3 July 2019

Free Exchange: Steven Pinker’s inconvenient truths


A few years ago, the left-wing academic and activist David Graeber appealed to his Twitter followers for help.

“Does anyone know any handy rebuttals to the neoliberal/conservative numbers on social progress over the last 30 years,” he asked. “again & again i see these guys trundling out #s that absolute poverty, illiteracy, child malnutrition, child labor, have sharply declined, that life expectancy & education levels have gone way up, worldwide, thus showing the age of structural adjustment etc was a good thing. it strikes me as highly unlikely these numbers are right, or anyway that such improvements are due to privatisation, etc. It’s clear this is all put together by right-wing think tanks. Yet where’s the other sides numbers? I’ve found no clear rebuttals.”

Graeber’s request – which tellingly appears not to have yielded any especially helpful responses – came before Steven Pinker published his most recent book, but it perfectly anticipates the negative reaction that Enlightenment Now has provoked – especially on the left.

Some authors find themselves in the middle of a flurry of debate before the world swiftly moves on. Enlightenment Now, which was reviewed for CapX by Marian Tupy when it was published last year, has started a row with an unusually long tail.

The book was soon a New York Times bestseller and has been very warmly received by plenty of people worth listening to. Bill Gates, for example, calls it his “new favourite book of all time”. High praise from a significant source — and deservedly so, which is why I’m so thrilled that Professor Pinker is this week’s guest on Free Exchange, the CapX podcast.

For others, however, Enlightenment Now’s attempt to chart the progress humanity has made in the last few hundred years – and attribute that progress to the enlightenment ideas that transformed our politics, economics and societies – rebuts their worldview so fundamentally that everything about it must be furiously resisted.

It isn’t just Graeber whose ideologically saturated mind means that he cannot see progress when it is staring him in the face. There’s ‘degrowth’ advocate Jason Hickel, whose mental gymnastics I have written about before. The contortions he pulls off when it comes to denying arguably the most important good news story in human history, as told in Enlightenment Now, are impressive. (Pinker’s response can be found here.)

Elsewhere, the criticisms have been no more temperate, or dignified. Consider for example, Nathan J Robinson, editor of the left-wing journal Current Affairs, who recently dubbed the Harvard psychologist “the world’s most annoying man”.

These complaints are the tip of the iceberg. Part of the frustration is surely borne of the fact that, to many on the left, Pinker should be One of Us. He is one of the world’s most influential public intellectuals and a Psychology Professor at Harvard. He has been a Democratic Party donor. How dare he provide ammunition to nasty free marketeers?  How dare he choose Quillette – house journal of the ‘intellectual dark web’ – as the place to respond to the criticisms made of Enlightenment Now? And how dare he fill use his platform to spread inconvenient truths?

The answer, of course, is that Pinker is a liberal in the best sense of the word, open-minded and evidence-led in his thinking and committed to the enlightenment values he credits for the world becoming a wealthier, safer, happier place.

Pointing that out doesn’t make you a naïve optimist – or blind to the very real problems that exist. When it comes to substantial future challenges such as climate change, Pinker cites the Nobel prize winning economist Paul Romer’s distinction between “complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning, and conditional optimism, the feeling of a child who wants a treehouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one”. He also quotes the late Hans Rosling, who, when asked whether he was an optimist, replied, “I am not an optimist. I am a very serious possibilist.”

And, as Pinker said when I spoke to him for the most recent episode of Free Exchange (and my last as its host), ‘I would not make the lunatic argument that we should ignore problems. Quite the contrary. It’s only when you recognise problems that you’ll solve them. But our understanding of the world should be as accurate as possible. There is no benefit to believing that things have gotten worse that in reality have gotten better… There is no advantage whatsoever to being deluded about the course of history.”

“It’s not a matter of seeing the glass as half empty or half full,” he said, “it’s a matter of being aware of the facts.”

You can listen to the full episode here, subscribe via iTunes or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Oliver Wiseman is Editor of CapX