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Steven Pinker with Hans Eijmberts during a Bentley University-hosted &A and talk on academic freedom
Photo by Maddie Schroeder.

Bentley hosted world-renowned psychologist, cognitive scientist and humanist Steven Pinker for a conversation on ways that rational thought — including beliefs relating to reality and mythology — impacts the ideas of free speech, free inquiry and academic freedom. Pinker noted ways that he sees these freedoms are coming under attack and how collective action can help confront that threat. The program was presented by the Jeanne and Dan Valente Center for Arts and Sciences with the Department of History and the Department of Global Studies. 

“Human rationality presents us with a puzzle: On the one hand, our species can make claims to astonishing feats of rationality,” said Pinker, who is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. “We can define rationality by a family of normative models; these are benchmarks of how we ought to reason.”

Challenging the audience with a series of puzzles to demonstrate in real-time how humans do not naturally reason with normative models, Pinker emphasized that they instead “fall back on heuristics, biases and primitive intuitions resulting in widespread fallacies.”

The topic of rationality — what it is, why it’s scarce and why it matters — is one covered in Pinker‘s book of the same name. During the talk, he emphasized work that he believes needs to be done in academia, an industry he says has a theoretical commitment to freedom of inquiry and open debate. “An important way to promote public rationality,” he said, is “to safeguard the credibility and objectivity of our rationality.” 

He cautioned against research and teaching informed by political parties, saying, “Gratuitous politicization should be avoided,” and instead called for “greater promotion of numeracy and scientific literacy.” 

Pinker and his Harvard colleagues are advocating the ideals of free speech and free inquiry through an initiative known as the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, which they launched in March 2023. The initiative provides free speech guidelines united by principles of free inquiry, intellectual diversity and civil discourse.  

“In the face of assaults on free speech and objective determination of truth and falsity, why is academic freedom indispensable?” Pinker asked. “No one is infallible or omniscient. We are all vulnerable to logical and statistical fallacies, to primitive intuitions, to a ‘my side’ bias, to expressive rationality. That is, beliefs as a signal of your moral worth rather than as a commitment to what’s true or false. We’ve made intellectual progress, nonetheless, by a process of conjecture and refutation within institutions. Some people propose ideas, others probe whether they’re sound and in the long run, the better ideas prevail. Any institution that disables this cycle is doomed.” 

Pinker’s talk concluded with a question-and-answer session with audience members, who raised topics including the potential negative impact of free speech on mental health. Another question challenged Pinker to clarify his stance on disempowering diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives on college campuses.  

“In a modern university, diversity means people who look different and think alike; the problem with diversity, as it has been defined in practice, is that it excludes diversity of opinion,” he said. “In fact, in practice, diversity of opinion is vital. It’s not the same as demographic diversity. That does have advantages, but they should not be confused.” 

Pinker added that he does see the value of DEI programs that avoid what he referred to as a “DEI bureaucracy” that enforces uniformity of opinion. “It’s not that we should back off on the ideals of diversity or equity inclusion, but the university policy should not be made by a cadre of officials who are not responsible to anyone and can just impose their own ideology without ordinary checks and balances.” 

The conversation shifted with a question for Pinker on how a university can empower students who may be afraid to express their true opinions and navigate assignments if their political views differ from those of their professor. 

Emphasizing the need for neutrality and acknowledging that some professors repress academic freedom in the classroom, Pinker said, “Students should not be penalized for the content of their beliefs, as long as they can argue for them with citation, with evidence, with scholarship and so on.”  

Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics and social relations. His many books have covered topics across human nature, language and rationality. Pinker is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” 

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