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.)
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.
. . . .. 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.