15 Questions With Steven Pinker

He is arguably the world’s most famous experimental psychologist. His books make waves in academia and on The New York
By Ana P. Gantman

He is arguably the world’s most famous experimental psychologist. His books make waves in academia and on The New York Times Bestseller List. An October 28, 2007 New York Times article cited his belief that there are over 1,200 words for “vagina.” FM catches up with the language-guru psychology professor Steven Pinker.


Fifteen Minutes: Your ideas are intuitive but not obvious. How do you come up with them? Do they dawn on you while you’re making breakfast or are you a slave to your desk until you’ve got one? (i.e is it like turning on a light bulb or pounding in a nail?)

Steven Pinker: Nail, definitely nail. I notice things but I only understand them when I try to write about them.


FM: Speaking of analogies, yours make your theories very accessible. Where do those come from?

SP: I’m actually trying to study that and I think, at least I notice in myself a process that I call analogical reminding. It was first discovered or at least noticed by Douglas Hofstadter and Roger Shank independently. Sometimes one thing will remind you of another but the only thing they have in common is their shared logical structure. This was in a talk that I heard, oh God, 25 years ago and I always found it interesting. He was at the barber and he didn’t cut his hair as short as he wanted and it reminded him of how his wife never cooked his steak as much as he wanted. It was enough for one idea to remind him of another. It’s not like in Proust where it is a commonality of sensation. It’s more abstract. I started noticing this process in myself as well. For example, I was jogging with my ipod and I had it on shuffle and not all songs can be jogged to and so I kept clicking until I got to the right song and it reminded me about how in baseball the catcher has to signal to the pitcher until he agrees. They come unbidden from what I think is a very profound process of human memory and I’ve been trying to document that it happens in everyone.


FM: In “The Stuff of Thought,” you talk about the omnipresence of metaphor in language to convey abstract thought. Do you think the fact that we must make abstract things concrete is an impressive trait of the brain or the result of a deficit?

SP: I think it’s an impressive trait. I think we do it through cognitive metaphor—that is through recognizing the similarity between a novel abstract thought and a known concrete idea and transferring one known structure to the other.


FM: My high school English teachers always hated it when I used the word “stuff” but you just put it in your book title. As a word expert can you verify or negate the legitimacy of the word once and for all?

SP: Yes, in my case I was using it not just as a filler—I think what your high school teacher was objecting to, using it when a another specific word when is available. I was using it in terms of stuffing, in terms of content, not just kind of stuff about the mind but stuff in the sense of what our thoughts are composed of—the raw material of what our stuff is composed of.


FM: Your recent essay in the New Republic addressed the nature of swearing. Will understanding the nature of taboos make them less taboo?

SP: Somewhat. It doesn’t make them go away. I think taboo words activate primitive parts of the brain and just understanding them at a cognitive level keeps that emotional reaction in check and keeps us from accessing it too much, but it doesn’t keep us from having the emotional response. Only obscenity has the ability to engage that subtle strong emotion.


FM: You have one of the most recognizable faces in science. Does that make you an academic rock star? If not, what would?

SP: Well, journalists love to use that as a way of kind of saying “who the hell is he” in the first paragraph in an article. I just came from England where there were five different articles about me and they all started with the rock star hook.


FM: You appeared on The Colbert Report this past February and summed up the brain in 5 words. Can you sum up being an academic rock star in 5 words? Bonus rock star points for fewer words.

SP: Oh my goodness, (long swig of coffee). Deep ideas, light touch.


FM: In a similar vein, Geoffrey Sampson wrote an entire book countering the arguments in The Language Instinct. We think that makes you something of a badass. Can you talk a little bit about what the word badass says about human nature?

SP: I think the “ass” is just like the “fuck” in “what the fuck.” It’s an emotionally strong word just to liven up the reference and the bad as in the sense of bad meaning good, unconventional, daring, unfettered by social niceties.


FM: Writing a pop science book is very different from writing a scientific article. Do you feel that you have to simplify your theories to make them bestsellers? Or conversely, for articles do you jargonize the intuitive parts of your theories to make them sound more scientific?

SP: No, I think I don’t. I try as hard as I can not to simplify the ideas. I try to do two things: not use jargon so as not to exclude people just because they’re not members of the club and to explain why something is important or interesting, why should they care.


FM: Your books, like the other popular science books that I’ve read, have lots of jokes mixed in with the science. Do you feel compelled to be funny when you’re writing about linguistics and human nature?

SP: I have the big advantage of being a psychologist and another of being a verbal psychologyist and every aspect of humor reveals something about human language. I get to use verbal humor not in a gratuitous way because the students are falling asleep, but I pick the joke that illustrates the point. In Cognitive science—unlike other fields—you can get away with that if you choose the jokes carefully.


FM: Do you think that the semantic associations that people may already have surrounding the name “Faust” will work for or against our new president?

SP: Will people think that she is Mephistophlolean. No I think she’ll be just fine, although it was irresistible for some columnists to use “Faustian Bargain” when she was elected president.


FM: Do you think the name Steven Pinker has semantic associations?

SP: I don’t know, the last name is a little bit silly, so maybe that helps. It’s hard to take yourself too too seriously when you have a name like that especially when all the kids on the playground called me Peven Stinker.


FM: Your participation in the Latke v. Hamantaschen debate with Professor Dershowitz was particularly funny, but all joking aside, do you think you could you take him down in a fist fight?

SP: He’s a street kid from Brooklyn. I wouldn’t mess with him.


FM: Two of your books are about language and two are about human nature. Your latest book combines the two—what’s next?

SP: My next book is going be on the decline of violence and its implications. The phenomenon that people are unaware of is that we are probably living in the most peaceful time in history. Homicides, torture, war, genocides, civil wars are all probably close to an all-time low. How come no has noticed and what have we been doing right?


FM: You’re a bestselling author yet your hair gets a lot of press; do you feel that your other facial features are under-appreciated?

SP: I think I’m blushing. No, I think that’s best for other people to comment on.