Reading the popular press these days, I thought I had long gone past the point at which an article would surprise me. In an age in which E=mc2 has been argued to be a sexed equation because ‘it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us,’ no gymnastics should seem out of place. Yet today, an article in The New York Times managed the seemingly unmanageable.
In How a Famous Harvard Professor Became a Target Over His Tweets, the renowned cognitive psychologist comes under fire for some of his tweets and the findings of his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Though I am far from in agreement with many of Professor Pinker’s arguments, particularly those in his recent book Enlightenment Now, it seems people have toppled off the edge of the planet when an academic such as Professor Pinker is painted as an ‘undercover monster.’
In some senses, it shouldn’t seem a stretch as there is an ever growing push to set certain subjects as off limits for discussion. Being an enquiring thinker whose work is driven by the data, Pinker does wade into difficult waters. As is evident from one of his tweets from 2015 in which he looked at the data for police shootings:
Yet this is far from the first time in history free thinking has been the subject of pogroms. In 1758, Claude Adrien Helvétius published a controversial work titled De l’esprit (On the Mind). The book was condemned by the College of Sorbonne and the Parliament of Paris, but François-Marie Arouet – better known as Voltaire – took exception to the attacks. Though he was reputedly unimpressed with De l’esprit, and vehemently disagreed with much of Helvétius’ thinking, the famous philosopher is credited with saying:
I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Though the quote is apocryphal, the sentiment is very Voltaire and I think apposite in the current climate. Though the conclusions drawn from the data may be offensive, we should be slow to take offence at the underlying data. Even if it contradicts to our deeply held beliefs. No one has a monopoly on truth, and only by perusing the data and the inexorable conclusions to the bitter end, can we hope to edge that bit closer to true understanding.
Good night and good luck.
Image credit: Kayana Szymczak for The New York Times