My Response to the Pinker Petition — Open Letter to the Linguistics Community

[Edited a little July 6 to change the penultimate paragraph to correct a mischaracterization of David Pesetsky’s position and also with Jason Merchant’s revision of the comments he had sent to me, and to catch a misspelling.]

[Correction July 7, thanks to a reader: “black” changed to “white” in the description of the police shooting discussed under Point 2. My hasty reading to blame.]

I just learned on July 4th about the petition to the LSA arguing that Steven Pinker should be stripped of his status as an LSA Fellow and removed from the LSA list of available media experts on the grounds that “Dr. Pinker’s behavior is systematically at odds with the LSA’s recently issued statement on racial justice,”

I was shocked and surprised when I learned of this petition, since in my own experience Steven Pinker works hard for racial justice. Steven and I have been working together in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to help increase the number of Black linguists, and women, in those academies. He’s been playing a leading role in these efforts. I have no doubts about his commitment to social justice. Others who know him better than I do would probably be able to cite more of his work in advocacy and mentoring. The complaints in the petition seem related to the positions he has taken in his books The Better Angels of our Nature and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, positions about progress which are controversial but sincerely held and backed by arguments that may be imperfect but should be answered with other arguments, not with censure, in my opinion. It’s not clear whether the petitioners have read any of those books.

For some discussion of controversies about his opinions in those books, see the piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, “Why Do People Love to Hate Steven Pinker?” .

I wanted to approach the petition with an open mind, so I followed the links to see the basis for the six points they use as their arguments for the action they want the LSA to take. I concluded that I do not agree with the petition and will not sign it. This letter originated on July 4 as a way to share my reactions to the six points with faculty members in my department. I’m editing it only slightly today to share it more widely. In the meantime another public response has appeared, written by Jerry Coyne, Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago.

I’ll certainly be willing to listen to colleagues who would like to try to convince me to change my opinion. I’m not convinced by the petitioners’ arguments and the petition strikes me as a case of ‘thought policing’ — because some of his statements strike them as falling short of their view of what the LSA’s policy statement says, he should be stripped of his Fellow honor and removed from his media expert status. (The latter would make a statement, but would have only symbolic effect, since he is such a well-established public intellectual already.)

Worrisome side note: Someone put Ray Jackendoff on the list as a signatory without Ray’s knowledge; when Ted Gibson asked him about it, he said he hadn’t signed it and he managed to get his name removed. Worrisome in that Ray might conceivably not be the only name fraudulently added. Later: yes, the same thing happened with Michel DeGraff’s name being fraudulently added. I don’t know if there are others.)

I will simply go through the six points the petitioners adduce as reasons for the LSA to take their recommended actions against Steven Pinker.

To Point 1:

In 2015, Dr. Pinker tweeted “Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately”, linking to a New York Times article by Sendhil Mullainathan. … Let the record show that Dr. Pinker draws this conclusion from an article that contains the following quote: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.” (original emphasis) We believe this shows that Dr. Pinker is willing to make dishonest claims in order to obfuscate the role of systemic racism in police violence.

It looks to me that Pinker did make a misleading statement in his tweet, but that the petitioners also make a misleading statement by omitting the context of their quote from the article.

Pinker’s tweet: “Data: Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately. Problem: Not race, but too many police shootings.”

Petitioners’ quote from the article: “The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin.”

Larger quote from the article: (doesn’t support Pinker’s statement, but it shows that their quote doesn’t represent the article’s point.)

The data is unequivocal. Police killings are a race problem: African-Americans are being killed disproportionately and by a wide margin. And police bias may be responsible. But this data does not prove that biased police officers are more likely to shoot blacks in any given encounter.

Instead, there is another possibility: It is simply that — for reasons that may well include police bias — African-Americans have a very large number of encounters with police officers. Every police encounter contains a risk: The officer might be poorly trained, might act with malice or simply make a mistake, and civilians might do something that is perceived as a threat. The omnipresence of guns exaggerates all these risks.

Such risks exist for people of any race — after all, many people killed by police officers were not black. But having more encounters with police officers, even with officers entirely free of racial bias, can create a greater risk of a fatal shooting.

Arrest data lets us measure this possibility. For the entire country, 28.9 percent of arrestees were African-American. This number is not very different from the 31.8 percent of police-shooting victims who were African-Americans. If police discrimination were a big factor in the actual killings, we would have expected a larger gap between the arrest rate and the police-killing rate.

The article goes on to discuss systemic racism or racial impacts in the war on drugs, mass incarceration, and other systemic problems that would still result in a disproportionate number of police killings of African Americans even if all police were totally unbiased and operating according to proper protocols.

I would guess Pinker was hasty/sloppy in the words of his tweet, but he was encouraging his followers to read the article, which I don’t think any of the petitioners could object to.

To Point 2:

In 2017, when nearly 1000 people died at the hands of the police, the issue of anti-black police violence in particular was again widely discussed in the media. Dr. Pinker moved to dismiss the genuine concerns about the disproportionate killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement by employing an “all lives matter” trope (we refer to Degen, Leigh, Waldon & Mengesha 2020 for a linguistic explanation of the trope’s harmful effects) that is eerily reminiscent of a “both-sides” rhetoric, all while explicitly claiming that a focus on race is a distraction. Once again, this clearly demonstrates Dr. Pinker’s willingness to dismiss and downplay racist violence, regardless of any evidence.

Pinker tweeted a link to a NYT opinion column, with his comment “Police kill too many people, black & white. Focus on race distracts from solving problem, as we do w plane crashes.” As with his tweet cited in point 1, most commenters criticized his tweet in ways similar to the petitioners. But if you read the opinion piece, you get a different picture. It’s written by contributing opinion writer Pagan Kennedy about the father of a young white man killed by police after a traffic stop. The father is a former Air Force pilot and he was expecting that there would be an investigation of how the shooting came to happen, like investigations of airplane crashes and investigations of incidents of medical error or malpractice. He was surprised and upset that that didn’t happen, and that the only investigation was of the officer, to examine whether he felt justifiably in danger of his life. The father felt concerned that if that could happen to a young white man, how much more danger a young man of color could be in. The father “hired his own investigators. They contend that it all began with faulty equipment: Officer Erich Strausbaugh’s holster caught on a cable dangling from one of the cars’ side-view mirrors, so that when he tackled Michael, he felt a powerful tug on his belt. Assuming that the young man had grabbed for his weapon, he called out to his partners, “He’s got my gun.” Michael’s mother and sister, who were watching nearby, yelled that Michael did not have the gun. But it was too late.” … “Mr. Bell, in fact, does not blame Officer Strausbaugh, who committed suicide several years later. “The officer made an honest mistake,” he said; the problem is that “the police department covered it up.”” … “In 2010, the family received some vindication when the City of Kenosha agreed to pay $1.75 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit. Afterward, Mr. Bell paid to erect billboards asking: “When police kill, should they judge themselves?” In 2014, Wisconsin passed a law requiring independent investigations of police actions that result in a civilian death. Mr. Bell is still pushing for reform, touring Wisconsin with graphs and charts — think of him as the Al Gore of police shootings. In meetings in legislative offices, he explains that a proven method to improve safety already exists in the fields of medicine, nuclear power and aviation. Engineers call it an “external-learning system.””

Also, neither Pinker nor the article ever used the expression “All lives matter”. Do the petition writers count “kill too many people, black and white” as equivalent? In 2017? I think it was misleading of them to suggest that he had said that.

To Point 3:

Pinker (2011:107) provides another example of Dr. Pinker downplaying actual violence in a casual manner: “[I]n 1984, Bernhard Goetz, a mild-mannered engineer, became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers in a New York subway car.”

Here what the petitioners call attention to is the phrase “mild-mannered”. “Once again, the language Dr. Pinker employs in calling this person “mild-mannered” illustrates his tendency to downplay very real violence.” As one of the commenters on a Twitter thread about the petition (mostly denouncing Pinker) commented, Pinker may well have presupposed that his readers could deduce the very real violence for themselves from the fact of his shooting four young muggers. I can see no way to take that sentence of Pinker’s as “downplaying actual violence in a casual manner.”

To Point 4:

In 2014, a student murdered six women at UC Santa Barbara after posting a video online that detailed his misogynistic reasons. Ignoring the perpetrator’s own hate speech, Dr. Pinker called the idea that such a murder could be part of a sexist pattern “statistically obtuse”, once again undermining those who stand up against violence while downplaying the actual murder of six women as well as systems of mysogyny [sic].

According to the linked article, it wasn’t six women, it was two women and four men. [Oh, in a version I saw later, there’s a footnote at the very end correcting that error.] I can’t access the place where Pinker said “statistically obtuse”, so I can’t comment on this one. But it looks like they’re criticizing him for critiquing the statistics in a certain article rather than writing a different piece about violence, murder, and misogyny. ??

To Point 5:

On June 3rd 2020, during historic Black Lives Matter protests in response to violent racist killings by police of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many many others, Dr. Pinker chose to publicly co-opt the academic work of a Black social scientist to further his deflationary agenda. He misrepresents the work of that scholar, who himself mainly expressed the hope he felt that the protests might spark genuine change, in keeping with his belief in the ultimate goodness of humanity. A day after, the LSA commented on its public twitter account that it “stands with our Black community”. Please see the public post by linguist Dr. Maria Esipova for a more explicit discussion of this particular incident.

What does “publicly co-opt” mean? Pinker cited it and linked to it in a tweet, publicizing Dean Bobo’s interview in the Harvard Gazette, and noting that Dean Bobo was the one who had done the research that he, Pinker, referred to when he wrote about the decline of overt racism in the US. How did he misrepresent it? Was it just that he mentioned only the note of optimism in Dean Bobo’s remarks in the interview? The Bobo interview ends with Bobo saying “But I am going to remain guardedly optimistic that hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the higher angels of our nature win out in what is a really frightening coalescence of circumstances.” — using a paraphrase of the title of one of Pinker’s books. And Pinker’s comment in his tweet is:

Harvard Social Science Dean Lawrence Bobo did the research I’ve cited on the decline of overt racism in the US. Here he reflects (w cautious optimism) on race relations in the the context of police killings of black men https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2020/06/lawrence-d-bobo-examines-police-killings-of-black-men/ via @Harvard.

Bobo in the interview first talked a lot about the horrific killing of George Floyd, and discussed a lot of the problems of racism both individual and systemic. Pinker did not discuss that part: are people assuming he doesn’t care? It’s consistent with his writings that he’s interested in sharing rays of hope; I don’t doubt for a moment that he feels the grief and anger that so many of us do over the events that have mobilized people more strongly than ever in recent memory to take some kind of action.

Masha Esipova’s Facebook post, referred to in the petition, is very thoughtful and she has read quite a lot in preparing it; I respect her work and her writing. She comes to conclusions very different from mine. I suspect that both of us are making assumptions about Pinker’s motivations in what he writes, and they are different assumptions.

Here too I feel that his alleged censurable behavior is to have written about the ray of hope and not about the grief and anger. That is taken to be non-supportive of efforts to achieve racial justice. I think that’s debatable.

To point 6:

On June 14th 2020, Dr. Pinker uses the dogwhistle “urban crime/violence” in two public tweets (neither of his sources used the term).

I see one of them. In linking to an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Pinker tweeted “Don’t abolish the police. Patrick Sharkey, researcher on urban violence & its decline, writes: “Cops prevent violence. But they aren’t the only ones who can do it.”.”

I thought something was a dogwhistle when a politician was using it to appeal in a sort of covert or coded way to a base he didn’t want to publicly acknowledge, e.g. to appeal to racists. This is Pinker talking to his friends and colleagues and all of us, just as the author of the Washigton Post piece was doing. I cannot find anything to censure in the use of the terms “urban crime” and “urban violence” in that context. The piece that Pinker links to here is arguing that it’s important to use all the resources of the community to prevent violence. I don’t see anything objectionable in that tweet. Maybe there’s something more pernicious in the one I didn’t find.

Update: Jason Merchant, Vice Provost and Lorna P. Straus Professor of Linguistics at the University of Chicago, wrote to me on July 5th after seeing my comments on David Pesetsky’s Facebook post, and with respect to Point 6, he addressed the “dogwhistle” idea more forcefully than I could:

The sixth accusation against Pinker — that he uses “urban violence” as a dogwhistle to “essentialize Black people as … criminals” — is easily rebutted. “Urban” appears to be a usual terminological choice in work in sociology, political science, law, and criminology. To cite only one example that’s close at hand (because I happened to have read it last year), my sociologist colleague Robert Vargas, in his award-winning book, Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio (OUP 2016), uses both “inner-city violence” and “urban violence” (twice) on p. 5 alone (and many times throughout the book). The book won a number of awards: the 2016 Outstanding Book Prize from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, the Alfred McLung Lee Book Award from the Association for Humanist Sociology, the Outstanding Book Prize from the American Sociological Association (ASA) Section on Peace, War, and Social Conflict, the Best Book Award from the ASA section on Political Sociology, and it was finalist for the C. Wright Mills Book Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems. So there is no real evidence for the idea that Pinker is using “urban violence” and “urban crime” as dogwhistles: if he is, so are the fields I mentioned above. I do think it is particularly incumbent on linguists to look at actual linguistic usage patterns in the relevant fields.

End

That’s it. I stopped there except for this one last paragraph on July 4th (now on July 6 I’m changing only tenses) so I could share this with my colleagues before I went to bed, since this was so current right then. There was already an interesting long thread on David Pesetsky’s Facebook page. David was careful in his post to not weigh in on the justice of the accusations against Pinker, but to talk only about the wisdom of the two proposed remedies — stripping him of his Fellow status or removing him from the LSA-approved list of media contacts — if the accusations were sound. Most people on the thread said that the LSA should do at least something to acknowledge that they don’t approve of that behavior of Pinker’s. I saw very very few others who seemed to share my opinion that they should do neither because he has done nothing that is inconsistent with the LSA’s principles. I seem to be in a small minority, but I feel quite strongly about it. I may be influenced in part by my husband’s opinions, which derive from his growing up in Communist Russia.

I will add on July 6 only that I no longer feel quite so alone; a few colleagues have expressed agreement with what I’ve written and suggested that I share it more widely, which I am hereby doing.

Respectfully,

Barbara H Partee

Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Linguistics and Philosophy/ President of the LSA, 1986 /Fellow of the LSA, 2005 (in the first cohort of Fellows)

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