Quotations by Pinker, Steven

To a linguist, the phenomenon is familiar: the euphemism treadmill. People invent new “polite” words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations. “Water closet” becomes “toilet” (originally a term for any body care, as in “toilet kit”), which becomes “bathroom,” which becomes “rest room,” which becomes “lavatory.” “Garbage collection” turns into “sanitation,” which turns into “environmental services.” The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge. Give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name. (We will know we have achieved equality and mutual respect when names for minorities stay put.)

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
“The Game of the Name,” New York Times (5 Apr 1994)
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Some people think that evolutionary psychology claims to have discovered that human nature is selfish and wicked. But they are flattering the researchers and anyone who would claim to have discovered the opposite. No one needs a scientist to measure whether humans are prone to knavery. The question has been answered in the history books, the newspapers, the ethnographic record, and the letters to Ann Landers. But people treat it like an open question, as if someday science might discover that it’s all a bad dream and we will wake up to find that it is human nature to love one another.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
How the Mind Works, ch. 7 (1997)
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Violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived in the minds of the perpetrators.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
The Better Angels of our Nature, ch. 3 (2011)
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People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
The Better Angels of Our Nature, ch. 4 (2011)
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No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali was the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them — or worse, who credibly rebut them — they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
The Better Angels of Our Nature, ch. 4 (2011)
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There is, in fact, no incompatibility between the principles of feminism and the possibility that men and women are not psychologically identical. To repeat: equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group. In the case of gender, the barely defeated Equal Rights Amendment put it succinctly: “Equality of Rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex.” If we recognize this principle, no one has to spin myths about the indistinguishability of the sexes to justify equality. Nor should anyone invoke sex differences to justify discriminatory policies or to hector women into doing what they don’t want to do.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
The Blank Slate, Part 5, ch. 18 (2002)
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As people age, they confuse changes in themselves with changes in the world, and changes in the world with moral decline — the illusion of the good old days. And so every generation believes that the kids today are degrading the language and taking civilization down with it.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
The Sense of Style, Prologue (2014)
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Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority, but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who inexorably age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
The Sense of Style, Prologue (2014)
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As an experimental psychologist, I have been trained not to believe anything unless it can be demonstrated in the laboratory on rats or sophomores.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
Words and Rules, ch. 4 (1999)
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Many of our moral and political policies are designed to preempt what we know to be the worst features of human nature. The checks and balances in a democracy, for instance, were invented in explicit recognition of the fact that human leaders will always be tempted to arrogate power to themselves. Likewise, our sensitivity to racism comes from an awareness that groups of humans, left to their own devices, are apt to discriminate and oppress other groups, often in ugly ways. History also tells us that a desire to enforce dogma and suppress heretics is a recurring human weakness, one that has led to recurring waves of gruesome oppression and violence. A recognition that there is a bit of Torquemada in everyone should make us wary of any attempt to enforce a consensus or demonize those who challenge it.

Steven Pinker (b. 1954) Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, author
Introduction to John Brockman (ed.), What is Your Dangerous Idea? (2007)
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Added on 11-Nov-21 | Last updated 11-Nov-21
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