E64: "Rationality" Bites - Steven Pinker's Disciplinary Drift (w/ Dr. Nathan Pensky)


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By re:verb, Calvin Pollak, and Alex Helberg. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

In his most recent book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, Harvard University cognitive psychologist and noted Jeffrey Epstein associate Steven Pinker argues that “rationality” is what distinguishes good thinkers from bad, that societies which encourage rationality are superior to those that do not, and that making the world a better place requires that we all think more rationally about our past, present, and future. Sounds plausible, right? In making these sweeping claims, though, Pinker wholly ignores relevant research and writing in disciplines such as history, philosophy, and literary and cultural studies, which have already provided crucial insights into the very questions he claims to be answering for the first time.

Pinker’s “disciplinary drift” is the focus of today’s show, in which Calvin and Alex are joined by Dr. Nathan Pensky, a literary scholar and critic who reviewed Pinker’s latest for the Chronicle of Higher Education. In the review, Nathan explains why Pinker’s wanton disregard for existing humanities scholarship is so galling, and he contrasts this with the approaches of more generative and thoughtful interdisciplinary scholars such as Anil Seth, a cognitive and computational neuroscientist and author of Being You: A new science of consciousness. Unlike Pinker, Seth engages deeply with existing scholarly debates in the humanities–in particular, the field of philosophy of mind–before introducing a STEM innovation that bears directly on philosophers’ existing questions. Nathan goes on to argue that Pinker’s work is simply more rude than Seth’s, reminding us of the value of basic respect and dignity in scholarly writing.

To conclude this episode, Alex introduces Nathan and Calvin to a fun new game: “Pinker or Stinker?” He introduces three quotations: two of them are real excerpts from Pinker’s latest work of discipline-drifting drivel, and one is a stinker–a fake quote written by Alex in his best imitation of Pinker’s trademark style. Will Nathan & Calvin be able to tell the difference? Can you? Play along while you listen, and if you get them all correct, shoot us an email or a Twitter DM to receive your complimentary re:verb t-shirt!


Dwyer, P., & Micale, M. (Eds.). (2021). The Darker Angels of Our Nature: Refuting the Pinker Theory of History & Violence. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Pensky, N. (2021, Oct. 29). Steven Pinker’s Disciplinary Drift. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Pensky, N. (2021, Dec. 2) Finding the poet of ‘Paradise Lost’. The Boston Globe.

Pinker, S. (2021). Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. Viking.

Pinker, S. (2019). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Penguin.

Pinker, S. (2012). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. Penguin.

Seth, A. (2021). Being you: A new science of consciousness. Penguin.

78 episodes