On Steven Pinker’s tweet about Lawrence Bobo’s interview [repost from Facebook, June 5, 2020]

[This is a repost of my Facebook post from June 5, 2020 for easier sharing. I have not edited it, except for layout. The edit note below was an edit of the Facebook post.]

Many of you have already seen or will see the Twitter post by Steven Pinker in the screenshot (here’s the link to the post itself: https://twitter.com/sapinker/status/1268180637418164224):

— and many of you will probably be outraged by how inappropriate it is in the current circumstances. I saw it, too, in my insomniac haze this night, and then I spent a few hours doing a bit of research and writing a long-ass comment under a friend’s Facebook post on why Pinker’s post is so much worse than a simple tone-deaf failure to read the room. Below I post a slightly edited version of that comment, because I think it’s important to call out the kind of intellectual fraud Pinker engages in — and I would like for more people to see this. (And, in case you don’t know anything about Pinker or the political narrative he’s been trying to sell for a while now… well, do some googling on your own, because this post is gonna be long as it is.) So here goes:

“(…) this is much, much worse than simply failing to read the room. He misrepresents his own sources to fit his (and others’) common narrative that “Things are actually going great re racism, sexism, etc., because GRAPHS; the only real problem are the leftist snowflake SJW’s who ignore the FACTS (a.k.a. GRAPHS) and attack our FREEDOM OF SPEECH (a.k.a. freedom of people like me to say whatever the hell we want without being even mildly inconvenienced)”.

First off, the Gazette piece he links to his post does not discuss the data in the GRAPHS he posted. Like… at all. It’s an interview with Lawrence Bobo, which focuses on the roots of racism in the US. In fact, it is weird (is it, though?) that the subheading and the leading paragraph of the Gazette piece promote the idea that Bobo “sees signs of hope”, because he doesn’t actually talk all that much about “hope”. Throughout the interview, he mentions hope/optimism in two ways:

(i) hope inspired by the current protests (e.g., “I am greatly heartened by the level of mobilization and civil protests”; “I’m still optimistic that there is a lot of widely, widely shared upset and anger about this ongoing litany of unarmed minority civilians who end up suffering and dying at the hands of those who should be serving and protecting us all in an equitable way.”), and

(ii) hope that things will eventually become better, which seems to simply stem from his belief in the ultimate goodness of the human nature (e.g., “We certainly do inhabit an incredibly politically polarized moment. And it is sad, but hopefully we are nearing the nadir, the low point, of that moment, and we’ll someday see our way out of this great chasm. The saying used to be, “If you’re in a hole, the most important thing is stop digging.” Unfortunately too much of our political leadership is continuing to dig because it has been profitable for them in terms of holding onto a shrinking coalition and political power.”; “I am going to remain guardedly optimistic that hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the higher angels of our nature win out in what is a really frightening coalescence of circumstances.”).

As you can see, none of this hope has anything to do with Pinker’s cherry-picked GRAPHS. So where do the graphs come from? I don’t know for a fact (I’ve tried Google image search, but I am only getting Pinker’s post), but someone brings up this paper by Bobo et al. (2012) in the comments to Pinker’s Twitter post, which has many similar graphs: https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/bobo/files/2012_real_record_on_racial_attitudes_social_trends_in_american_life_0.pdf I have not had a chance to read the entire paper, but the authors certainly do not endorse Pinker’s narrative. For instance, the authors very clearly caution against positing “a mechanistic and invariant” relationship between overt attitudes and behavior (p. 72), they discuss implicit bias (ibid.: “For example, a prejudiced restaurant owner may face financial and legal sanctions for overtly acting on this attitude. This does not render the attitude meaningless or prevent this person from acting in an attitude-consistent fashion in more subtle, less observable ways, or in less readily monitored settings.”), and some of their points directly contradict Pinker’s simplistic narrative (e.g., p. 71: “(…) to a surprising degree, scholarly discourse mirrors the popular penchant for sweeping simplistic generalizations asserting, variously, that racism is either implacable or diminishing. We believe, first and foremost, that keeping the full record in view provides a strong corrective against oversimplification and inferential errors.”). As far as I can tell, they do not explicitly express neither optimism nor pessimism regarding racism in the US and, instead, conclude that “a core element of what might be labeled racial prejudice remains but has undergone a noteworthy qualitative shift to a more porous and potentially modifiable stance”. [I have edited and supplemented this paragraph a bit having read a bit more of the conclusions in Bobo et al. 2012.]

So, to sum up, what Pinker does is take a few graphs out of context from a paper that he knows that his target audience will not read or even look up and whose first author, Bobo, is a Black scholar, so Pinker gets to use the “Are you saying that this Black person is racist??” “argument” in response to folks trying to challenge him. And then he links an unrelated interview with the same scholar, whose subheading mentions “signs of hope”, hoping that his target audience will not read past the subheading and will connect said “signs of hope” to the GRAPHS. This is exactly the kind of fraud that other self-proclaimed “rational thinkers” — or whatever dogwhistle these people use these days — (such as, e.g., Ben Shapiro) commit. It’s conservative fast-food for wannabe “intellectuals” who are incapable of reading actual research papers or are too lazy to do so.

So, why is Pinker doing this? Is this stupidity or is this malicious intent? Or both? I don’t know for a fact (…). I do find it hard to believe that Pinker himself is incapable of reading his own sources, but I am willing to believe that he’s too eager to justify his own racism and to support his overarching narrative and that he knows damn well that to appeal to his target audience he doesn’t really need to try all that hard — which, in combination, leads to him being at the very least extremely sloppy with his sources.

Sorry for this incredibly long post (…), but I’ve been insomniac this night and completely unproductive this entire week, so here’s my weekly writing quota =) And also, I’m just so, so fed up with this narrative that Pinker and people like him have been pushing for and the fraudulent methods they’ve been using that I just couldn’t help myself. And also also, I thought that failing to point out Pinker’s deceit would be unfair towards Lawrence Bobo; I don’t know him or his research, but no one deserves to be used like this (…).”

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