Pinker And The Priests

Steven Pinker, who by some miracle still finds himself employed despite holding some deeply heretical notions (of which those he expresses are surely just the tip of the iceberg), is under fire today for some remarks he made at a panel at Harvard. The snippet that’s been making the rounds is this:

The other way in which I do agree with my fellow panelists that political correctness has done an enormous amount of harm in the sliver of the population that might be, I wouldn’t want to say persuadable, but certainly whose affiliation might be up for grabs, comes from the often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right, internet savvy, media savvy, who often are radicalized in that way, who swallow the red pill, as the saying goes, the allusion from The Matrix. When they are exposed the first time to true statements that have never been voiced in college campuses or in The New York Times or in respectable media, that are almost like a bacillus to which they have no immunity, and they’re immediately infected with both the feeling of outrage that these truths are unsayable, and no defense against taking them to what we might consider to be rather repellent conclusions.

Dr. Pinker is trying very carefully to thread a needle here. From a platform in the central basilica of the modern-day Cathedral, he is trying to explain to the clerisy the plain Newtonian fact that “reaction” is the result of “action”. In doing so, however, he had to say some very troublesome things: that some people on the “alt-right” are highly literate and intelligent, and that the proximate cause of their doxastic insubordination is exposure to “true statements”. This is unforgivable stuff, and so he has now drawn the attention of the Inquisition, and is getting some “action” himself.

He has since explained that he was taken out of context, that like all good people he condemns the alt-right, that the conclusions drawn by these highly literate and intelligent people, despite their foundation in “true statements”, are nevertheless not only false but “repellent”, and so on.

To this end he made, in his original remarks, various arguments. A transcript of his remarks in full is here; I will take excerpts as we go.

Let me give you some examples. Here is a fact that’s going to sound ragingly controversial but is not, and that is that capitalist societies are better than communist ones. If you doubt it, then just ask yourself the question, would I rather live in South Korea or North Korea? Would I rather live in West Germany in the 1970s or East Germany or in the 1960s? I submit that this is actually not a controversial statement — but in university campuses, it would be considered flamingly radical.

Quite so.

Here’s another one: Men and women are not identical in their life priorities, in their sexuality, in their tastes and interests. Again, this is not controversial to anyone who has even glanced at the data. The kind of vocational interest tests of the kind that your high school guidance counselor gave you were given to millions of people. And men and women give different answers as to what they want to do for a living, and how much time they want to allocate to family versus career, and so on. But you can’t say it. I mean, someone, a very famous person on this campus did say it and we all know what happened to him. He’s no longer … Well, he is on this campus but no longer in the same office.

Strong stuff! You can already feel the triggers, well, triggering. (The “very famous person” was of course, Lawrence Summers. Dr. Pinker very bravely came to Dr. Summers’ defense thirteen years ago, when, as president of Harvard, Summers was tarred and feathered for suggesting that there might in fact be statistical cognitive differences between men and women.)

Here’s a third fact that is just not controversial, although it sounds controversial, and that is that different ethnic groups commit violent crimes at different rates. You can go to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Look it up on their website. The homicide rate among African Americans is about seven or eight times higher than it is among European Americans. Terrorism. Go to the Global Terrorism Database, and you find that worldwide, the overwhelming majority of suicide terrorist acts are committed by Islamist extremist groups.

You have to admit, there is something bracing about seeing such things said in public. At Harvard, no less!

Our hero is in getting himself in very big trouble here, it seems. But wait…

Now, these are unwarranted conclusions. Because for each one of these facts there are very powerful counterarguments for why they don’t license racism and sexism and anarcho-capitalism and so on.


The fact that men and women aren’t identical has no implications for whether we should discriminate against women, for a number of reasons. One of them is: for any traits in which the sex is different, two distributions have enormous amounts of overlap, so that you can’t draw a reliable conclusion about any individual from group averages.

Some thoughts here:

First, Dr. Pinker is exactly right. Statistical distributions tell us nothing at all about any individual, and we should greet every person we meet as an individual.

Second, the conclusion one should draw from this is that it’s crazy to focus on the unequal distribution of women and men in fields for which they have statistically different aptitudes and affinities. (Can we stop doing that, please? Don’t hold your breath.)

Third, that men and women overlap in individual traits is nevertheless not a sufficient reason to ignore the general issues of fundamental sexual differences and intersexual dynamics. It is still a terrible idea, for example, to put women in combat units.

Number two, the principle of opposition to racism and sexism is not a factual claim that the sexes and races are indistinguishable in every aspect. It’s a political and moral commitment to treat people as individuals, as opposed to pre-judging them by the statistics of their group.

That may be Dr. Pinker’s principle of opposition, and it’s the only legitimately available one — but it isn’t the principle most of his audience goes by, and by acknowledging in this forum the radioactive truth that there are even real statistical differences between the sexes and races, he’s making things awfully hot for himself.

In the case of, say, rates of violent crime, it used to be — go back 100 years, the rate of violent crime among Irish Americans was far higher than among other ethnic groups. That obviously changed.

Indeed. But blacks have been here since long before the Irish, though, and as Dr. Pinker points out, they are even now, well more than a century after the great waves of Irish immigration and assimilation, “seven or eight times” more homicidal than European-Americans. (This is not limited to homicide, either; African-Americans even commit “white-collar” crime at much higher rates.)

There’s no reason that that can’t change in the case of current racial differences.

This is true in principle, but it may also be true that there’s no particular reason for anyone, after all this time and effort, to expect that it will. Dr. Pinker, quite understandably for someone who wishes to remain employed, also makes no mention of persistent statistical shortfalls in African-American IQ and educational achievement compared to Americans of Irish descent.

In the case of terrorism, the majority of domestic terrorism is committed by right-wing extremist groups, not by Islamic groups within this country.

Now wait a minute. Sure, there was Timothy McVeigh, and I’ll give him Dylan Rooff, but looking at the record of mass murder over the past couple of decades, there have also been, just off the top of my head, the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, 9/11, Orlando, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Chattanooga, the D.C. snipers, the New York truck attack, the Aurora massacre, Columbine, the Unabomber, the Congressional softball shooter, and the Black Lives Matter cop-killings — not one of which was perpetrated by “right-wing extremists”. (Jihadis have also made plenty of foiled and botched attempts to blow things up, including some pretty recent ones.) The bollards, concrete barriers, and military deployments we see everywhere in New York and other big cities these days aren’t going up because of the Tea Party, or even Stormfront. So I’m calling “bullshit” on this one.

Of course, through much of its history, Islam was far more enlightened than Christendom.

Well, sure, if you call aggressive wars of expansion and enslavement, subjugation of infidels, entire nations built on piracy, etc. “enlightened”.

There was no equivalent of the Inquisition.

No punishment of heretics (and remember, because it is a tenet of Islam that all people are born as Muslims, all infidels are heretics) in Islam? Please.

There was no equivalent of the wars of religion in the classical history of Islam.

Even leaving aside the ancient Sunni-Shia conflicts, the entire history of Islam is a war of religion. I mean, in Islam the entire unsubjugated world is called the “House of War”, for Pete’s sake.

The politically correct left is doing itself an enormous disservice when it renders certain topics undiscussable, especially when the facts are clearly behind them. Because they leave people defenseless, the first time they hear them, against the most extreme and indefensible conclusions possible. If they were exposed, then the rationale for putting them into proper political and moral context could also be articulated, and I don’t think you would have quite the extreme backlash.

Most of this is certainly true. It is not at all true that conclusions somewhat rightward of Dr. Pinker’s are all “extreme” and “indefensible”, but it is most assuredly true that if there is something real happening, something with observable and often distinctly undesirable consequences, and you create a social climate in which decent people feel themselves unable to speak about it (or, as seems to have happened all over the West, unable even to permit themselves to think critically about it without immediate, deeply conditioned moral self-censorship), then the situation will deteriorate to the point where the few people who will think or speak about it — or, a step or two later, take action about it — are often the sort of people who are not restrained by ordinary morality. If Europe, for example, was looking for the very best way possible to create exactly what it had hoped above all else to avoid — arousing an angry and potentially violent identitarian movement — how better to do it than to flood the continent with obstreperous and unassimilable young Muslim males, and forbid native Europeans to object, on pain of prosecution?

Despite my criticism here, I have to give praise Dr. Pinker for his remarks. He’s done very important work for years now in standing up to universalist orthodoxy (along with other brave scientists like Edward O. Wilson), and he has taken some lumps for it. His book The Blank Slate was an act of real defiance, and it was, for many people of my addle-pated generation, the first time they’d ever seen a serious academic dare to speak forbidden truths about human nature.

Now he’s stuck his neck out again. I can hardly blame him for not sticking it out all the way.


  1. ErisGuy says

    Islam is more ciivilized than socialism: there is no eqivalent of Stalinist show trials.

    Posted January 13, 2018 at 5:29 am | Permalink
  2. JK says

    [T]here is no eqivalent of Stalinist show trials.

    Perhaps not – at least the “trials” part.

    The “sentences” though: the stonings, the drops from high places, the beheadings on Deera Square are pretty “showy.”

    Posted January 13, 2018 at 7:12 am | Permalink
  3. fjwawak says

    Question is if he just does not wont to stick his neck out more or if he is just a moderate liberal. I guess it is the latter. And it more dangerous because it can appeal to more people.

    Posted January 13, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  4. Look at this meltdown:

    Pinker is soft peddling on Islam.

    However, he has nothing really to lose. If he get’s fired, ah well and then there is that new book out…

    Still, Pinker is a very smart man with an astonishing mind for facts. The Blank Slate was terrific, Angels, not so much.

    Posted January 13, 2018 at 6:10 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says


    Look at this meltdown…

    Well, that’s PZ Meyers. It’s what you’d expect.

    Posted January 13, 2018 at 7:00 pm | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says


    Pinker is very definitely a liberal, yes.

    Posted January 13, 2018 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

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