Endarkenment now

An article in Salon by Phil Torres attempts to source and check quotes in Steven Pinker’s best-selling book released last year, Enlightenment Now: “Steven Pinker’s fake enlightenment: His book is full of misleading claims and false assertions”.

In brief, Pinker borrowed a quote from Bailey, who didn’t cite the original source and who lifted the quote from its original context to mean the opposite of what Zencey had intended. This led Zencey to confess to me, “how this guy [i.e., Pinker] managed to become a public intellectual in fields so far removed from his expertise is something to wonder at.”
If this were a single misdeed, one could perhaps forgive it. But it’s not the only error of this sort within just one page in [Enlightenment Now].

The piece goes on to examine a number of claims within a chapter of the book that covers “existential risk”. The Salon essay links to a longer, in-depth examination</em> of part of that chapter.

The present document does precisely this by dissecting individual sentences and paragraphs, and then placing them under a critical microscope for analysis. Why choose this unusual approach? Because, so far as I can tell, almost every paragraph of the chapter contains at least one misleading claim, problematic quote, false assertion, or selective presentation of the evidence.

I have mixed feelings about writers like Pinker. From results like this, it would seem to be extremely challenging to be a responsible scholar while writing books with a broad interdisciplinary scope. To be candid, it is easy for a critic who has a personal animus against an author to go through any book and find “errors” that are actually disagreements of opinion or emphasis. The more prominent the author, the more likely such critics will exist, like trolls on the internet.

From experience, I can say it is not possible to write on the internet very long without attracting critics. A scholar who makes writing public begins a conversation. Any honest scholar should have the humility to acknowledge that no research plan will turn up every relevant fact. Exposing written work to the public will bring out observations, facts, and references that a writer may have missed.

Pinker’s critics have varied axes to grind, and it’s important to examine those motivations when assessing their criticisms of his work.

But not all critics are trolls, and not all disagreements are matters of opinion. I don’t think the degree of flubs that are coming out in Pinker’s work can be explained away as inevitable results of public exposure, and I don’t think he is uniquely targeted by critics with politics that disagree with his. Any writer who aspires to have his work read by hundreds of thousands of people, whose words may influence political and business leaders, should be held to the highest standard of accuracy.

For me, the bottom line is that the kind of money harvested by Pinker’s books should support a few fact-checkers and research assistants to check the footnotes and provide additional sources.

A related thought today on Seth Godin’s blog: “The honor code”:

An honor code: The simple expectation that we trust you, that you call your own fouls, that you act honorably even if you think no one is watching…
As we think about implementing this, we need to decide between, “people are so dishonorable, it makes no sense to trust them” and, “the only way to help people become more honorable is to trust them.”

“Calling your own fouls” is an important concept to good scholarship. It requires self-examination. Likewise, a rigorous adherence the first law of holes.