Thursday, December 06, 2018

Language and Progress - A Conversation with Steven Pinker and John McWhorter @ The Anne L. Bernstein Theater (12/6/2018)


Since moving to New York, I have had the chance to attend a few talks by thinkers that I greatly admire - Sam Harris & Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins & Brian Green.  It wasn't until this morning (in anticipation of tonight's event) that I considered that it might be worthwhile to blog about these types of events.  (I should perhaps also mention a Neil deGrasse Tyson talk that I saw a few years ago in St. Louis as another blog-worthy event.)

Tonight's event actually had a bit of a backstory.  It was originally supposed to be a conversation between Steven Pinker and Matt Dillahunty, and was promoted by Pangburn Philosophy.  However, that company folded about a month ago, so the event was cancelled along with several others.  Everything I have read and heard on the matter thus far indicates that Travis Pangburn was a fraudster who swindled both speakers that he had recruited and customers who had bought tickets for the events.  I should note, though, that although I knew about Pangburn ceasing operations, I didn't actually realize until last week that this specific event had been cancelled - it seems Pangburn didn't send out a notice to ticket-holders who had acquired tickets through his site.  And of course he wasn't providing refunds - the purchase confirmation notice says "No Refunds & No Exchanges. All Sales Are Final.".  Luckily, I saw Steven Pinker's retweet last week of this make-up event, with tickets being made available for *free*; so I jumped at the chance.

The event was held in a small theater on Broadway - I would guess it seated about a couple hundred people (though I'm terrible at these sorts of estimates), in contrast to the ~1500 at the originally scheduled venue.  Prior to the start, I noticed Steven and John chatting right next to the audience, and attempted to go say hello (as it seemed that a couple of other people just had); but the organizer (Jay Shapiro) stepped in, saying that there would be time for that afterward, as they were about to begin.

The talk was moderated by Shapiro, and consisted of about 30 minutes on linguistics, maybe 30 more on progress denial, and then another 45-ish more on audience questions.  Steven and John are both obviously brilliant guys, and pretty much agreed on everything that was discussed.  I can't say that I have any familiarity with linguistics, but some of the discussion on that topic was pretty interesting.  They dished on theories of the relationship between language and human thinking, a bit of what Chomsky got right and wrong, and other things that I can't remember.  Unfortunately, though, I also don't remember either of the couple insights that I found particularly interesting at the time.  After Jay transitioned them to ideas on progress and its denial, they discussed Steven's books on the subject, as well as John's categorization of many social justice proponents on the left as adhering to a religion.  I found that last bit particularly interesting (the rough outline is that such social justice proponents react strongly against reasonable arguments that don't adhere to their worldview in a dogmatic way similar to religion), and will try to spend some more time with his thoughts on that matter.

After the talk, I hung around a bit to take advantage of the intimate setting and try to meet the speakers.  I was fortunate enough to separately briefly chat with John, Steven, Jay, and Coleman Hughes (who was in attendance and had the first audience question).  I delivered a message from Fran to Steven telling him to keep up the good work and that she thought that his curls were almost as awesome as hers - he was happy to hear that last part.  I also got a little more background from Jay and John about how they hurriedly put the event together at the last minute.  All in all, it was a pretty cool event, and a nice way to end a birthday.

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