"Who speaks for us?" FAQ

This document contains a number of questions that might arise regarding the manuscript, Who speaks for us? Lessons from the Pinker letter.

Please consider reading the paper in full if you haven't yet. We'd also like to take this opportunity to note that the discourse around the Pinker letter has become unnecessarily fraught. We hope that the paper and this FAQ will help everyone return to respectful debate of the issues – especially now, we think, when things are particularly difficult for everyone during the pandemic.

What is this paper about?

This paper is an examination of events that took place in July and August 2020, in response to an open letter sent to the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) concerning Steven Pinker’s status within the organization. The paper does not evaluate the claims of the letter, but rather focuses on the responses to it by both the media and Pinker himself. We identify the pervasive false claims and biases in said responses, and analyze the rhetorical tactics used by Pinker and his supporters. We conclude that linguists don't quite know how to handle widespread media attention and make a few suggestions.

What is the open letter regarding Pinker?

The Open Letter (or The Original Letter), or simply TOL, refers to this document, which was circulated to linguists on social media in early July and became the subject of much media attention outside of the field of linguistics.

Is there a short summary of the whole affair?

Section 2 of the paper (‘The TOL timeline’) provides such a summary. You can also check out this timeline of media coverage of and responses to TOL.

What are the false claims being spread about TOL?

Contrary to many reports, the paper shows that: (i) the LSA never rejected TOL; (ii) TOL has many senior and well-established signatories (though it would be worth taking seriously even if that weren’t the case); and (iii) TOL was never an attempt to “cancel” anyone. We simply aim to set the record straight on the facts. As stated in the conclusion of the paper, "one of our hopes in publishing this paper is that the public discourse can return to a frank consideration of [racism and sexism] with sincerity and civility."

Is this paper another open letter?

No. This is a preprint of an academic paper that has been submitted to a scientific journal for formal peer review. Sometimes scientists choose to make their submitted manuscripts publicly available in order to stimulate discussion even before the paper has been through the review process.

Who is this paper’s audience?

Like TOL itself, the main audience of this paper is other linguists. However, the paper was written assuming as little background knowledge as possible, to make it accessible to the general public and specifically to anyone who has engaged with the controversy surrounding TOL.

Why did you write a whole paper on this?

Writing scientific papers is a core part of being an academic! We document and analyze what happened, since so much of it took place on social media and in blog posts, and attempts to be as comprehensive as possible in reviewing the facts. Linguistics as a field doesn’t often get so much media attention, and the frequently published misconceptions, left uncorrected, were especially frustrating as a result. The paper therefore serves as a permanent record, which could be vetted through normal scientific peer review and serve as a reliable source for future reference. Like any scientific contribution, the paper can spur other scholars to bring additional data or interpretations into the debate.

If you're concerned about media coverage, why not just write an op-ed or contact a journalist?

As we detail in Section 2.4 of the paper, this is part of the problem: journalists were only interested in Pinker's narrative, and all attempts by linguists to correct media errors have been unsuccessful.

So is this another attempt to "cancel" Pinker?

No. This paper does not discuss the claims of TOL, or any of Pinker’s behavior prior to TOL, nor does it advocate for any actions to be taken in relation to or against Pinker. Similarly, the paper does not restrict anyone’s “free speech”. If anything, it offers a more objective perspective on the events that have transpired since the circulation of TOL.

But hasn't Pinker made significant and important contributions to linguistics?

Absolutely, and we hope he does so again. However, this paper is not about his research.

Are you the same group that wrote TOL?

No. The authors of TOL chose to remain anonymous, and while we don’t know who they all are, this paper was written by a different set of authors.

Did you sign TOL?

Many but not all of us did. But, again, this paper isn’t arguing for or against any of the claims in TOL.

Why are some of you anonymous?

The paper discusses some of the negative reactions to TOL, which include threats of professional consequences, and worse, to many of the letter’s signatories. The writers of the TOL were additionally threatened by individuals outside the field. While it is our hope that none of this happens again, it is possible that people could react to this paper in a similar way.