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Enlightening Lessons from Miguel Servato and Steven Pinker

Whom shall we now burn at the stake?

Miguel Servato (Michael Seravtus) was a remarkably accomplished scholar who lived in Europe in the sixteenth century (1509-1553). The scope of his scientific contributions is remarkable: Mr. Servato was among the first Europeans to accurately describe the human circulatory system and was versed in mathematics, astronomy, pharmacology, and law. In addition, he wrote about Christian theology.

But these religious writings were controversial, and ultimately led to his arrest and execution. While relocating from Vienne, France to Italy in 1553, Servato traveled to Geneva, the home of John Calvin, who preached a doctrine of predestination (essentially, that salvation or lack thereof is preordained prior to birth). Servato had forcefully criticized the idea of preordination in his writings. Ironically, there are some reports that he travelled to Geneva to listen to Calvin preach. Regardless of the purpose of the visit, Servato was arrested, and after series of dubious legal maneuvers by local authorities who wanted to “preordain” the outcome, condemned him. On October 27, 1553, Miguel Servato was burned at the stake as a heretic. His crime? Daring to argue against the prevailing ideas of the time while also being an accomplished scholar and writer.

Recent events in the United States bear a striking similarity to the Servato story, although the burning at that stake is, thus far figurative rather than literal, but nonetheless quite chilling.

In his outstanding book “Enlightenment Now” Harvard Professor Steven Pinker chronicles the steady improvement in many aspects of the human condition over the past several centuries. To be sure, there have been temporary regressions (e.g., the rise of Fascism and Communism and horrific wars), but Dr. Pinker makes a compelling case for taking the long view, which clearly indicates that things are continually getting much better for most people living on the planet. This includes less violence, more food, better health, and more individual freedom. A foundational cause of this progress is “Enlightenment” (hence the title of the book) wherein the unfettered free exchange of scientific data, ideas, information—and healthy debate—that feed the engines of thought and scientific discovery are the pillars upon which this societal improvement rests.

Given the rigor, scope, impact and overall quality of his work, it may come as a quite a shock that more than 550 scholars recently petitioned the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) to withdraw Dr. Pinker’s well-deserved recognition as distinguished fellow of LSA and remove his name from a list of media experts. In essence, arguing for burning him at the stake.

What heinous transgression prompted this call for the LSA to “cancel” Professor Pinker? Was this a result of signees unearthing errors in the insightful linguistic analyses in his noteworthy books “The Language Instinct” or “Words and Rules?” No, Dr. Pinker’s linguistic analyses and ideas continue to stand the test of time and shine as outstanding examples of linguistic scholarship meriting distinguish scholar status in the LSA.

Rather than a principled critique of his work in linguistics, Dr. Pinker is under increasing attack for the “thought crime” of advocating on behalf of free speech and against suppression and repression of scientific ideas that some may find disagreeable, uncomfortable, or objectionable. In response, the LSA issued a statement reaffirming the organization's commitment to "intellectual freedom" and "professional responsibility" and that "it is not the mission of the Society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression" and created two task forces to review it's policies on awards. The LSA also took down their list of media experts.

The publication of controversial ideas has always drawn ire—and worse—from those opposed to the information and perspectives that they may find incredible, disagreeable or uncomfortable. Are we returning to the time of Servato, when controversial ideas, unpopular scientific discoveries, and challenging authority will result in condemnation?

As Professor Pinker and his colleagues wrote in their letter on free speech in Harper’s Magazine:

“But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”

Regardless of one’s political or religious views or scientific perspectives, the foundational value of free speech and the free exchange of ideas should always be a shared vision for all citizens to be protected and nurtured. Servato, and so many others throughout history who have been persecuted (and burned at the stake) serve as a beacon unerringly teaching where suppressing enlightenment inevitably leads. The future of our society is at stake; one can only hope that this promising future is not derailed and “burned at the stake” by "popular culture" cancelling dissention, debate, and discovery. I fear that society will once again have to relearn the hard lessons paid for by Servato and more recently by those ruined by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts and “blacklists” in the United States in the 1950s. We need to protect and celebrate enlightenment—and free speech—now more than ever.