Cognitive Daily

Over at The Quarterly Conversation, I’ve written a review of George Lakoff’s book Whose Freedom?

In case my personal politics haven’t come through in my CogDaily posts (and I do make an effort to assume a neutral perspective here), you’ll get a good sense of my views in this review, where I point out that though Lakoff’s invocation of cognitive science in support of his claims is problematic, Steven Pinker, Lakoff’s most vocal critic, is guilty of similar overgeneralizations:

If Lakoff’s cog sci-based explanation of how the Republicans spun their way into power is this unconvincing, then one can likewise doubt his claims about how to combat the conservative agenda. That said, Pinker’s criticism of Lakoff isn’t much better:

“But Lakoff’s advice doesn’t pass the giggle test. One can imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff’s Orwellian advice to rebrand taxes as ‘membership fees.’ Surely no one has to hear the metaphor ‘tax relief’ to think of taxes as an affliction; that sentiment has been around as long as taxes have been around.”

Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’ve been unable to find the passage Pinker refers to in Whose Freedom? (and an Amazon Search Inside backs me up). Lakoff does argue that Democrats shouldn’t adopt Republican branding of the Bush tax cuts as “tax relief,” but he doesn’t suggest calling for “membership fees.” And Lakoff is right about the inherent dishonesty in calling tax cuts that disproportionately impact the wealthiest Americans “tax relief” for all. If Pinker truly believes that rebranding unappealing political actions “doesn’t pass the giggle test,” then perhaps he should look up Bush’s “Clear Skies” initiative, which removed pollution controls, or even the boondoggle that was once the “No Child Left Behind” act. If rebranding didn’t work, politicians wouldn’t use it, and even if Lakoff’s (alleged) specific suggestion might not be optimal, there are plenty of other ways to characterize removing tax cuts that, as Lakoff advises, don’t invoke the Republican theme of “tax relief.” Two examples that presumably would pass Pinker’s giggle-test: “fiscal responsibility” or “balancing the budget.”

In other news:


  1. #1 etbnc
    December 4, 2006

    Most models are wrong, but some are useful.

  2. #2 rltlc
    December 4, 2006

    George stopped being a scientist when he hopped on the political bandwagon. It’s tempting because in politics you don’t have to think so hard. The only kind of politics that makes sense is the a la carte kind. All pre-packaged ideologies are crap.

  3. #3 Omri Ceren
    December 5, 2006

    I don’t know about the book itself, but Lakoff’s “membership fees” rebranding is certainly part of his “it’s all about discursive framing” advocacy. See:

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