The Harvard University professor writes, in his new book, about how we’re better off than ever.
Steven Pinker’s new book is shock therapy for pessimists. If you’re in a descending spiral of gloom over the state of things, the Harvard University professor and best-selling author has an antidote: He documents, in granular detail, that by many measures the human race is better off than ever before: massive improvements in health, standard of living, literacy, longevity.
Bill Gates called Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” (Viking, $35) “my new favorite book of all time,” but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. It’s an impressive work of synthesis and an impassioned call for rational thinking, but it “contains something to upset almost everyone,” says an otherwise admiring New York Times review. Pinker has a long list of bad actors that he blames for darkening our world view — journalists (though he does quote quite a few), “intellectuals” (the pundit version) and almost all forms of faith (In the final pages of his book he opines that there is “almost certainly no God”). Left-wing and right-wing partisans get a hiding.
Pinker appears March 16 at the University Temple United Methodist Church in Seattle. He answered some questions about his new book; here’s an edited version of that conversation:
Q: You make a compelling case that humans are better off in so many areas; health, wealth, literacy, longevity. Even income inequality is declining because worldwide, so many poor people are becoming less poor. Why is that so hard to believe?
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A: It’s in part because our intuitions about risk and danger are driven by narratives and examples from a constant feed of negative events. … We’re more attuned to things that go wrong than things that go right.
For most of human history … being aware of what was going on was the most adaptive response. We are most appreciative of people who point out negative things we’ve overlooked. There’s a constant market for doomsayers and curmudgeons, and they accumulate a certain amount of moral seriousness.
Q: America lags behind other Western countries of similar wealth and resources in key aspects of well-being, including rates of homicide, incarceration, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, child mortality, obesity, educational mediocrity and premature death. What is our problem?
A: No one knows for sure why that is. The U.S. has some distinctive cultural schemes … the culture of honor, the manly defense of self and family that runs through the South and the West, and a high degree of religiosity that may be both cause and effect of social dysfunction. If you might lose your job and your insurance at the drop of a hat, you might pray to God that it doesn’t happen. Conversely, you might be opposed to the social safety net that would prevent those things from happening.
There seems to be an optimal level of social services and spending — too much and the taxes can be crippling and private initiative can be sacked. Too little, and you might have the United States — insufficient provision for medical care, insufficient support both for education and protection for the unemployed and displaced. If I had to isolate a single factor, it might be that we fall out on the side of too little.
Q: You write that “globalization has been a bonanza for the poor,” and that the majority of the human race has become much better off. That doesn’t hold true, though, for the lower middle classes of the developed world, including Americans. What are the implications of this development?
A: We should be careful not to conclude that all of them (the lower middle class) are losers. On average, they have not gained as much in terms of affordable goods and services. We should not subscribe to the narrative that jobs like coal mining are so precious that we should do irrational things to the economy (to preserve them). There’s a certain nostalgia that misses the harsh reality when poverty rates were higher. Policies should make it easier for people to retool and retrain. Especially coal-mining jobs — they are the worst jobs, the most dangerous, the most debilitating. Something has gone wrong with how we’ve dealt with economic displacement … retraining, helping people move to different areas, could give people a greater willingness to take risks.
Q: This year has seen a chain of school shootings in America. Nationwide, gun deaths are on the increase. There’s not much discussion of gun control, or the causes of and remedies for mass shootings, in this book. What are your thoughts on preventing these horrific events?
A: Certainly, common-sense gun-control measures and keeping assault weapons out of the hands of teenagers. Another is to not feed the shooters’ own agenda of achieving instant celebrity. When you think of what could possibly be the motive of a rampage killer, there’s very little in it for them. At best they will be lifelong convicted felons. At worst they will be shot. The saturation coverage that both terrorists and rampant shooters receive vindicates their own design. They’re taking the one route to becoming famous — the practice of naming the shooters, showing the faces, publishing their manifestos, crediting them with the size of their atrocity. … There have been other policies of calculated self-restraint (in the media), such as not publishing names of rape victims.
Q: In The New York Times, columnist David Brooks praised your book, but he warned that “Conscious reason can get you only so far when tribal emotions have been aroused, when existential fears rain down, when narcissistic impulses have been given free rein, when spiritual longings have nowhere to go, when social trust has been devastated, when all the unconscious networks that make up 99 percent of our thinking are inflamed and disordered.” You make the case that reason is humanity’s best tool for survival, but what about our emotional and spiritual side?
A: In policymaking, reason is the only thing that we should appeal to. But reason can take into account human emotional responses. In politics, appealing to emotion should only lead to policies we can justify.
Appeals to people’s better angels cannot be a recitation of facts and figures; you have to appeal to emotion. We need reason combined with humanism. … Reason is just a way to get from A to B, but it doesn’t tell you what the B should be.
Political polarization … is probably the major reason we have seen a departure from reason in the political arena. People depart from reason when they are seeking solidarity with their political camp. We can’t combat demagoguery with demagoguery. We need rhetorical skill and nuance that appeal to people’s emotions in ways that advance goals that we can rationally justify.
Steven Pinker, author of “Enlightenment Now,” will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, March 16, in the sanctuary of the University Temple United Methodist Church, 1415 N.E. 43rd St. Tickets are $35 and include the cost of the book and admission for two people; available at brownpapertickets.com.