Page 1 of 2 12 LastLast
Results 1 to 10 of 15

Thread: Now let's please make fun of Steven Pinker

  1. #1
    No Thank You Blorg's Avatar
    Type
    INFP
    Join Date
    Dec 2013
    Location
    near Lidl
    Posts
    3,950

    Now let's please make fun of Steven Pinker

    Have any of you read The Language Instinct (by Steven Pinker) or anything by Noam Chomsky, and if so, what do you think of the idea of a "language instinct"? (I haven't read anything by Chomsky so I'd be especially curious to know what you think if you've read both.) In broad strokes, the idea is that language is innate. We have "mentalese" built into our brains, just waiting to be triggered by our environment and shaped by cultural specifications. The book is in large part a pop science vessel for Chomsky's ideas, from what I gather. But with more exclamation marks and wild speculations.

    The idea of a language instinct is really interesting so it's disappointing that it was so poorly handled. Pinker thinks that in order to be convincing, he can't discuss any doubts, counterarguments or nuances. Mentalese is a highly debated idea, but he doesn't discuss why - he just repeatedly and in various ways says that naysayers are idiots, postmodernists, emotional, racist, and/or stuck in the past.

    When there's an idea he disagrees with, he normally murders it with the same strategy. (There's probably a rhetorical term for this, it's not quite a strawman.) He finds the dumbest piece of writing on it or most extreme variation, ridicules it for several pages, and then explains his superior viewpoint for the rest of the chapter. For example, he stabs to death the most extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and does a good job of explaining why it's silly. But then he pretends that it's basically the same as several other versions of the hypothesis, and acts like his attack disqualifies those versions too.

    It's a cheap trick, demeaning to his readers.


    Still, his book is taken seriously by a lot of scientists, so I guess he got some things right. And that makes sense because Pinker is also a working linguist at MIT. So I'm also wondering: can pop science books like this maintain a kind of symbiotic relationship with serious scientific research? They're not limited by standards that are so rigorous that they often (I've heard) produce short-sightedness. So perhaps books like this could be a medium for expressing more creative and speculative scientific ideas that wouldn't sit well in traditional fields. On the other hand, maybe it's better for such books to stay the way they're normally portrayed: no more than fun, simplified, creative but scientifically passive summaries of serious scientific research. I can see how the alternative could lead to a meltdown of academic checks-and-balances systems. But if it they know their place, maybe "serious" pop science books like Pinker's could positively influence the overall direction of research - cultures guide scientific preferences and assumptions anyway, so maybe pop science could do so in a more educated and self-aware fashion. (would be interesting to know if this actually already happens, though I suppose it would be hard to measure.)

    Fun anti-fact from the book: Eskimos don't actually have 100+ words for snow. This was just an idea that went out of control in the press after an offhand speculation by a sociologist at the turn of the previous century.

  2. #2
    Member zago's Avatar
    Type
    INTP
    Join Date
    Jan 2018
    Posts
    139
    Pinker has really started pissing me off more recently with his latest, Enlightenment Now. I read Better Angels and I'm still not sure how EN is different enough to justify reading, but from what I've read of reviews and excerpts, he seems very unfairly biased against the right. He can't acknowledge any reason to have supported Trump, for instance, even though there were obvious ones (immigration, law and order candidate, against Syrian intervention, hm kind of relevant right now... he doesn't even give these things a charitable reading from what I've seen).

    I'm also uncomfortable with his celebratory declarations about progress. I used to be really big on that but I'm not really at all convinced whatever progress we might have made will be lasting, or that it is anything more than various out of control processes that just happen to look good right now and in certain ways. It's still very haunting that millions of people commit suicide... we are on so many pills right now and apparently people are about as happy as they always were, sometimes much less (women in America today for instance are at a low point over at least the last few decades).

    I also just kind of hate democracy, think it's really stupid, but Pinker has a hard on for it and thinks it is responsible for so much progress. Skeptical of this.

  3. #3
    Member Thoth's Avatar
    Type
    INFP
    Join Date
    Apr 2014
    Location
    AHJ 2006
    Posts
    912
    Quote Originally Posted by Blorg View Post
    I'm also wondering: can pop science books like this maintain a kind of symbiotic relationship with serious scientific research? They're not limited by standards that are so rigorous that they often (I've heard) produce short-sightedness.
    Why not? Western pop culture has recently determined, without anything more than personal bias, that biology is entirely based on individual belief. Now we have government and academic institutions enforcing those opinions. How is this different? Facts are apparently irrelevant, feelings are sacred truths.

    Quote Originally Posted by Blorg View Post
    So perhaps books like this could be a medium for expressing more creative and speculative scientific ideas that wouldn't sit well in traditional fields. On the other hand, maybe it's better for such books to stay the way they're normally portrayed: no more than fun, simplified, creative but scientifically passive summaries of serious scientific research.
    I don't find anything wrong with "simplifying" hard science for general, practical consumption. I believe the spirit in said endeavor is to encourage enlightenment, to look beyond what you think you know. Most people like discovery, and if you can make it seem personal to them, it encourages the individual to keep seeking new insights.

    Quote Originally Posted by Blorg View Post
    I can see how the alternative could lead to a meltdown of academic checks-and-balances systems.
    The only danger is when we allow opinion overcome fact. A simply delivered fact is academically stronger than the most verbose misinformed opinion. One would think this common sense would be self evident in our society, sadly, these days it is not.

  4. #4
    No Thank You Blorg's Avatar
    Type
    INFP
    Join Date
    Dec 2013
    Location
    near Lidl
    Posts
    3,950
    Quote Originally Posted by Thoth View Post
    I don't find anything wrong with "simplifying" hard science for general, practical consumption.
    Neither do I. Why is "simplifying" in quotes? I don't think it's a dirty word. That's what these books do: they tend to be more artistically creative and scientifically passive.

    Anyway, you misread my post. I wasn't focusing on the merits or flaws of public consumption of pop science texts. I was discussing academic use of pop science texts within specialized fields - whether that's possible and how it might work and benefit (or hinder) the work of scientists.

    I raised the question because The Language Instinct seems to be the rare kind of pop science book that is actively engaged with both by popular audiences and scientists (there are many reviews of it in academic journals as well as magazines).
    Last edited by Blorg; 04-10-2018 at 04:52 PM.

  5. #5
    TJ TeresaJ's Avatar
    Type
    INTP
    Join Date
    Apr 2014
    Location
    mosquito-infested hell
    Posts
    3,194
    I think the question you ask would be better answered by professional linguists active in academia. .. @epistemophiliac might be the closest we get.

    Another related question might be, how rigorous in general is that field? And are scholars engaging with the pop science book as they would analyze any work for popular consumption or are they engaging with it in the same manner they would engage with other peer reviewed literature? Does that make a difference? I don't know.

  6. #6
    Member Thoth's Avatar
    Type
    INFP
    Join Date
    Apr 2014
    Location
    AHJ 2006
    Posts
    912
    Quote Originally Posted by Blorg View Post
    Why is "simplifying" in quotes? I don't think it's a dirty word. That's what these books do: they tend to be more artistically creative and scientifically passive.
    Quote Originally Posted by Blorg View Post
    Still, his book is taken seriously by a lot of scientists, so I guess he got some things right. And that makes sense because Pinker is also a working linguist at MIT. So I'm also wondering: can pop science books like this maintain a kind of symbiotic relationship with serious scientific research? They're not limited by standards that are so rigorous that they often (I've heard) produce short-sightedness. So perhaps books like this could be a medium for expressing more creative and speculative scientific ideas that wouldn't sit well in traditional fields. On the other hand, maybe it's better for such books to stay the way they're normally portrayed: no more than fun, simplified, creative but scientifically passive summaries of serious scientific research. I can see how the alternative could lead to a meltdown of academic checks-and-balances systems. But if it they know their place, maybe "serious" pop science books like Pinker's could positively influence the overall direction of research - cultures guide scientific preferences and assumptions anyway, so maybe pop science could do so in a more educated and self-aware fashion. (would be interesting to know if this actually already happens, though I suppose it would be hard to measure.)
    Your implication bolded is that simplification is a negative, that it should or may not hold academic scientific credibility because it may exclude pertinent information that skews or distorts context. In your words, lack of information through simplification (e.g. pop science) "could lead to a meltdown of academic checks-and-balances systems."

    That said, we actually agree on overall concept on this part. As I stated, I don't believe simplification is necessarily dirty and my use of quotes was to summarize a rebuttal to that particular tone of the paragraph.

    Quote Originally Posted by Blorg View Post
    Anyway, you misread my post. I wasn't focusing on the merits or flaws of public consumption of pop science texts. I was discussing academic use of pop science texts within specialized fields - whether that's possible and how it might work and benefit (or hinder) the work of scientists.
    In that case, academically, you should always lead with your argument, not your opinion. You introduce a question to the reader followed by your personal opinion on the methods of your subject and conclude with your actual argument. The order presented suggests their relevant importance to you and consequently suggests the order of importance your reader should regard them.

    Quote Originally Posted by Blorg View Post
    I raised the question because The Language Instinct seems to be the rare kind of pop science book that is actively engaged with both by popular audiences and scientists (there are many reviews of it in academic journals as well as magazines).
    It's a good question. I am familiar with Steven Pinker and his lectures, but I have not read his books. It doesn't surprise me that he is popular, like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Steven Pinker is a significantly educated man who possesses a charisma that allows him to convey higher education without sounding dry or as if he's talking down to his audience. He is clearly passionate and excited by his work, and that enthusiasm helps sell his theories.

  7. #7
    Global Moderator Polemarch's Avatar
    Type
    ENTP
    Join Date
    Dec 2013
    Location
    Los Angeles
    Posts
    1,726
    We have certainly reached a post-fact world, where feelings are truth. Well said, Thoth.
    We didn't land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us.

  8. #8
    No Thank You Blorg's Avatar
    Type
    INFP
    Join Date
    Dec 2013
    Location
    near Lidl
    Posts
    3,950
    Quote Originally Posted by Thoth View Post
    ...that it should or may not hold academic scientific credibility because it may exclude pertinent information that skews or distorts context.
    I don't think that's necessarily a problem though: academic research is obviously more detailed and it counterbalance the simplified information in pop science books. (Pop science books, on the other hand, bring a more intuitive and exploratory tone to the scene.) Pop science books don't need to be held up to academic scientific standards in order to be valuable.s

    btw, worth mentioning that the dichotomy I've been using is over-simplistic. Even the most complex scientific texts include simplifications for the sake of expediency. Should say that pop science books are just more simplistic.

    In your words, lack of information through simplification (e.g. pop science) "could lead to a meltdown of academic checks-and-balances systems."
    No, I'm not saying that simplification in and of itself is the problem: note the tense. I'm saying that it could become a problem. If the simplified standards of pop science came to replace serious academic research, that would be annoying. (likewise, it would be a loss if tedious academic research became the only thing on the shelves.)

    Read the part after the section you bolded:
    "But if it they know their place, [meaning that they don't end up diluting academic standards, but complementing them] maybe "serious" pop science books like Pinker's could positively influence the overall direction of research - cultures guide scientific preferences and assumptions anyway, so maybe pop science could do so in a more educated and self-aware fashion."


    In that case, academically, you should always lead with your argument, not your opinion. You introduce a question to the reader followed by your personal opinion on the methods of your subject and conclude with your actual argument. The order presented suggests their relevant importance to you and consequently suggests the order of importance your reader should regard them.
    While I disagree with your rule, I see how that paragraph I wrote was vague. I ramble when I get excited :P

  9. #9
    He's probably capable of more subtlety than his audience can follow, but he's in it for the money. Greasy edutainment dollars.

  10. #10
    Senior Member Makers!*'s Avatar
    Type
    XXXX
    Join Date
    Dec 2013
    Location
    Shoshone Country
    Posts
    1,899
    "Long live the weeds and the wilderness!"

Similar Threads

  1. How do you make your coffee?
    By MoneyJungle in forum The Pub
    Replies: 29
    Last Post: 04-08-2018, 06:55 PM
  2. Make a Choice
    By Obfuscate in forum Philosophy & Spirituality
    Replies: 19
    Last Post: 10-13-2016, 08:48 AM
  3. Tumblrs someone should make
    By gator in forum The Pub
    Replies: 4
    Last Post: 04-21-2015, 03:11 AM
  4. Who wants to make some money?
    By Perdix in forum Projects & Creativity
    Replies: 48
    Last Post: 02-02-2015, 02:23 PM

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •