Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Steven Pinker is an Idiot

For the longest time I've been blissfully unaware of the thought - or what passes for thought - of Steven Pinker. At most, I've seen him mixed together with Jordan Peterson and other intellectual lightweights on the Bad Philosophy subreddit, usually being mocked for their attempts to critique modern philosophy without ever engaging with its ideas. Due to circumstances I'm not going into, I finally read some primary Pinker sources over the weekend and those wry internet barbs have been much too kind to him. He's not just an idiot and embarrassment to academia, he's an apologist for the worst crimes of the day.

Specifically his latest pop-sci book, Enlightenment Now, which claims to be a defense of reason and humanism against all those dastardly postmodernists. Like Ayn Rand and other such imbeciles before him, Pinker picks a fight with a statistical minority within the already statistically minor world of tenured professors, then goes on to not actually quote any counterarguments to his thesis. The closest he ever gets is disparaging the sort of liberal arts syllabus that Limbaugh and Hannity would whinge about but which is never actually seen outside a graduate seminar:
In The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman shows that prophets of doom are the all-stars of the liberal arts curriculum, including Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Cornel West, and a chorus of eco-pessimists.
A charitable reader may assume Pinker makes such a broad - and wrong - generalization because he's not read any of the listed authors, just this Herman hack. That appears to be the only excuse for lumping Schopenhauer (a pessimist), Sartre (a Marxist), Nietzsche (a Nietzschean) and Heidegger (???) in with social critics like Foucault and Adorno. Nevermind the explicitly ant-colonial projects of figures like Fanon and Said, whose worldviews hinged on the faith that the world is not getting worse and transformations for the betterment of oppressed peoples is a real possibility.

But that would mean engaging with their thoughts and arguments, something Pinker never does because it would get in the way of his Pollyannaish boosterism for "progress." Pinker incidentally strongly objects to being labelled a "Pollyanna" or a "Pangloss," likely because he flunked comparative literature as an undergrad.

Had he not, and had he actually read any of his proposed opponents, he might understand the difference between pessimism as a psychological disposition and philosophical pessimism. Pinker conflates the two, the better to dismiss it with a sneer and graphs. Lots and lots of graphs, the last refuge of the thin-skinned dullard. He's got graphs showing declines in war! Increases in life expectancy! Growing civility on the internets! And I'm not posting any of them because they're all so fucking stupid!

"Great Scott I'm dumb!"

Take Pinker's assertion that war is on the decline. That depends how you define and measure "war," which Pinker does in such a way to paint a rosier picture. He only tracks conflicts between "Great Powers" running from about the 14th Century to today. That's an awfully broad view, seeing as some "Great Powers" like the Ottomans cease to exist halfway through. Further, he explicitly leaves out colonial wars and proxy wars and all the other wars that have ever been more common than some Game of Thrones-addled clash of empires.

He follows the same murky methodology in his tracking of human well being. Yes, it is nice not to be dying of the plague these days but what of wealth inequality? And healthcare inequality? And the exponential rise in rage massacres since the 1980s?

Also, his claims of online civility are blatant lies, simply for the fact that there's no way he researched the entire Internet for every racist and sexist joke when he couldn't even be arsed to read a little of Being and Nothingness.

Ah, but that's all taking Pinker's arguments in good faith. And as anyone who's read the recent hagiography of Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson knows, these sorts of pop-sci "intellectuals" are not arguing in good faith at all. They stake out positions tied up with their own particular sense of self and bellow that all the pointy-headed know-it-alls are wrong and you can see how if you just buy this new book.

It's a sales pitch masquerading as a sermon, and Pinker is a particularly egregious offender as he claims the language of reason and rationality to argue that things are fine. He rails against climate change skeptics and "eco-pessimists"in equal measure, turning the golden mean fallacy into a moral imperative. His book reads less like a well-reasoned rejection of nihilism and more like any other half-bright yuppie talking back to the evening news:
Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.
Have you seen those smartphone reports from Syria? Pinker sure hasn't, because it would make a mockery of all his precious graphs. And probably make him puke.

However, none of this should be taken as some call to challenge Pinker as he pretends to challenge two centuries of Continental Philosophy. He doesn't deserve that much consideration and he's much less consequential than his ever unnamed antagonists among the tenured guild who supposedly oppose progress and humanism. Rather, Steven Pinker is just the sort of idiot who comes along every five years or so, selling the same security blanket of a book to all the middlebrows with degrees, IRAs, and crushing debt. He's not assuring them the world is getting better so much as he's distracting them from their own personal experiences getting worse.

Forty years ago it was est and the evangelical revival. Today it's Silicone Valley and shoddy cognitive science. It gives white collar drones and centrist muddlers something to chew on, pretend they have real thoughts, while the real work of philosophy is done by folks like Ray Brassier, who will never get his books excerpted by a billionaire ghoul like Bill Gates.