UPDATED: Petition gathers signatures in opposition to psychologist Steven Pinker’s upcoming visit to campus

Pinker’s history of ties to convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have led some students to petition the university to reconsider his invitation to speak on campus.


Mattigan Kelly

Langford Auditorium, where most Chancellor’s Lecture Series events are held.

Eva Durchholz and Rachel Friedman

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify that the petition cited below said Pinker gave advice to Epstein’s lawyer. The article also has been updated to include emailed quotes from Pinker.


Junior Edie Duncan started a petition Nov. 25 to protest the upcoming Chancellor’s Lectures Series event that hosts cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker for his ties to the late Jeffrey Epstein. 

As of Sunday, Dec. 1, the petition had garnered around 120 signatures. Duncan said a faculty member approached her and suggested that she should spread the word because they thought Vanderbilt administration would listen to students more than a faculty member. 

Pinker, a Harvard professor, is scheduled to be featured in a panel event Dec. 3 alongside journalist Carl Zimmer and Vanderbilt professor and author Amanda Little. The panel is set to be moderated by political science professor Jon Meacham. The topic of the panel is “2020 and Beyond: Tackling Global Issues in the Decades to Come.”

Pinker, Zimmer and Little follow cultural influencers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and George Takei who spoke in previous Chancellor’s Lecture Series events this fall, all in this year’s theme “Culture of Respect; Culture of Caring.”

The petition against Pinker reads: “He has appeared in Epstein’s flight logs among other prominent figures, the same flight that would travel to places across the world, including the island where Epstein allegedly hosted a sex-trafficking ring involving minors. Pinker was also photographed with Epstein in 2014, well after Epstein received his sentence and became a notorious sex offender.”

In an email to The Hustler Dec. 3, Pinker discussed his presence on Epstein’s plane in 2002.

“It is true that I was among a group of TED speakers who flew to the event on Epstein’s plane in 2002 at the invitation of my literary agent. At the time, no one knew of his sex crimes, so there was no reason to avoid the flight. Nor was there anything suspicious on the flight itself,” he said.

The petition also says, “Most significantly, a document revealed that Steven Pinker offered linguistic advice back in 2006 to Epstein’s friend and lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, on how to manipulate the language regarding the child prostitution law that Epstein violated.”

Pinker said that he did offer linguistic advice on the natural interpretation of a federal law to Dershowitz but never communicated with Epstein.

“I have never communicated with him, and was not a paid expert on his defense team. Though I believe that it is important for all of us that the government only convict people for violating laws as they are commonly understood, I regret doing this favor for Professor Dershowitz, and would not have done it had I known the extent of his crimes,” Pinker said.

The petition acknowledges that Pinker denies association with Epstein but states that the connection cannot be dismissed as a coincidence in good conscience.

“A truly upstanding individual would not agree to manipulate language to downplay the laws surrounding prostitution of minors, and would not casually end up in a photograph with a convicted sex offender years later,” the petition reads.

Pinker also responded to concern over this photograph.

“The photograph at Arizona State University is just that, a photograph. I was a participant at a scientific conference; the organizer invited Epstein to my table, and someone snapped a photo. In an age of ubiquitous smartphone cameras, this is an occupational hazard. A casual snapshot does not, of course, indicate friendship or professional connection,” he said.

“I abhor Epstein’s crimes, and express my sympathy to his victims. In my books and lectures I have documented and celebrated progress in combatting violence against and exploitation of women. I could never stand this man, took no funding from him, never invited him to any event, and never received any invitation from him. Any associations were through colleagues who, to my annoyance and bewilderment, invited him to scientific events at which I was a participant,” Pinker also said in his email to The Hustler.

The petition calls on the administration to reconsider Pinker’s invitation and, in the future, to invite speakers that “embody the values necessary to foster growth on campus and create an environment of mutual respect and trust.” The Chancellor’s Office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Duncan is also organizing a protest tomorrow prior to the event outside of Langford Auditorium.

“My main point is that these connections are too much to be coincidental,” Duncan said. “The theme of the lecture series is ‘caring and respect’ — someone that we look up to for those values would not have coincidentally been involved like this with such a notorious sex offender as Jeffrey Epstein. True role models need to be intentional about their actions.”