The Corner

Dumping On Pinker

Jonah:  Did you really think Alan Jacobs’ piece on Steven Pinker was “great”? I thought it was smart-alecky puerile.

Steven Pinker has thought longer and harder about human language, its structure and functions, its origins and its relations to human thought, than anyone alive. He has   written   four   excellent   books   on the subject. (My review of the most recent one is here.)

And Jacobs says what?

… any non-scientific use of language tends to confuse and frighten him …  What a shock Pinker will receive when, someday, he opens a dictionary and discovers that some words have more than one meaning …

That doesn’t even rise to the level of annoying. It’s just a witless snot-faced child tugging on Superman’s cape.

You yourself weigh in on “Pinker’s (in)famous line about how music is nothing more than accidental ‘auditory cheesecake.’” Surely you appreciate that Pinker was just trying to

(a)  Offer an informed cog-sci speculation for the esthetic appeal of music,

and

(b)  render that speculation in terms a lay person can grasp.

Pinker did (a) because he’s a cognitive scientist, and that is the kind of thing cognitive scientists are paid to do; he did (b) because he is a skillful and successful popularizer of his science. If you think his speculation is way out in left field, give us an informed criticism of it — or better yet, a speculation of your own. Why does music appeal to us?

And again, on the subject of human dignity, Pinker suspects that the term is being used as a token, emotionally colored but semantically dubious, to promote ideas he strongly disagrees with — specifically, it seems he thinks, to insinuate the dogmas of some specific religious sects into our national policy, where they do not — where they Constitutionally do not — belong. Given the composition of the President’s bioethics council, and of the list of contributors to the Dignity report, which Pinker helpfully analyzes in his New Republic piece, that is not an unreasonable suspicion, and I thought Pinker argued it well.

While I’m on the subject, I was also baffled by Yuval’s anti-Pinker column last week. “[A] bizarre and astonishing display of paranoid vitriol,” says Yuval of that New Republic article. Certainly Pinker’s piece is polemical, as it ought to be (and as most of what we write on NRO is, and ought to be), but “bizarre”?  “paranoid vitriol”?  Well, read Pinker’s essay — sorry, “screed” — for yourself. Yuval’s description of it strikes me as far more bizarre than anything Pinker says.

You might also want to read the transcript of the bioethics council’s interview of Pinker in 2003, which Yuval describes as a “devastating grilling.” May we all be so devastatingly grilled by a government commission! I do not see how anyone reading that transcript could find it other than cordial and collegial. The implied notion that a shattered Pinker must have fled from the hearing in despair to weep alone in his chambers, while the triumphant council member crowed and gave each other high fives, is absurd.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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