Satoshi Kanazawa

The Scientific Fundamentalist

How Is Steven Pinker NOT Like Michael Jordan?

Steven Pinker is the Einstein of psycholinguistics

Posted May 01, 2011

The three men I admire most [are] Paul Shaffer, Robin Williams, and Dave Barry.  To this short list must now be added Steven Pinker.

I often admire people who are extremely good at what they don't do.

Paul Shaffer is a musician, with truly encyclopedic knowledge of music and music history and an extreme talent for improvisation.  But he's also a pretty good comedian, as anyone who has ever witnessed his banter with Letterman would know.  He's often funnier than many professional comedians, none of whom can play a single musical instrument.  (This obviously does not include Steve Martin.)

Robin Williams is a standup comedian.  I personally consider him to be the best standup comedian ever, despite the fact that I don't get 70% of his jokes.  The remaining 30% is funny enough to make him the best.  Yet he's also an extremely talented serious actor, as anyone who's ever seen The World According to Garp or One Hour Photos would know.  (I know, I should really say Good Will Hunting or Dead Poets Society, but I have seen neither.)  He's an Oscar-winning actor in his noncomedic role, and I think he's a better actor than most professional actors, who cannot tell a joke to save their lives.

Dave Barry is a humorist, and he entertains and amuses us with his daily observations in his column for The Miami Herald.  Yet he's also an excellent novelist.  We first got a taste of his enormous talent for serious writing with his novella MsPtato and RayAdverb, which was contained in his otherwise humorous 1996 book Dave Barry in Cyberspace.  Then we enjoyed his first full novel Big Trouble, which was later made into a movie.  Big Trouble is one of the best fictions that I have ever read.  (I generally don't read fiction.)  Unfortunately, his second novel, Tricky Business, was not nearly as good as Big Trouble.  I believe Barry suffered from the same problem of rushing into the second book following the big success of the first, which afflicts other great minds like Steven D. Levitt.

For the entire time I have known Steven Pinker and his work, I had thought of him as an evolutionary psychologist.  And he is.  He is one of the best evolutionary psychologists today.  In fact, if you survey a large number of civilians and ask them to name all the evolutionary psychologists they have ever heard of, I'm reasonably confident that Pinker's would be the most frequently mentioned name.

The truly scary thing about Steven Pinker is that evolutionary psychology is not what he does.  He is a psycholinguist.  He studies languages and what they tell us about human nature.  Like Shaffer, Williams, and Barry, Pinker just happens to be extremely good at what he doesn't do, as well as at what he does do.

His latest book, The Stuff of Thought:  Language as a Window into Human Nature, is a marvelously fascinating survey of how our language – and how we speak it – reveal how the mind works.  Here's but one example.  The very first sentence of the book is:  "There is a theory of space and time embedded in the way we use words."  With the 1905 publication of the special theory of relatively, Einstein showed us that space and time are equivalent and that time is just another dimension of space (now known as spacetime).  Pinker shows us that the human mind has always known the equivalence of space and time for hundreds of thousands of years, and that's why our language treats space and time equivalently.

It is physically impossible to cut the end of a tape, because the end of a tape is a one-dimensional edge of the tape.  But we routinely talk about cutting the end of a tape, because, when we do, we are including some two-dimensional space adjacent to the true end of the tape.  Similarly, it is impossible to say something at the end of a lecture, because the end of a lecture is the moment that the lecture ends.  But we routinely talk about events at the end of a lecture, because, when we do, we are including some time adjacent to the true end of the lecture.  It is as if the human mind has always known the equivalence of space and time and our language reveals this knowledge, which we technically did not have until 1905.

Pinker is incredibly deep in his analysis, and he loves language, especially plural nouns.  (Did you know that people who enter "digital cameras" in a Google search are more likely to buy a digital camera subsequently than people who enter "digital camera" in a Google search?)  I'd highly recommend the book to anyone who is also deep and loves language, but not if you are neither.

The Stuff of Thought contains a shitload of information and trivia about language.  (And, if you read the book, you will find out why I was compelled to use the word shitload in the previous sentence.)  Among many other things you will learn, have you ever wondered why you say "Fuck you!" to someone you don't like?  Why would you wish sexual pleasure and gratification on someone at the very moment you are extremely angry with them?  And if I say "Fuck you!" to someone, exactly who is supposed to fuck them?  The surprising answer?  God.

I also learned from this book why I have always been a miserable failure with the ladies my entire life.  Note to self:  Do not email a scanned image of my etchings as a .jpg attachment to the girl before the date!

All of this is to say that Steven Pinker is not at all like Michael Jordan.  Imagine the utter awe and sheer terror you'd feel if Michael Jordan had actually been good at baseball, as good as, say, Babe Ruth.  And then you learn that it's not even his best sport.  That's the utter awe and sheer terror you feel when you read Pinker's The Stuff of Thought.

P.S.  On a personal note, this is the 200th planned post in The Scientific Fundamentalist blog, as well as the second installment of my "personal heroes" series.  On my 100th post, I talked about my personal hero, Aaron Sorkin, and how he is better than Shakespeare.  On this 200th post, I talk about another personal hero of mine, Steven Pinker, and how he's better than Michael Jordan.  On my 300th planned post, in roughly two-years' time, I will talk about Tina Fey and how she's better than Mark Twain.

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