Something about the Pinker Cancellation seems Suspicious

post by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-08T18:08:56.021Z · LW · GW · 34 comments

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 Aaronson begins 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 to discard 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".

34 comments

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comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-08T20:23:46.468Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Attacking Pinker's status as an LSA fellow and a media expert doesn't pose that much of a threat to him;

This might be explained by inter-LSA politics. When canceling someone it's also useful to first shoot for the weak links. If the LSA would fold it's easy to expand the demand to Harvard and his publisher.

It seems that your idea is that groups of people are supposed to be responsible for the letter. I don't see why that should be true. It might be simply writing by an individual who isn't very skillful. Hanlon's razor seems to me like the best explanation.

Given that cancel culture happens to be a big problem at the moment, it would however be a great public service to create a bunch of Sokal style cancelation petitions in this style. It would be a nice tool for embarrasing people who sign petitions for cancelation without much thought.

Replies from: Virgil Kurkjian
comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-09T04:10:48.063Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Writing by an individual who isn't very skillful doesn't seem likely to get this much attention or ~500 signatures, even if many of them are fake. Some sort of momentum was behind this that I think is more than the effort given by an individual — certainly given that this letter appears to be anonymous! Some authors would have this clout but seeing as how we don't know who authored this...

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-09T08:42:55.358Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you start with a bunch of fake signatures and alert a few people who are on Pinkers side of the equation it's easy for the letter to go viral and in the process also bet some real signatures. 

It's worth noting that using Google docs is a low-skill signal.

Replies from: Virgil Kurkjian
comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-09T15:02:25.531Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's not a signal because it's easy to fake. "one party credibly conveys some information about itself to another party"

In that case, I challenge you to write a letter approximately this bad, targeting a public figure approximately as famous as Pinker, disseminate it as you describe but without any attribution, and we'll see if it gets any traction.

Replies from: ChristianKl, ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-09T19:42:21.505Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a high risk battle that I don't want to fight myself. Especially not after a public challenge. 

Replies from: Virgil Kurkjian
comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-09T19:49:35.627Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, I certainly can't blame you!

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-09T19:41:19.894Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a signal. Whether or not it's a trustworthy signal is a different matter. It's still noting that it got sent. 

comment by PeterMcCluskey · 2020-07-09T02:00:05.777Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems fairly normal to me for an emotionally charged movement to attract people for whom it's difficult to tell whether they're not-too-bright fanatics or agents provocateur.

Here are two more hypotheses about who might benefit:

  • a Trump fan who realizes that Trump's main hope for reelection involves running against the cancel culture (I doubt that Trump himself is competent enough to arrange this).
  • the Chinese government might want to foment something like this in order to discredit the Western idea of free speech, since that idea is in some tension with the Chinese government's legitimacy. This would be pretty mild compared to, say, what the CIA did in Iran in 1953.

Too many hypotheses, too little evidence.

Replies from: ChristianKl, Virgil Kurkjian, jimrandomh
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-09T09:41:41.170Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From the point of Russia or China who want to stirr up conflict it would be better to write letters that actually result in people getting cancelled and that don't provide a setting where people can organize effectively against cancellation. 

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-09T04:17:48.051Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're certainly right, and we should expect lots of mediocre material as you describe.

Here I try to make the case, though, that this letter was not merely mediocre but in fact suspiciously bad, the kind of abject failure that it would be hard to blunder into by accident. I'm rather familiar with progressive rhetoric, and to my eye at least, even their worst arguments are more studiously advanced than this one was.

comment by jimrandomh · 2020-07-09T02:26:57.396Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems fairly normal to me for an emotionally charged movement to attract people for whom it's difficult to tell whether they're not-too-bright fanatics or agents provocateur.

This is a very good observation, and seems like a pretty big problem for such movements.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2020-07-11T15:06:25.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Related: Poe's law

comment by Viliam · 2020-07-11T15:33:29.310Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that it is possible to construct a story in either direction.

Obvious mistakes in the letter may mean it's a false flag operation -- the letter has obvious weaknesses to make it easier to argue against it. And if the organization refuses to act on the letter, it would set a precedent; now other organizations could be asked to grow at least as much spine as LSA. Or maybe the actual goal is just to make Pinker a martyr, probably to help sell his books or something.

On the other hand, "the purpose of propaganda is to humiliate". If the letter succeeds, it would drive home the point that showing your opponents to be factually wrong, or even transparently lying, is not going to save you. Also, that it is not enough to avoid crimethink, but even anything that could be misinterpreted as crimethink, so the only safe way is to actively work on your social justice credentials; for example by leading the witchhunts.

Could be this, could be that.

My bet is that this is probably not a false flag operation, because it would be too risky if the complicated plan fails. (But I admit that the part of me that enjoys imagining complicated plans wants this to be one.) The obvious mistakes in the accusations are not sufficiently strong evidence in my eyes to overcome the priors; I have seen people believe crazy things when politics was involved. (For example, as far as I know, the shooting of 4 men and 2 women was described in media as a misogynistic attack; it is possible that someone simply remembered the version from media and didn't bother to verify. Or lied on purpose, expecting that readers would misremember.)

Replies from: ChristianKl, ellardk@gmail.com, Virgil Kurkjian
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-12T21:44:26.348Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My bet is that this is probably not a false flag operation, because it would be too risky if the complicated plan fails. [...] strong evidence in my eyes to overcome the priors

There are plenty of book authors who do these kinds of things. Ryan Holiday describes in Trust Me I'm Lying that he did false flag attacks to promote Tucker Max and others. The idea that it's benefitial PR to do these things is out of the open.

If the letter succeeds, it would drive home the point that showing your opponents to be factually wrong, or even transparently lying, is not going to save you

It would be possible to claim that the letter is a Sokal type stunt in case the letter actually succeeds.

comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-13T00:35:05.811Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What stands out to me is that this looks low-effort, but stuff like the footnote thing, and some of the rather subtle though simple argumentation, seem fundamentally incompatible with being low-effort. This is what I see as most significant that something is off. And if you try and take the letter at face value or as an effort to be taken at face value, you would expect to see evidence of motivation/effort, since someone has to care enough to bother. That's also why I doubt the humiliation aspect---if you want to show someone you can enforce absurdity, it's usually a lot showier with more effort involved, and it would be more clearly absurd. This is more dumb than audacious. It could be incompetence, but the footnote also seems fundamentally incompatible with that. It's just not a natural kind of shoddy work---more of a generic placeholder.

It's not particularly brilliant, so I don't think the letter itself is more than a pretext or experiment, if it's a false flag thing. It's not done in the way someone like Pinker would do it if he was trying to sell books or make himself a martyr or be well-guarded against future accusations. I wasn't sure how sharp Pinker was at first (in a strategically alert sense, not an academic one), or how conflict-averse. After researching this, I've concluded he is quite sharp and not afraid of conflict---so it's too slapped together for it to have been a big move on his part. It would have to be a small component of a larger move.

I think it is a mistake to assume there is much risk if the plan fails, or that it would have to be particularly complicated. A lot of this stuff is normal PR behavior, as ChristianKI says below. There's a lot of mischief and "inexplicable" stuff that goes on daily on the Internet, and people barely notice many of the crazier things, let alone something like this, which is pretty boring.

Replies from: Kenny
comment by Kenny · 2020-07-27T21:06:15.461Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe a GPT-2/3 'open letter to cancel a prominent public intellectual' that was accidentally shared/published?

Replies from: ellardk@gmail.com
comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-30T06:51:42.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It was before that took off, but I'm pretty positive Pinker or a friend of his wrote it up as a pretext for interviews on the topic.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-11T17:47:45.542Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting points. Part of why it seems so fishy to me is that, personally, I have a lot of experience with far-left lists of demands and takedowns. They're certainly not perfect, but in my experience they are reliably 1) longer, 2) better researched, 3) better written, and 4) more vicious.

Again I will offer examples like the attempt to remove Hsu and the recent list of dozens of demands at Princeton. On easily-measured scales, such as number of demands/pieces of evidence, the letter to the LSU is a clear outlier. It's hard for me to imagine them stopping at only 6 complaints. On less easily measured scales, like how damning or aggressive the evidence is, I also think that it is a clear outlier; not only worse than normal, but well worse than the normal worst examples of the genre.

Of course this is all based on my previous experience with this sort of document, and that's something I can't share, it's just built into my priors. But if you're willing to accept my semi-expert opinion on this, then my take is that it seems fishy.

comment by PatrickDFarley · 2020-07-08T19:13:38.332Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Do remember that three theories "equally consistent with the data" are not therefore equally likely to be true.

I almost hope it is a false flag though, as you're hinting. If you believe people outside of cancel culture have a better understand of it than those who perpetrate it, then it's the outsiders who are better positioned to manipulate it to their advantage.

comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-09T02:55:05.063Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

These are very sharp observations, and I think you're on to something. Don't know what the real story is, but your suggestions are plausible. The one that seems most likely to me is Pinker preemptively canceling himself to inoculate against future attempts. I don't think it's outlandish. And I think it is quite possible that Pinker has some Machiavelli in him.

Or perhaps it was a plan by him and others to send the debate in a specific direction that they could more easily address. It's possible that he just caught the eye of some LSA member who wanted to take a stand and didn't do much research, but your point about the footnote is telling. I didn't follow the Pinker controversy closely, but I did notice it seemed oddly tame. People are way too wedded to taking things at face value---yes, most of the time, there's no grand conspiracy, but strategy is a thing and you have to watch for moves or glaring omissions.

In addition to the general craziness, there's definitely something going on right now that just seems off---incidents that are too neatly executed yet simultaneously too incompetent or bizarre to be natural. I think people are hijacking the current controversies---the issues are mostly real, but there are contrived ones mixed in, I suspect, that go beyond simply riding the wave and seem designed for maximum division and ridiculousness. And it's happening in mainstream media outlets in a coordinated manner. At first I thought some people or groups were sowing confusion and the media was falling for it, whether by domestic trolls or foreign information warriors, but now it seems more like malicious testing, to see what works and how far they they can go without getting pushback. It could be a show of power demonstrating that absurdity can be enforced, but that kind of behavior is a weird thing to do at such a large scale for such a diverse audience. Powerful status quo figures use spin and selective smear campaigns, but rarely benefit from constant and off-putting provocation. It seems more designed to disorient everyone and make exploiting it in any real direction impossible. I don't think this would be related to conservatives, but to a person or group who doesn't have any interest in the country's welfare or traditional political power. I know this sounds conspiratorial, but something odd is going on, and I can't quite figure out who benefits, unless it's pure distraction by panicked and deranged elites who can't deal with their disrupted future, as Matt Taibbi has argued. I've never seen anything like it.

Replies from: Pablo_Stafforini, ChristianKl, Virgil Kurkjian
comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2020-07-10T14:02:01.751Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
The one that seems most likely to me is Pinker preemptively canceling himself to inoculate against future attempts. I don't think it's outlandish. And I think it is quite possible that Pinker has some Machiavelli in him.

What's your credence in this hypothesis?

Replies from: ellardk@gmail.com
comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-10T22:19:22.994Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I assume you are asking me to give a probability....maybe 40%. The last few months have been so weird that it's harder for me to assess this than it normally would be---I have a feeling I'm not tracking the full range of plausible motives now in operation. I also don't follow Pinker very closely so I don't have a great sense of his behavior, tactics, and values. But the information given in this post seems to me strong evidence that this isn't what it appears to be, and 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.

Replies from: Pablo_Stafforini, Virgil Kurkjian
comment by Pablo (Pablo_Stafforini) · 2020-07-11T01:15:53.220Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for answering my question. I'd personally assign a ~5% chance [EDIT: on reflection, perhaps closer to 10%] to that hypothesis. If you can think of a way to operationalize our disagreement, I'd be interested in arranging a bet.

Replies from: ellardk@gmail.com
comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-11T05:55:16.770Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

By "operationalize our disagreement," do you mean agreeing on what wou. I'm now more confident in my position. He's evidently volunteered to be a champion of the cause and take the heat, and the interview suggests he's thought a lot about the issue and how it works. So he would know how to "game" it. But it's evident he's not taking responsibility for the letter and probalby never will--it's not like

Literally as I'm writing this, I just saw that Pinker did an interview. I'm now more confident in my position. He's evidently volunteered to be a champion of the cause and take the heat, and the interview suggests he's thought a lot about the issue and how it works. So he would know how to observe it and "game" it, and he's not afraid. But it's evident he's not taking responsibility for the letter and probably never will if he was behind it--it's not clever enough to brag about. But it would have given him reason to step in to the fray and highlight certain things, which he obviously wants to do. He says that “It’s important that there be a public voice, a focal point to break what is sometimes called a spiral of silence."


ETA: I should clarify that this is technically a different position---I was lumping them together under "he is in on it," but I no longer think it is mostly about inoculation. More about the other possibility I suggested: "Or perhaps it was a plan by him and others to send the debate in a specific direction that they could more easily address."

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-11T05:38:47.318Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Solid reasoning. 40% seems just a little high to me but I absolutely agree that, conditional on this being a false flag, Pinker has the most to gain from it.

Replies from: ellardk@gmail.com
comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-12T00:31:18.956Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Matt Taibbi has written an article that makes me more confident it was a false flag...at least 55%. He doesn't argue this, but he also noted that the accusations were weirdly chosen and presented. It's paywalled, but a few quotes:

"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]..."

He speaks more calmly and intelligently about this issue than almost any public figure I've seen. I'm going to read more of his work.

Replies from: Virgil Kurkjian
comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-12T00:55:50.255Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Wow, very interesting finds. That does make it seem even more like a false flag. Could you share the link to the article (even though it's paywalled)?

Also, would you mind if I added some of your points to the main post, for posterity?

Replies from: ellardk@gmail.com
comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-12T22:42:41.042Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here---there's an excerpt here. You can include them if you'd like.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-07-09T09:40:37.252Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are power struggles right now in most newsrooms between younger journalists who want the paper to follow intersectional norms and older journalists with more traditional ideals. 

Neatly executed actions can be competent and make sense for inter-organizational politics but seem incompetent and bizarre to the outside world. 

Replies from: ellardk@gmail.com
comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-09T19:19:13.864Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This definitely explains a lot of it, but I feel like there's something missing from the analysis.

comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-09T04:13:12.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you! Yes, I wouldn't say that I have any particular view on what is happening, just that something seems off.

comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-16T02:44:23.326Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Update: Pinker has an interview out with the NYT itself. Given that this is the NYT, it is about as favorable a piece as he could obtain. Even with all the insinuation, it's pretty glowing. And they note the letter is weird (and also that the society's leadership declined to take action against him).

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 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.
Several department chairs in linguistics and philosophy signed the letter, including Professor Barry Smith of the University at Buffalo and Professor Lisa Davidson of New York University. Professor Smith did not return calls and an email and Professor Davidson declined to comment when The Times reached out.
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.
...
Because this is a fight involving linguists, it features some expected elements: intense arguments about imprecise wording and sly intellectual put-downs.

That last point could explain the odd selection of charges and wasn't something I thought too much about, but I would still expect a group of linguists to find juicier material to pore over than that.

Replies from: Virgil Kurkjian
comment by Virgil Kurkjian · 2020-07-16T19:49:29.900Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I saw that too. Definitely good for Pinker and more suspicious data about the letter.

A very jaded perspective could be that this is indeed a false flag but the whole end goal is just that Pinker wants to write a book about the subject and needed a way to insert himself into the conversation.

Replies from: ellardk@gmail.com
comment by Kerry (ellardk@gmail.com) · 2020-07-19T08:12:24.107Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's possible. It hardly seems necessary though---he could write the book without that pretext, though I get it helps. There have been sort of partial cancellation attempts already and that will probably continue--like the Epstein stuff, which to me it seems he should defend more vigorously. I get he may just want that to go away, but it seems absurd and dangerous to imply that he couldn't comment to a friend and co-worker about his judgment of the statute in question, just because it could be used to defend a bad person in court. That seems like a really important thing to preserve---are we supposed to allow the prosecutors to interpret the statute incorrectly to arrest people for things that are not supposed to be crimes, just to avoid the possibility that the correct interpretation would result in an acquittal? We're talking about analyzing the plain meaning of a common statute, which is pretty fundamental to get right. It wasn't like Pinker testified as an expert witness, not that I would have seen anything wrong with that in the slightest. He's already controversial enough to write a book on the suppression of free academic speech for sure. I also assume he'd have done a better job with the letter if he wanted to make it a dramatic story to sell books. He seems to have just wanted an excuse to do interviews on the topic, maybe in collaboration with concerned employees at the NYT and elsewhere, given how positive the response has been.