Saturday, January 10, 2009

Why Did Steven Pinker "Lie?"

This post is not easily understood without at least skimming the previous one.

The overexcitable among you, especially those unfamiliar with Pinker, should refrain from yelling “Because he’s a damned liberal, that’s why! That’s what they do!” (That may turn out to be the case, but let’s not start there, okay?)

I offer the following quotes from the lead-up to his Did Bush Lie argument. I have italicized words and injected parenthetical comments. If I seem picky, remember that Pinker’s entire point rests on his unpacking of a single word. This, in contrast, is an entire paragraph mostly irrelevant to his main argument.
The aftermath of 9/11 spawned another semantic debate, one with consequences even weightier than the billions of dollars at stake in how to count the events on that day. This one involves a war that has cost far more money and lives than 9/11 itself (human cost is important. But why is “more than 9/11” relevant?) and may affect the course of history for the rest of the century. The debate hinges on the meaning of another set of words – sixteen of them, to be exact:
The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.
This sentence appeared in George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in January 2003. It referred to intelligence reports suggesting that Saddam Hussein may have tried to buy five hundred tons of a kind of uranium ore called yellowcake from sources in Niger in West Africa (No, it referred to that intelligence plus a hundred other things, some of which were definite, some of which were suggestive). For many Americans and Britons the possibility that Saddam was assembling nuclear weapons was the only defensible reason to invade Iraq and depose Saddam. (What percentage of Americans? Possibility? Assembling? Only defensible? I contend that the number of people at that time who said this was relatively small. Either way, the sentiment is extraneous to the debate of whether Bush lied. Pinker tips his hand). The United States led the invasion in the spring of that year, the most despised American foreign policy initiative since the war in Vietnam. During the occupation it became clear that Saddam had had no facilities in place to manufacture nuclear weapons and probably had never explored the possibility (? Are you kidding me?) of buying yellowcake from Niger…

Lying is an impeachable offense for a president (no it’s not), especially when it comes to the casus belli of a terrible war.

What jumped out at me is the superlative statement. The foreign policy decision to go into Iraq is not merely despised, but the most despised. It is also, again, not relevant to the discussion at hand, though it seems to be relevant to Pinker’s emotions.

I would disagree with that superlative. I think just about everything about our foreign policy toward Israel has been more controversial over the years. Support for the contras, immigration, the Iranian hostage crisis, SDI, Bosnia, Reagan’s speeches in Germany, Gulf War I – surely at least some of these deserve nomination as roughly comparable. China? Cuba? NAFTA?

Since Vietnam. Ah, is this a clue? Why would that particular controversy occur to Pinker in this context? It is not objectively very similar. But it is emotionally associated, and that has made all the difference. The prescient second half of my thought in the previous post was “Can a reference to Vietnam be far behind?” Three-point swish. I tell you, they just can’t help themselves. Progressives regard it as a proven part of the shared culture that Vietnam was wrong, wrong, wrong; that we resort too quickly to war; and the American government (especially Republicans) lies about it. This belief is central to the world-view of boomer liberals, and must be defended at all costs. Even when they don’t consciously perceive it as especially important; even when they might hedge a bit from their 1970 position in intellectual discussion now – it is part of the furniture. Click your stopwatch – they will mention it.

Am I over-reaching in my interpretation of the thoughts of Pinker in specific about this? He is, after all, an individual human being, not a stereotype; he is in no way notorious for anti-war commentary; his reference was not quite an explicit comparison of Iraq to Vietnam. Wouldn’t it be fair to smack the Assistant Village Idiot, who frequently rails about the mind-reading that others do, for pretending to see into the motives of someone he does not know? Perhaps. On the face of it, it even seems unfair to me that I am doing it.

But then how did I instantly know both things were coming?


Anonymous said...

I have not previously hear Steven Pinker (I'll read your pervious post next.) Clearly, he hasn't seemed to notice that it was JFK who got us into Viet Nam, and LBJ who escalated it, and the Congress that turned it into the failure known today. We take it ON FAITH that all these people mentioned above HAD to be Repubs, because who else would have done such things.

Larry Sheldon said...

What we probably have here is an example of the pancake (see "clown makeup" cracking a little.

It is (apparently) part of the bootcamp training that when Marxist gets a professorship and a stage (the nominal subject or topic at hand is irrelevant, it seems, the speaker MUST trot out all the mindless diatribes in the catalog.

Frosh Orientation, Intro to Linguistics, Doctoral Defense in the Post-Nasal Articulation of Pregnant Bull Frogs, what ever. doesn't matter--got a stage and an audience of more than zer, trot out the Bush Lied People Died mambo.

jlbussey said...

If Pinker was once a Marxist, he isn't in "The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature." In fact, he's downright hostile to the idea, and to every other form of leftism/utopianism.

Larry Sheldon said...

I'll have to re-read "Blank slate".

I frankly don't remember the politics--I first really noticed his politics in the TED talks.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

In his actual areas of expertise, such as the heritability of thought structures and intelligence, he runs afoul of PC thinking, which has kept him off the far left - though he might have avoided that in any event. I can't comment on the marxism or economic thought, because I just don't know. He might be better described as anti-conservative.

Larry Sheldon said...

I guess I got caught being sloppy in my thinking and thence in terminology.

I have some loose connections wirth "Academia" and for most purposes "academic" and "Marxist" are pretty interchangeable.

Pinker is certainly anti-conservative, and he is clearly afflicted with BDS.

And what ever it is, it interferes with his message, which was the point.

Der Hahn said...

That is one slick debating trick (if I understood the argument that your linked paper was making).

If I say "I know 'x'", define 'x' as a false statement.

Therefore, I must be lying because I can't "know 'x'" if it's false.

And you aren't obliged to deal with my argument at all and can go straight to insulting me.

Larry Sheldon said...

I don't understand any part of the Der Hahn comment. Especially the last 'grph.

Is that a problem?

Anonymous said...

I'm not really following the argument about Steven Pinker.

The point is that US intelligence had discredited the story about Iraq looking for uranium in Niger.
That's why Colin Powell, a couple of weeks later, didn't include that dimension in his brief to the UN. That's why George Tenet apologized for not removing the sixteen words from the speech.

So, when George Bush says "British Intelligence has learned..." something that US intelligence knows is false, he is misleading people.

If I tell you "astronomers have learned that the sun revolves around the earth" with the intention of persuading you that the sun revolves around the earth... "lie" would be an appropriate verb for what I am doing. "Misleading" or "deceiving" also fit. Technically what I say is true, but only because I'm not telling you that the scientist I'm thinking of is Ptolemy.

I guess I have to acknowledge it is hard to know the intention. It's pretty well documented that the Bush Administration had it's own reasons for invading Iraq and then went to the WMD fabrications as a common justification. They hoovered up Curveball's bullsh*t to get where they were going anyway. I've seen both Wolfowitz and McClellan explicitly acknowledge that.

It may be more accurate to say that George Bush just mislead us rather than lied to us, if that is any consolation to you.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Copithorne, did you read the post? In your hurry to point out what you think is important about George Bush, you seem to have missed what I was actually writing about.

As a consequence, I am not even going to go into refuting your accusations. I will not go farther afield.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Larry, Der Hahn's comment was in relation to the link in the first Steven Pinker post.

Anonymous said...

Er, yes. Yes I did read your post.

I guess if you accept the facts I read into the record, there's little more to say.

But isn't it the same thing? I'll try to stand up for language as we use it. And you retreat further and further into a realm of airy abstraction where the meaning of words become gossamer thread and lo and behold everything is permissable?

Steven Pinker says something factually accurate. But he's lying. George Bush says something that's both false and misleading. But he's telling the truth. That's powerful abstraction. As though if you call it "enhanced interrogation" than it can't be torture.

To me, it seems reasonable to say that the war in Iraq is the most detested US foreign policy action since Vietnam. I don't know that such an assertion is amenable to evidence. What evidence would you accept? But I would say there is broad American consensus behind US support of Israel and that is not more controversial than the war in Iraq.

And I think though there may be disagreement over whether Vietnam was morally justified, there is pretty good consensus that losing a land war in Asia was a strategic and costly failure.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Wow. The fact that other people understood it and you didn't doesn't make you even a touch suspicious? Perhaps you didn't read the previous post about Pinker?

You are having an entirely separate discussion to the one I wrote about. I will suggest again that an automatic political reaction is preventing you from seeing the language discussion.

Anonymous said...

Boy, I haven't seen any other substantive comments here. So, I can't evaluate who else 'understood' your twin essays.

If you're not meaning anything by what you are saying, then no bother. If you are, then usually in a conversation you would clarify your meaning if I am misundertanding you.

But if you accept what I'm saying, then we're in agreement and no need to go to the trouble.

Larry Sheldon said...

"But if you accept what I'm saying, then we're in agreement and no need to go to the trouble."

I do not, but I do accept that copithorne is incapable of following any discussion that does not follow the BDS script, so I give up.

But it does illustrate the point: the insertion of off-the-wall politics in a completely unrelated discussion does make following the inguistics and Psychology discussion Really Hard.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

One more time, just for my amusement at making analogies.

A window has been broken at the school. Many people in town think Johnny did it. They pressure the school board to suspend him. Others think there isn’t enough evidence.

One of the school board members, Mr. Pinker, writes a letter to the editor in the local paper. In it he spends a lot of time talking about what a terrible thing it is to break school windows, but only one paragraph saying why he thinks Johnny did it. He calls for Johnny’s suspension.

Long after the window has been fixed and the school year is over, the chairman of the school board wants to discuss whether Mr. Pinker should have written the letter and whether Mr. Pinker should be censured. He brings out the letter in question, and notes that the paragraph about whether it was Johnny who broke the window or not is very weak. Mr. Pinker’s evidence is that the window was broken by a baseball, and Johnny owns a baseball. Also, Johnny has a guilty look about him.

The head of the school board states that Mr. Pinker’s reasons were inadequate, and he should not have written the letter. Mr. Pinker reiterates that it’s a very bad thing to break windows, and notes again that Johnny has a guilty look. The head of the school board says those are irrelevant – what is being discussed is whether Mr. Pinker has sufficient reason to write the letter.

Mr. Copithorne breaks into the room, announcing that the results of the police investigation into the broken window are now in, and he can clear up this whole mess. The head of the school board cuts him off, saying that whichever way the investigation went is irrelevant here. Whether the police have concluded that Johnny did or didn’t do it is irrelevant for this discussion. Mr. Copithorne protests that who broke the window is far more important than whether Mr. Pinker should have written the letter.

Many people attending want to get into the discussion of the police report, and the meeting seems to be getting away from its original purpose. The head of the school board repeats that the meeting is not going to discuss the police report, or Johnny, or the general badness of broken windows. Only Mr. Pinker’s letter, and whether it was justified, are to be discussed.

Mr. Copithorne complains that the school board is avoiding the real issues.

Larry Sheldon said...

Not a bad analogy, but I differ (aside to the audience: why is nobody surprised?) in one key point.

The meeting was not about whether Mr. Pinker should have written the letter, but rather about why he chose the words he did.

And I do think it is rude, presumptive, and disruptive to capture meetings (discussions) for unrelated screeds ("highjack the thread).

(The extreme case is the fad of "protesting" irrelevant topics at funerals.)

And in a forced drift toward an earlier comment--I have begun to wonder if the BDS incident may have been perceived bigger-than-life (or something) reacted-to by people that are over-sensitized to BDS because that s all we seem to be able to read about.

I just a few minutes ago read Pinker talking about volition and one of his examples (I don't have the book at hand now, but it had to do with people not under tyranny being the best qualified to pilot their destiny--a notion with which I am in whole-hearted agreement.

And (having just reread the "analogy") I would like to shine a light on last time on the issue as I see it: That an issue is a "real issue" does not mean that it is useful to deflect every discussion to it. Some times other real issues are entitled to priority.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"That an issue is a "real issue" does not mean that it is useful to deflect every discussion to it."

Great line. Work it up in the style of some 20th C essayist (Chesteron? Orwell?) and keep it.

Larry Sheldon said...

"Work it up in the style of some..."

That's what you get the big bucks for.

Anonymous said...

Well, thanks for the integrity of replying. Maybe it is fair enough to say that I don't know what you are trying to say.

I thought we all witnessed breaking the window.

I can observe that the school board leaks resentment, judgment and insults about progressives, and "damned liberals." That is likely to lead spectators to think that a political point is being made.

If the school board wishes others to believe that their aggression is passive, it wouldn't be worthwhile to discuss it further.

Sissy Willis said...

Just as you know "elite" audiences and their allies will snicker and cheer in appreciation when performing artists mouth the required Bush bashing in their banter. Its their way of signaling to each other that they are members of the tribe.

drank said...

I think Pinker is a gem among academics because he is scrupulous about separating his factual beliefs from his normative ones. That is, if the evidence tells him that human genetics make Utopian social engineering impossible, he'll go with the evidence.

But he's still a fully paid up member of the university elite and has the beliefs to prove it. He's not telling a "lie" here; he's just displaying a minor case of BDS, and deploying some folk stories that are common in his culture to illustrate his point.

You're not part of his culture, so those stories don't ring true to you. But he could certainly have picked an equivalent anecdote about a liberal politician that you'd have agreed with.

Pinker is neither a historian nor a political scientist. I think we can rest assured that if he actually turned his formidable intellect toward the 2003 SOTU or the Vietnam war, he'd reach more nuanced conclusions about them.

Anonymous said...

I may be a little late to the party with an original thought, but here it goes.
I was quite impressed by The Blank Slate. Among other things, Pinker actually took on the dreadful inheritance from Rousseau - Man is innocent and inherently good when born and corrupted by society - that has poisoned intellectual thought for a century. He took it on, and to this reader, administered a long overdue fatal wound. Would that others read the book!

While it has been several years since I read the book, I also recall an apologetic admittance from Pinker that some of the conclusions supported conservative principles, and that he then hastened to say it wasn't true, he wasn't a conservative.

To me, it seemed that he went right to the edge of the logic, but could not accept the consequences. My interpretation was that his emotions overcame his logic because to accept the logic would mean outright ostracism within his tribe. Pinker probably would have recognized the danger of tribal ostracism. In the wild, an ostracized individual is left to die. In the wilds of Cambridge, there would be no tenure, no praise, no admiration.... in other words, left to die.

At that point, to me Pinker was an intellectual, but not a courageous intellectual. In fact, he seems to have spent a lot of time trying to prove his bona fides to his tribe. Perhaps he is overcompensating.

Or perhaps I am reading WAY too much into it. Discerning someone else's intentions is not always easy.

Sissy Willis said...

I totally agree with Carol Ward's insightful interpretation that Pinker's "emotions overcame his logic because to accept the logic would mean outright ostracism within his tribe. Pinker probably would have recognized the danger of tribal ostracism. In the wild, an ostracized individual is left to die. In the wilds of Cambridge, there would be no tenure, no praise, no admiration.... in other words, left to die."

As I wrote in the comments to my own blogpost He complained about "respect creep" last year, "gratuitous, reflexive dissing of President Bush [is] a signal of species recognition."

Anonymous said...

The answer to the title question, therefore, is:
"because everyone is lying (about Bush)"

I think Vietnam has not been enough studied, and especially 1974 after Paris but before the 1975 blitz.
Sam L., it was in 1956 under Ike that the US decided NOT to accept a democratic election of Gen. Ho Chi Minh, because he was a commie (=evil).

Ho was a commie to fight the French, who we allowed back as colonizers in Indo-China in order to get DeGaulle's support for NATO; and there was also the Suez / Israel war of 1956 that year, too.

Most Leftists have to lie to themselves.

All intelligent people are smart enough to lie to themselves, and to be believed.
~Tom Grey

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