A Letter I Wrote to Steven Pinker

[Amazon Link]

I recently read Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. My take is here. But something about the book bugged me enough to look up Professor Pinker's email address and dash off a missive. Here it is:

Dear Professor Pinker --

I'm a longtime reader, since The Language Instinct. I lean a bit more (OK, a huge amount more) toward the libertarian/conservative side than you do, but that's OK. Your occasional heresies against Progressive dogmas tell me you're a straight shooter.

So I hope you will consider a minor criticism of an instance where your shot is off-target.

I bought and read Enlightenment Now and mostly enjoyed it, but one thing bothered me enough to spur this mail. On page 343:

"Charge the cockpit or you die!" shrieked a conservative essayist, comparing the country to the hijacked flight on 9/11 that was brought down by a passenger mutiny.

And on page 449:

(Hence Anton's hysterical essay "The Flight 93 Election," mentioned in Chapter 20, which compared the country to the airliner hijacked on 9/11 and called on voters to "charge the cockpit or you die!").

I read the essay when it came out, and found it unconvincing. (I voted for Gary Johnson.) But I didn't recall the hysterical shrieking. So I went back to check...

Here's the problem: the exclamation point you (twice) put in quotes does not appear in the original essay. It's just a plain old period. Your insertion inside the quote marks is unfair and misleading, causing the casual reader to think the essayist you're criticizing was significantly more strident than he actually was.

I hope this is something you'll consider correcting.

In any case, best wishes, I look forward to your future work.

Only response so far has been an auto-reply. Understandable, he's a busy man. I'll update this post if I hear anything substantive.

URLs du Jour


  • Proverbs 15:26 reminds us that the omniscience of the Lord rivals that of Santa:

    26 The Lord detests the thoughts of the wicked,
        but gracious words are pure in his sight.

    So be good for goodness' sake.

  • As promised, here is Reason's April cover story from Jacob Sullum: America's War on Pain Pills Is Killing Addicts and Leaving Patients in Agony. It is long, detailed, and deserves your attention. Sample:

    […] the truth is that patients who take opioids for pain rarely become addicted. A 2018 study found that just 1 percent of people who took prescription pain medication following surgery showed signs of "opioid misuse," a broader category than addiction. Even when patients take opioids for chronic pain, only a small minority of them become addicted. The risk of fatal poisoning is even lower—on the order of two-hundredths of a percent annually, judging from a 2015 study.

    Despite such reassuring numbers, the government is responding to the "opioid epidemic" as if opioid addiction were a disease caused by exposure to opioids, a simplistic view that ignores the personal, social, and economic factors that make these drugs attractive to some people. Treating pain medication as a disease vector, the government has restricted access to it by monitoring prescriptions, investigating doctors, and imposing new limits on how much can be prescribed, for how long, and under what circumstances. That approach hurts pain patients by depriving them of the analgesics they need to make their lives livable, and it hurts nonmedical users by driving them into a black market where the drugs are deadlier.

    A large majority of opioid-related deaths now involve illicitly produced substances, primarily heroin and fentanyl. As usual, the government's efforts to get between people and the drugs they want have not prevented drug use, but they have made it more dangerous.

    Unsurprisingly, the overall narrative emphasizes scapegoating and prohibition.

  • Jason Brennan, author of Against Democracy, notes the irony of The Anti-Democratic Ethos of Pro-Democracy Academics. Examples are cited. And:

    What these academics and groups have in common are two things: 1. They believe themselves to have strong commitments to democracy. 2. Their commitments to democrat ends are apparently so strong that they license themselves to blatantly violate the democratic ethos. They reject the spirit of free, open-minded, and fair debate, and show little willingness to engage with and reach understanding with contrary points of view. Instead, they straw man and attack others, misrepresent what others believe and why, use epithets like “racist” or “fascist” unfairly and inaccurately, and use violence, power, and discrimination to silence others, often while clutching their pearls and complaining that they are the real victims. The lack of self-awareness is stunning–assuming, of course, that they don’t know what they’re doing.

    Let's throw in some journalists, like Jane Mayer into that pot as well.

  • Jonah Goldberg describes how Youth politics has tainted the gun debate.

    But the simple fact is that young people are not, as a group, better informed, wiser, smarter or even more enlightened than older people. This is a fact of science and social science alike. We are born ignorant of the world we live in and only lose that ignorance over time.

    Think about what you knew and understood at half your current age. Were you smarter then? Wiser? Why assume it works differently for anyone else?

    Spoiler to our younger audience: It does not.

    Jonah also makes a point relevant to our previous item:

    Democracy depends on arguments that are not contingent on your age. Lots of kids don’t understand that, but grown-ups are supposed to.

    "Assuming, of course, that they don't know what they're doing."

  • David Harsanyi notes that some Progressive pundits have been rudely taken to school for their ignorance of firearms, and are now complaining of their butthurt. But: If You’re Trying to Ban Guns, the Least You Could Do Is Learn the Basics.

    The Washington Post recently published an op-ed by writer Adam Weinstein in which he argues that Second Amendment advocates “use jargon to bully gun-control supporters.” “While debating the merits of various gun control proposals,” he contends, “Second Amendment enthusiasts often diminish, or outright dismiss their views if they use imprecise firearms terminology.”

    How dare Second Amendment advocates expect that those passionately arguing to limit their constitutional rights have some rudimentary knowledge of the devices they want to ban? To point out the constant glaring technical and policy “faux pas” of gun controllers is to engage in “gunsplaining,” a bad-faith argument akin to intimidation.

    The gun-grabbers want to rely on panicked emotionalism to win the day. Demanding that they be specific and precise isn't "bullying". But it does get in the way of their preferred mode of argument.