Saturday, October 07, 2006

Pinker vs. Lakoff   posted by Razib @ 10/07/2006 01:51:00 PM

Update: Yo slutz, listen up here, a pro is in the house. Chris of Mixing Memory starts:
I don't really know where to start on this. Lakoff's reply is one of the most intellectually dishonest pieces of writing I've seen from a cognitive scientist, and if anyone other than Lakoff had written it, I'd probably just ignore it. But Lakoff is not only famous, he's influential, and more than a few liberal bloggers take him seriously. So I feel compelled to say something. I guess the best way to go about this is to detail their disagreements, and show where Lakoff sinks to all new lows in defense of his position.

Read the whole thing & call 911, someone's been smacked down!
End Update

A week ago I posted about Steven Pinker's recent TNR essay slamming George Lakoff. Lakoff now has a rebuttal up. In the interests of comparison both the essays are below, next to each other.

A few points:

1) I'm not a "progressive." No matter the reality of the science when I've read Lakoff's work (e.g., Moral Politics) I get the sense his goal is to tell liberals how non-liberals think, and why they think it, and implicitly, where their thinking goes wrong. There's a patronizing and condescending tone to it which is off putting. But fine, science isn't always there to confirm one's own self perception. Pinker is spot on when he says:
The problem with this burlesque is not that its targets don't deserve criticism. It's that it will backfire with all of its potential audiences. Any of his Lakoff's allies on the left who think that their opponents are such imbeciles will have their clocks cleaned in their first debate with a Young Republican. The book will be red meat for his foes on the right, who can hold up his distortions as proof of liberals' insularity and incomprehension. And the people in the center that he really wants to reach will be turned off by his relentless self-congratulation, his unconcealed condescension, and his shameless caricaturing of beliefs with which they might have a modicum of sympathy.

As a right-winger I have enjoyed many a conversation where I've shocked and thrashed innocent liberals who have never talked to a real conservative. I'm not much of a conservative, but I don't bow to the same Gods as most liberals so my opinions can be quite blasphemous and disconcerting. Lakoff's work doesn't seem to help. What's the point of science if you can't predict?

2) In Lakoff's response there is a lot specific detail about cognitive science literature which I find hard to follow. But, my impression is Lakoff is really overselling the impact of his brand of cognitive linguistics. Also, I am 100% sure that Pinker has little issue with many of the thinkers cited in the beginning of Lakoff's essay to rebbut Pinker's conception of "how the mind works" (e.g., Kahneman and Tversky). In other words, I think Lakoff is caricaturing to a great extent what he terms the "old model" in cognitive science, nor do I think he is painting Pinker's own position fairly (though Lakoff claims the inverse as well).

3) This is classic Lakoff, and part of the problem:
1. He is threatened and is being nasty and underhanded -- trying to survive by gaining competitive advantage any way he can.

2. He is thinking in terms of old frames that do not permit him to understand new ideas and facts that do not fit his frames. Since he can only understand what I am saying in terms of his old frames, he can only make sense of what I am saying as being nonsense -- the opposite of what I actually say. That is, since the facts of what I am saying don't fit his frames, his frames stay and the facts are adjusted to fit his frames.

I guess Lakoff is saying that it is impossible for Pinker to understand him (or Pinker is an underhanded dastardly devil!). That's fine, but where do we go from here George? I mean, if he publishes in peer reviewed journals is it essential that only people with the correct frames see his work?

Let's hope some real cognitive scientists comment soon.

Read both essays.