Chief among these obsessions recently has been the war in Iraq. As I noted above, I can usually just brush by these references with a “there they go again” sigh and go on reading. In this instance, however, Pinker makes the “Sixteen Words” about WMD’s in Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address the focus of an entire section. In his discussion of meaning, context, and understanding, he tries to unpack those words to illustrate how such differences in understanding words have large consequences.
Full disclosure of my own presumptions here: as soon as I read the first words of the book,
On September 11, 2001I thought “setting up for a Bush criticism.” In the next section, first sentence, as soon as I saw where Steven Pinker was going, I thought “I am so tired of this” before I even read his argument.* I knew what his conclusion would be, and was tempted to skip over whatever rationalization he had concocted from the application of his expertise in linguistics and thought. Bush was going to have to be bad, Pinker had to get to it first thing in his book. But I like Pinker, I generally like his reasoning, and thought he had enough in the trust-account with me that I owed him my attention.
He focuses on the word “learned” as in “The British government has learned…” Without going into his technical detail, he takes the position that in that particular usage, “learned” has a tight meaning. It is a factive verb, and the full statement can be true only if what follows is true. It is a stronger word that “believe.” I take his point. The British have learned is much stronger than The British believe. There is a definiteness, a you-can-take-it-to-the-bank quality in the former that is not in the latter.
Yet however good that point is (and however necessary it might be for authors to get juicy current examples to illustrate their arguments), it is seriously damaged by three counter-arguments. First, some linguists would say that factive verbs are a myth, and relying on the concept leads us into contradictions. It’s over my head, but it’s not over Pinker’s – it’s his field – yet he doesn’t mention the controversy, which bears on this exact point. Secondly, if Pinker is going to stress context in the meaning of words, then certainly the context of information obtained by espionage has bearing on the discussion. This was not from generally-available sources, but from that shifting, shady world of human intel. We certainly expect that when the POTUS says “The British government has learned” he had better mean a whole lot more than “MI6 overheard an Arab guy saying…” OTOH, I am not surprised when foreign intelligence turns out to somewhat different than advertised once we have the benefit of hindsight. Pinker fairly points out that Bush knew there were credible people who doubted the information from those sources. Knowing that, his use of the word “learned” is deceptive, an exaggeration.
I am going to sidestep the whole argument about Joe Wilson’s trip to Africa, the Iraqi trade mission to Niger, other worldwide sources of intelligence, Sarindar, and the relative credibility of the believers and disbelievers. Other people know that ground far better than I. That sort of discussion is not what you come to the Assistant Village Idiot, aspiring master of the obvious, for. I waive that discussion, and frankly, my first two counter-arguments are not the important ones anyway.
My third counter-argument is the strongest, and entirely in keeping with Pinker’s essay. If he is going to focus on the tightness of the word “learned,” then I am going to focus on the looseness of the word “sought,” as in “Saddam Hussein recently sought…” Sought can be a phone call to a guy who knows a guy. Sought can be inquiring what the going price is. This has been my stance on the Sixteen Words controversy from the start. “…Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa." Well, duh. I imagine he has been seeking significant quantities of uranium for years, and so have any number of other dictators around the globe. Heck, everyone is seeking significant quantities of uranium. Bush could have made “learned” even stronger, adding “Cross my heart/ hope to die/ or stick a needle/ In my eye” and it would still be true. I didn’t think it was the heart of the argument at the time, I didn’t think Bush thought so, and my memory (which may deceive me) is that the Sixteen Words grew in importance among the critics over time.
Harumph, you protest. The POTUS has a responsibility for precision. His utterances are taken seriously because of his authority. Well, respected science writers have a responsibility for precision too. Steven Pinker is taken seriously as an authority. If his audience is less than Bush’s, his responsibilities are the same. Pinker knew how the sentence continued when he wrote his chapter. He has editors and friendly critics before publication. If he is going to devote such close attention to one word, he should at least give passing attention to the others. He knew, or should have known, as the phrasing is, about the word “sought.”
So, did Steven Pinker lie? That seems harsh to me. Overstrong. An unfair mind-reading to suggest that.
Which is exactly my point.
*There was a prescient second half to that thought of mine, which will be revealed in the next post.