Friday, January 25, 2008

"The Stuff I Just Thought Up"

In a post titled “The Perils of Popularising Science, Jason Zevin, a cognitive neuroscientist, gets in a little Pinker bashing. The whole post is worth reading, but here's a little nugget:

This is why it is always so disorienting to talk to people who have just read or are reading anything by Steven Pinker (such as his recent piece "The Moral Instinct" in the New York Times Magazine). Often, these people know all kinds of amazing things--including things I'm pretty sure aren't true. This is not to say that Pinker is a charlatan (although some researchers might actually go this far; a colleague just vandalised my copy of "The Stuff of Thought", changing it to "The Stuff I Just Thought Up"). The problem is that our field is one with many open questions, many confusing and apparently mutually exclusive data points, not to mention a dizzying array of theoretical perspectives to consider.

I have mixed feelings about Pinker. I admire his contribution to psycholinguistics, even while disagreeing with some of his major conclusions. He was a brilliant empirical researcher who moved the science of linguistics forward. His early work on the acquisition of argument structure continues to be influential and relevant. His popular works are well written and entertaining and have inspired new linguists. But of late, he seems to have jumped off the deep end of rationality and come to the conclusion that his opinions and intuition are more than that; they are now fact. I think we would all be better off if Pinker got off the lecture circuit and back into the lab and started studying verbs again.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan)

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