When academics attack

I love a good academic stoush, so long as I'm just watching and not involved either as an antagonist or as collateral damage. Recently, Steven Pinker published a book, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, which was subsequently reviewed by Patricia Churchland, in Nature. Unfortunately, Churchland ascribed a hypothesis to Pinker, which Pinker was, in fact, attacking. Now Pinker has responded. I trust Nature won't mind my reproducing it here:

Patricia Churchland's review of my book The Stuff of Thought ('Poetry in motion' Nature 450, 29–30; 2007) says virtually nothing about the book's contents, and gets two of its main claims backwards. A lengthy section of the book argues against the idea that "thought is like external language in all important respects." And the theory of Jerry Fodor's that Churchland calls "font-change semantics" (whereby a person's knowledge of the meaning of a word, such as cut, consists of a single mental symbol, such as 'cut') is one that I argue against, together with Fodor's innateness ad libitum claim, also mistakenly attributed to me.

The book apparently stimulated the reviewer to free-associate to her own beliefs that psychological phenomena can be explained at the level of neurons and that human thinking is in the service of motor control. The fact that I (like most cognitive psychologists) have not signed up to these views is the only point of contact between my book and her review.

Break out the popcorn. We haven't heard the last of this one...

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What curious serendipity. I only really learned who Pinker was just yesterday through a Youtube video of one of his lectures. He seems like a pretty smart fellow for someone with hair like that. I was considering buying one of his books but hadn't made up my mind just yet. He's also a "Steve;" surely that counts for something, but so far my only exploration of cognitive science was the tangential Moral Minds by Marc Hauser, but the field seems to have exploded over the last decade and I know little about it.

Anyway, you're right, John. This looks like a grand diversion. Watching eloquent people disparage each other's competence in a public forum always makes for a glorious entertainment.

By John Vreeland (not verified) on 06 Dec 2007 #permalink

Yes, Steve Pinker is a very really smart guy. I feel so sorry for Churchland since she did completely misinterpret his book. Marc Hauser and Steve Pinker are actually good friends and their work both falls under this new 'cognitive psychology' with occasional forays into philosophy.

No, I don't keep up with that topic. But I would guess it's Churchland's interpretation of the idea that there is one symbol for each concept in the head. Fodor seems to think that the mind is a general Turing machine processing symbols. The way that is often presented on paper is to change the font (e.g., from roman to italic) in the text.