Enlightenment Wow: The Humanist Interview with Steven Pinker

The 2006 Humanist of the Year doesn’t need rose-colored glasses to see what’s clear about humanity’s progress.

STEVEN PINKER is a cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, popular science author, and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He has been recognized by a number of prestigious academic bodies, including the National Academy of Sciences, and was twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His widely acclaimed books include How the Mind Works (1997), The Blank Slate (2002), and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). His latest, Enlightenment Now, lays out a bold, data-rich case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. Bill Gates calls it his “new favorite book of all time.” Pinker was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 2006.

Clay Farris Naff: You acknowledge at the outset of your new book that we’re living in dark times or at least times that people view as being dark. This book is in large part an attempt to refute that. But I have to ask, is your optimism inborn, or has this view developed as a result of taking a clear-eyed look at the world?

Steven Pinker: It would be a mistake to think the message of the book is that we should be optimistic. The point of the book is that most measures of human wellbeing show that we have improved, that we should seek to understand what went right, and do more of that in the future. My own view is not a matter of a sunny temperament or a happy disposition, but a matter of looking at the data. That’s what convinced me to write The Better Angels of Our Nature and what convinced me to write Enlightenment Now.

Naff: Let’s make sure we’re on common ground when it comes to the term “enlightenment.” Some people conjure up images of meditation and so forth. But you’re speaking of an intellectual movement in Europe known as the Enlightenment.

Pinker: Yes. I’m referring to the developments concentrated in the second half of the eighteenth century, mainly in Europe and the United States, that sought to deploy reason to enhance human wellbeing and valorize what we now call humanism together with reason and science.

Naff: Among the virtues in the subtitle of your book, you place reason first. But reason is a faculty that everybody employs in some ways. And at a time when even basic facts are in dispute, nobody feels they’ve fallen short of reasoning. How can people distinguish between reason and rationalization? And ultimately, who decides?

Pinker: It’s not true that everyone appeals to reason. You have the famous billboard and bumper sticker: “Jesus said it, I believe it, that decides it.” You’ve got the belief that intuition and gut feelings are reliable guides to action and policy. In practice, many people are unable to provide reasons for their beliefs when they conform to a left-wing or a right-wing ideology.

To the question of who decides, the answer has to be all of us, under the guidance of norms of institutions of reason, including free speech (you can’t shut people up who disagree with you); empirical testing (if you make a claim about the world then you have to let the world weigh in on whether you’re right or wrong); and logical analysis (you have a burden of proof to show that your propositions follow logically).

Naff: You devote quite a lot of space in your book to making the case for progress, and you identify a trend that you call “progressophobia.” Where does the impulse for rejecting the idea of progress stem from, and why is your case for progress correct?

Pinker: One impulse comes from a feature of human cognition called the availability heuristic or the availability bias. Namely, that we assess risk and danger by the availability of stories and images in memory [that make us] assume an activity is particularly dangerous. If the news gives saturation coverage of a terrorist attack, we assume that life has become more dangerous. That contrasts with a view of the world informed by data and history, which don’t come as naturally to us but which are essential to an accurate appraisal of reality.

The other quirk has been called the negativity bias, namely our habit of devoting more mental attention and giving greater weight to negative events than positive ones. We dread losses more than we enjoy gains. We are stung by criticism more than we are encouraged by praise. There are more words for negative emotions than for positive emotions. And so we’re particularly attuned to all of the ways that things go wrong. That opens a niche for experts who can remind us of things that are going wrong that we may have overlooked.

We also tend to credit greater seriousness and intelligence to experts who criticize things than to experts who praise them. Praise is sometimes seen as naive or pollyannaish, and criticism as morally serious.

Naff: Benjamin Franklin, who is maybe the greatest American figure in the Enlightenment, was roundly criticized for his cheerful view of the present and potential of the future, wasn’t he?

Pinker: He was. And indeed the defensible position is not cheerfulness but accuracy. That is to identify threats and problems when they occur, but also to acknowledge our ability to solve problems when they arise or at least to mitigate them.

Naff: Even so, if one is black or brown in America today, it certainly seems more threatening than it did just a few years ago.

Pinker: I think that’s completely wrong. Oppression of minorities was far more severe in the heyday of Jim Crow laws and lynching than it is today. The levels of income, of education, and of happiness for
African Americans have all been increasing. Likewise, we never had as much participation from women in the public sphere as we have today. It’s an utter fallacy to confuse the existence of problems with a decline.

Naff: Well, there certainly seems to have been a turn or a bend in the arc of progress in just the last few years. Reproductive rights are being restricted state by state. Deportations are now made arbitrarily rather than according to settled criteria. And racism has made a public comeback in many venues.

Pinker: There are some expressions of racism, but in fact, polls on attitudes towards racial minorities show a steady increase in tolerance. The fact that the media has given attention to racists who’ve managed to find each other on the internet and organize must not be mistaken for an increase in racism in the population as a whole. The data show quite the opposite.

Naff: You write about the negativity bias in the news. I often tell my friends it’s a gunk filter. But hasn’t that always been true?

Pinker: In Enlightenment Now, I report an objective measure on negativity in the news—namely an analysis of the tone of the news over the last sixty or so years which applied an algorithm to articles from the New York Times. And in a separate analysis, a large sample of global news reports shows that journalism has become increasingly negative over the past few decades. In general, journalism has tilted toward the negative.

Naff: Accepting that, it may be irrelevant because it appears that far more people are influenced these days by information that flows outside of professional journalism via social media than the bulwarks of traditional journalism. And much of that, we know, is not only negative but deliberately crafted to inflame passions and to drive people into conflict with one another. Isn’t this a sort of phase change in how people acquire information and what it motivates them to do?

Pinker: That’s another journalistic bad habit: interpreting a countervailing tendency as a phase change. It’s equivalent to declaring that global warming is a hoax because you had to put on a jacket this morning.

There are certainly some dangerous developments in the spreading of rumor and conspiracy theory through social media. But it’s nothing like a phase change. The most popular sources of media—even through social media—are mainstream journalistic outlets. And it’s not as if the past was marked by a uniform respect for accuracy of fact. There have been numerous wars set off by misinformation, most recently the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. History is studded with atrocities that were set off by rumors and conspiracy theory, such as pogroms, lynchings, and witch hunts. The phenomenon of extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds is as old as our species.

Naff: How would you sum up the data-based case for continual progress? Because it certainly doesn’t look that way to a great many people both on the Left and the Right.

Pinker: That’s the point of Enlightenment Now. It presents seventy-five graphs of measures of human wellbeing such as longevity, prosperity, education, leisure time, personal safety, crime, war, and democracy, all of which show long-term increases. In general, to appreciate the state of the world, one can’t rely on images and anecdotes. You have to look at measures of human wellbeing that could be assessed with a constant yardstick over time. Those are the measures that show how much progress the world has made.

Naff: They say that if thirty people gather in a room with Bill Gates, they’re all millionaires. But of course, that’s a statistical illusion. I mention this because some may think that the data you present reflects the rapid and really quite stunning increase in wealth of the wealthiest in the world who now own more wealth than the lower 50 percent of the world’s population. Are you perhaps describing what is progress for the very lucky few as opposed to progress for humanity in general?

Pinker: Absolutely not. The rate of extreme poverty worldwide has plunged. It is now less than 10 percent. And even within wealthier societies where there has been an increase in inequality, there hasn’t been an increase in poverty when it’s measured in terms of disposable income, and particularly when it’s measured in terms of consumption, what people can afford. The world as a whole is getting more equal because the poor have been getting richer at a faster rate than the rich are getting richer.

Naff: Considering that a great number of people do have a rather dark view of the present and an even darker view of the future, let me circle back to a point in your book. You describe the human brain as being riddled with bugs. Aren’t there social forces that drive, for example, fear of migration and change that have nothing to do with rationality but everything to do with the status and position that people occupy in society and the solidarity that they feel with their social group?

Pinker: Yes, that’s an explanation for some of the irrational beliefs that we see around us.

Naff: So if that’s the case, does a simple, straightforward argument based on empirical data have a chance of winning through?

Pinker: Sure. People are disabused of all kinds of superstitions and fallacies. People nowadays don’t clamor for virgins to be thrown into volcanoes to bring better weather. We don’t have public hangings or burning of witches at the stake. People don’t believe in unicorns. They don’t believe in alchemy. They don’t believe the Earth is the center of the universe. The fact that people are susceptible to fallacies, as we all are since none of us is entirely rational, doesn’t mean that we cannot be disabused of those fallacies.

Naff: Well, my friends on the REASON listserv would say, sure, we don’t believe in unicorns now, but a large percentage of people believe in UFOs. Do these fallacies simply change over time? Or is there evidence that we’re becoming more rational and empirical as a species?

Pinker: We’re certainly becoming more rational as a species. We’ve extinguished smallpox. We decimated extreme poverty. We’ve eliminated famine from large parts of the earth. We deploy antibiotics.

The fallacy is that if something exists, then it is growing. That is certainly a fallacy that infects many intellectuals and journalists. Namely, you point to a problem and you declare either that is has been growing or that it will predominate.

Naff: Assuming that the case you lay out is correct, nevertheless, we live in a time when politics in much of the world is marching in a quite different direction. Tribalism or nationalism is resurgent. The popularity of a strongman leader seems to be on the rise in really quite a wide array of cultures, from the Far East through North America through Europe. How do we take what is a large ream of data and turn that into attitudinal change that can allow reason, science, and humanism to flourish?

Pinker: To begin with, we have to make the case. The Left often joins the Right in painting society as a cesspool of racism, inequality, and terrorism. If the liberal center unilaterally disarms and agrees with the angry populists that the society is deteriorating, then they are handing weapons over to their worst enemies.

[Accuracy] begins with putting current events into historical and statistical context, so that we can appreciate the progress that’s been made and the institutions that deserve credit, while still acknowledging the problems that remain.

Naff: I’m all for making rational cases, but emotion plays a large role in people’s adoption or rejection of any sort of proposition. I wonder whether you or others are up to making an effective emotional case?

Pinker: I don’t claim a mastery of the dark arts of mass persuasion [laughter]. But we know that it’s possible to make an inspiring case for progress. We’ve had leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt, and even Ronald Reagan [who’ve done so].

Before the onset of mass cynicism in the media, there was a valorization of collective efforts to improve our wellbeing, such as the national day of celebration when Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was proven to be safe and effective in the 1950s or the valorization of the Peace Corps and the United Nations in the ’50s and ’60s.

I do think that intellectuals and journalists should put a lid on some of the cynicism and allow suitable emotion to flow toward movements and institutions that are making the world better. We need to make heroes out of the people who are conquering disease and poverty.

Naff: Granting that all the forms of progress you’ve outlined—social, economic, and scientific—are rooted in good data, we still face one implacable challenge this century. As a science writer I talk with lots of climate scientists. There’s an unshakable consensus among them that climate change is happening, that it has a lot of momentum, even if we all bought hybrid cars tomorrow it would go on. Doesn’t climate change stand in the way of your vision of a progressive humanistic future?

Pinker: I don’t have a vision; I have an argument that we ought to analyze our problems and try to solve them. And to the extent that we analyze climate change rigorously and outline pathways toward decarbonization, we can deal with the challenge. It’s implacable only if we assume that it is implacable. But if we muster all of our ingenuity and will to analyze the problem and determine what would mitigate it, then we don’t have to resign ourselves to a catastrophe.

I argue that it’s precisely the mindset that this is a problem that we can solve that will allow it to be solved. If we treat it as implacable, it will be implacable.

Naff: Throughout your book you quote the physicist David Deutsch on how any problem that is not bar-red by the laws of nature is soluble if you have the right knowledge. But it’s interesting, because we do know that there are some kinds of problems that are out of reach. They’re simply too complex for calculation. Do you think that the problems of human survival really lie in the realm of soluble problems?

Pinker: Well, if by survival you mean into eternity, then no because the laws of nature dictate that the sun will expand and boil away the oceans and incinerate the planet in the fullness of time. Is there a law of nature that says that human survival over the next century is impossible? That it violates the laws of physics? No, I don’t think it violates the laws of physics.

Naff: You said earlier that optimism isn’t your theme, but it does recur at various points in this book. There is, however, a moral hazard to optimism. Sometimes, it frees people from the sense of obligation to solve a problem now. Is that a hazard that emerges in the context of issues you’re speaking of here?

Pinker: Certainly, if anyone were to propose that things will get better no matter what we do, there would undoubtedly be a moral hazard in that. I think the greater moral hazard is in excessive pessimism or cynicism. It can lead to fatalism—the sense that humanity is screwed no matter what we do, so we may as well just enjoy ourselves now, not have children, and so on. And [it can lead] to radicalism—the idea that society is so corrupt, degenerate, and duped that anything would be better, so we should destroy our institutions in the hope that whatever would replace it is bound to be better. Burn the empire to the ground and hope that something better will rise out of the ashes! That is a dangerous belief. It’s what led to Nazism in Germany in the Weimar era. It is a moral hazard that we should strive to avoid.

Naff: You write about the shortcomings of religion as an institution that contributes to progress in humanity. Is it all religion that stands in the way, or are some forms more benign while some are clearly malignant?

Pinker: Actually, I don’t single out religious institutions as an impediment to progress but rather theistic beliefs. To the extent that religious institutions become more humanistic and less dependent on ancient dogmas and theistic beliefs, they can be forces of progress.

Naff: Let’s talk about humanism itself. You say that progress without humanism really isn’t progress at all. And you’ve just made the point that humanism can occupy a place in various different perches. But there is a secular humanist movement that is at the forefront of humanism today.

Lots of other “isms” have faltered because of human foibles, jealousies, power divisions, ideological differences and so on. What makes humanism so special that you single it out as essential to progress?

Pinker: Not so much the humanist movement, although I do endorse it as a valuable development, but rather the overall morality of humanism [is what’s essential], namely that human wellbeing is the ultimate good—and also the wellbeing of other sentient creatures. “Humanism” is a bit of a misnomer in singling out Homo sapiens; it’s a larger commitment to sentient beings.

But the effect of humanistic institutions very much depends on how they organize, how they conduct themselves, how they manage their own affairs. Although they’ve been a force for good, I’m not calling for a blind trust in a particular organization that happens to have “humanist” in their title.

Naff: You’ve written a traditional book, with footnotes, and now we’re conducting a traditional journalistic activity: an interview. But there are so many more ways that people get information today. I wonder whether you have plans to push these ideas out into the prevailing culture by other means.

Pinker: I certainly do. I’m participating in a large number of podcasts and web interviews. I endorse websites such as Our World in Data, Human Progress, and Gapminder, which provide interactive graphics that can tell a story in a way that sentences can’t. I give lectures that are distributed on the web. So I’m very much immersed in the new universe of electronic media.

Naff: Well, Steven Pinker, thank you so much, and let me wish you luck in spreading the good word.

Pinker: It’s been good to talk to you, and best of luck to the Humanist magazine.