Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

Steven Pinker on Writing About Science

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There's so much of science and scholarship that consists of hyper specialized efforts, Steven Pinker says.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”


Question: What is the challenge of writing about science?

Steven Pinker: I remember my mentor Roger Brown once saying … He was one of the founders of the study of child language acquisition which is what a lot of my own research has been focused on. And he said, “You know, you never really understand what children are doing.” This was a bit of an ironic comment because, of course, that is what he spent his life doing and what I’ve dedicated most of my life to doing. But it does offer a little bit of humility and a feeling that if you don’t quite understand everything that’s in your data you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. It’s extraordinarily complex. We’re fortunate to understand what we do understand. I’ve gotten advice on writing from an early editor of mine who said, “When you try to present science to a wide audience, don’t feel that you’re writing for truck drivers or chicken pluckers. They probably realistically won’t buy your book. And if you try to aim at everyone, you’ll end up talking down or condescending. Write for your college roommate, someone who you respect as being as smart as you. They went into a different line of work. They’re joining the conversation late. They need to be brought up to speed; but assume that your audience is as intellectually engaged and as smart as you are.” That was terrific advice both for teaching, and for writing and speaking for a wide audience. Certainly since adolescence I was always interested in what makes people tick, and what the implications are for larger questions. If we know something about human emotion and human motivation, does that provide implications for politics how we ought to run society? An ancient question, and one that I was eager to be involved in in the light of modern scientific understanding of human nature; taking into account cognition, and evolution, and genetics, and brain science, and social science. I majored in cognitive psychology, which at the time was a relatively new field, and I thought a tremendously exciting field. It combined experimental psychology with linguistics, and philosophy of mind, and artificial intelligence. And I thought that was an exciting growth area in the 1970s when I picked a major. And I’m still excited by it. I went to Harvard, I think, because it was the site of the cognitive revolution 10 to 15 years earlier. Even though it had pretty much died out by the time that I got there, it still had something of an aura in mind. It probably wasn’t the best choice if the current me could had given advice to the younger me, but it worked out pretty well. And since then I’ve been kind of ricocheting between Harvard and MIT most of my career with a foray to Stanford and a couple of sabbaticals at Santa Barbara. But what I’ve always valued was ideas, conversation, being introduced to some new way of thinking about something; some new explanatory principal; some idea that I would never have thought of in a million years, but which makes everything click. And so I’ve always wanted to be in a place where there was a constant bombardment of these ideas. I did strategically take a sabbatical at University of California – Santa Barbara which isn’t as much of a brand name university as Harvard, MIT and Stanford; but even brand name universities can get locked into a certain way of thinking. They can be kind of a culture or a religion that becomes entrenched in a particular place, and I think you can’t just be in one place and hope that all ideas will come to you. You have to occasionally venture out into places where they think very differently. For me Santa Barbara, which was the home to evolutionary psychology to influences like John ________, _________, Donald Simons, Napoleon Chagnon. Voices from anthropology, and evolutionary biology and economics were important sources of new ideas in my intellectual development. So I’m glad that I’ve left Cambridge for the wiles of California a few times.There are a number of very big problems; ones that are too big to attack directly, but which we might be able to chip away at by answering a lot of smaller questions that flow from it. One of them is how did humans evolve? Why did one species of primate, a kind of chimpanzee like ancestor be selected to walk upright, loose its fur, expand its brain, develop language, become a toolmaker, cooperate in large groups and so on? Why did that happen? Another one is how is the brain organized to make learning, and motivation, and emotion possible? What are the molecular events and physiological events in the growing brain of a fetus that shape it into a human brain as opposed to the brain of some other organism? And what makes a normal human brain as opposed to a schizophrenic, or a psychopath, or an autistic child? Another one is what is the basis of consciousness? What’s different in the brain when you deliberately plod your way through something, thinking about every motion or every word, and when it just comes automatically so that you don’t even think about it, and can even understand why consciousness in the sense of subjective experience exists at all? How is the mind organized into components? I think it’s unlikely that there’s just one magic algorithm that the whole brain uses to solve every problem from walking without falling over, to organizing words into grammatical sentences, to recognizing faces, to planning your day. How many of those systems are there, and how do they talk to each other, and how are they laid out in the brain? Are they discrete slabs of real estate, kind of like the flank steak and rump roast in the supermarket cow display with the dotted lines? It’s kind of unlikely. Are they completely interdispersed like the hard disk of your computer when it’s fragmented? So the different parts that belong to one system are scattered all over the place and work because of their intricate connections, but we’ll never be able to see them as blobs on a brain scan. Is it something in between? How much variability is there from one person to another? What is our innate endowment? It can’t be something as specific as a particular language or even a particular sexual system like monogamy or polygamy, because we know that cultures vary. Some enforce monogamy; some have polygamy if you even have polyandry. Some cultures speak Japanese, some English, others Yiddish, others Swahili. So none of that can be wired in. On the other hand there are patterns across cultures. It’s not that every logical possibility could be found. In fact it would be impossible to learn a language or to learn a system of social morays unless you sorted the perceptual input into certain categories so that you could begin to crack the code of the culture you’re born into. You could make sense of it. Otherwise if you just recorded it like a VCR or a DVD recorder, you’d be able to regurgitate back what you’ve seen; but you wouldn’t be able to function intelligently to say and do things that made sense in you culture even if they were replicas of experiences that you’ve had before. So how do you crack the code of your language and culture? There’s got to be something innate that it’s not easy to put your finger on because it can’t be as concrete as a particular cultural product; but it can’t be so generic that it wouldn’t give you the tools to figure out your culture. So what is that in between ground that might be our innate endowment?I think in science it’s not reasonable to have an ambition of becoming immortal or of making a mark that’s associated with you. It’s more like you’re really contributing something to this enormous stream of knowledge. And realistically you hope to affect it downstream in significant ways, but your own contribution may not be associated with your name. It will be a combination of things that you actually created, experiments with discoveries, books and papers, the graduate students that you trained, the undergraduates that you influenced indirectly, the ideas that people may have taken from your work with out crediting you. Realistically I think the most one can hope for is this diffuse, but one hopes positive influence rather than some statue in the park with your name on it. We know what people do with statues. We ignore them. They’re meant to immortalize people, but no one really cares . . . no one actually reads who the person is or reads about them. I think it’s good to have that model in mind in terms of scientific contributions.As someone who works in the science of human beings, the boundary for me between science and other fields is kind of porous. What is essential in my finding an idea useful is that it comes from someone who thinks systematically, and rigorously and rationally; someone who cares about whether an idea is true or false; someone who’s interested in an explanation about why something is the way it is as opposed to another way that it could be. For me that’s the essence of science. That’s what’s valuable about science, but it’s not restrictive to science. And some things that used to be not science becomes science over the course of history, like in my own field of psychology as an example. And so I don’t try to think laterally or just get inspired by some strange image from fiction or music. But I do take seriously ideas that might have originated from a novelist commenting on human nature either directly in an interview or obliquely by a novel. I would care about what a historian might say as long as they are doing so in the general mindset that I think of as scientific, that is trying to explain things and caring about whether the things you say are true or false.I’d like to think that I have also helped draw the big picture in the case of language, the idea that language works by an interplay between memorized units that we call words and rules for combining them; and that the reason that we have language is that we are a species that lives off social cooperation and know-how; and that language is an evolutionary adaptation that multiples the power of technological know-how by allowing us to share it; and that allows us to negotiate relationships. So that is a kind of nutshell description of how language works and why we have it. And I think it’s not so obvious that it’s helpful for someone to draw the picture in such broad brushstrokes. And I’d like to think that I’ve done the same . . . or helped to do something like that for the human mind. How does the mind work? What is a human mind for? The idea that the mind is a system of organs of computation – that is, information processing sub systems that evolved by natural selection to allow us to figure out how the world works and figure out how other people work as a survival strategy for homo sapiens. It is a general idea, but it does help to make sense of the whole shebang. I think it offers me some potential of a satisfying answer as to why we have a mind and what it does. So both at the microscopic end of how irregular verbs work and why kids make errors on them, and a macroscopic view of what is language, what is the mind?

Recorded On: 6/13/07