Along with being Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, Steven Pinker is identified on Wikipedia as a cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. All pretty impressive and even fairly broad in terms of his areas of expertise.
I have used Pinker’s work in linguistics for many years, especially as I teach future English teachers and try to combat prescriptive approaches to grammar, mechanics, and usage.
Among my colleagues and friends in linguistics and English, however, we are apt to use Pinker’s theories of language—framing language as biological and building on the work of Noam Chomsky—as a point of debate. In other words, even though Pinker is regarded as a leading figure in his primary field, many credible arguments remain about his claims.
Steven Pinker is at it again. Several years ago, the Harvard-based cognitive psychologist took time off regular duties to offer some gratuitous advice to humanities scholars about how to “fix” their discipline….
The Enlightenment may seem an ambitious topic for a cognitive psychologist to take up from scratch. Numerous historians have dedicated entire careers to it, and there remains a considerable diversity of opinion about what it was and what its impact has been. But from this and previous work we get intimations of why Pinker thinks he is the person for the job. Historians have laboured under the misapprehension that the key figures of the Enlightenment were mostly philosophers of one stripe or another. Pinker has made the anachronistic determination that, in fact, they were all really scientists – indeed, “cognitive neuroscientists” and “evolutionary psychologists.”
In short, he thinks that they are people like him and that he is thus possessed of privileged insights into their thought denied to mere historians. The latter must resort to careful reading and fraught interpretation in lieu of being able directly to channel what Enlightenment thinkers really thought.
Despite his recognized brilliance and accomplishments, Pinker—like a cognitive scientist and psychologist writing entire books on teaching reading—has fallen victim to reaching beyond ones area of expertise and treating an entire field as if those experts do not exist. Further, as the review unpacks, Pinker appears to suffer from a narcissism that spurs projection: I am great, therefore, let me find myself in the greatness that has come before me.
Pinker, then, represents a serious problem that confronts all of us: How to stop living by what you think and start living by what you know.
From the White House to the New York Times Opinion page to friends on Facebook, we are under constant assault by stuff people think are facts, although too often they are ultimately false.
In some cases, sharing and then living by misinformation are mostly just annoying, but the gun debate represents how this tension has real life-and-death consequences—too often for children, who have almost no political power.
For example, we must consider how fearmongering has kept the US focused on only one type of the slippery-slope argument—gun control = all guns will be taken away—while forcing us to live in another unexpressed slippery-slope reality—gun culture = inordinate mass shootings and perpetual gun violence.
My primary areas of expertise—in terms of my educational background, teaching experiences, and scholarship—are literacy, poverty, and race, the latter two mostly as related to education; although, much of that expertise has come from intense study built on my formal degrees. Since mass shootings have been all-too-common in schools, I have spent some of my scholarly and public work addressing gun control—recognizing that I, like Pinker, am stepping outside my field in some respects.
The shooting in Parkland, Florida has spurred another round of my public work calling for evidence-based approaches to ending our self-defeating gun culture in the US.
Debating gun control for me is doubly dangerous because it is outside my field and I am very passionate about the topic.
Since I engage in the gun debate on social media, I have been confronted by some very frustrating pro-gun or anti-gun control arguments that simply are not credible: pointing a finger at mental illness, arguing that gangs and black-on-black crime explain the gun violence problem in the U.S., imposing the mainstream slippery-slope argument that gun control means taking away all guns from everyone, refusing to acknowledge international comparisons that highlight the unique problems with guns and gun violence in the US, invoking the lack of God in school or society, blaming violence on violent pop culture (movies, video games, music), etc.
Although I am aware that evidence is not as effective as I would hope when debating topics with people who are more committed to what they think (and believe) than to what they know, I work diligently (and like a scholar, seeking bodies of research) to find the argument and evidence that will help others move to informed positions.
I want to share here just one part of that journey recently for me, a moment when I really could have made a serious mistake if I hadn’t checked myself when I had an idea, checked myself by realizing, well, it’s complicated.
Most arguments about violence are lazy and rushed, typically overstating the amount and threat of violence in the now of the debate, lacking as many debates do some historical context (a real go-to for me).
To combat the “violence today” arguments (violent pop culture, gangs, black-on-black crime, lack of God), I considered making a Wild West analogy, which on its surface seemed very compelling and obvious in terms of how violent I assumed the Wild West to have been.
Until I checked myself with “well, it’s complicated.”
Luckily, I first did a quick google search and found a 2014 article by Glenn Kessler on Rick Santorum bumbling, yep, a Wild West analogy:
The Hollywood version of the Wild West is at the core of this exchange on Face the Nation, so perhaps it’s time for a history lesson. One-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum asserted that gun crimes were low back then because people had the right to carry guns. But he actually has the story backward.
The Wild West as a matter of history doesn’t square with the Wild West of Hollywood:
“Carrying of guns within the city limits of a frontier town was generally prohibited. Laws barring people from carrying weapons were commonplace, from Dodge City to Tombstone,” said Adam Winkler, a professor at UCLA’s School of Law and author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. “When Dodge City residents first formed their municipal government, one of the very first laws enacted was a ban on concealed carry. The ban was soon after expanded to open carry, too. The Hollywood image of the gunslinger marching through town with two Colts on his hips is just that — a Hollywood image, created for its dramatic effect.”
Gun control, I discovered, goes back to the so-called Founding Fathers, in fact, as historian Saul Cornell explains:
I have been researching and writing about the history of gun regulation and the Second Amendment for the past two decades. When I began this research, most people assumed that regulation was a relatively recent phenomenon, something associated with the rise of big government in the modern era. Actually, while the founding generation certainly esteemed the idea of an armed population, they were also ardent supporters of gun regulations.
And just how violent the Wild West was, it turns out, is much like the debates my colleagues and I have about Pinker’s linguistics; it’s complicated, as Kessler explains in the Santorum article:
…“Gun homicides were far more rare than Americans have been led to believe,” [UCLA School of Law professor, Winkler] said. “Most frontier towns had fewer than two homicides a year during the heyday of the Old West. Yet that is not inconsistent with Roth’s research. The homicide rate was high in these towns because the population was very small. Even one murder in a town with only a few dozen residents leads to a high homicide rate. These towns were violent, but not nearly as violent as some imagine.”
In other words, no matter how one looks at the research, Santorum has his history incorrect. People did not walk around town carrying guns—but the homicide rate was unusually high.
When we take our time and consider the history of gun violence and gun control, we discover, well, it’s complicated.
What I discovered is not a new or powerful analogy* (thanks to Santorum’s very public bumbling), but a way to check ourselves when we are not sure if we are debating or living by what we think instead of what we know.
The amount of guns and access to guns in the U.S. are essential elements in why the U.S. sits below average for crime rates but is a extreme outlier in gun homicides and violence (see #2 here).
But even with those facts, well, it’s complicated, as Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober, both sociologists, explain:
A great deal of commentary attempts to tie mass shootings to a single issue. Often, that seems like the easiest way to make sense of atrocities. That’s why we get sound bites that lean on mental health (when shooters are white), terrorist ties and affiliations (when shooters are brown), gang violence and “urban decay” (when shooters are black), bullying (when it happens in a school), and overwork (when it happens in a workplace).
The truth cannot be boiled down to any single issue. As sociologists, we can look to the bigger picture, point out patterns, and identify common denominators. Our research suggests that gun control is, indeed, an important piece of the problem. But in order to understand the factors behind America’s mass shootings, it is also critical to consider the relationship between masculinity and violence.
Scholars who study masculinity and mass shootings have consistently drawn attention to the fact that mass shootings are not only a uniquely American social problem; they are a problem with American men. We’ve argued before that there are two questions that require explanation related to gender and mass shootings. First, why is it that men commit virtually all mass shootings? And second, why do American men commit mass shootings more than men anywhere else in the world?
Adding to this, Jennifer Wright explains:
In many of these mass shootings, the desire to kill seems to be driven by a catastrophic sense of male entitlement. In some cases, the perpetrators seemed to feel that if people did not give them precisely what they wanted, then those people did not deserve to live. The only just world, in their minds, was a world they were the center of….
A great many mass murderers have a history of domestic violence. They range from Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub shooting, whose ex-wife claimed he took her paychecks, forbade her from leaving the house and beat her if she did not live up to what he perceived as being her duties; to Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood Clinic and had been accused of domestic violence by two of his three ex-wives.
With a historical, and checked, perspective, and a bit more care than most public and political debate allow, then, we can begin to construct a vivid and accurate picture of why the U.S. suffers so much gun violence and so many mass shootings.
And while, well, it’s complicated, we can safely say that the amount of guns, access to guns, a climate of toxic masculinity, and identifiable behaviors such as domestic violence provide a nearly complete puzzle that can provide a context for not only a productive debate, but also actions that a free people can take in the name of human safety.
The gun debate itself is complicated, but that sits against the simple fact that children slaughtered at school or dozens mowed down at an outdoor concert is not complicated but inexcusable in a free society.
The gun debate and innocent lives implore us to stop living by what we think and start living by what we know.