Story time! In 1999 or so, your correspondent (me) was in college and went to see a linguist named Steven Pinker speak. His talk was about linguistics and evolution (I think). It was very interesting and Pinker seemed to your correspondent (me—the correspondent is still me) like the smartest person in the world, particularly for the way he responded immediately to audience questions about essentially random topics with comprehensive, example-laden answers. But it’s apparently been downhill for him intellectually ever since, if this excerpt from a New York Times review of his new book Rationality is any indication:
The words written by Pinker in an actual published book, to be clear, are “Rationality is uncool,” and then a short time later, referring to a slogan on a mosaic near his home, “Though I cannot argue that reason is dope, phat, chill, fly, sick, or da bomb, and strictly speaking I cannot even justify or rationalize reason, I will defend the message on the mosaic: we ought to follow reason.” Wow! It’s funny, because we were just talking about the 1990s, and that grab bag of slang would have been cringey even then.
There is a lesson here. Well, there are two. The first lesson is just “no.” The second is about what happens to you when you go from being an actual public intellectual—a smart, scholarly person who writes books and speaks in public about complicated subjects in a way that laypeople can understand—to a modern public intellectual, who is someone who does paid speeches and panel appearances for business-oriented upper-middle- and upper-class audiences. (Pinker is pictured above at Ozy Fest, a celebration of upward mobility through panel discussions which was put on by a media startup that might, according to a detailed and hilarious new report in the New York Times, be a complete and total fraud.) What these audiences are paying for is content that both signifies intelligence and helps them justify and advance their own goals, which tend to involve starting, running, or making investments in, let’s say, “Uber for the paper towel supply chain.” (I just made $40 million!)
The former kind of intellectual is, in a nutshell, trying to figure out how the world works and to improve it. That person gets paid like an academic and highbrow author. The latter is producing self-help and reassurance content for wealthy people, and gets paid like a celebrity. You can imagine what kind of effects these incentives would have on anyone, particularly someone like Pinker, who was already being criticized relatively early in his career for, more or less, using fancy-sounding science talk to justify the status quo. It’s how you end up writing a book celebrating “rationality” in 2021 despite having already written one celebrating “the case for reason” in 2018, for example. When your appetite for money and attention outpaces the freshness of your insights, you can always say the same thing again, or even say something that doesn’t make any sense at all.
Which brings us to Pinker’s subject in the passage above: the perceived way in which rationality has been disrespected in the modern era. If it’s not clear from the “joke,” which I guess is that the words a young person might have used in 1993 demonstrate an inherent unseriousness, he thinks reason has been regrettably subjugated to concerns regarding structural inequality and racism. (What he specifically says is that “fashionable academic movements like postmodernism and critical theory … hold that reason, truth, and objectivity are social constructions that justify the privilege of dominant groups,” which is a claim too risibly broad to go into here.) This subject has been an interest of Pinker’s for some time. As a Brandeis professor named Joel Christensen put it in 2019, he is part of “a cadre of older, mostly white male academics”—there are a lot of white ex–magazine journalists in the cadre too—who have created an entire thriving industry out of defending “free speech,” both as a social norm and as the supposed engine of human progress, against such purported enemies as identity politics, political correctness, and critical pessimism in general.
There’s a lot of gold in those hills, but on the other hand, look what it does to your writing! Yikes. (To be clear, I do not mean to imply that everything a leftist academic says online is accurate, insightful, or not ridiculous. I do mean to imply that making fun of the phrase “da bomb” in 2021 is a depressing way to pay your mortgage.)