The New Yorker goes after Pinker and his progressivism

July 22, 2018 • 9:30 am

UPDATE:  I forgot to add this picture of the plaque adorning the building where the New Yorker was founded. Check out the last sentence!




Not long ago the New Yorker had an article about free speech whose message, at least to me, was that we have to ratchet back on the First Amendment protections traditionally (and now consistently) construed by American courts. A few readers disagreed, but rereading the article I decided that while the magazine played lip service to free speech, the article had a weaselly way of pretending to be evenhanded while conveying its real message that it’s time to reassess the legal protections of speech in America. In the interest of social justice, it said, we should have a hard look at how the First Amendment is applied, and think about making changes. (See a similar sentiment in an earlier piece in the magazine.)

This same pretense of evenhandedness is on view in an article in the July 23 article of the magazine by Joshua Rothman, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot below. 

Rothman’s article is largely about Steve Pinker’s last two books, Better Angels and Enlightenment Now, and about the books’ thesis that in almost every measure we can take of human well being, both material and moral, the world is getting better. Steve adduces copious data to support this, and then at the end considers two looming threats that may undo us: nuclear war and global warming. Pinker takes these seriously and offers some tentative solutions, especially to global warming, the most serious threat.

Now The New Yorker has long had an anti-science and anti-progressivist bent, although it does present “science” in the form of articles about medicine or the environment. But in general the magazine likes to tout “other ways of knowing” beyond science and empiricism. And of course they’re accommodationist and soft on faith (see here, for instance), though occasionally an atheistic piece slips in.

I’m not sure where this anti-science bent comes from: perhaps because the New Yorker wants to cater to a wide audience, and even the more learned audience for this magazine is largely of the humanities bent, and therefore glad to hear science done down. It is, after all, those versed in and wedded to the humanities who tout the false promise of “other ways of knowing.”

A lot of this anti-science criticism has been aimed at Steve Pinker. (Full disclosure: he’s a friend and I am largely on his side because I agree with his analyses.) I have read every popular book Pinker has written, and the New Yorker has, I recall, trashed him four times in a row before the article above. To wit: in Luke Menand’s review of The Blank Slate, Joan Acocella’s review of the American Heritage Dictionary Fifth Edition (for which Pinker wrote the essay on usage), Elizabeth Kolbert’s review of The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Nathan Heller’s review of The Sense of Style. I suspect that this anti-Pinkerism is due to Pinker’s work being deeply infused with science, which the magazine doesn’t like because they prefer the humanities. In fact, I’m not sure that the magazine has any respect for the ability of science to find truth about the universe any better than do, say, literature and art.

And now they’ve trashed Pinker for the fifth time in a row. Rothman analyzes the progressivist thesis of Enlightenment Now, but does it in the same sleazy way the magazine went after free speech: by lamely presenting a liberal thesis in a seemingly open-handed way, but then repeatedly undercutting it with caveats. At the end of Rothman’s piece, one gets the feeling that Pinker was simply misguided, and measuring the wrong things.

You can read the piece for yourself, but I’ll give a few quotes to show you how Rothman tries to undermine progressivism. The criticisms fall under the bold headings below, which are mine. Rothman’s quotes are indented.

Progressivism hasn’t done much for spirituality. The article doesn’t define spirituality, but Pinker’s thesis was that both material well being and human well being have increased over the last few centuries. Here’s how Rothman goes after that, even claiming that pessimism is an admirable spiritual trait:

Today, we tend to conceive the credo of social responsibility as an ethical idea, justifiable on secular grounds. Still, it remains tied to an inner, devotional imperative. We know that we accomplish little by reading the news, and sense that our infinite, tragic news feeds distort, rather than enhance, our picture of reality. Still, it feels wrong to outsource the work of salvation to Bill and Melinda Gates, and presumptuous to trust too much in the power of good works. Pessimism can be a form of penance, and of spiritual humility in a humanist age. [JAC: Note the Deepity in that last sentence. And I’d call this a “scientific” age instead of a “humanist” one, though humanism includes science.]

Pinker urges us to overcome these cultural, psychological, political, and spiritual biases, and to take a more objective view of the world. But human beings are not objective creatures.

Umm. . . . this is, pure and simple, a dissing of how “salvation” can’t be left to empiricists. But Bill Gates and philanthropists and scientists have done far more to improve people’s material well being than, say, the humanities. And that material well being, says Pinker, has made people happier: the happiest countries in the world are, in general, those that are materially better off. What, then, does “salvation” mean? I suspect to Rothman it means those numinous and very real feelings we get from good art and literature. But that’s not Pinker’s thesis. As for me, I’d rather have done without all the painting of the last fifty years than all the science of the last fifty years.

And what the bloody hell does Rothman mean by saying that “humans beings are not objective creatures”? That’s true, of course, but we are, by and large, objective when we do the kind of empirical work, including science, that has led to humanity’s progress. It’s as if Rothman is claiming that we can’t make real progress using objective methods.

Human happiness hasn’t improved as fast as material and moral progress. This may be true, but happiness is correlated with the kind of progress that Pinker describes. Rothman calls for a more “nuanced” approach, slipping in some weaselly caveats:

 When social scientists write about life expectancy, educational attainment, nutrition, crime, and the other issues Pinker addresses, they often use the abbreviation Q.O.L., for “quality of life.” They use S.W.B. to refer to “subjective well-being”—the more elusive phenomenon of happiness, fulfillment, or life satisfaction. In “Citizen Kane,” Orson Welles’s media tycoon enjoys high Q.O.L. and low S.W.B. He is healthy, wealthy, and unhappy. The question is whether what befalls individuals might also befall societies. If so, life could be getting much better objectively, on the social scale, without getting all that much better subjectively, on the individual scale.

Seriously, what is important here?  We are getting healthier, less likely to be killed in accidents or by our fellows, we live longer, have better food, treat other humans better, and our kids are getting better educations. Just how much does it matter whether we feel happier? Just ask yourself this: would you prefer to have lived before antibiotics were discovered, say in 1920? If you value your life, the answer should be “no.” When I ask audiences how many of them would be dead without antibiotics, about 30% raise their hands. And I’m not even mentioning vaccinations.

Rothman continues:

. . . .. The annual World Happiness Report combines data from Gallup opinion surveys with economic and sociological studies; it finds that, in general, citizens of high-Q.O.L. countries (Finland, Norway, Canada, Germany) report higher levels of S.W.B. than citizens of low-Q.O.L. countries (Venezuela, Chad, Laos, Iraq). Look closely, though, and the story is more nuanced. Although economics shapes S.W.B., so do social and political factors: despite immense economic growth, Chinese citizens are no happier today than they were in 1990 (fraying social ties, created by rural-to-urban migration, may be to blame), while in many Latin-American countries people report higher S.W.B. than their otherwise low Q.O.L. predicts.

. . . .From all this data, the picture is one of large-scale predictability and small-scale volatility. Thanks to broad improvements in quality of life, today’s children are likelier to be happier than their grandparents were. But within any shorter span of time—a decade, a generation, an electoral cycle—there’s no guarantee that S.W.B. won’t decline even as Q.O.L. continues to rise.

But Pinker is concerned with large-scale predictability: in terms of morality and every objective measure of human well being, the world is improving. Minor setbacks may occur (and Pinker admits that) but so what? This kind of kvetching is what the New Yorker calls “nuance”.

And here’s the kind of pickiness that Rothman uses to go after the thesis of material progress, with which he grudgingly agrees:

Although food quality may have been worse in 1967, the pleasure of today’s better meals is intrinsically fleeting. More people survive heart attacks than in the past, but the relief of surviving wears off as one returns to the daily grind.

The set-point theory is dispiriting, since it implies limits to how happy progress can make us, but it also suggests that progress is more widespread than we feel it to be. This last conclusion, though, makes sense only if we define “progress” in a certain way. “Imagine Seema, an illiterate woman in a poor country who is village-bound, has lost half her children to disease, and will die at fifty, as do most of the people she knows,” Pinker writes:

Now imagine Sally, an educated person in a rich country who has visited several cities and national parks, has seen her children grow up, and will live to eighty, but is stuck in the lower middle class. It’s conceivable that Sally, demoralized by the conspicuous wealth she will never attain, is not particularly happy, and she might even be unhappier than Seema, who is grateful for small mercies. Yet it would be mad to suppose that Sally is not better off.

Pinker is right: Sally is better off. To say so, however, is to acknowledge that we can be better off without feeling that way. . .

To Rothman (and this is characteristic of the New Yorker), what really matters is not whether we’re better off than before, but whether we feel better off. (The “set-point theory” hypothesizes that despite our own increase in well-being, we adjust to progress, take it for granted, and don’t feel any better off than before. Now we can cure infections with antibiotics, but we don’t feel better, says the theory, because we’re now used to having them.) But just because we don’t think about all the medicines that can help keep us healthy and alive, that doesn’t mean that we’re not better off. We may take them for granted, but that’s infinitely preferable to their not existing!

We’re doomed anyway, outgrowing our resources and likely to be done in by climate change.  Here Rothman just throws the science aside to bloviate:

[Charles] Mann thinks the wizard–prophet distinction reflects a fundamental biological reality. If bacteria are left to grow in a petri dish, they’ll multiply quickly, then consume all their resources and die. The same goes for all species adaptive enough to flourish unconstrained. At first, “the world is their petri dish,” Mann writes. “Their populations grow at a terrific rate; they take over large areas, engulfing their environment. . . . Then they hit a barrier. They drown in their own wastes. They starve from lack of food.” A biologist tells Mann that “it is the fate of every successful species to wipe itself out.”

That’s just nonsense. The dinosaurs did not wipe themselves out. Passenger pigeons did not wipe themselves out. The 98% of marine species that died in the end-Permian extinction did not wipe themselves out. Rothman is apparently completely ignorant of the fact that the vast majority of extinctions, which are indeed the fate of most species, are caused not by overuse of resources, but by external factors: predation, disease, climate change, and, in the case of dinosaurs, an asteroid strike.

Pretty language can be used to undercut Pinker’s thesis. New Yorker writers often have a penchant for couching pedestrian or even misleading ideas in lovely prose, hiding their intellectual emptiness. Here are two examples at the end of Rothman’s piece:

Both wizards and prophets hope that we can break this pattern. Wizards exhort us to “soar beyond natural constraints” using technology. (Think of Elon Musk, with his solar roof tiles and spaceships.) Prophets implore us to reach, through conservation and political reform, a “steady-state accommodation” with nature. (“What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources,” the activist Naomi Klein writes.) Both sides agree that progress of a general sort isn’t enough: unless we adopt a decisive and coherent survival strategy, we’ll become victims of our own success. “The Wizard and the Prophet” provides an unsettling coda to “Enlightenment Now.” Pinker could be right in the short term but wrong in the long term. Maybe the world is getting better, but not better enough, or in the right ways.

Not better enough? What is the sweating author trying to say? Is it that we haven’t yet solved the problem of climate change? That’s true, and it may do us in, but it isn’t as if Pinker didn’t consider it: it occupies a large section at the end of Enlightenment Now. You may disagree with Pinker’s analysis or his optimism, but you can’t accuse him of not discussing apocalyptic changes that could do us all in.

And here’s Rothman’s ending: a typical New Yorker Deepity:

Problems and progress are inextricable, and the history of improvement is also the history of problem-discovery. Diagnosis, of course, is an art in itself; it’s possible to misunderstand problems, or to overstate them, and, in doing so, to make them worse. But a world in which no one complained—in which we only celebrated how good we have it—would be a world that never improved. The spirit of progress is also the spirit of discontent.

Yes, of course progress is achieved when people are “dissatisfied”—when they see room for improvement. But that says absolutely nothing about Pinker’s main thesis, that the world is getting better morally and materially. Here Rothman conflates a “problem”, like the mistreatment of women and gays, with a negation of Pinker’s data showing that human well being has gotten better over time. But nobody, least of all Pinker, says that the world has reached its acme of progress. So Rothman ends his article by making the trivial assertion that “We don’t make progress unless we can see problems to fix.” And that simply isn’t a critique of Pinker’s thesis. It’s just a dumb tautology.

This is the fifth time in a row that the New Yorker has criticized Pinker’s books, and each critique was by a different author. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think it’s a sign of how much the New Yorker dislikes science and empricism. After all, nearly all of Pinker’s books are based on real data.


51 thoughts on “The New Yorker goes after Pinker and his progressivism

  1. There is a statistic I like about “spirituality.” Back when we were more religious, more spiritual, say in the year 1800, half of all human beings existed in some kind of slavery (serfdom, chattel slavery, etc.). Half! That is what spirituality lead to. Also, if Christianity had not endorsed slavery, what chance do you think it had of becoming “a” or “the” state religion of Rome? (Answer: Zero.) If Christianity were no so adopted, what would it be like now? (Answer: Very little.) This is what spirituality and religion create. The silly Enlightenment is surely the road to eternal darkness, no? (Answer: No!)

  2. Pinker has been trashed by a *lot* of people on the left. Many of them complain about his cherry-picking the data, then proceed to cherry-pick their own data.

    Others just point to problems unsolved and think this undoes Pinker’s thesis.

    The left generally doesn’t want to believe that problems are solvable under liberal capitalism.

    1. “The left generally doesn’t want to believe that problems are solvable under liberal capitalism.”

      This is one major reason I have problems with ideologies, it is “their way or the highway”. The resource distribution tails can still be wide and socially problematic under a successful economy – a hint of a tragedy of the commons problem – which can be usefully targeted by left “fairness” politics.

      1. Furthermore, it is incumbent on any ideology that wants to impose radical change to show that such change is necessary, and thus the motivation to say “the world is broken and in need of fixing right now” is born. Evidence that a competing ideology (such as democratic capitalism) is working must be denied and if possible any expression of that should be curtailed. Given the degree of comfort the modern left has with suppression of free speech, no-platforming and a ridiculously broad definition of hate speech we can expect to see poor Dr Pinker being shouted down.

        1. ‘democratic capitalism. . . is working. . . .’ But is it? Capitalism certainly works, and on Pinker’s macroscopic, long-term scales it has worked for the greater good. But, here and now, capitalism appears to work against the many and for the very few. And it has succeeded by corrupting the political process through the concentration of big corporate big money (now sanctified by the Citizens United decision–with no likely democratic redress except for the very long-shot of a constitutional amendment). No, our democracy is sclerotic; and capitalism doesn’t need its scarred body any more. Old and in the way. Step over it. Move on.

          I would ask the critics of ‘democratic socialism,’ which has never been given the shadow of a chance in contemporary America, to answer this question: just what was ‘democratic capitalism’ anyway? For when the ‘democratic’ part lived, seems to me, it did so as part of an oxymoron.

  3. Rothman wonders in his New Yorker piece if life in the past wasn’t better in some ways — “simpler, more predictable, more spiritual.”

    Well, hell, if that’s your measure, things have been going downhill for mankind since the advent of agriculture. The life of itinerant hunter-gatherers was certainly simpler, and likely more “spiritual.” And the migratory patterns of prey are more predictable than Wall Street and collateralized debt obligations.

  4. It’s really hard to make any rational sense of Rothman’s last paragraph, and particularly the last two sentences. Pinker never suggested that we all wear rose-colored glasses through life, never complaining and always content. Rothman appears to be suggesting that we all maintain what he deems a proper level of grievance and discontent by ignoring reality. There really does seem to be something tribal going on here. Those with an objective and scientific worldview are being portrayed as the “other.” One could speculate endlessly about why that is. It’s certainly a matter of ideology, but what ideology?

    1. Half-glassology. Pinker and others see a glass half full with room for improvement. Those who make a living from grievances see a glass half empty with prospects of being completely empty due to theft by ‘others’.

  5. As a newspaper journalist myself, I fully understand the deceptive tactics of seeming to initially agree with a premise and then later adding caveats which undermine it. I have used this technique when writing about alternative medicines.

  6. Rothman seems to say throughout, don’t let the evidence or the facts get in the way of my feelings and belief. Humans worry and prioritize their problems based on what they are told or learn. But to understand the general condition today verses many years ago the elements must be measured and that is what Pinker is doing. If I base the condition on the news I get, we are coming off the tracks but that is not the proper measurement. By that standard we might conclude – ignorance is bliss.

    One issue that is missing when people list these top issues today, it will list nuclear and climate change but seldom include cyber. I think cyber needs to be at the top of the list in modern society but it still gets ignored. Cyber attack has become the weapon of choice for most all of our enemies not bombs.

  7. What we should measure to know if things are getting better or worse is suffering. Many people that make more than $ 1,90 per day risk their lives to get to Europe or USA. Is the number of people who live miserable lives growing? Most people live on $10 or less per day: more than 5 billions.

    1. The number is growing beyond doubt, because it is exactly these people who use least family planning.
      However, it is not the poor who risk their lives to get to Europe. It is quite expensive business to pay your way to Europe (the smart phones often mentioned by opponents to immigration are just a small detail in the picture). People doing it regard it as an investment. When Merkel made a contract with Erdogan to take back migrants, the situation immediately improved, because most migrants haven’t resources for more than one try.

      From the Globe and Mail:
      “I met Jouhar in an eastern Tunisian beach town shortly after he had been returned by Italian authorities. His packed boat had broken in half at sea, killing his best friend and dozens of others, many of them university graduates with connections in Europe, in the process wasting the almost $1,500 Jouhar had saved to pay the smuggler… The most insidious notion is the one that holds that the Africans on the boats are starving villagers escaping famine and death. In fact, every boat person I’ve met has been ambitious, urban, educated, and, if not middle-class (though a surprising number are, as are an even larger number of Syrian refugees), then far from subsistence peasantry. They are very poor by European standards, but often comfortable by African and Middle Eastern ones. And no wonder: The boats cost upward of $2,000 to board (and you need more money to make a start in Europe). That’s a year’s income in many African countries.”

      It was the same in Eastern Europe: those who emigrated to “seek a better life” were not the truly poor, who lacked the resources to leave their home country, but mostly middle-class young people succumbing to mass psychosis.
      Things may be different from the USA, I have read complaints that after deportation it is common for the migrant to try again. This means it is not too costly.

  8. “Seriously, what is important here? We are getting healthier, less likely to be killed in accidents or by our fellows, we live longer, have better food, treat other humans better, and our kids are getting better educations. Just how much does it matter whether we feel happier?”

    I think it matters a lot whether people feel happy. Happiness, however you choose to define the word, is what people aim for. It’s what makes life worth living. If you do not feel happy, does anything else really matter? If, for example, you are depressed or aggrieved, you may still carry out your duties as a parent, spouse, or employee, but life is a living hell even if you live in a Mcmansion and are physically healthy (if not mentally).

    In contrast to previous generations the advancements that Pinker documents allow people to live on average longer, healthier, and more materially secure lives. But these developments do not buy happiness. Indeed, it seems that even though people no longer have to worry as much about material and physical needs, this does not necessarily translate into them being happier. There must be other factors that contribute to happiness. Psychological and sociological nature come into play. Why is there so much rage in this country? Anger and grievance fuel the Trump cult and those on the far left. Pinker’s assurances mean nothing to them. This is partially because many of them do not feel the bounty of the land that Pinker implores them to wake up and acknowledge. The other reason is that psychic fulfillment contributes to human happiness as much as material and physical (health) well-being.

    Pinker has the statistics on his side, although it must be remembered that the current situation in no way predicts the future. But, in terms of Pinker convincing the masses that they should stop bitching and smell the roses, he is whistling in the wind. Graphs and charts will never convince a large part of the American population, at least, that things have never been better.

    1. Agreed. For those who say they aren’t happy, follow up questions are important.
      1) Why aren’t you happy.
      2) What would you need to become happy.
      I’m willing to bet no one would answer spiritually or religion to #2

  9. My take is that these attacks are born out of postmodernist thinking and critical theory (which are inherently anti-science in many ways). Writers like Rothman pride themselves on being able to find symbolic offenses in quite literally anything another person says, and they often resort to intellectually dishonest means, such as taking statements out of context or deliberately misinterpreting meanings and intentions.

    I just finished Enlightenment Now, and I thought it was fantastic. Hats off to Stephen Pinker; he deserves a Pulitzer. It’s easy to be a critic, but much harder to do original research and produce a tour de force like Pinker’s book. I’d like to see Rothman try that. Rather than picking nits and conjuring offenses out of other people’s work, he should offer up some constructive ideas of his own. But apparently he doesn’t have any.

    The idea that what really matters isn’t whether we *are* better off but whether we *feel* better off is exactly the same idea that was used to justify the misinformation and fear-mongering propagated by Trump’s campaign. It’s sad to see the same approach being used on the Left now, and by the New Yorker, no less.

  10. Trying to remember the last time I read something where so many words were used to say so little. Oh right — it was another New Yorker article!

  11. Could it be that we were happier when half the kids died before age 5, or lived a life crippled by polio? When long days were spent pushing a plow and doing back-breaking labor on a farm? When you could expect to be born and die in the same small community, but knew everyone around you?

    Maybe, but I somehow doubt that if Rothman’s kid acquired a serious infection he would pine for more progress in the humanities and less in the sciences.

  12. … even the more learned audience for this magazine is largely of the humanities bent, and therefore glad to hear science done down. It is, after all, those versed in and wedded to the humanities who tout the false promise of “other ways of knowing.”

    You may be jaded, Jerry, by close vocational proximity to certain boobs and fools and empty barrels in academia, and to journalists like Leon Wieseltier. That’s certainly not a fair characterization of the vast majority of humanities-lovers I know, who do not see the arts and sciences in conflict, or even in competition.

      1. Which makes a good case for humanities-types to be more science-literate, and for scientists to be more literate — for both, that is, to drink more deeply from the Pierian Spring.

        1. Why is it that some of us have a tendency to frame issues as “black or white”, either/or”, “my way or the highway”? There are benefits and faults to be found in both science and humanities. We should not be expected to embrace one to the exclusion or disparagement of the other. Either “way of knowing” can be taken to extremes to detrimental effects on humanity. Both have benefited us.

  13. I think it is a well-written survey of the wide range of points-of-view that have been brought to bear on the happiness and well-being questions. The author does feature Pinker’s recent work prominently but fairly, in my opinion.

    I didn’t spot anything that was anti science. He does point out that our measurement of happiness and well-being have subjective components but surely Pinker agrees with that, as would all scientists.

    Sorry, Professor, I really don’t see why you have a problem with this article.

    1. I couldn’t agree more! The point was quite well stated in the article: Quality of Life and Subjective Well Being are distinct measurements, and getting better =/= things are good.

      I found their discussion of Pinker’s book to be quite respectful. They were not bashing him so much as widening the conversation. Pinker is right, but he’s only talking about part of a puzzle.

  14. Having read Enlightenment Now and seen Pinker debate with several people like Sam Harris, I agree the world has improved, but I still think of Pinker as a neoliberal Pollyana in too many areas. For instance, he just doesn’t get the threat of AI, he mocks environmentalists as irrational, and supports ignoring expensive renewables in favor of expanding cheap nuclear power even after the Fukushima disaster.

    Although he tweets that he is in favor of UBI, so much of his book trashes Marxists and anyone who is worried about the soaring income inequality. And he does sound blase when he defends a materialist and consumerist lifestyle, even though we crave more in the developed world. Social clubs have died, and wage slavery keeps people from pursuing hobbies and reaching their full potential. Steven Linker points out that working hours have declined in the developed world in about 100 years, but they could have declined a lot more if we had been more progressive and focused on automation and education/human capital, and fought wage slavery. I also think Steven doesn’t understand that there are limits to how much the places that voted for Trump can bear in terms of free trade, outsourcing, lost jobs, and deregulation before they stop caring about giving jobs to poor people in the developing world, and turn nationalist and elect populists like Trump which hurts everyone.

    Meanwhile trading with China and Russia might have helped the poor there, but it has also empowered strategic rivals and given them the wealth to be more self-reliant in the case of a war or a trade war. These rivals are clamping down on their population and censoring the internet, and expanding autocracy beyond their borders to Crimea, Syria, Hong Kong, and potentially Eastern Europe, Taiwan and Africa. I think sometimes you have to keep a certain population poor just to starve their autocratic government and incentivize them to bite at the carrot of democracy.

    In general, there are a lot of issues you can disagree with Steven Pinker on. Progressive folk instinctively fight him because he often sounds conservative in the true meaning of the word, and it’s arguable that we can’t stay the course and keep doing whatever we’ve been doing without structural reforms or else autocratic governments will keep amassing strength and will sieze the world.

    1. Sorry but your comment reads like so many who react negatively to Pinker’s thesis. It’s the long version of “Yes, I read Pinker but what about all the crap going on in the world and/or my life?” While Pinker’s work is not irrelevant to that, it is not really what he’s talking about. Pinker encourages us to think positive by looking at past progress and (b) keep doing what gave us this success. You are saying “No, I refuse to do that.” Your decision, of course, but it doesn’t make Pinker wrong.

      1. It’s dangerous to believe that past success can be met by continuing to do the same things. We live in a different world than in 1910 or 1960, with new problems that require new thinking.

        One factor in recent economic growth was the compression of income inequality during the Great Compression which allowed for more people to collectively take risks starting small companies, or getting an education, and having a social net reduced civil unrest. All the little geniuses had a chance, as opposed to only a few who now hold most of our resources today.

        Since then progress toward a better social net has stagnated, we still don’t have universal healthcare, and wages have stayed the same for 20 years. Yes, technology has improved as one would expect it to, but if we were pursuing progress then you would expect more of the gains of productivity to be shared with workers rather than a shrinking sliver of the national GDP. If this continues we will have trillionaires meddling in our politics. Hypothetically would it be ethical for one man to own 90% of the planet while the rest live in poverty?

        Steven Pinker doesn’t do enough to attack this problem, perhaps because he’s bought into the established narrative now that he’s friends with Bill Gates. He often neglects to talk much about important trends that have slowed down or flipped for the worse recently. He doesn’t talk enough about how ignoring the concerns of the nativists and choosing to give money to China destroyed the United States’ unipolar world, and created a new monster, which will likely lead to a new arms race and more corruption in the military-industrial complexes which could have been spent in the absence of military competition on building trains or empowering democracies in the developing world.

        The danger is when his arguments get latched onto by conservative or globalist economists who decide to stop reading the daily “pessimistic news,” and who don’t think we need to adjust our ways. Even if you think “emancipated values” are what we need more of, politicians are becoming more governed by the realist school right now, and when you’re faced with threats of war or election intrigue, your survival as a democracy is on the line, and moral progress and economic growth have to take a back seat.

        1. I agree with much of the first part of what you wrote here but it’s unfair to lay all this at Pinker’s feet. His book was not about solving today’s problems except to say that we should continue to apply science and logical reasoning as we search for solutions. Every era in history has problems. Ours might seem to be the worst ever but that’s probably also been periodically true throughout time.

          I disagree with the second part of your comment. Trump and his GOP pals are taking advantage of people’s tendency to take the short view and react to whatever bad news they hear. Remember Trump’s speeches at his party convention and at his inauguration? According to him, we are suffering from the worst crime ever, the worst immigration problems ever, the worst economy ever, and so on and only he can fix it. All not true. Pinker’s long view is the antidote to believing this tripe.

  15. But in general the magazine likes to tout “other ways of knowing” beyond science and empiricism. … Progressivism hasn’t done much for spirituality.

    I will go off tangent on this, because it reminds me how the just released final data analysis of the Planck probe secures – excepting a few outstanding anomalies – that the universe is all there sensibly is and that it has very little if any “other ways of knowing/spirituality” in it. By now adding zodiacal dust noise it shows that the cosmic background radiation amplitude and polarization, each on its own or assembled, agree on the universe.

    Precisely as physicist Brian Cox remarked on the LHC experiment doing away with “ghosts” and “souls” (and “afterlife”) the Planck experiment does away with “magic” and “magic beginnings”. The detail is that the observable universe likely began as a natural exit from eternal inflation of the slow roll kind, eternal chaotic inflation is rejected by adding BICEP/Keck data. It means that the relatively low energy process can be approximated as a standard quantum particle field, no exotic (well) physics and definitely no “magic” involved looking back in time.

    But I hear that the catholic organization, for one, is much more obsessed with the old result that human population was always large and religious “inheritance of sin” does not work. I can imagine it will be awhile before they – and apparently the New Yorker – hit the next observational snag. It will be a biggie: the concept of “gods” failed utterly.

  16. When I ask audiences how many of them would be dead without antibiotics, about 30% raise their hands.

    And that I’m convinced, has a lot to do with why preachers were able to tout a vengeful God that needed to be appeased so successfully – people would get sick out of the blue and rapidly succumb.

  17. By every objective measure of human well being, Nigeria is improving. Was the future of Nigeria more worrisome 80 years ago or now?

  18. Is there a pleasure that isn’t inherently fleeting? How long does a melody last? More and deeper pleasures are still better than fewer less satisfying ones.

  19. It’s not pessimism that is a virtue- it’s very cautious optimism, “conditional hope”, if you will.

  20. If the left are not playing identity with Pinker, then what the funk have they got against empiricism and science.
    The world IS better and nowhere does Pinker say it’s perfect, just this consistent motion in a direction we could conditionally say is progress.
    I don’t even think it is optimism (EN) or if that is true, empirical facts have attached emotions, + or – hmmm but it’s reality today as per data shown, arrived at by showing the past.
    It is something to feel good about but as we see, not for some.

  21. I find the criticism that Steve Pinker does not go enough into the difference between QOL and SWB particularly unwarranted, in one of his books (sadly I can’t remember which one, maybe ‘How the Mind Works’?) he devotes nearly a whole chapter to this problem.
    I always find that much of the criticism of Pinker (nearly as bad as the criticism of Harris) is generally based on either not having read (or lack of reading comprehension), or wilful misrepresentation.

  22. Pinker’s book does have its share of problems (which whentheloliscry does enumerate in a way I’d largely agree with), but it is still very good. The review, however, is a travesty.

    I do think, however, it has the germ of a good idea – which is not expanded upon, so this is something of a “what if?” …

    That is, there is a fair bit of evidence that *relative* deprivation matters to people in addition to absolute. There is also even more evidence that “fairness” also matters. That’s why all the bit about the 1% is not just sour grapes – it is recognition that they have gotten more *than their share*. Why? Because not only are wages stagnant or worse, but the *number of hours worked* has increased and the double edged nature of having to have two-income families, credit card debt, etc.

  23. “We are getting healthier, less likely to be killed in accidents or by our fellows, we live longer, have better food”

    This could describe the benefits of being in prison, other than the better food perhaps, though for some even that might be true.

    Imagine telling someone in prison, your life is so much better now. You are getting healthier, less likely to be killed in accidents or by your fellows, you will live longer, have better food. And then shaking your head when that person tells you, actually none of that matters and that his life has gotten immeasurably worse.

    I think, in essence, this is the main critique of Pinker’s thesis — other than the many critiques of his shoddy use of data.

    This is not necessarily a left-wing critique. Robert Nozick made essentially the same argument with his Orgasmatron 5000 thought experiment. Concepts like dignity, autonomy, love, meaning, purposefulness, social bonds tend to be both subjective and essential to making a life worth living.

    1. No, you haven’t gotten the essence of Pinker’s argument right: it goes far deeper than you characterize. And really, do you think someone in prison is less likely to be harmed by others than someone on the outside?

      1. Well it’s not impossible

        But as a thought experiment, if it was, if a prisoner was “healthier, less likely to be killed in accidents or by our fellows, we live longer, have better food” would they necessarily be better off in the most important ways? And if that person thought it was crazy for you to tell them they were better off, wouldn’t that make sense in some important way?

    2. If you (or whomever) want to use dignity, etc., as arguments that Pinker is wrong and things are not getting better (on average) then the burden is on you to demonstrate that these “essential” attributes are becoming more scarce.

      Evidence, please.

Leave a Reply