Steven Pinker’s radical centrism and the “alt-right”

A short video clip recently circulating on social media showed Steven Pinker talking about “the often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right.” This sparked some of that dreaded social media “outrage,” which in turn is now the subject of an ongoing conversation about whether or not his remark was controversial. Rather than focus on whether the ideas are controversial, I’m going to focus on just how wrong they are. The transcript of his words is available for background reading.

Pinker argued political correctness prevents people from talking about certain inconvenient truths, hence when someone from the alt-right says these things they get to play the role of speaking truth to power. And some otherwise intelligent folks come to believe political correctness is causing society at large, or professors or social justice warriors on campus, or something, to deny the truth. These are his examples of controversial facts that nobody dares to say:

1. […] capitalist societies are better than communist ones.

2. Men and women are not identical in their life priorities, in their sexuality, in their tastes and interests

3. […] different ethnic groups commit violent crimes at different rates.

  1. Presently the most popular far left membership group seems to be Democratic Socialists of America (disclosure: I am a member), which only numbers in the (tens of) thousands, and presumably many of its members do not identify as communists. On a large enough campus these groups might have as many participants as, say, a single section of a typical Econ 101 class. So I can’t for the life of me figure out where Pinker gets the impression that “in university campuses, [1] would be considered flamingly radical.” If a supposedly “highly literate, highly intelligent” person wants someone to agree with them that “capitalist societies are better than communist ones,” they don’t need to turn to anarcho-libertarians, they’ve already got almost the entire Democratic Party on their side.
  2. Nobody was surprised by any of the factual/statistical contents of the #GoogleMemo, its basic argument is the subject of one of the most common examples used in statistics to illustrate Simpson’s paradox. And sure, not everyone takes statistics courses, but they might have noticed in the course of their lives, for example, that 3/4ths of public school teachers are women. How can it be heresy to say men and women are different when about 87% of Americans agree “men and women are basically different when it comes to how they express their feelings”? On campus, it will come as a surprise to the academics currently advocating better childcare at conferences as a means of helping women succeed in academia that they’re not supposed to admit any association between gender and childcare.
  3. It’s true that people of different races are arrested at different rates, and FBI crime statistics would show this. This does not necessarily mean that they commit crimes at different rates, as most (violent) crime goes unreported. This is a bit beside the point, because I once again doubt that anyone is unaware of the racial disparities in crime and the criminal justice system. A study in 2004 had a survey in which respondents estimated what percent of violent crimes they thought were committed by African Americans, and the median response was about 40%, while violent crime victimization surveys — a better estimate than arrest rates — put the number at about 30%. This raises several questions for Steven Pinker. If we liberal academics are too afraid to tell the truth about African Americans committing violent crimes, why do most Americans overestimate the actual racial disparity? Where could they possibly be getting such ideas? Could it be that society is generally more bigoted than it is politically correct? How big of a problem is political correctness, really?

The facts Pinker quotes are not forbidden knowledge. A person would have had to live in a bunker, their TV and internet use monitored and censored, and been given no access to most information about history, social sciences, or society at large, to have not heard things like them before. It’s true that college campuses can be different from society at large, but I‘m left wondering if Pinker gets all his information about campus life from articles in the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, and Quillette, etc (I’ll call this WSJ-NR-Q), about manufactured campus controversies (many of which have turned out to be bad-faith publicity stunts). I also wonder if he’ll ever learn or change such opinions, given that he’s fallen for anti-SJW” hoaxes in the past, which he later recognized were hoaxes, but doesn’t appear to have taken anything away from such experiences.

Pinker seems to have mistaken the alt-right with a different group: educated, conservative, classical liberals — or radical centrists — like himself. An easy enough mistake, since ideas like “the wage gap is much smaller after controlling for other factors in a regression analysis” are so easy to confuse with ideas like “feminism is cancer” or “birth control makes women ugly.” He’s romanticized his own position, believing that he bravely speaks harsh truths nobody wants to hear, but every example he gives sounds about as obvious (and insightful) as saying the sky is blue (cue Neil deGrasse Tyson: Actually, atmospheric gases…). The alt-right as it exists doesn’t appear anywhere in his analysis, which can be reduced to the same tired old “I don’t like being criticized for my own relentless criticism of political correctness.” This is probably because he doesn’t actually know anything about the alt-right but feels entitled to opine at length about it regardless.

Let’s step back from the plausibility of his premises and examine the logic of the argument. There are: (A) facts, supported by evidence, which only radical centrists like himself dare to talk about, (B) bad beliefs of the alt-right that don’t actually follow from such facts, and (C) “highly literate, highly intelligent” people who are also (inexplicably) naive about (A). Now, someone from the alt-right comes along and tells (C) about (A), which they had never heard before, and despite being “highly intelligent,” (C) now joins the alt-right in believing (B). If only someone else had come along first and told (C) about (A) before the alt-right did, then for some reason they would not have concluded that (B) followed from (A). We can fight the alt-right by… loudly proclaiming the facts they use to entice people to their side. This is essentially the same tactic that Fox news/trump have advocated for defeating ISIS by just saying the words “radical Islamic terrorism.” The president should thank Pinker, for surely, a distinguished Harvard professor adopting your argument is evidence of being a stable genius.

To poke yet another hole in this argument, people in the alt-right talk about (B) constantly and (A) much more rarely, this is why they’re called the alt-right and not just the right (or radical center). So if (C) are going to hear about the carefully reasoned facts supported by data in (A) from anyone, it’s not going to be from milo yiannopoulos. Again, what they hear from him is “feminism is cancer,” not “it is difficult to estimate the prevalence of false sexual assault allegations but the most reputable studies using admittedly imperfect methodologies have reported numbers around ~4 percent of all criminal sexual assault allegations.” (In fact, even Pinker and other radical centrists would rarely cite that particular statistic, because it’s not high enough to support their preferred narrative about allegations gone wild). (Also, not only is everyone who wasn’t born yesterday aware of the basic facts in (A), but they’ve probably also been exposed to (B) through, at minimum, their older relatives sharing posts on facebook from fox news / blue lives matter / tea party patriot pages).

A final word on the alt-right: fuck it right into the trash bin of history. It was always too stupid to last. Let’s now focus on what I believe to be a more pernicious problem, the radical centrism of the likes of Pinker, Jon Haidt, Christina Hoff Sommers, Sam Harris, James Damore (the #GoogleMemo guy), etc. And when I say “radical centrism,” I just mean centrism that isn’t the result of apathy toward politics. I believe the vast majority of centrists are not radical (i.e. are just apathetic).

As a cognitive scientist, it’s surprising that Pinker doesn’t seem to understand how focus and emphasis are key aspects of reason. If someone doesn’t like rap or hip-hop, that’s their prerogative. If someone frequently talks at length about how much they despise rap and hip-hop, and all the reasons they believe these to be inferior forms of music, that person might have some issues. This is why Fox News, Breitbart, DailyWire, and so on (F-B-D), cover every news story they can find about any undocumented immigrant committing any crime. And this is why F-B-D plus WSJ-NR-Q, cover every story they can find about a campus controversy involving a Title IX witch hunt or some SJW students yelling at a professor. Do some undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes? Have some students gotten angry over something a professor said without appreciating the nuance of their position? Yes, such things have happened. The question is whether they deserve anywhere near as much attention, emphasis, focus, and media coverage as they are getting, and the answer is of course not.

Radical centrists believe everyone else is politically motivated, while they occupy a space of inhuman, cyborg neutrality. Everyone else has impaired abilities to use reason and judge evidence because of their emotional attachments to certain values, while radical centrists are scientific beings of pure logic. If any of this were remotely true I might have some respect for radical centrists, but in reality they are people who are moderately informed about politics, don’t have any personal reasons to dislike the status quo, and are blinded by the Dunning-Kruger effect from seeing their own motives. For example, they like to believe that they know anecdotes are not evidence, but they will share literally every anecdotal story from WSJ-NR-Q about a campus SJW controversy. They switch between the systemic/statistical and personal/anecdotal as it fits their purposes, just like everyone else. They cherry-pick. They conflate sex and gender because they personally happen to like the traditional gender roles in their society, while simultaneously acknowledging social construction as it applies to other things. They believe economics is a sound science (it’s not) that forms the basis of their policy preferences (it doesn’t), but all other social sciences are hopelessly biased by the devoted Marxism of their practitioners (there’s no reason to believe they are any more biased than economics). Evolutionary psychology, perhaps the least scientific, least experimental branch of psychology, is given credence above all other types of psychology, simply because it can help them justify their own preference for traditional gender roles. Humanities are worse than worthless, unless we’re talking about the histories of certain communist countries, then they can suddenly take on a mythological level of importance (in the sense that nobody has actually read them but they still believe they know the moral of the story). I could go on, but this is getting boring even for me.

Radical centrists also tend to be naive about the nature of anyone’s actual political motives. They think everyone else is conspiratorial, but the truth is they just really can’t put two and two together or follow the money, ever. For example, even though Charles Murray’s ideas are absolute junk science on par with phrenology, radical centrists still think it’s irrelevant that he’s funded by a literal eugenics think tank that was started by a nazi sympathizer. They still think he should be invited to campus to share his garbage ideas so students can critically evaluate those ideas- meaning they should also ignore who funded Murray and focus only on his words. Similarly, when the same Koch-funded astroturf student groups keep inviting controversial speakers to campuses, and the Murdoch-owned WSJ keeps reporting every resulting controversy, radical centrists respond every time with the same disappointment, condescension toward students, and alarm over the death of free speech and inquiry, never recognizing any pattern about how the story was generated or ended up on their screens.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the radical center is how much it benefits from affirmative action. Consider how utterly unoriginal the #GoogleMemo was, and then go and check how many followers James Damore has on twitter. Watch the clips of him on national TV promoting the idea that, *gasp*, some women might not want to be engineers. Why are we even paying attention to Steven Pinker’s opinion about the alt-right? Has he studied the movement? Does he have any special insight into it? No, he’s just another radical centrist whose voice gets magnified no matter how mediocre his arguments are. One reason for this is that radical centrists tend to be extremely privileged (especially the prominent ones), hence (1) their affinity for the status quo, (2) their smooth (and often nepotistic) paths to success, and (3) the guaranteed elevation of their voices. Another reason is that, if one is comfortable with the status quo, there’s no urgent need to accomplish anything, so radical centrists judge merit more subjectively. For example, when Chris Cillizza or Megan McArdle write a column with an idea so bad nobody has ever voiced it before they can be credited for originality. Finally, the most important reason is probably that they are useful to the established systems of power because of their reliable support for the status quo. This makes them both unbearably boring and unjustifiably popular, and makes me tired of this.