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Author Steven Pinker on how science, reason and progress will allow humanity to triumph despite itself

Because each of us lives only for decades, not for centuries, we don’t necessarily have the perspective — the yardstick — to appreciate the striking ascent of the human condition that’s been our fortune since the Enlightenment. In his new book full of argument and the data to back it up, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker makes the case against doom and gloom-ism, especially in academia, and tribal know-nothingism in politics. “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” makes it clear that Pinker thinks those human accomplishments are our shield and buckler against the forces of the right and the left that would diminish or derail this triumph of humanity over, in some cases, the worst of humanity itself.


Are we in such a grim state in the world that we need a good bucking up, like the one you deliver in this book?

We do have to put things in perspective, and despite the very real threats that we face, despite the anxieties from our political situation, the world by many measures has never been in better shape.

We’re living longer, diseases are being conquered, global poverty is being decimated, more kids are going to school, including girls, rates of crime are down, rates of death in warfare are down. Democracy, despite its setbacks in the last couple of years, is much higher than it was even a decade ago.

So we, while being aware of the current crises, should not take for granted the fantastic progress that we’ve made.

So why do our minds misgive? Why do we feel that so much around us is in disarray, and in some cases going backwards?

It’s partly because of the way the human mind assesses risk and danger. We call examples to mind from memory, and if we think of things have gone wrong, we think that the world is a dangerous place.

We don’t mentally compensate for all the parts of the world that are not at war, all the city streets that are safe, nor for the gradual improvements that never make the headlines, and we don’t realize how much progress has been made.

Likewise, when it comes to war, we’re acutely aware of the wars going on, particularly the horrific civil war in Syria. But we’re apt to forget about the horrific wars that took place in the past.

And if your picture of the world comes from what’s going wrong now, then you could be seriously mis-calibrating. There are always things that go wrong. The question is, how many things are going right, and those often fall below the radar.

You write about chaos versus totalitarianism; if you make people believe they live in chaos, then you’ve already sold them on totalitarianism.

That’s right. We do live in a state that’s poised between anarchy and tyranny, and a good democratic government tries to steer between those extremes: give people just enough government force to keep them from each other’s throats but not so much that the government starts to prey on people.

One of the easiest paths to dictatorship is the impression that the country is falling apart, and sometimes it’s more than an impression. Sometimes the country is in a state of anarchy, and people feel that a strong leader is better than no leader at all.

And the cultural pessimism, the belief that our society is getting worse and worse, and any day now it’ll collapse – not exactly an inspiring message.

Steven Pinker

The accusation of “fake news” that Donald Trump constantly levels against the media whenever they criticize him, the gerrymandering and enormous influence of money in politics are two forces that are eroding confidence in democracy. The implacable opposition of the parties to each other, so that they can’t compromise on just the mechanics of government — all of these show that our democracy is definitely having problems, and they have in some ways have sapped the confidence of people, particularly young people, in our democratic institutions.

You frequently bring up the Enlightenment, the idea of rationality and reason, and apply it to science. It seems obvious that, on one hand, there’s learning and knowledge, and on the other there’s ignorance. But that doesn’t seem to be the case now. People have all sorts of information at their fingertips, have education, and say “Nope, nope, nope, science, evolution — I just don’t believe it.”

That is true of some people with some issues, for sure. The Enlightenment ideal of science is not going to be a guarantee that 100% of the population buy it. It calls for persuading as many people as possible on things that are persuasive.

But there are issues that become identity badges for tribal coalition, things that you believe in to affirm that your kind of people are good and wise, and that the other kind of people are evil and must be resisted. And with those beliefs, those sacred beliefs, people will close their minds to evidence that challenges their beliefs. They’ll spin-doctor the situation and blow off counter examples.

It’s not that people, for example, deny that antibiotics work or that drunk driving is a bad idea. It’s just that with some propositions that get adopted by political tribes as signs of membership and loyalty that you see this irrationality. Climate change is an example. What does predict acceptance of human-made climate change is politics, left-right politics.

Now, the fact that people on both sides adopt positions because they’re the favorite position of their tribe doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as the truth. There is a truth, there is an answer, but people can reject it or accept it for not-so-scientific reasons.

And that’s something that we should be aware of in trying to make people more aware of the scientific consensus. The problem isn’t ignorance; the problem is politicization. So as much as possible, spokespeople for the scientific consensus should be chosen from different parts of the political spectrum, so that climate change doesn’t become a left-wing issue. And the scientific facts should be decoupled from policy solutions that are favorites of the right or the left.

It dislodges people from the equation: You accept climate change, then you’ve got to be green, you’ve got to give up air conditioning, you’ve got to stop traveling, you’ve got to return to the land. People don’t like that, and if they think that’s what you have to do to accept climate change, then they’re not going to accept climate change.

But if you drive a wedge between the fact and the remedy, then even when people disagree about the remedy, at least they’ll accept the fact.

The demonification, to use your word, of science in the liberal arts programs takes us to your other argument, which is society’s disinvestment in the humanities. What’s the danger in that?

Humanistic scholarship is vital to many ways of understanding our world. Philosophy is based on the idea that human intuition will lead to fallacies and errors and confusion, that there’s a need to clarify and analyze our concepts and our thinking. The arts are one of the things that make life worth living. Understanding the depth and richness and historical context of the arts is just vital to being a human being.

And of course the parts of the humanities that veer into social science and history, political science, jurisprudence, international relations — we need those to understand what works and what doesn’t in society.

So I think it is vital that the humanities and social sciences continue to flourish. Some of the damage, though, has been self-inflicted, frankly. In many parts of the humanities, the language is incomprehensible. Some of the worst “academese” comes out of English departments and departments of languages and the arts.

There’s been a very rigid and extreme leftism bordering on Marxism in large sections of the humanities that have turned many students off, and also restricted the range of ideas that can be considered and debated. And the cultural pessimism, the belief that our society is getting worse and worse, and any day now it’ll collapse — not exactly an inspiring message. And it’s not surprising that a lot of students get kind of turned off, if that’s what they have to offer.

So the humanities should be inspiring and uplifting?

I think they should be about things that deserve uplift, that is, the spectacular life that particularly humanities scholars live, thanks to living in an affluent society that has devoted resources to supporting scholars; the fact that they live in a liberal democracy and can criticize society without worrying about being shot or jailed as their counterparts do in many parts of the world. And there is a spectacular ingratitude and obliviousness to the gift of liberal democracy among many of these critical theorists.

I think there should also be more of an integration with the sciences. There is a demonization and a paranoia in a lot of intellectual life about the use of scientific concepts and thinking to analyze the social world and the human conditions.

Several times in the book, you come back to the tragedy of the commons. Describe it and how it’s applied now, in our circumstances.

The tragedy of commons was a parable that illustrated a recurring scenario in social and political life, namely that what might be rational for every individual can be irrational for the society as a whole.

The original idea was that the town had a grassy commons, and everyone had their flock of sheep, and for any individual shepherd thinking, should I graze my sheep on the town commons? — the answer was, well, yes.

But when all of them act that way, then the commons could be overgrazed, every last blade of grass could be pulled up, and it’s worse for everyone, even though it’s rational for every individual.

There are many examples. Pollution is certainly one. I ride around in my SUV and I get places in comfort with air conditioning, and it’s no skin off my nose. And that’s true for everyone. Of course, you add up all the emissions and we’re all worse off.

In tragedies of the commons, the classic solution, even within free market economics, is that it’s an important thing for someone to own the commons. The most obvious owner is the government. They can “internalize externalities,” which is a fancy way of saying, you pay for the damage that you do. So you have an incentive to do less damage. Moreover, it’s often a rational approach, as opposed to across-the-board prohibitions.

Some of that seems to be in retreat as public lands are being shrunk, as the go-ahead is being given to pollute the air more, pollute the water more, without penalties.

I make it pretty clear in the book that a number of specific policies of the Trump administration are threatening to undo exactly the progress that I document. Certainly privatizing the commons, or, for that matter, just going back to a state of anarchy where everyone can pollute however much they want, is not a form of progress. It’s based on the misconception that we can have econ growth or we can have a cleaner environment, but we can’t have both.

Some on the green left advocate that trade-off and say we’ve got to undo the Industrial Revolution and go back to a much smaller society, live in harmony with nature, abandon our consumerism, where they embrace the same dichotomy from the other side.

But with the right combination of policy and technology, we can put a cap on how much damage we do to the environment, make sure that we do protect it, and we’ve achieved a certain amount of success already.

We can prove that in Southern California.

Southern California is a prime example, where there’s less of that purple haze that Jimi Hendrix immortalized. Still too much, but much less, and a lot of environmental regulations [so] that pollution control technologies really have worked.

Donald Trump put a big asterisk on a lot of this.

I identified a number of particular policies, and, for that matter, personality traits that he has that push against some of the sources of progress, and also locate him in a longer tradition of counter-Enlightenment thinking that has been influential in the West even since the Enlightenment itself.

There have been ideologies and political movements that glorified the nation and the tribe and the race, as opposed to individual people, that look back to a golden age instead of trying to work for a better future, that think of a leader as embodying the inherent wisdom and virtue of the people, as opposed to a custodian who is constrained by laws and checks and balances.

So this tension has been with us a long time, and the authoritarian populism in this country represented by Donald Trump is the latest pushback of counter-Enlightenment forces over the ideals of humanism and reasoning and science and progress.

But in many ways, I think what we’re seeing now is highly unusual, even by the standards of counter-Enlightenment movements in American politics.

Given all this, what keeps you up at night?

The possibility of nuclear war. I don’t think it’s particularly likely. There hasn’t been a nuclear weapon used in a war since Nagasaki, more than 70 years ago. Not even the relatively small tactical nuclear weapons have been used. It’s the line that hasn’t been crossed.

The complete abolition of nuclear weapons — I think that should be our long-term goal. Until we get there, there’s very much something to worry about.

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