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5 January 2022updated 06 Jan 2022 3:09pm

Steven Pinker Q&A: “I’m still alive because I’m a serial series binger”

The psychologist discusses Annie Leibovitz, the work of Jonathan Rauch and the stupidification of academia.

By New Statesman

Steven Pinker was born in Montreal in 1954 and is the Johnstone professor of psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research into visual cognition, psycholinguistics and social relations.

What’s your earliest memory?

It’s highly sensory and from the age of two: the soles of the feet of my pyjamas, with raised azure rubber dots.

Who are your heroes?

I’ve never had heroes. I appreciate people’s accomplishments while accepting them as human. 

What book last changed your thinking?

Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge softened my scepticism that social media fosters modern irrationality.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Eleanor Roosevelt, for shepherding along the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I also admire Mikhail Gorbachev for what he didn’t do: send in the tanks to preserve the Soviet empire at a cost of prolonging totalitarianism.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Photography. It engages my aesthetics, my interest in visual cognition and my love of gadgets.

[See also: Bill Bailey Q&A: “My earliest memory is the smell of nylon waterproofs in a hot car”]

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

New York City in the 1950s. That was the heyday of hard bop jazz, witty Broadway plays, the great American songbook, abstract expressionism, modernist architecture such as the UN headquarters, and the Greenwich Village beat scene.

What TV show could you not live without?

I’m still alive because I’m a serial series binger: The Sopranos, Veep, Silicon Valley, Shetland, Shtisel, Call My Agent, Babylon Berlin, Family Business, Rake.

Who would paint your portrait?

Annie Leibovitz would shoot it.  

What’s your theme tune?

For 25 years I’ve played “Journey to the Center of the Mind”, the only hit by the Amboy Dukes, at the start of my introductory psychology course. Musically superior are two songs called “Think”, one by Aretha Franklin, one by James Brown.  

[See also: Rachel Kyte Q&A: “My carbon footprint is a source of deep discomfort”]

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Before I wrote The Language Instinct, an editor told me that most academics fail to reach a general audience because they treat readers as unintellectual simpletons. She advised me to think of them as intelligent and curious peers who happen not to know certain things that I know.

What’s currently bugging you?

The stupidification of academia in pursuit of dubious “social justice”: logical and statistical fallacies, primitive word magic, character assassination, censoring and memory holing controversial articles, rhetorical dirty tricks such as straw men and guilt by association.

What single thing would make your life better?

Happiness in the people I love.

When were you happiest?

Given my good fortune, singling out any time but “right now” would be cosmic ingratitude. 

[See also: David Thewlis Q&A: “When would I like to live? Any time before all this nonsense began”]

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

A constitutional lawyer, paid to engage in conceptual and moral argumentation. 

Are we all doomed?

In the long run, yes. Biologists say that to an excellent first approximation (99.9 per cent), all species that have ever lived are extinct; we’re unlikely to be the one that cheats death forever. But in the next century, almost certainly not.

“Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters” by Steven Pinker is published by Allen Lane

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance