On Steven Pinker and Heather Mac Donald [repost from Facebook, July 6, 2020]

Masha Esipova
8 min readJul 7, 2020

[This is a repost of my Facebook post from July 6, 2020 for easier sharing. The post was written as part of the discussion in the linguistics community sparked by the open letter to the Linguistic Society of America regarding Steven Pinker’s public statements. It was meant to be a response to some linguists who have been trying to argue that Pinker is a progressive and that his tweets have been misinterpreted. The post has not been edited.]

In response to the widely-circulated open letter to the LSA (https://docs.google.com/…/17ZqWl5grm_F5Kn_0OarY9Q2jlOnk200…/), some colleagues have been trying to defend Steven Pinker by urging us to read the articles he links in the tweets evoked in the letter for a more nuanced view. I couldn’t agree more (in fact, that’s exactly what I did before writing my earlier post about Pinker’s tweet on Lawrence Bobo, which was linked — with my permission — in that open letter), so let’s take yet another trip down this rabbit hole. Once again, this will be a long post, so here’s your tl;dr:
- Pinker’s tweet claiming that “[t]he idea that the UCSB murders are part of a pattern of hatred against women is statistically obtuse” links to a piece by Heather Mac Donald, which is an uber-misogynist, anti-feminist rant ostensibly containing very little statistical data, whose relevance for Pinker’s claim is furthermore unclear.
- Heather Mac Donald is a well-known conservative mouthpiece promoting misogynist, racist, pro-police, anti-“PC”, etc. narratives, and Pinker has publicly endorsed her and her work in the past.
- Two years ago, Mac Donald misused research by our colleague, Taylor Jones, to defend her right to say the n-word in an article that was later shared by Pinker.

Now, let’s get down to business. Point 4 of the open letter evokes this tweet by Pinker: https://twitter.com/sapinker/status/473193729927286784 The link in the tweet (https://www.nationalreview.com/…/ucsb-solipsists-heather-ma…) leads to an article that is no longer there on the ‘National Review’ website, where it was originally published — oopsie! But fear not, because I can read url names (as well as the comments under Pinker’s tweet — by the way, do read those comments, really do) — and I am bringing to you ‘The UCSB Solipsists’ by Heather Mac Donald, as re-posted on the website of the Manhattan Institute (with which Mac Donald is “affiliated”): https://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/ucsb-solipsists-4898.html

So, what are the statistics in this beautifully researched piece of writing, which presumably prompted Pinker’s “statistically obtuse” comment? Where are the GRAPHS? The only overtly discussed numbers come at the very beginning; Mac Donald writes, “Over 77 percent of all U.S. murder victims in 2012 were male; targets of non-lethal shootings are even more disproportionately male. Four of the six homicide victims of Elliot Rodger, the lunatic narcissist who went on a killing spree in Santa Barbara in revenge for female rejection, were male. And yet the feminist industry immediately turned this heartbreaking bloodbath into a symbol of America’s war on women.” Now, the first sentence does indeed contain two statistical claims (the second sentence contains none, in case you’ve been wondering). I don’t know what Mac Donald’s sources for these factoids are — I suspect the original version of the article contained hyperlinks, but the version on the Manhattan Institute website doesn’t — but I’m happy to assume both are true. So what? How on earth does the fact that men are killed and shot more often than women show that “[t]he idea that the UCSB murders are part of a pattern of hatred against women is statistically obtuse”? How does it follow that Elliot Rodger’s ideology (which he himself documented in great detail) is not a product of systemic misogyny? Sadly, Mac Donald’s piece provides no further reasoning, so I guess I’ll never know. (To be clear, it is possible that some parts of her original article contained more hyperlinks to more data, e.g., this claim here, “it is boys, not girls, who are falling further and further behind academically and socially” — but once again, no actual reasoning is provided that would connect these data to the conclusion in Pinker’s tweet.)

But the article doesn’t end there, does it? It continues as an all-too-familiar misogynist and anti-feminist rant. The entire piece is a gem — and I implore you, go read it in its entirety, seriously, it’s shorter than most of my Facebook posts, and it’s hilarious(ly awful) — but here’s a quick summary for you of some of Mac Donald’s points, with quotes:
- Elliot Rodger isn’t misogynist, he’s just crazy, and them crazy people are to blame for all the violence: “There is no pattern of gender-based rampages in this country; there is an emerging pattern of rampages by the untreated mentally ill.”
- In fact, there is no misogyny in our society at all: “…ours is a culture obsessed with promoting and celebrating female success.”
- Ladies, if you are dealing with harassment, just laugh it off (you are not being murdered, after all) — and then praise God that you are not in one of them shithole countries: “Here’s a suggestion to offended females: Laugh off such crude manifestations of the unconstrained male sex drive, then put them in perspective. Go to Afghanistan, India, or Nigeria if you want to combat sexual inequality. But don’t pretend that as a gender-studies student in the academic hothouse, you are a brave victim fighting against your own oppression and that of the American sisterhood.”
- Speaking of shithole countries: “This portrait of a public realm filled with leering, grasping men may have described 1950s Italy and perhaps some Latin American countries today, but it bears no resemblance to contemporary America.”
- Women wear make-up and heels and all, so they want to be objectified: “As for the hoary claim that men treat women as sex objects (…), I’ll feel the injustice of that when I see women trade their stiletto heels and tight skirts for sober business suits that reveal as little of their skin and shape as a man’s suit.”
- Universities and feminists promote promiscuity, which is why men like Rodger feel entitled to sex: “Do other college-age males feel themselves entitled to sex? When campus administrators hand out tips for better orgasms and on the use of sex toys, it would not be surprising if they did. And the pro-promiscuity feminists have been behind that campus sex-promotion crusade 100 percent.” (Wait, was this “100 percent” claim meant to be another bit of those elusive statistics? I want GRAPHS on this one.)
- All lives matter: “By all means, let us try to “end violence against women,” as the feminists say. But unless those feminists intend to fully resurrect the Victorian understanding of women as deserving special solicitude by virtue of their maternal calling and delicate sensibilities, we should also be trying to end violence against men.”

Yep, that’s Pinker’s source, y’all.

By the way, does the name Heather Mac Donald ring a bell? Well, here’s the wiki page about this brave anti-feminist, anti-“PC”, and pro-police warrior: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heather_Mac_Donald And here’s a list of her other articles for ‘National Review’: https://www.nationalreview.com/author/heather-mac-donald/ (still not sure why they removed that piece about “solipsists”, it fits right in with the rest of her writings). I hope this gives you an idea of her oeuvre. And now I’ll give you a taste of Pinker’s further connection to Mac Donald.

Among other things, Mac Donald is the author of the book ‘The Diversity Delusion’, for which Steven Pinker wrote a praiseful blurb, which can be found, along with the other blurbs from many fantastic thinkers of our time here: https://www.manhattan-institute.org/diversity-delusion Full disclosure, I have not read this book, nor do I intend to. I am well familiar with Mac Donald’s narrative and that of her supporters as is, and I don’t need another — book-length! — rant about “PC culture” on college campuses. But maybe you should go ahead and read this book — after all, its author and her “spitfire writing” and “scorn for nonsense” (of which we have gotten a glimpse above) are endorsed by Steven Pinker, who says: “Universities justify their privileged position by claiming to be forums for the promotion of clarity, logic, and evidence. Yet their own policies, affecting millions, are too often defended with factual howlers, logical non sequiturs and mindless boilerplate. Heather Mac Donald may not persuade you on every point, but with her spitfire writing and scorn for nonsense she is forcing universities to live up to their own principles.” It’s almost as if he’s being ironic here, as “factual howlers, logical non sequiturs and mindless boilerplate” is how I would describe Mac Donald’s writings — but I am afraid he isn’t.

And to wrap it up, here’s a blog post, by our colleague Dr. Taylor Jones, who, unfortunately, I don’t know personally, but I imagine some of you do: https://www.languagejones.com/blog-1/…/8/9/quillette-is-dumb I strongly recommend that you read Jones’ post in its entirety, but the quick summary is that Mac Donald misused Jones’ research to defend her right to say the n-word in an article that was later shared by… you guessed it, Pinker (Jones’ post doesn’t contain the link to Pinker’s tweet, so here it is: https://twitter.com/sapinker/status/1027208541587816448). In the post, Jones provides the context for the incident, debunks the relevant paragraph from Mac Donald’s piece line by line, and summarizes the experience as follows, “You’ve [you = Mac Donald] cherry picked a line from my research that isn’t actually applicable to your argument in the hopes that my academic reputation will somehow add a veneer of respectability to your weak reasoning.” Mac Donald’s behavior is despicable, but she is not an academic (the Manhattan Institute is not an academic institution, in case you didn’t know: https://en.wikipedia.org/…/Manhattan_Institute_for_Policy_R…). Pinker, however, is one, and he used his platform of a public academic to promote an article that misused research by a junior colleague. In fact, he drew attention to linguistics in the tweet itself by preceding the link to Mac Donald’s article with the following introduction, “The first insight of linguistics, going back to Plato, is that words are conventions, without magical powers. That’s being nullified by PC/SJW attacks on mentioning taboo words, even ironically or in works of art.” If this is not academic malpractice, I don’t know what is.

Once again, you don’t have to agree with all the points of that open letter to the LSA — or with the practice of writing/signing open letters as such. But let’s stop pretending Pinker is a progressive who just likes himself a bit of data. Steven Pinker has been legitimizing (an occasionally toned-down version of) the alt-right discourse from his platform as a public academic, and he doesn’t care about the quality of his sources as long as they fit his own narrative — to the point where he is willing to amplify voices that misrepresent linguistics research. You can defend his right to do so as much as you like, but please be honest about what it is that you are defending.

P.S. Optional reading for those who want to know a bit more about the connection between the rhetoric of academics like Pinker and Peterson and the alt-right: https://www.opendemocracy.net/…/steven-pinker-jordan-peter…/