Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Pinker's Position

This Pinker guy.

He irks me.

He’s got some interesting points in this essay of his, published today in the New Republic Online, mixed up with some really wrong-headed bits.

It’s, more or less, a defense of Summers, saying, more or less, and yet again, that those who attacked Summers just didn’t get what he was saying – and, yet again, that those who attacked Summers were just being hysterical, but what can you expect, from a bunch of hysterical academics slash feminists?

Here's he said:

The psychologist Philip Tetlock has argued that the mentality of taboo--the belief that certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think them--is not a quirk of Polynesian culture or religious superstition but is ingrained into our moral sense. In 2000, he reported asking university students their opinions of unpopular but defensible proposals, such as allowing people to buy and sell organs or auctioning adoption licenses to the highest-bidding parents. He found that most of his respondents did not even try to refute the proposals but expressed shock and outrage at having been asked to entertain them. They refused to consider positive arguments for the proposals and sought to cleanse themselves by volunteering for campaigns to oppose them. Sound familiar?

The psychology of taboo is not completely irrational. In maintaining our most precious relationships, it is not enough to say and do the right thing. We have to show that our heart is in the right place and that we don't weigh the costs and benefits of selling out those who trust us. If someone offers to buy your child or your spouse or your vote, the appropriate response is not to think it over or to ask how much. The appropriate response is to refuse even to consider the possibility. Anything less emphatic would betray the awful truth that you don't understand what it means to be a genuine parent or spouse or citizen.

Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong.

Pinker believes that feminists have a like taboo against considering any difference between men and women. Or, as he puts it,

At some point in the history of the modern women's movement, the belief that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable became sacred.

This, and in a few other places, is where I start to quarrel with him. He’s setting up strawmen here. The women’s movement does not say “psychologically indistinguishable”; Pinker has said that. We say “not inferior to,” which is a whole different kettle of fish.

Likewise, earlier in the essay he claims that “[o]verestimating the extent of sex discrimination is not without costs. Unprejudiced people of both sexes who are responsible for hiring and promotion decisions may be falsely charged with sexism.”

Well, wouldn’t it be pretty to think so, and could he introduce me to some of these unprejudiced people of both sexes? Because I would really like to meet them.

And also:

“fewer women than men might choose engineering, even in the absence of arbitrary barriers. (As one female social scientist noted in Science Magazine, "Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.") To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true.” <-- These pronouncements are nice, but not exactly supportive. “One female social scientist” is not evidence, anymore than Larry Summers’ infant daughter playing with her toy trucks was evidence: those are anecdotes. Pinker certainly knows the difference, so I can only assume he is refusing to see the difference for reasons of his own.

And, finally, calling the feminists’ response a “fatwa” is meant to enrage the feminists further. We need discourse here, not temper. If Pinker was truly interested in encouraging discourse, he would be looking for common ground, not for more distance – he would, in other words, not be looking to alienate his opponents further. That’s what this essay seems intent on doing.

Here’s the whole essay, BTW:


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