas like the importance of free speech gain any traction.

    There will always be woke who will not be persuaded by any amount of evidence. Those of low social status realize that leftism is their only way of rising in status, and not to put too fine a point on it, ugly and stupid people will always exist. But wokism is going mainstream, people are going along with it because the woke are so absolutely convinced by their narrative that observers assume there must be merit to it. How could charges of systemic racism be so ubiquitous if they are totally fictitious? We need to combat this by speaking the truth. As Douglas Murray said on a recent Quillette podcast, it is deeply important that we all do so right now, before we reach a tipping point where it all unravels.

  10. “Such catastrophizing intertextuality evinces a sense of urgency and danger, which when coupled with his discursive construction of victimhood…”

    Linguistic Society of America - please protect our language from this cruel torture.

  11. One of the reasons that, despite being an atheist, I am opposed to the organized atheist movement of “free inquiry” magazine and the like, is that they are against freedom of religion.

    They use a dirty trick. First they claim they have a right to be free from religion. This is literally true, as they cannot be forced to practice any religion. But then they claim, dishonestly, that this means they have the right to not see anybody else practice their religion in public. Which is nonsense.

    What they want is to make religion what homosexuality used to be: legal, but only in private between consenting adults, and a shameful thing one does not discuss in public, nor tell children about.

  12. Yeah, this has always pissed me off about my fellow atheists. I can’t stand the way they sneer at, and mock people who exercise their free choice to believe in a religion. It boggles the mind that they don’t understand that for a great many people, suspending disbelief and adopting faith is the ultimate expression of a free thinking individual. It’s also why I really dislike the term “free-thinker” for atheists. It implies that those who have made a commitment to religion did so unwillingly… it’s just so condescending.

    I also like to remind people that the “separation of church and state” thing, only applies to the state… never the other way around.

  13. Indeed. And one way to reveal the fictitiousness of those accusations is Scot Adam’ technique of ‘agree and amplify. “What, your institution is racist? Wow, that’s serious, what can we do about it? Well, cut off federal funding first of all, naturally as that would be an actual crime so let’s investigate rigorously to get at the truth of just how racist your institution is and has been since 2015? Innocent until proven guilty of course, but in such a serious case we must dig deep to get all the facts. Truth will out!”

    As posted elsewhere here, The Department of Education has done just that with Princeton University whose president recently declared his institution to be practicing racism. It’s illegal for the federal government to bankroll such institutions and also illegal to represent to the feds that your institution isn’t when it is, especially when seeking funding.

    Normally, the woke refuse to provide evidence of their beliefs but this clever twist forces their hand: either they do produce the evidence - in which case they convict themselves of violating the law out - or they contend no such evidence exists, so disproving their assertions.

    It’s put up or shut up time for Princeton.

    Here’s the letter again, sorry if you’ve seen it already below but this needs wide distribution. It’s a delight to read and imagine the mental gymnastics it’s inspiring all over the Ivy League as well as the raw fear from less endowed institutions.

  14. I realize you are asking a rhetorical question, but to give some examples, remember the witch hunts or the more recent numerous accusations of widespread satanic pedophilia?

    Not only is it possible for totally false claims to be ubiquitous, it is not even rare. That the “pizza gate” pizzeria where pedophiles allegedly committed horrible acts in the basement doesn’t even have a basement, quite apart from other absurdities in the accusation, did not have the slightest effect on believers.

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