Something about the Pinker Cancellation seems Suspicious

Something about the recent attempt to cancel Steve Pinker seems really off.

They problem is that the argument is suspiciously bad. The open letter presents only six real pieces of evidence, and they’re all really, trivially weak.

The left isn’t incompetent when it comes to tallying up crimes for a show trial. In fact, they’re pretty good at it. But for some reason this letter has only the weakest of attacks, and what’s more, it stops at only six “relevant occasions”. For comparison, take a look at this similar attack on Stephen Hsu which has, to put it mildly, more than six pieces of evidence. There is plenty of reasonable criticism of Pinker out there. Why didn’t they use any of it?

Pinker has been a public figure for decades. Surely he has said something stupid and offensive at least once during that time. If not something honestly offensive, perhaps a slip of the tongue. If not a slip of the tongue, maybe something that sounds really terrible out of context.

We know that the authors of the piece are not above misrepresenting the evidence or taking statements out of context, because they do so multiple times in their letter. It’s clear that they spent a lot of effort stretching the evidence to make Pinker look as bad as possible. Why didn’t they spend that effort finding more damning evidence, things that look worse when taken out of context? Just as one example, this debate could easily be mined for quotes that sound sexist or racist to a moderately progressive reader. How about, “in all cultures men and women are seen as having different natures.”

Even when they do have better ammunition, they seem to downplay it. The most egregious statement they include from Pinker is hidden in a footnote!

They also pick a very strange target. Attacking Pinker’s status as an LSA fellow and a media expert doesn’t pose that much of a threat to him; he just doesn’t have that much to lose here. Why are they bringing this to the LSA rather than to Pinker’s publisher? Why are they not trying to get him fired from Harvard? It’s not as though the left has never tried to get a professor cancelled before.


So I wonder if this was never a serious attempt at a cancellation.

It doesn’t seem likely to succeed; if it did, it wouldn’t hurt Pinker very much at all. Scott Aaronson makes a similar point:

OK, I mused, how many people have even heard of the Linguistics Society of America, compared to the number who’ve heard of Pinker or read his books? If the LSA expelled Pinker, wouldn’t they be forever known to the world only as the organization that had done that?

Also suspicious is the lack of clear support for the letter. Certainly there are some real supporters, but we also know that many of the signatures were forged; perhaps most of them. It’s hard to tell if there was ever any momentum behind this thing. And who wrote it? You’ll notice that there are no authors listed. This twitter user says things that seem consistent with being an original author, but never specifically says that they were involved in writing it, and I can’t find even a hint of any other possible author.

So what is going on here? It could be a genuine letter, but the data are equally consistent with other theories; I can think of three. As always, to fathom a strange plot, ask who it benefits.

Scott Aaronsonbegins his post on the subject by mentioning that it would be a good time for liberals and progressives to get along. Certainly this letter does seem to have provoked some infighting between liberals and progressives. It seems to have wasted the time and energy of many prominent liberal intellectuals. This ‘debate’ would surely benefit anyone who wanted to set the left against itself or who wanted to make academics unproductively run in circles, perhaps the Russians or some conservative group. The main strike against this theory is that the LSA letter is so weak. Certainly a conservative would be happy to see Pinker taken down as well, and might have made the letter stronger.

Second, the letter could be an attack by one section of the left against another. People have noted that it certainly makes progressives and cancel culture look ridiculous. “Some wondered if this open letter,” wrote Pinker, “is a satire of woke outrage culture.” He goes on to say that, “Cancel Culture has entered its decadent phase.” If you wanted to make a mockery of progressives in general and cancel culture in particular, you could hardly do better than releasing a toothless open letter like this one. It’s also interesting how the Harper’s Magazine statement was composed before the LSA letter, but came out just a few days after it. It’s rather convenient.

Finally, and most outlandish: it’s possible that Pinker arranged for this letter himself. If you were worried about getting cancelled, you could arrange for a very weak case for cancellation to be made against you. Probably you would try to cancel yourself in a way that, if it actually went through, wouldn’t hurt you all that much. The attempt inevitably fails, but in the process you gain a good deal of sympathy. Any attempts to cancel you in the future are met with scorn. This again? We have already been over this once, stop trying to cancel the poor man. Think of it almost like a vaccination—people are exposed to a weak argument that trains them tomdiscard a stronger one.

Granted, I don’t think that Pinker is Machiavellian enough to do this. This kind of play seems beneath his dignity, and he doesn’t have much to fear from cancel culture to begin with. But it is consistent with all the data.

One way to look into this further would be to try to find the authors of the original letter; if anyone can find information on them, I would be very interested to hear about it.


EDIT: Kerry in the comments adds:

Perhaps it was a plan by him and others to send the debate in a specific direction that they could more easily address … Pinker seems by far the person with the most to gain from it (and the most to lose from not trying to preempt it.) It would almost certainly involve cooperation by others who want to see if the technique works and think Pinker is a good trial balloon (his steady, optimistic personality is ideal for this, and he has prominent detractors rising to his defense, which gives momentum), but it wouldn’t work without his active participation.

Kerry also identified more evidence in the form of an article by Matt Taibbi (full article paywalled here, excerpt here), particularly:

“When I reached out to the group’s listed email, they declined comment” (citing fear of threats, in a short and vague response.)
“The campaign seems to have failed, as it doesn’t appear the LSA is planning on taking action.” (Why did it die out without any further info?)
“Pinker didn’t see this exact campaign coming, as ‘I don’t consider myself a political provocateur, and I’m a mainstream liberal Democrat.’ However, he says, ‘over the years I’ve realized I have some vulnerabilities.’ …By way of explaining, he referenced [the SSC controversy]...”

All this appears to make the idea that it is a false flag more likely.


EDIT II: Pinker got a very flattering interview with the NYT. (Does anyone else find it odd that he agreed to this given that he spoke out in support of SSC?) This is very good for him and also includes further suspicious observations about the letter:

The origin of the letter remains a mystery. Of 10 signers contacted by The Times, only one hinted that she knew the identity of the authors. Many of the linguists proved shy about talking, and since the letter first surfaced on Twitter on July 3, several prominent linguists have said their names had been included without their knowledge.

They also note, as I did here, that the case seems oddly weak and doesn’t follow the pattern of more solid criticism of Pinker:

But the letter was striking for another reason: It took aim not at Professor Pinker’s scholarly work but at six of his tweets dating back to 2014, and at a two-word phrase he used in a 2011 book about a centuries-long decline in violence.
The linguists’ letter touched only lightly on questions that have proved storm-tossed for Professor Pinker in the past. In the debate over whether nature or nurture shapes human behavior, he has leaned toward nature, arguing that characteristics like psychological traits and intelligence are to some degree heritable.

Edit III: National Review calls the letter a “transparently idiotic diatribe”, the cancellation attempt “very very stupid”, “forehead-slappingly stupid”, and “amusingly sloppy”, and comments that “you’re probably not going to get him canceled as a racist and a sexist over a handful of anodyne tweets and one half-sentence from a book”.

They don’t seem to fully grapple with what such a lukewarm attempt might mean, though. It’s interesting to see that conservatives like this story so much. This could support the idea that this was an attempt to discredit/​smear progressives, but it’s also interesting to note that it has a conservative magazine writing very positive things indeed about Pinker; in the very first sentence they call him “brilliant”.