Cognition & Reality

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Menand On Pinker

Filed under: Behavioral Genetics,Psychomyths — drtone @ 1:12 pm

In a 2002 review of Steve Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Louis Menand (who is, coincidentally, the author of the book I’ve mentioned here recently, The Metaphysical Club) captures perfectly my own experience of Pinker, who is among the most arrogant individuals I have ever met and, at the same time, one of the worst informed. The afternoon and early evening a couple of friends and I spent with Pinker was an eye-opener, not at all because of any wonderful revelations he was conscious of offering. On the contrary, he was the revelation, because he showed us how a person who had never had an original idea in his life (and would not know one if it bit him in the ass) could combine sheer chutzpah and a studied ignorance into a successful recycling of things he had heard other people say. That was before Pinker had become a “public intellectual,” but had already begun to attract a great deal of positive attention with a combination of surprisingly good writing and a complete disregard of history and logic. I have subsequently heard Pinker interviewed, and it is amazing how quick he is to toss off bizarre statements as if they were facts with phrases such as “we now know…,” the reference being to the newest scientific discoveries about human nature.

I was therefore pleased to discover Menand’s review, which captures this same quality in Pinker, how his annoying naiveté combines with the aforementioned arrogance. Menand indicates, for example, that Pinker based some of his argument in The Blank Slate on a misquotation of Virginia Woolf that inverts her original point from one that corresponds to Pinker’s world view to one that expresses the exact opposite. Similarly ignoring the obvious, Pinker does not seem to realize that science is far from perfect: As I have pointed out recently, and as Menand emphasizes in his review and demonstrates in The Metaphysical Club, today’s “science” can become tomorrow’s embarrassment. His great talent is a total lack of self-reflection and self-awareness. Not caring that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about is at the heart of Steve Pinker’s act.

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