Interview: Steven Pinker at the Cambridge Union

Scarlet Rowe 6 May 2021
Image credit: Creative Commons

I had the absolute privilege of interviewing none other than Steven Pinker following his talk at the Cambridge Union yesterday (5th May), which you can watch on the Union’s YouTube channel at your leisure. From a quick Google search, it is clear that Pinker is one of those people who is (annoyingly) good at everything; he is a cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He has written an impressive number of books, including The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now. And to top it all off, he is also a very friendly and approachable person who is a real pleasure to interview.

I interview Pinker at 9 pm in Cambridge, UK (where I am), which means it is 4 pm in Cambridge, Massachusetts (where he is). As a lover of small talk myself, my first question for Pinker is what the weather is like over there, to which the answer is “pretty grey and dreary.” This response creates an immediate solidarity between the two of us. I all too easily relate with any and all talk of grey and dreary weather in light of the indisputable fact that the UK and rain go hand in hand, no matter the season.

As Pinker can’t attend the Union interview in person due to current travel restrictions, I ask him if he has visited Cambridge in the UK. “I’ve been a number of times, and of course I work in Cambridge [in Massachusetts] as well. It’s always nice to go to the mothership.” The idea of Cambridge being a “mothership” makes me laugh. If I fail my exams, then at least I can fail them in a mothership, which at least makes it more exciting. Pinker adds that “I have a number of friends and colleagues at Cambridge. I always enjoy the visits; I enjoy the architecture, to say nothing of the intellectual intensity.” His glowing review certainly surpasses my go-to description of Cambridge which goes something along the lines of “it’s nice, quite pretty… even if a bit cold.”

I’m (not that) afraid to say that my next question for Pinker is a slightly unoriginal one: “If you could be remembered for one thing, and one thing only, what would it be?” Pinker doesn’t struggle to answer that he would like to be remembered for “helping to teach people how the mind works. I’m not so medically specific about it, but I’d like to think that I’ve helped.” This is very modest coming from someone who has devoted decades of their life to studying the mind, and even written a book about it called How the Mind Works. Next, I find out that Pinker’s favourite school subject “really was psychology, particularly cognitive psychology” because “what can be more interesting than how the mind works?”. In all honesty, I’m not exactly surprised by this answer.

I ask Pinker how he would explain Psychology to someone who has not heard of the discipline before. He neatly summarises Psychology by calling it “the scientific study of the mind.” I wish I had such a concise explanatory power for my essays. I should take a leaf (or two) out of Pinker’s book in my future essay endeavours. Pinker also explains that “the misunderstanding of Psychology is so widespread that I always tell people I’m a cognitive scientist. At least then no one thinks I’m a Psychoanalyst which is most people’s association with Psychology.” I nod rigorously in agreement, although secretly I do not know the difference between a psychologist and psychoanalyst. Do you?

On the topic of misunderstandings, I ask Pinker if he thinks any theory of his is particularly misunderstood, to which he responds “absolutely: I think my notion of progress is often misunderstood as an attitude of optimism that we all should see the glass as half full, whereas it’s really a call to base our understanding of the world on data; not that we should appreciate it [progress], but we should be aware of it.”

I am intrigued in hearing about a specific example of Pinker’s work being misunderstood. He quickly provides one for me through talking about interpretations of his work on language. “My understanding of language- the idea that we have a language instinct [that humans are born with an innate capacity for language]- is sometimes equated with Noam Chomsky’s view that we have a detailed pre-programmed universal grammar of transformational rules. Chomsky denies that language is a biological adaptation, whereas that is at the very heart of my arguments about language.” Pinker has written a book called The Language Instinct where he explains his ideas further. This leaves me wondering how on this earth- or any for that matter- does Pinker find the hours in the day to write not one, but multiple books, when I struggle to write half an essay in the same time? Wonders never cease.

In keeping with the theme of language (which, admittedly, is a theme which can be interpreted extremely generously,) I ask Pinker what his favourite word is. His answer is one I have never heard before, and will probably never hear again: “the 165 irregular verbs in English.” Pinker lists a handful of these verbs (though I get the impression that he probably knows them all by heart as he states the verbs in the same confident and natural tone that I make my McDonald’s orders in): “sling, slung, bring, brought, sit, sat…” and so on.

The grand conclusion is that Pinker “loves all of the irregular verbs in English, so it’s a 165 way tie.” I wouldn’t expect anything less than a 165 way tie, although I’m glad that he didn’t ask me the question in return because I would have had to hang my head in shame and admit that it is “dilapidated” for no good reason except that I like the way it sounds. Of course, it is completely unsurprising that Pinker wrote a book on irregular verbs called Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. And even though it is a very close call, I think that a whole book (just about) makes for a better justification than my “I like the way it sounds.”

I go off script in asking why he loves the 165 irregular verbs so much. “They fossilise some of the history of the English Language,” he tells me, “some of them are reflections for the mind’s ability to analogise. For example, we say “sing, sang, sung.” These words highlight one of the two common mechanisms which make language possible: namely, memory. Because they are quirky, idiosyncratic, and defy regimented rules, they must be memorised one at a time. So they showcase our ability to remember particularities, complimenting our ability to use algorithmic combinations of words to spin out predictable sentences.”

Pinker is exactly the sort of person you would want to sit down with in order to talk away a rainy day with plenty of cups of tea. Unfortunately, I only have two minutes more to talk to him, and so my penultimate question is about whether Pinker looks up to anyone in particular. He replies that “I certainly looked up to the late Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor who not only expanded efforts to identify epidemics in the developing world, but also made it his life’s work to develop new forms of data presentation to bring human progress alive.”
It is finally time for the concluding question: what is Pinker’s favourite song? He smiles at this question which is a far cry from the interview topics about progress, violence, and language which he is frequently asked about. “If I had to pick one, I might pick Further On Up the Road performed by Eric Clapton and The Band during the Last Waltz concert.” After the interview I gave the song a listen. It’s lively, upbeat, and slightly manic. This makes it ideal for a quick revision break, or alternatively, to “work to” when you really need an excuse to prance around and distract yourself for a couple of minutes.

Safe to say, I conclude the interview feeling a lot more relaxed than when I started it. Steven Pinker is genuinely a delight to talk to. He puts me at ease in no time with his relaxed nature. So as the interview draws to a sorry close, I express my hopes that the weather will get better. It’s nearing 2 am here in Cambridge, UK as I write the interview up, so that means that it’s about 10 pm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I am disappointed to see that “light rain showers” are still ongoing over there whereas here, it’s “partly cloudy.”

If this weather continues, and let’s be honest, it probably will; then you have no excuse not to watch Pinker’s full interview at the Union. You can thank me later!