Steven Pinker is the 2019 recipient of the Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy


2019 Sterling Prize awarded for way of looking at the world

October 15, 2019

This month, SFU will award Steven Pinker, Harvard University experimental psychology professor and author, the 2019 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy for challenging complacency and providing a new way of looking at the world.

By analyzing 15 different measures of human wellbeing, Pinker argues in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now that life has improved significantly since the Enlightenment due to its values of reason, science and humanism.

“As a mild-mannered Canadian I don’t think of myself as particularly inflammatory, though controversy has followed me throughout my career, from irregular verbs to human progress,” says Pinker.

The Sterling Prize Committee selected Steven Pinker as this year’s recipient for his vigorous defense of the values that the committee feels are at the core of academia: open, unfettered and reasoned debate.  

Awarding the Sterling Prize makes no statement on the accuracy of the positions presented—it seeks to recognize important contributions to explore and understand ideas and events that people disagree with.

“People who explore ideas outside the conventional wisdom are often slandered, silenced, or worse,” says Pinker. “Yet history tells us that ideas that are unexceptionable today were denounced in their time.

“Recognition of controversial thinkers can be a counterweight to the indignities they face, and ultimately a contributor to intellectual and moral progress. I’m honored by this prize, and hope to live up to its ideals.”

Pinker will receive the Sterling Prize at an award ceremony on Tuesday, Oct. 29 at SFU’s new Surrey campus building. Following the ceremony, Pinker will give a presentation on controversy and issues of free inquiry and free speech in universities. The lecture will be open to the public and free with registration.

The Sterling Prize was first awarded in 1993 and remains committed to recognizing work that provokes and contributes to the understanding of controversy, while presenting new ways of looking at the world and challenging complacency. The prize recognizes work across disciplines and departments and is awarded annually by the Sterling Prize committee. Normally, it is awarded to a member of Simon Fraser University, but it can be awarded to someone unconnected to SFU if the candidate’s contribution has been of exceptional merit.