That convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had help in avoiding federal or state prison is unsurprising: money and power often buy what they shouldn’t. But the recent revelation that Epstein found aid from star psychologist Steven Pinker in the form of a 2007 legal document surprised both Pinker’s fans and critics.
At least at first. Then came the analysis: to supporters of Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, his ties to Epstein are an aberration in an otherwise commendable life as a public intellectual -- one based on reason and truth, even when that’s unpopular. Increasingly, Pinker’s work centers on the notion that life is good -- better than it’s ever been -- and that we don’t appreciate it enough.
As Pinker wrote in 2018’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, “People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever,” despite reams of data on how humans’ quality of life continues to improve.
Pinker’s detractors, meanwhile, take the revelation that he knew Epstein and contributed to his legal defense as proof that the professor is a fraud, has lost his way, or both. Just as critics have accused Pinker of glossing over inequality and the continued suffering of individuals in praising progress, they’ve asked how he could have patinated a predator’s defense.
“At a certain point, if you’re playing Dr. Pangloss to people who administer a monstrous social order, then at some point you’re going to rub shoulders with and do favors for actual monsters,” said Patrick Blanchfield, a scholar of politics and violence and an affiliate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
Joel Christensen, chair of classical studies at Brandeis University, said that “however forced, or tepid or merely transactive” Pinker's interaction with Epstein was, it “confirms for many what has been clear for years.” Pinker, he said, “is a reactionary who is moving from the center to the right because he refuses to engage critically with new voices or to entertain honestly the criticisms his work has produced.”
Pinker, who has said publicly that he regrets helping Epstein, told Inside Higher Ed this week that he's used to being “criticized and attacked, and I have a long paper trail of debates, replies and letters.”
“I don’t always enjoy it but have always accepted that it’s the way things have to be,” he said. “If I take a strong position, I can’t expect people to bow down and agree with it, but they’ll take [their] best shot at me, and I’ll defend it as best I can.”
‘According to Dr. Pinker’
Epstein was previously convicted on just one count of prostitution, in 2008. But what he was accused of before he brokered a most unlikely plea deal was monstrous: trafficking dozens of underage girls in a scheme whereby they recruited each other for sexual abuse. And Pinker did rub shoulders with him, before and after Epstein’s first indictment, in 2006. (He's facing similar charges today.) Pinker was included in the flight log for Epstein’s plane, which was dubbed the “Lolita Express,” for example, in 2002. He was photographed with him at a gathering in 2014. And he shared an affidavit from the case via Twitter in 2015.
But it’s the favor that Pinker did for Epstein that’s caused him the most trouble of late: in 2007, Epstein’s attorneys -- including Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz -- submitted a letter to federal prosecutors arguing that their client hadn’t violated a law against using the internet to lure minors across state lines for sexual abuse.
“To confirm our view of the ‘plain meaning’ of the words, we asked" Pinker, "a noted linguist, to analyze the statute to determine the natural and linguistically logical reading or readings of the section,” the letter said. “We asked whether the statute contemplates necessarily that the means of communication must be the vehicle through which the persuading or enticing directly occurs. According to Dr. Pinker, that is the sole rational reading.”
It’s impossible to know how much that analysis helped Epstein land his deal, if at all. But it clearly didn’t hurt him. In any event, with Epstein now facing new federal charges, everyone in his orbit has come under new scrutiny. And Pinker has tried to defend himself against those who find his involvement with Epstein indefensible and part of a larger pattern of problematic statements.
Questioning Pinker's Record
Kate Manne, an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University, for example, has posed her own outstanding questions about Pinker’s discussions of feminism, gender-based violence and the nature of rape. In particular, she’s noted that Pinker on Twitter called the idea that the 2014 murders near the University of California, Santa Barbara, were about a larger pattern of hatred against women “statistically obtuse.” She also took issue with arguments in his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In it, Pinker wrote that rape is "not exactly a normal part of male sexuality," but that "the theory that rape has nothing to do with sex may be more plausible to a gender to whom a desire for impersonal sex with an unwilling stranger is too bizarre to contemplate."
Others have pointed out, anew, that Pinker wrote a blurb for Heather Mac Donald’s polemic The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture. (He also quotes Mac Donald in The Better Angels.) There have been reminders, too, that Pinker has fans within the alt-right -- though some of that fan base was built on a misleading clip of him discussing how some young white men find their way to the alt-right over the internet.
Pinker’s definitive response to the recent criticism was posted to the blog Why Evolution Is True by moderator Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago.
Coyne wrote on the blog, “I see articles where, on no evidence at all, scientists and atheists are tarred because they either knew Epstein or associated with him.” Such “innuendo is meant to imply that those people knew about Epstein’s crimes and either ignored them or, perhaps, even participated in them. In other words, they’re complicit. I could reproduce several examples, but I suspect readers have already seen them, and I’m not going to highlight and send traffic to miscreants involved in slander or character assassination.”
It’s unclear who, exactly, Coyne was referring to, beyond Pinker. But Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who accepted $250,000 in funding from Epstein, was not renewed as head of Arizona State University’s Origins Project last year amid separate harassment allegations, which he denied.
Pinker and Krauss weren’t the only thinkers to hobnob with Epstein, who had an affinity for Harvard and donated millions to it. Former Harvard president Larry Summers rode on Epstein's plane, as did Bill Clinton, for instance.
Pinker’s response begins with what he calls an “annoying irony” about Epstein: that “I could never stand the guy, never took research funding from him and always tried to keep my distance.”
“I found him to be a kibitzer and a dilettante -- he would abruptly change the subject, ADD-style, dismiss an observation with an adolescent wisecrack and privilege his own intuitions over systematic data.”
Still, he said, because “Epstein had insinuated himself with so many people I intersected with,” and since “I was often the most recognizable person in the room, someone would snap a picture; some of them resurfaced this past week, circulated by people who disagree with me on various topics and apparently believe that the photos are effective arguments.” He said that most joint engagements were before Epstein’s arrest, but one was after he served his sentence.
Regarding the 2007 letter, Pinker wrote that Dershowitz is a friend, “and we taught a course together at Harvard. He often asks me questions about syntax and semantics of laws, most recently the impeachment statute.” While he was representing Epstein, Dershowitz “asked me about the natural interpretation of one of the relevant laws, and I offered my opinion; this was cited in a court document.”
He added, “I did it as a favor to a friend and colleague, not as a paid expert witness, but I now regret that I did so. And needless to say, I find Epstein’s behavior reprehensible.”
Since some of the related social media “snark insinuates that I downplay sexual exploitation, it may be worth adding that I have a paper trail of abhorrence of violence against women, have celebrated efforts to stamp it out and have tried to make my own small contribution to this effort,” Pinker continued.
Citing The Better Angels, he said, “As far as I know, I’m the only writer who has documented and celebrated actual progress in reducing violence against women and argued that this progress shows that the effort is not futile and should embolden us to press for greater reductions still.”
Coyne wrote, “There you have it. If people are going to tar Pinker by flaunting his association with Epstein, then Pinker deserves a reply. This is his reply, and any further discussion should take it into account.”
Adia Benton, an assistant professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, said that beyond Pinker and Dershowitz, “I think there’s a tendency for men to overlook the foibles of their acquaintances and colleagues. The shunning of assholes and creeps is just not done. Especially when it comes to sexual misconduct and misogyny.”
‘A Polite Canadian’
Pinker said via email that he’s a political liberal, "a polite Canadian" and a member of the academic mainstream. Even so, "since I was a graduate student, I’ve been in thick of intellectual controversies and have always had critics."
During cognitive psychology’s imagery debate in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Pinker said, he argued with his graduate adviser, Stephen Kosslyn, that mental images are represented in the brain as picture-like arrays of pixels. He was also an advocate of Noam Chomsky’s controversial hypothesis that language is “an innate human faculty,” while simultaneously opposing Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould in holding that language is an evolutionary adaptation for communication.
His 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, brought a series of controversies. Writing for The New Yorker at the time, literature scholar Louis Menand of Harvard respectfully condemned the book -- and the field of evolutionary psychology. (Pinker was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology then.)
“Evolutionary psychology is therefore a philosophy for winners: it can be used to justify every outcome,” Menand wrote. “This is why Pinker has persuaded himself that liberal democracy and current opinion about women's sexual autonomy have biological foundations. It's a ‘scientific’ validation of the way we live now.”
Echoing Menand, Christensen, of Brandeis, said Pinker's public support of last year's Sokal Squared hoax authors, for example, is “connected to his faith in evolutionary psychology and his basic overreliance on nature in nature-versus-nurture debates.” And Enlightenment Now “is a broadside in defense of Western civilizations when serious scholars of color” are arguing that the very idea of Western civilization “relies on and reinforces structural racism.”
It’s true: criticism of Pinker is nothing new. It was, however, perhaps best summed up by this May headline from Current Affairs: “The World’s Most Annoying Man.”
Pinker “doesn’t think he has an ideology,” Nathan Robinson wrote in that article, partially quoting Pinker. “He insists that his conclusions simply follow from data, contrasting his own work with the ‘statistical obtuseness’ common among journalists and humanities professors, who use ‘Anecdotes, headlines, rhetoric,’ and the ‘highest-paid person’s opinion.’ If you look through his work though, you’ll find anecdotes, headlines, rhetoric and appeals to authority abound.”
Pinker, meanwhile, maintains that “Too many leaders and influencers, including politicians, journalists, intellectuals and academics, surrender to the cognitive bias of assessing the world through anecdotes and images rather than data and facts.” So he told The Harvard Gazette in June.
How ‘This Round of Attacks’ Is Different
What is different now is that “this round of attacks comes from the rowdy cage fight of social media rather than academic, literary and intellectual forums, which -- however verbally pugilistic -- have some version of Marquess of Queensberry rules,” Pinker said this week.
Everyone can take a shot now, even based on a single tweet or other “small part of my controversy portfolio.” So “lots of people have lots of bones to pick.” And, as they say, “friends come and go, but enemies accumulate.” Pinker’s “bad luck in repeatedly finding myself in the same place as Jeffrey Epstein” has given openings to those who want “slime me,” he added.
“If someone is determined to discredit me by any means necessary, then no means will be sufficient to change that person’s mind,” Pinker said. Going forward, his policy will be the same as it’s always been: to “advance arguments that I think are too interesting, important and supported by data for people to ignore, even if they disagree with them.”
That Pinkerism probably won't do much to quiet his critics.
Christensen said it’s important to contextualize Pinker in the ever-growing “economy of intellect” -- think TED Talks and thought influencers.
Comparing Pinker to University of Toronto psychologist and quasi-guru Jordan Peterson, Christensen said Pinker “courts public attention and controversy after years of creating and publicizing work that is interdisciplinary and outward focused.” Over the past few years especially, he said, Pinker has joined “a cadre of older, mostly white male academics who espouse a purist view of free speech and debate" that "ignores significant scholarship from women and scholars of color about how free speech and academic freedom as traditionally construed overweight and privilege already privileged voices” -- meaning mostly white, older men.