Steven Pinker’s new book

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Just noticed that Amazon is taking pre-orders for The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, Steve Pinker’s latest. His website states that Pinker will start his book tour on the publication date listed on Amazon, a little over 3 months from now, so that seems sufficient confirmation. Here is Steven Pinker on The Stuff of Thought from his 10 Questions last year:

(10) Most GNXP readers probably know you for The Blank Slate and your work as a public intellectual. However, your next book (entitled The Stuff of Thought) returns to the themes of language and cognitive science. Now, as you may or may not know, GNXP readers are interested in genetics and evolution; politics, religion, and world affairs; and the past, present, and future of the human species. What can you tell us about your upcoming book that might whet the appetites of GNXP readers?

The subtitle of the book is “Language as a Window Into Human Nature,” and The Stuff of Thought deals with many aspects of human cognitive and social evolution–how a mind that evolved to think about rocks and plants and enemies can invent physics and math and democracy; why people impose taboos on topics like sex and excretion and the divine; why they threaten and bribe and seduce in such byzantine ways. I also discuss many real-world applications of semantics–words that have impeached one president and that many feel should impeach another; language that continues to embroil the Middle East; whether Democrats can win back the White House by winning the metaphor wars; whether language traps us in a self-referential circle (as the postmodernists believe) or offers us contact with truth and reality.

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18 Comments

  1. Steve Pinker’s description of the topics he deals with sure is breathtakingly ambitious and fascinating. Based on reading the Blank Slate and articles of his here and there I tend to think he’ll be able to marshall real evidence behind his conclusions and speculations in these areas.  
     
    Looks like lots of fun. 
     
    If Pinker pulls this off well, he’s gonna emerge as current cognitive overview guy, or public intellectual, numero uno, isn’t he? Who else?

  2. A bit of a wimp on race, unless it involves saying the Jews are smarter than everybody.

  3. Pinker… a bit of a wimp on race, unless it involves the Jews. 
     
    did you see q & a #8 or his response to the edge annual question?

  4. Yes I heard his response to the edge question, in a long interview with some guy I can’t recall. He said that it was a possibility, but was uncommitted when pressed further, rambling on ‘we don’t know what’ll happen’, and actually said ‘there may indeed turn out to be no differences.’ Riiiiiight Steven, like you really believe that.  
     
    He knows the Truth, but unlike Sailer, Jensen, Rushton etc, is unwilling to commit, probably because he won’t be invited to all the elite dinner parties anymore. Like Dawkins and Hitchens he picks out the easy targets (religion, postmodernism), but via silence maintains the race-creationist myths. 
     
    There’s a word for somebody who knows the truth but pretends he doesn’t – a coward.

  5.  
    There’s a word for somebody who knows the truth but pretends he doesn’t – a coward.
     
     
    sure, that is not something i can contradict on the facts as they are, but the context is important: at least we have someone at the elite dinner parties!

  6. OK, he’s useful I guess. But it just annoys me considering the s**t all other messengers have had to put up with, while Pinker maintains his easy neutrality. Kinda like this.

  7. obviously replace ‘Triassic period’ with the last 10,000 years.

  8. Cuch/Razib:  
     
    I guess I don’t see it as cowardice to say “This creepy thing is a possibility, but I don’t know it’s really true” when you don’t really know.  
     
    Think of the Jensen/Rushton paper from a couple years ago. They made it pretty clear that they didn’t think there was enough evidence to be sure that the black/white IQ difference was genetic, though they made what they thought was the best argument for that claim based on the available evidence. It seems to me that at the end of that paper, you had a pretty good idea which way to bet, but not certainty. So it seems okay to me to go from that state to saying “This may be true, there’s some evidence to support it, but I don’t know it’s true.”

  9.  
    I guess I don’t see it as cowardice to say “This creepy thing is a possibility, but I don’t know it’s really true” when you don’t really know.
     
     
    it all depends on pinker’s state of mind. since i’m not a telepath i’ll withdraw from concurring with aspersions toward his character. no point is psychoanalyzing him further.

  10. A bit of a wimp on race 
     
    I remember reading in a book review of the Blank Slate that Pinker left the more controversial stuff out at the request of his editor and/or publisher. Of course he could just be hiding behind that. 
     
    Although that was before I read the book. In the book I was a little miffed that he uncritically used Jared Diamond’s theories (we don’t need race because geography explains everything), if I recall correctly.

  11. Like Dawkins and Hitchens he picks out the easy targets (religion, postmodernism),  
     
    Well, he did take on the issue of gender differences pretty forcefully and received considerable flack for his effort. He seems to be going at it incrementally, tackling first the blank state/SSSM, then further on gender and some aspects of race such as the ashkenazi IQ, testing the waters as it were. It is a fine line between being a coward and being tactical.  
     
    Anyway, I’m looking forward to Pinker writing more about language and its relation to cognitive science. The blank slate and its related issues are important but that mostly seems to be pointing out what is right under people’s nose, his treatments of language/psycholinguistcs seem to have much more analytic depth and insight.

  12.  
     
    I remember reading in a book review of the Blank Slate that Pinker left the more controversial stuff out at the request of his editor and/or publisher
     
     
    he denied this when inquired.

  13. Sorry, it seems I was misinformed. Pinker wrote a letter to correct the review I read, which I obviously missed. 
     
    In his thoughtful review of my book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Nature Trumps Nurture, Scientist-Provocateur Says — Oct. 5),Patrick Watson inadvertently repeated an erroneous British report that my publisher had persuaded me to delete a chapter on race. 
     
    Later in Pinker’s letter… 
     
    The conclusions are that we do not need to appeal to genetics to explain current racial differences in behaviour.

  14. Oddly enough the link doesn’t allow you the full text although it did when I went to the article directly from Google. 
     
    Here is the full letter then. 
     
    *************** 
     
    Chapter not deleted 
     
    STEVEN PINKER 
     
    October 8, 2002 
     
    Cambridge, Mass. — In his thoughtful review of my book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (Nature Trumps Nurture, Scientist-Provocateur Says — Oct. 5),Patrick Watson inadvertently repeated an erroneous British report that my publisher had persuaded me to delete a chapter on race. 
     
    Coming after a discussion of Philippe Rushton’s claim that racial differences in behaviour are innate, this gives the impression that I endorsed such claims but suppressed the chapter to avoid controversy. 
     
    In fact, I merely decided (among the hundreds of other editorial changes in the final draft) to move my conclusions on race to a chapter on inequality. The conclusions are that we do not need to appeal to genetics to explain current racial differences in behaviour. 
     
    Although I disagree with Mr. Rushton’s conclusions, I agree with Mr. Watson that the attempts to intimidate and censor him are deplorable. 
     
    Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  15. it seems okay to me to go from that state to saying “This may be true, there’s some evidence to support it, but I don’t know it’s true.” 
     
    Do you not think it’s slightly disingenuous of him to hold forth the possibility of no differences? Given that he has already agreed the Jews evolved a 1SD higher IQ in a mere 1,000 years, how can he possibly believe that there are no differences between groups seperated by much greater time periods and geographical distances? Either he’s lying or not as smart as he seems.  
     
    As for the tactical argument – I’m skeptical. It takes a very thick skin to actually come out on this subject, and I think Pinker is too wired in to the eliteosphere to go that far, he has too much to lose, and (possibly) doesn’t have the cojones required to be an outcast. He’s too ‘popular’, and like Bruce Lahn is clearly moving toward ‘safer’ subject matters.  
     
    As for ‘testing the waters’ with the Ashkenazi paper, I wonder. The eliteosphere seems to believe that saying Jews are smarter than everyone is ok, but saying whites are smarter than blacks etc is completely beyond the pale. Sheer double standards and borderline racism allowed the Ashkenazi paper to be brought to the public eye, and I think Pinker only jumped on the bandwagon after the Economist and NYT blazed the trail.

  16. Cuch: 
     
    Maybe I’m being unkind here, but I think the reason it’s okay to say “X are superior” (for X != white males) but not “Y are inferior” is because most people don’t understand how averages work enough to really get that if X have a higher average score, that means that not X have a lower average score. I’ve seen otherwise pretty bright people stumble on this, even though it’s obvious when you’re thinking in terms of math. I think most people think about this stuff in words, with no connection to mathematical descriptions. This is behind silly stuff like “but women can’t be weaker than men on average, because I know a female bodybuilder who could kick my ass”.  
     
    I think saying “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer when you don’t know. I’d say that it’s implausible there are no differences, but conceivable that there are no important differences. What important differences are there between people of German and Irish descent? A hundred years ago, it sure looked like there were very big and important differences; now, it doesn’t. But like Razib, I don’t know what he thinks. He’s surely able to read the available literature a lot more easily than I am, and his opinion is inevitably going to be more informed.

  17. What important differences are there between people of German and Irish descent? Depends on whether you’re a Pole.

  18. Given that he has already agreed the Jews evolved a 1SD higher IQ in a mere 1,000 years, 
     
    i don’t think he believes in the hypothesis as a matter of fact, but as a matter of plausibility, and an issue that needs to be mooted. greg & henry themselves are asking people to test aspects, so it isn’t like this is solid ground.

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