The World Is Not a Flaming Dumpster - Talking to Steven Pinker

Chris Schluep on February 13, 2018

EN200.jpgIf you follow Bill Gates' blog, then you're probably familiar with Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, which Gates declares to be his new favorite book.

Gates writes, "The world is getting better, even if it doesn’t always feel that way. I’m glad we have brilliant thinkers like Steven Pinker to help us see the big picture. Enlightenment Now is not only the best book Pinker’s ever written. It’s my new favorite book of all time.”

That's a nice plug for the book. Really nice. And it helped send Enlightenment Now running up best seller lists. We caught up with Pinker to find out a little more about the book. And if you'd like to see a short interview between Gates and Pinker, go here.

One of your previous books, The Better Angels of Our Nature, focused primarily on the decline of violence in our world. With Enlightenment Now, you’ve expanded your view to all aspects of civilization. What prompted that change?

In a word, data. Just as I was prompted to write Better Angels after seeing graphs showing that rates of homicide and war deaths had plummeted over the decades and centuries, I was prompted to write Enlightenment Now after seeing graphs showing that extreme poverty, maternal and childhood mortality, deaths from infectious disease, and illiteracy had decreased –not just in the West, but worldwide. Perhaps the last straw was seeing a graph in Car and Driver magazine showing that since 1950, deaths in car crashes had declined sevenfold. I realized that the historical decline of violence was a part of a larger phenomenon: human life has become more precious.

But as I wrote the book, I realized that it had to be more than a documentation of the existence of progress. Certain ideas and values made progress possible, and they had to be identified and defended, particularly at a time when those ideas and values are under assault.

Why should people read this book?

Progress is not pushed along automatically by a mystical dialectic or progressive force or arc of justice.  It is the result of the efforts of human actors, guided by particular ideals, namely the ideals of the Enlightenment. Those ideals were challenged from the start, and they are under attack today. Unless we know what those ideals are, and commit to advancing them, progress could stall or go into reverse—as it has a number of times in the past.

I realize that most intellectuals and journalists think it is serious and responsible to sound the alarm on everything that’s going wrong, and frivolous or panglossian or whiggish or Polyannish to point out what’s going right, but I argue that this is mistaken. If people are constantly told that their society is a flaming dumpster, they’ll be receptive to demagogues and firebrands who say that reform is futile and that the institutions of liberal democracy and applied expertise must be wrecked. They will be complacent about the rollback of measures that have—the data show—done tremendous good, such as ones that have combated poverty, pollution, and workplace accidents. And they’ll be cynical about the very possibility of improving life, and fatalistic about looming threats. If poverty, war, pollution, and crime are permanent and intractable problems, why even bother trying to solve them?

Can you explain what you mean by “Enlightenment Now”?

These ideals are captured in the book’s subtitle: reason, science, humanism, and progress. By understanding the world, and by making human well-being the ultimate value, we can make the world better. I thought we needed a name for the value system that many of us take for granted – the value system that underlies liberal democracies, international institutions, benevolent organizations, educational and scientific establishments, and other means of pursuing progress. Radical religious and political ideologies have names and symbols and slogans, but the ideas that actually have been making the world better tend to fade into the background and lack overt defenders. One could also call it “humanism” or “classical liberalism” or “the open society,” but I thought that “enlightenment values” or “enlightenment ideals” was the best umbrella term.

In your book, you note that things are actually getting better, even as they seem to be getting worse. Why doesn’t it feel like it?

Journalism is perversely designed to fool us into thinking that the world is getting worse even as it is getting better. For one thing, news is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. Catastrophes produce photogenic images and gripping stories, but peace consists of nothing happening at all: a country that’s not at war, a marketplace that isn’t bombed. And progress in life, health, education, and affluence creeps up slowly—there’s never a headline that says “137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday” (and the day before, and the day before that….). Cognitive psychologists have shown that the brain assesses risk by vivid examples, so the catastrophes we remember distort our understanding. Worse, it’s part of journalistic culture to equate “serious journalism” with “things that go wrong”; things that go right are considered fluffy, lightweight. Worst of all, the practice of journalism creates a niche for violence impresarios who jerk the media around with flamboyant atrocities that kill very few people but are guaranteed to produce saturation coverage and instant worldwide fame for the perpetrator. They’re called terrorists and rampage killers, and they multiply the distortion in people’s view of the world.

You have an entire chapter on Progressopohobia. Could you define progressophobia and explain its implications?

Progressophobia is hostility to the idea of progress and a fondness for narratives of decline, decadence, degeneration, and doom. As I say in the chapter, “Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves progressive really hate progress.

Ok. Things do seem to be getting better for more and more people. But doesn’t that mean that the pendulum will eventually swing the other way? Are we getting ready to enter a period of swift decline?

No, it’s important not to confuse randomness with cycles—that’s called the gambler’s fallacy, like the high roller who sees five reds in a row and bets that the next roulette spin will result in black. We can always be blindsided by unpleasant surprises, like the 1960s crime boom, the opioid epidemic, and the civil war in Syria. But it wasn’t that they were steadily building up over the years as if they were designed to cancel out the good times. Unpredictable problems can always pop up – but we can take steps to make them rarer and less damaging when they do.

What steps can we take to ensure this progress continues, and how do we make sure that we note and appreciate it rather than ruminating in doom and gloom?

For one thing, we need an educational system that reminds students of the hazards of life in the past – epidemics, famines, tyranny, world war -- and of how our institutions have reduced them. Liberal democracy, science, international organizations, and other gifts of the Enlightenment should not be boring wallpaper that everyone takes for granted, but should be credited for their very real accomplishments. Also, we need a more numerate journalistic and intellectual culture, one that is guided by trends and data, not headlines and images. We need to challenge the mindset that pessimists are serious and deep and moral – in reality, it’s a cheap trick to point to every unsolved problem (of which there will always be many) and diagnose it as a symptom of a sick society. And we need to remind ourselves of the very real progress that has taken place in the past, so people don’t become fatalists and cynics about the possibility of progress in the future.

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