Pinker gets harassed on his birthday

September 18, 2018 • 1:00 pm

As I mentioned in today’s Hili Dialogue, Steve Pinker was born in 1954. When I sent him birthday greetings, I had forgotten that that makes him 64, which accounted for his reply that he’ll “spend the day doing the garden, digging the weeds, and playing with Vera, Chuck, and Dave.” (If you don’t get the reference, go here.)

But all is not beer and skittles for Dr. Pinker, because once again he’s been subject to The Attack of the Woke, with The Woke arguing that we’re not really having the Enlightenment that Pinker described in his last two books. The piece, of course, is at Salon, which has become just another regressive Leftist rag like HuffPo. Click on the screenshot below to read the screed by Erika Schelby, described by Amazon as “an author with much experience in business.”

Despite Pinker’s hyper-documentation of how the world has improved in the last several centuries, and his persuasive argument that this improvement is due largely to reason, secularism, and science, The Woke don’t like him. I’m not quite sure why (see a suggestion below), but they’ve attacked—as this article does—both his claim that the world has improved as well as his analysis of why it’s happened.

Here are Schelby’s points:

a.) The world hasn’t improved that much. (Pinker argues that our increase in morality and well-being is to due more than just science, but we’ll leave that aside for now.) To refute Pinker’s massive documentation of the improvement, Schelby cites only two countering facts: that income inequality is higher than it’s been in decades, and that there’s a red tide in Florida. I quote:

In making his case for why everything is terrific and only getting better, Pinker provides dozens of graphs and statistics paired with short articles to document technological achievements and improvements for society. These exhibits for his case suggest that we are enjoying better health, greater safety, increased longevity, and more stable politics than ever before. This can bring some cheer to people drowning in depressing news from at home and abroad. Income inequality at the highest rate in decades? Not really, if you read Pinker. He can put it in perspective: it’s not that bad. But then you consult the 2018 World Inequality Report penned by Thomas Piketty and his 100 participating researchers, which finds inequality is getting worse (unquestionably in the U.S.) — and will, barring a major shift in course, continue to do so. The celebratory mood could also be soured by any of the latest examples of environmental devastation: for instance Florida’s state of emergency issued for its revolting red tide of toxic algae, and the 267 tons of dead fish, manatees, turtles, dolphins, etc. that washed up on its beaches.

And that’s her case for why Pinker may have been wrong about everything. Well, I don’t have his two fat books before me, so I can’t remark on whether Steve addressed these issues, but this seems irrelevant. If income inequality is higher, what about the average level of well being? That is, greater inequality (and I’ll accept Schelby’s claim here) may nonetheless be accompanied by greater average well being, and I know that Pinker makes a strong case for that based on data about health, wealth, longevity, happiness, and almost any index you can think of.

And what about all those other indices? Schelby ignores them. What kind of an argument is that?

As for the red tide, yes, that’s true, and Pinker does discuss global warming and other environmental threats to human well being. He argues, and you may take issue with it, that science can and most likely will solve those problems. But at least he doesn’t ignore them, though Schelby ignores virtually 99% of the data Pinker adduces for the moral and physical improvement of our species.

b. What improvement there has been of our species and our world can’t be ascribed largely to science.  Schelby really doesn’t give evidence for this claim, but simply makes the claim and adds that there are “several versions of the Enlightenment.” She then—for crying out loud—gives a quote about “scientism” from Werner Heisenberg, as if that proves anything:

That scientific and technological advances are not the same as progress in human affairs goes largely unnoticed by Pinker. For him, the present is rosy and the future only better. We are the fortunate children of the Enlightenment, our prosperity bestowed not by a benevolent God, but by the power of reason and its primacy in our society.

. . . At first glance, Pinker’s exultation of Enlightenment values may be seductive. Do we want to live in an unreasonable, anti-scientific world? Yet, it’s difficult to not see it as a bold defense of a status quo that is clearly not working. Its antiseptic version of the Enlightenment is one that admits no crucial anti-imperial and anti-colonial ideas. Scientific inquiry is a method, but it is not suitable as a dogmatic worldview. Theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, Nobel laureate for his work in quantum mechanics, had little patience for the doctrine of “scientism” which only accepts strictly empirical evidence, “The existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite,” Heisenberg wrote. “It will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth.”

In fact, as Pinker shows, whatever is going on with our species IS working, for it’s effected so many positive changes in the world and in society that very few of us, if any, would wish to be a random citizen in, say, the fifteenth century. And, contra Heisenberg, if you don’t accept empirical evidence, what kind of evidence will you accept? (Nobody, by the way, sees science as the sole buttress of a humanistic worldview.)

For it’s the empirical method—the use and testing of data we can observe and collect—that has largely brought about the improvements in the world that Pinker describes. Would Schelby like to be a woman in the fifteenth century, laboring away at home without the benefit of women’s equality, convenient appliances, or modern healthcare? If science didn’t bring about modern medicine, modern agriculture, and their attendant improvements in health and longevity, what did? Certainly not religion! Would Schelby even be alive without antibiotics?

Finally, Schelby makes seem to be her two Big Points:

c. The Enlightenment wasn’t what Pinker says it was. Nope, says Schelby: there were several versions and, moreover, some Enlightenment figures had doings with non-European countries, implying (wrongly) that the Enlightenment wasn’t a largely European phenomenon:

It’s a neat equation that Pinker lays out, but as is often the case, the reality is more complicated. First of all, there are several versions of the Enlightenment, each emerging from a particular political, geographical, and philosophical home complete with its own debates and disagreements. There was a British, French, Scottish, Polish, German, and—at least in the mind of Catherine II—Russian Enlightenment. She corresponded with Voltaire, and welcomed Denis Diderot to stay for five months at her court in St. Petersburg, where she met with him almost daily. In Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, just one of the appropriated areas not given back after 1928 as Pinker claims they all were), dashing young Russian officers attended Kant’s classes and listened, spellbound, to his lectures.

There was also a global component of the Enlightenment. It was possibly an early manifestation of globalization. American and European merchants, explorers, traders, conquerors, missionaries, diplomats and bureaucrats traveled with ideas and carried them to their foreign destinations. So the Enlightenment became known beyond the boundaries of the West. Several western thinkers took a serious interest in the languages and cultures of the East. For example, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, the German polymath, corresponded for years with Jesuits working in China. He was on a hunt for a non-decimal system of 0 and 1, and researching “I Ching” hexagrams, which were unmistakably binary. He came to regard Chinese culture as sophisticated and advanced.

My response to this is “so what”? Does that mean that the European Enlightenment required fertilization from Russia and China? Citing Catherine II and (for crying out loud) Chinese Jesuits and the “I Ching” are simply anecdotal observations. Of course Europeans interacted with Russians, and occasionally with Chinese, but again I say, “so what”? What point is Schelby making here, other than “Pinker’s history wasn’t complete” (and I can’t remember if it was, but I suspect he did deal with the geographical reach and origins of the Enlightenment)? What is the sweating author trying to say? At any rate, giving two lousy anecdotes does not serve to show that Pinker didn’t understand or correctly describe the Enlightenment. All it shows is that Schelby likes anecdotes and that two minor ones suffice for her as a refutation of Pinker.

But wait! There’s more!

d. The Enlightenment fostered colonialism and imperialism.  Here I suspect a conflation: yes, some Enlightenment figures were imperialists and jingoists, and probably racists, too. But that doesn’t show that these obnoxious and maladaptive traits were fostered by the Enlightenment. The two phenomena of imperialism and Enlightenment are historically coincidental, but the causality, if there is any, defies me.

More important, the Enlightenment is surely what helped bring an end to colonialism and imperialism, though this was late in history. After all, countries became free when colonizers became enlightened enough to realize that one country had no obvious right to subjugate and exploit another. And that comes from secular, moral reasoning: the result not of religion, but of humanism.

Indeed, Schelby admits that some Enlightenment figures were anti-colonialist, and squirms mightily to de-emphasize that:

The Enlightenment became an intellectual justification and framework for colonialism and imperialism. So much so that John Stuart Mill opined about British imperial rule in India, “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.”

But wait–there were exceptions! (My emphasis).

During the late 18th century, several thinkers launched a vigorous assault against imperialism, conquest, and appropriation on a global scale. Their arguments took aim at a hypocritical contradiction. Yes, the proponents of imperialism supported the concept of the universal “natural man,” who is seen as a generic example of all humans and entitled to his due rights, but they gave little thought to these rights when exercising their paternalistic and brutal political and economic domination. In the U.S., this mission of bringing light to the gloom was later parodied by Mark Twain in his 1901 essay, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness.

In contrast, the anti-imperialists, including Diderot, Kant, and Herder, championed the equal dignity of all humans on earth, their original right to freedom, and to a life as beings—not as something generic to be shaped at will by colonial masters. Constructs of superiority and inferiority were resolutely rejected. These major contributors to the Enlightenment condemned imperial ambitions as unjust, dangerous, and impractical.

But the views of these anti-imperialists were apparently rejected. Schelby implies, but doesn’t say, that this is somehow the fault of the Enlightenment itself:

Much of this original anti-imperialist material began to disappear shortly after it was written. By the mid-19th century, when the zeitgeist had turned zealously imperial, it was semi-invisible and eventually was pushed into the shadows altogether. But in recent decades it has been rediscovered. As Sankar Muthu writes in his superb book “Enlightenment Against Empire,” “A study of Enlightenment anti-imperialism offers a richer and more accurate portrait of eighteenth-century political thought and illuminates the underappreciated … interconnections between human unity and human diversity”.

Schelby waffles on about Johann Gottfried Herder, an obscure anti-imperialist of the eighteenth century, and how he’s been rediscovered, but all this just goes to show that the Enlightenment wasn’t as closely connected with colonialism and imperialism as Schelby claims. So history has shown her wrong.

In the end, it’s not at all clear what point there is to Schelby’s Birthday Critique. To me it looks like one more jealous intellectual trying unsuccessfully to poke holes in Pinker’s arguments.

Finally, I present this article from for your delectation, and give a couple of excerpts. It’s about why intellectuals are so driven to smear Pinker and denigrate his message of progress, humanism, science, and secularism.  The author’s analysis leads him to conclude that Pinker attracts critics because he presents ideologically inconvenient facts.

Two excerpts:

Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker believes that men and women often have different interests and priorities, that violent crime rates vary among ethnic groups, and that the majority of suicide-terror acts worldwide are committed by Muslim extremists. While there’s ample evidence to support all of these claims, Pinker takes serious flak from the Regressive Left for stating them, as it offends their sensibilities. The punishment is being called a racist, sexist, Islamophobe, etc., a bullying tactic used as a silencing mechanism.

There have long been insinuations that Pinker, who’s Jewish and a liberal of the classical variety, is an alt-right sympathizer. Now that an edited video of a panel discussion he participated in at Harvard has gone viral, in which he refers to the “often highly literate, highly intelligent people who gravitate to the alt-right,” the usual suspects are coming at him. Pinker’s sparked just the latest social media outrage, based on only shards of evidence, we’re now accustomed to seeing from progressives. P.Z. Myers, New Atheist blogger and biology professor at University of Minnesota, posted a screed on his blog entitled, “If you ever doubted that Steven Pinker’s sympathies lie with the alt-right.” This would be unlikely, as the alt-right is fond of Holocaust jokes and Adolf Hitler. Plus, Pinker’s a big donor to the Democratic Party. Myers once scurrilously accused the late Christopher Hitchens of advocating the “wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world.”

And Beck’s conclusion?

If you present people like [CNN contributor] Sally Kohn the U.S. Department of Justice stats that show that blacks commit nearly eight times more homicides than whites, they call you a racist, which is what happens to Steven Pinker, even though he offers a non-racist, academic explanation for the numbers. It’s a societal problem, not a racial one. Much of the criticism aimed at the professor is done in bad faith by highly-politicized individuals, while some is the result of ignorance born of zealotry.

. . . Pinker’s trying to point out the downside to suppressing or distorting facts in the way Sally Kohn and many others on the Left do. It increases the chances that people, when exposed to certain data for the first time, are going to reach incorrect conclusions about various groups because they haven’t been allowed to hear well-reasoned interpretations of the facts. The result is an intellectual black market in which opinions get skewed towards extremism. The mistake the Left makes in basing its claim of moral parity for everyone on the contention that all groups are equal in every way is that such a premise is subject to invalidation by hard evidence.  

A good portion of the liberal/progressive movement is actively working towards creating an atmosphere where public intellectuals, and just regular people, shy away from addressing uncomfortable issues. Social media, where negativity thrives, aids them in helping to create the impression that people who oppose the alt-right, like Pinker, are actually alt-right apologists. Lies travel much faster than the truth on the Internet. The Left has been successful at creating an environment where self-censorship is commonplace. People are now afraid to speak their minds out of fear that the mob will come after them. Self-censorship is even more insidious than the government-mandated variety because it’s not tangible, making it harder to fight. Smearing people like Steven Pinker will, as so often happens on the Left, produce exactly the opposite of what’s intended.

The bold part is, to my mind, absolutely correct, and explains why the mild-mannered and kindly Pinker is so often the victim of vicious attacks. The attacks, as we see, aren’t based so much on his facts or analyses as on his ideology.

Happy birthday anyway, Steve!



105 thoughts on “Pinker gets harassed on his birthday

  1. What improvement there has been of our species and our world can’t be ascribed largely to science.

    Vaccines and birth control come to mind. Not to mention the green revolution. Those three things alone have done so much to alleviate human suffering.

    I think there is a fear on the left that if people don’t think we’re in the Direst Timeline™, then people will become complacent. I’m not moved to complacency by Pinker’s optimism, however, nor do I think most people are. I’m encouraged to keep working towards doing the things I can do to make the world a better place.

    1. The so-called “Green Revolution” is often cited by anti-environmental contrarians like Pinker, which is perplexing.

      So the creation of an industrial-scale food system relying on the application of millions of tons of carcinogenic herbicides/pesticides onto our food constitutes progress? That’s pure 1950s-vintage modernism at its worst.

      Obviously, we now know that the techniques of the “Green” revolution are utterly unnecessary to produce food on a large scale. It’s called organic agriculture and it works without harming consumers, farm workers, pollinators, soil microorganisms, etc. The risk/benefit ratio clearly points away from the naive and myopic Borlaug model, despite Monsanto/Bayer’s best efforts.

      Pinker’s chapter on the environment in “Enlightenment Now” was clearly the book’s low point. Not too surprising coming from an cloistered urban academic. (I’m speaking as a long-time fan of Pinker’s books, especially “The Blank Slate”.)

      1. So the creation of an industrial-scale food system relying on the application of millions of tons of carcinogenic herbicides/pesticides onto our food constitutes progress?

        I’m available to talk about wheat and Borlaug any day of the week. I consider being able to feed the globe a global good.

        It’s called organic agriculture and it works without harming consumers, farm workers, pollinators, soil microorganisms, etc.

        Are you referring to the set of farming practices set out by the USDA organic seal? Because if so, you are quite incorrect. Did you know that rotenone is used in organic farming?

      2. It is not called organic agricolture (indeed “organic” does not mean pesticide free, just “pesticide approved by the Peoples’ Organic Committee for Love and Truth”,) it is called GMOs.

      3. I see what your saying about current thinking on agriculture. Who can be against non-carcinogenic methods. But, I think, not having read the book, we can say that “modern” large scale farming practices, while loaded with problems, was able to feed the world’s mushrooming population for the last 100 years or so. I think the relevant comparison is if we still had only small family farms of the type seen in the 19th century. The US came to have huge surpluses of wheat that fed millions of people around the world. Populations move from farming to the cities where they hoped to have a better way of life. That would justify Pinker’s claim even if side effects were not discussed.

      4. “The so-called “Green Revolution” is often cited by anti-environmental contrarians like Pinker, which is perplexing.”

        I don’t think you can expect anyone that has both a modicum of intellectual integrity and has actually read or listened to Pinker himself on the relevant subjects to take you seriously when you write something like that.

    2. I agree.
      While Schelby’s article may be full of it, I think the basic sentiment it springs from might be the desire to avoid complacency, which I share. It might be tempting to assume the overall arc of progress to be in constant ascension, with our current turmoil just a little zig in the slope, but we have no assurance of that because of the new challenges we have never before had to contend with: global warming, nuclear weapons, population growth to start with. We have no guarantee that we can solve these issues because we have never been there before, and I hope Pinker is right that we can. And the improvement in average well being notwithstanding, in the era of Citizen’s United, income inequality with massive accumulation at the top end does pose political risks to democracy, which, by the way, more and more people seem to find less indispensable.

      1. Giancarlo, I agree with your assessment and have made similar comments in response to previous posts regarding Pinker’s book. I do not dispute that at this moment in history the people of the world, on average, have never been better off. But, the world is facing two existential threats that for almost all of human history has never existed. The first is the existence of nuclear weapons. They have not been used in the 73 years since 1945. But, this period of time is a blink in human history. Can we be reasonably confident that they won’t be used in let us say the next century? I do not have such confidence. The second threat is climate change. Little is being done to combat it and if the climate scientists are to be believed, time is running out.

        Those who attack Pinker do so out of fear that his findings support the status quo. If things are wonderful now, why change things? I don’t think Pinker is saying this, but his arguments, unwittingly or not, do provide ammunition for those who support capitalism as currently constituted. People who feel that such trends as income inequality threaten the well-being of many people (even if they’re better off than people who lived in the 15th century) and democracy itself would accomplish more by pointing out that as accurate as Pinker’s statistics may be, they probably demonstrate a trend, not destiny, and actions must be taken to extend the trend as long as possible. Among many others, the Roman and British empires were great in their days, yet they collapsed. Pinker’s identified trend of an ever getting better world will someday reverse itself, whether it be by nuclear war, climate change, or something else. Unless one believes that human nature has changed dramatically since the end of World War II, more than 2,000 years of historical examples demonstrate that good things do not last forever.

        1. I think you’re right. Pinker’s main theme is things are getting better. Another theme is – we’ve managed this progress with a lot of effort – keep it up. So complacency is not at all being advocated. Just the opposite.

        2. If, as you say, the complaints are about arguments Pinker is NOT making, wouldn’t it be better to educate those misinterpreting his message? Those misinterpreting deliberately must be countered. Those doing it out of ignorance are missing a major point he’s trying to make. Pinker’s message is bound to be misinterpreted due to people’s bias toward negative news. We should help him make his case.

    3. Another reason I find Steven Pinker’s optimism dangerous, is that I’ve been on forums where conservatives who defend Trump would reference Pinker as justification for why he Trump administration isn’t a problem simply because for a long time in history things were getting better. Sometimes in his book “enlightenment now” Steven Pinker puts a lampshade on the criticism, noting that he is aware that he is criticized for encouraging complacency, but then he fails to meaningfully respond to the argument/criticism. There’s no law that says human progress is linear or inevitable, and for all we know contemporary complacency and growing voter apathy/cynicism might be a factor in promoting a wave of strongman governments or even a Dark Age.

      1. I would like to let you know that I have been on forums where conservatives who defend Trump were using your reply as an example of pseudo-argument used to shut down discourse based on dubious predictions rather than the merit of the topic under discussion, all this in order to justify bad policies.

        If I were you I would be more careful about not being used by conservatives who defend Trump on forums.

      2. I also do not find Pinker’s arguments to be persuasive. The problem for me is that he does not spend much (if any) time discussing his value system and instead lists a variety of things which have improved and then assumes that we all share his values, thereby reaching the conclusion that the world is indeed a better place. I don’t really see the point of this sort of argument, values differing as they do from person to person. First, he would need to convince me of his values. He also goes on to make predictions on the future which seem at best to be extrapolations.

        1. I think most people would agree that longer lifespan, better nutrition, lower incidence of infectious disease, higher literacy, lower levels of interpersonal violence, declining incidence of war, greater sexual equality, gay rights, abolition of slavery and judicial torture, less cruelty to animals, and less racism are all good things, and that the world is a better place for having them.

          Of course, if you have a different set of values, you may disagree.

          1. What you are saying is clearly true. Yet, it would seem that such advances have not translated for many people (if not a majority) into lives of contentment. The opioid epidemic exemplifies this. The CDC reports that “From 1999 to 2016, more than 200,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2016 than in 1999.” One estimate is that 322 million people worldwide suffer from depression. I’m not sure why there is such a degree of unhappiness. Perhaps humans are wired to be discontented for evolutionary reasons. Or, perhaps, physical and material well-being is offset by psychic voids in people lives.

            It seems implied in Pinker’s book that if people were only aware of how good they have it then they would stop bitching. I fear that his charts and graphs won’t have the desired effect. Contentment is elusive for many. For them, life is not good and they don’t care if objectively they are better off than previous generations.



            1. I don’t agree that this undermines Dave’s point. At no time in the future, no matter how great everything turns out, will there not be unhappy people. No matter the course of human history, we will never be free of addiction, for example. Or depression. It’s biology. We may get good at treating these (we are getting there) but we will never be free of them.

              I take note of your point elsewhere that the gains humanity has made can easily be swept away by any number of forces. But even that does not belie Dave’s point. Things ARE objectively better except, of course, the things that aren’t.

              To those who doubt it, may I suggest walking around any 19th century graveyard and note the ages of the dead off their stones.

            2. Keep in mind that Pinker’s analysis involves statistical trends over centuries. The ups and downs of human progress within that range is bound to saw-tooth. I think he’d say, look at all the hard work we’ve put in to get this far as a species. Let’s keep up the effort and improve life for more people worldwide.

            3. I can’t remember in which of his books he wrote it, but Pinker does address that point. If I remember correctly part of it was ‘deminishing returns’ of further progress, and comparison to others who might have improved even more. I apologise if I stunt his elaborate argument, but my point is that Pinker is very aware of that.

            4. “One estimate is that 322 million people worldwide suffer from depression…”

              If I calculated this right, 322 million is about 4.3% of 7.45 billion. It’s always possible that a small percentage of depressed people is maintained in the population because in some circumstances it’s adaptive, (or simply randomly). (I say, as one of the 322 million.)

        2. Name at least one of his values you don’t share. His values underpinning his latest book seem to be reducing infant mortality and starvation, lengthening lives, and reducing poverty. These shouldn’t be controversial.

          1. Questioning the values of Steven Pinker is laughable. I have a feeling this critic is not at all familiar with Dr. Pinker’s oeuvre.

          2. I don’t agree with him about expanding nuclear power, and his contempt for environmentalists who slow “progress” by making energy safer and therefore more expensive. Or his contempt for “romanticism” and art for not being practical or extending peoples’ lives. Those things might be among the things that would reduce the opioid crisis; those things provide meaning for some peoples’ lives. I also don’t believe its enough to focus on improving the material well-being of authoritarian less developed countries while not trying to encourage better governments there that respect human-rights. Unlike Pinker, I think it’s better to die younger fighting for freedom that to live a long life as a slave (but with antibiotics and smartphones.)

          3. I don’t agree with his conclusion that the world is a clearly improving place, and my best guess is that this is due to a difference of values and perhaps in reading the tea leaves on the future. As for the values, I share every positive value he has and every negative one (as far as I have seen). However we appear to “weight” these differently, for example perhaps I value environmental integrity, treatment of other species, etc. more than he does, and so certain negatives for him are more negative for me. So although I agree with him on the “sign” of the values, the weighting is different and as a result ultimately so are conclusions. I have not read his books, but I have listened to some of his talks and nothing he has said has suggested that there is more to it than this.

      3. Is there anywhere in Pinker’s works where he encourages complacency? Perhaps he fears that responding to people who deliberately misread his work in furtherance of their own ends would only serve to legitimize their false claims.

      4. This is simply blaming the victim. This has become SOP with the left. It is pure unadulterated crap. I’m beginning to think that I don’t belong here anymore.

          1. Screw that; I’m not ceding an inch to pseudo-Leftists.

            There’s still an old-school Left out there, and I think it’s gaining ground on both the Right and the phony, regressive Left (which may be loud, but doesn’t speak for the rest of us).

    4. I find the opposite to be true. Celebrating advances in life lead me to want to work harder. We are making great progress. Hurray! Think of what other amazing things we do if we keep trying. It takes dewy-eyed optimists to dream of new and greater things.

      If all the effort in my lifetime (I am in my 50s) has been for naught, that would be a reason to stop trying. What’s the point? Nothing ever gets better. Eeyores never make progress.

  2. It seems that if facts don’t align with your ideology, then attack the person. That seems true on both the left and right. Both seem to attack Pinker because he says overall things are much better than the past. That doesn’t play into their narrative.

  3. Extremists of all stripes are not fans of any argument which says things are getting better, and are not as bad as they seem. The idea that there can be progress without radical change undercuts their whole modus operandi. To read the Woke or CTRL-Left or any intersectional writings it is clear that at this moment things are supposed to be as bad as they have ever been, are getting worse, and that we are on the brink of their being irreparably bad. That there is improvement, and that improvement could in any way be linked to the operation of the free-market or democracy (assume scare-quotes), is entirely contrary to their world view.

    1. That’s what immediately occurred to me as well. The shallow criticism seems to be a desperate attempt to sustaining as much attention as possible. Schelby is playing to her fellow extremist to reinforce their collective delusion. Like religion.

      1. I was wondering if Schelby was religious…there seems to be subtle evidence that she is…or at least an religious apologist.

        1. I keep forgetting to add that to my comments. Thanks for the reminder! Happy Birthday Steve Pinker. Ironically enough, I finished The Blank Slate yesterday. (I’m pretty sure Schelby hasn’t read it.)

  4. These articles are so false. The Salon article has Pinker saying it’s the “best of times”, implying that there’s nothing that needs fixing or possibility for improvement. A little later, the author has him claiming “everything is terrific”. This is not real journalism. I see no reason to bother with these articles except to write biting comments. I tried this on Salon but it wouldn’t allow me to sign up. Oh well.

  5. I suspect some otherwise erudite readers expect that after reading Enlightenment Now, life is supposed to transform into a utopian dream fantasy.

    I also think titles in the self-help genre are marketed like that – read this book and boom you’re life will improve.

  6. The Enlightenment was mostly white men, and Pinker praises the Enlightenment; that’s why they hate him.

    I found the second book dull and tedious after a while, but that is not because I think he’s wrong. The world keeps getting better, and Western Enlightenment values and achievements are key to why. At a certain level of abstraction history is like this. Not much happens and nearly everyone is poor, and most are in bondage. Then 250 years ago something happened, most people got enormously richer and freer.

  7. “Of course Europeans interacted with Russians,…”

    This is like saying Americans interacted with New York. Russia is mostly Europe (especially so in the 18th century) and we are talking about a time way-way before the European Union, so the border between Russia and (for example) Prussia meant not much more than the border between France and Spain.
    BTW, Catherine II was a Prussian (so German) princess, raised by a French governess. So of course she and her court had cultural ties to Prussia and France.

    Note: independently from the above “rant” I also do not see what is the point Schelby is trying to make in that part.

    1. I think the point Schelby is trying to make in that part is that the Enlightenment was not a good thing. It was probably white and male, for one thing. It was not just European since non-Europeans are oppressed and many are brown. So give credit to the marginalized populations, not to the white males. Thus, white males ought to be ashamed, not proud, of the world they have made for us. So there!
      Or something like that.

      1. You’ve just reiterated the other common false complaint about Pinker’s book. He cheers the ideas that were born or promoted in the Enlightenment, not all that went on during the Enlightenment. If someone claimed that Germany was a world leader in the pursuit of science and mathematics in the early 1900s, would it be fair to counter that with “What about Hitler?”

        1. Not only that, Pinker deals with that before getting to the good stuff.

          His term for what his book is not :


          As in “this is not Enlightenment-olatry”

    2. A minor nit-pick. You say “Russia is mostly Europe”. On the contrary, I think that a lot of the tensions within both Imperial Russia and the Russia of today are to do with the differences between European and Asiatic traditions and influences.

  8. One of the biggest problems with many people today is, if your outlook does not match up with their’s then my side must attack you. We can no longer agree to disagree on some items we must attack through misrepresentation and anything we can think of to make our case. That is what today’s politics are all about. So even when Pinker makes the case for improvement that any reasonable person can see and understand, here comes the attacks. It could be that his books need to come with a warning – If you are an extreme ideologue please do not read this book, it is not for you.

    To believe things are not much better today than in the past is to ignore the facts, the history and the reality.

    1. Your comment reminded me

      Steve Ballmer has a project to make … data … from the U.S… widely available

      Not sure what it’s supposed to do that other data sources don’t, but it’s interesting (having not looked into it more)…

      1. I was thinking of one thing about the changes, the enlightenment was about in our American history. George Washington could not get a commission in the British Army during the French and Indian war. He was too average in background or standing. To give such an average person a commission in the British service just wasn’t done. They were not at all please when they lost the war to Washington some years later.

        1. Hmmmm. I seem to remember Ol’ George had the rank of Major in the F&I war and it was he who was in charge at the first battle.

          Just googleated it; he retired from the Virginia regiment before the end of the war and never got a Royal commission. I bet that did sting.

  9. Nice post. Happy Birthday Steven. And have all the skittles and beer you can bear, though maybe not simultaneously.

    Schelby should take a few months off without an iPhone and see what she thinks of science and it’s purported unimportance.

    I never expected there to be a slow death to reason…from the Left.

  10. Now that I’m older,
    losing my hair
    In this year right now,
    I’m glad you still are sending me valentines
    birthday greetings, bottle of wine.


    If this woman wanted to rebut Pinker, why not pick on the far more difficult example of Nazism instead of the trivialities mentioned here?

    Although the late 18th and 19th centuries are called the Age of Imperialism, nonetheless imperialism isn’t that new, though colonialism may be. See Alexander the Great.

    In addition to the pros of science, it seems to me that in the 19th and 20th century, people rethought the whole process of ethical reflection. Whether its a maverick religious philosopher like Ralph Waldo Emerson, or a more secular figure like Voltaire, the whole process of what constituted moral good was drastically altered.

    1. “Yes we still need you, yes we’ll still feed you, now you’re sixty-four!” (Say most science -literate folks to Dr. Pinker, PCC(E) Coyne {give or take a few years}, Dr.s Dawkins, Dennett, Asimov, Sagan, Feynman,etc.)

  11. The income inequality comment raises one issue: Over what interval of time are you looking?

    If you are mapping out multi-century-scale trends, the rise in income inequality since 1980 likely looks like one of many ups and downs over time. If you are looking just at the last 100 years, the increase in inequality looks like a major, long-term trend.

    And the only thing likely to reverse this trend is an embrace of enlightenment values and reason-based public policy. It is clear that a lot of Christians are solidly in the pro-Trump, tax-cuts-for-the-rich camp. It does not matter how many times Jesus railed against wealth, many Christians are certain that wealth is a sign of God’s personal blessing. (I’d like to see a survey documenting the percentage of Christians who are in favor of policies that exacerbate income inequality. 50:50?)

    1. Yeah, this income inequality argument Schelby makes is completely ass-backwards. The income inequality the US is now experiencing is not a result of the Enlightenment values Pinker is talking about but is rather the exact opposite. It is an example of ancient behavioral patterns, detrimental to all but the few with power, that were never countered for the betterment of society throughout all of human history to any significant degree or for any significant length of time until the Enlightenment that Pinker speaks of. What this current rise in income inequality demonstrates is that the fight ain’t over yet. We who make up the large majority of human societies could still lose the gains made via Enlightenment values and ideas if we aren’t careful. In the US, and Europe to perhaps a slightly less degree, we’ve been asleep at the wheel for several decades and we’ve let the liars, cheaters and stealers behaving per the ancient ways get the upper hand.

  12. Nobody tell the painfully woke Schelby that the Werner Heisenberg she approvingly cites was a Nazi collaborator working on the German bomb.

      1. No. Von Braun worked on the V2 rocket. He says he imagined it would someday be used to put men on the moon. At the same time it was being used to bomb London. A good guy.
        Heisenberg was an atomic physicist who claims he didn’t really want to be a NAZI but who helped the NAZIs toward building an atomic bomb to take over the world. Another good guy.

    1. When Shelby described it as “scientism” I assumed that Heisenberg was an accommodationist. He was, but from a point of being religious (which I had forgot):

      “Heisenberg was raised and lived as a Lutheran Christian.[138] …

      “Where no guiding ideals are left to point the way, the scale of values disappears and with it the meaning of our deeds and sufferings, and at the end can lie only negation and despair. Religion is therefore the foundation of ethics, and ethics the presupposition of life.””

      [ ]

  13. I think that a lot of people on the Left are upset about racism, sexism, “Islamaphobia”, transphobia, the pronoun crisis, the environment, etc., that any message that says, “You know things are getting better, right?” sounds dismissive of their core concerns. Of course Pinker was no at all dismissive of these continuing problems, but in their minds we need a book that says “things are getting worse and worse and we need to do something now” instead of this optimistic book by Steve.

  14. I’ve read several of Pinker’s book and have recommended them to others. I was especially impressed by his modesty and his thoroughness.

    If I had any reservation it was that his thesis is based almost entirely on quantitative data (which is both a strength and a weakness), and I’m not fully persuaded that all the advances of science that have improved our lot immeasurably correspond to an improvement in overall well-being and/or happiness. That’s a tricky thing to measure, but it’s a proposition I’m inclined to doubt/challenge.

    Then, again, I put a lot of weight on experiential evidence and intuition, so it may not be fair to fault Pinker for not doing what he’s not attempting to do.

    1. All the evidence seems to reveal the fact that the “woke” Left has never read The Blank Slate. To be sure, I can’t think of a better “required reading” book for the “woke” folk.

    2. Very true. If the Blank Slate is not true then social intervention will *always* be an uphill struggle. No feasible program of education can deliver the quick and easy social revolution the “woke” Left demand.

      It’s going to take a generations-long ratchet of progress, going with the grain of human nature, rather than working against it. Let’s call it… the Enlightenment, which has still to reach many parts of the world.

  15. I suppose one reason the Control Leftists hate Pinker is that if the data is true, then that invalidates their worldview. Now why exactly having your gloom and doom worldview altered for the better is such a terrifying thing I cannot fathom. It’s like thinking you’re down to your last $5 then checking your account to find you’ve got $105 instead. I’d much rather be pessimistic and find the outcome to be better than expected than worse, wouldn’t you? And that doesn’t mean we don’t have room for improvement either. The environment and overpopulation being cases in point (and yes, I do think there are too many damn people, and not enough rhinos, whereas Pinker fudges a bit on that, and might have a different opinion than I) but I don’t think reacting as if no progress has been made is the way to go forward. Rather, that POV leads towards hopelessness and a why bother attitude. No, I may be a misanthropic pessimistic bastard but I’m also a proud liberal humanist grandchild of the Enlightenment. The alt right and the control left can kiss my enlightened arse.

  16. She quotes Heisenberg as saying: “The existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite,” and “It will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth.”

    The first statement appears to me simply to acknowledge that our current scientific theories don’t explain everything, and that we need to carry on working to make them better.

    The second seems a statement of the bleedin’ obvious. There has never, ever been a time when someone, sitting on their arse in their armchair, has ever come across any absolute truth about anything. We need evidence, reason, and the wherewithal to test our hypotheses, you see…assuming she knows what that even means.

    1. Exactly. The phrase that came to mind when I read this argument of hers in the OP was “own goal.” She clearly is not prepared to discuss these topics.

  17. You have a 5% chance of dying from this operation…
    You have a 95% chance of surviving this operation…
    As you know, same thing, framed differently.
    The thing is, which one of these examples would you prefer to hear?
    This is a problem that all these facts, graphs and statistics in Steven Pinker’s book has.(Happy Birthday by the way)
    It’s not how and what they, the left and other offended want to hear. They want to hear how foul, sad ol’ white guys are, and how they have been buggering up the world. How despite this, inferior races and classes have battled their way through it and continue to show ‘them’ how it really is and how ugly what this progress looks like.
    Nevermind (in the west) I have kick arse air conditioning while I bleat about it.
    Pinker is not responsible for all the facts of a slow moving progress and knows the ‘story’ by any means has not ended yet. Optimism? really? it seems more like a steady climb by attrition of bad ideas in ideology health, living conditions, using tools of science, reason, common sense, hard graft and sacrifice. Human’s cannot be trusted (unless you are oppressed?) I think he has made that clear, but fuck me (no, that’s not an invitation) that’s not what they want to hear.
    I live in New Zealand, a very fortunate place to be and i know it. What i don’t know is what true poverty, oppression means and to live it. I very much doubt Schelby does either.

  18. Stephen Pinker saying the world is getting better is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy since the world is a better place with him in it.

  19. One illustration of why societal “improvements” over time are tricky to pin down: while literacy rates have improved over the last three decades, the percentage of American adults who read literature — any novels, short stories, poetry or plays — has steadily declined. Considering that it probably never was very high, I’m reminded of a wonderful passage from Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age:

    “One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all. I picture to myself that reader — non-reader, rather; one man out of every two — and I reflect, with shame: ‘Our poems are too hard for him.’ But so, too, are Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels — any book whatsoever. The authors of the world have been engaged in a sort of conspiracy to drive this American away from books; have in 77 million out of 160 million cases, succeeded. A sort of dream situation often occurs to me in which I call to this imaginary figure, ‘Why don’t you read books?’ — and he always answers, after looking at me steadily for a long time: ‘Huh?’”

    1. As you say, these things are tricky to pin down. Two points:

      1. While Americans might be reading less, perhaps the rest of the world is reading more and there is a net increase in literacy worldwide.

      2. Where people get information and what information they seek is obviously changing. While someone who likes poetry might legitimately complain about its downward trend, perhaps it is more than balanced by access to information on the internet, films, games, virtual reality, etc. Improvement always involves change.

      1. “While someone who likes poetry might legitimately complain about its downward trend, perhaps it is more than balanced by access to information on the internet, films, games, virtual reality, etc.”


        1. I’ll try again. While poetry is perhaps in decline, other kinds of communication are rising. This may be no consolation to a poetry lover but not everyone is a poetry lover and these other forms of communication also have value.

          Many of the complaints about Pinker’s book amount to the critics taking a shorter, narrower view than he does. Poetry buffs are crying but the rest of us are doing better than ever.

          1. “. . .the rest of us are doing better than ever.”

            Glad to hear it, especially in light of William Carlos Williams’ observation: ”It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

    2. I write, Mirandaga, as a retired professor of literature, one who became increasing frustrated with his students’ indifference to the books I loved as the years rolled by, and not as your critic. How far should we go down this short list of ‘societal improvements’ before we pause, skeptically?

      Literacy itself
      Active literacy
      Reading literature
      Reading poetry

      I would draw the line under ‘active literacy.’ Why? Because ‘reading literature’ and ‘reading poetry’ are not self-evidently valuable to one’s self or one’s society. The case has to be made!

      And if fewer and fewer people are reading poetry, more and more poetry is being written for that ever-shrinking audience (of writers obliged to read one-another’s poems). And although a coherent theory of aesthetics ever eludes us, we nonetheless have our personal ‘good-and-bad’ reading responses. When I read poetry as I find it, it’s usually ‘bad.’ For instance, in the ‘New Yorker,’ whose two poems per issue are almost always to my eye and ear not worth the trouble of reading. Such poems are part of the current popular notion that everyone has a story (true enough, but empty) but that the only story anyone is deeply interested in is her own–as she tells it and tells it in poems (or stories or memoirs)that do not sing.

      That brings me to your quotation from WCW’s ‘Asphodel’ in your response to comments on the original post. Williams didn’t make an ‘observation’ (your word) but an assertion. And as such it is in the last analysis empirical. Is it really true about poetry that ‘men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there’?

      I doubt it. But if the passage is figurative, like ‘he died of a broken heart’ when his heart was healthy, then the lines can’t be said to further the necessity of poetry.

      1. Hi, Robert. If you are the Robert Bray who wrote Reading with Lincoln, I read that book as a follow-up to reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and enjoyed it vey much.

        Despite my waving the Williams quote under Paul Topping’s nose, I agree with what you have to say about it (though I’ve never interpreted the lines to mean that one is going to die miserably if one doesn’t read poetry or to suggest that one can’t find “what is found there” in other ways).

        I also agree that most poetry today is “bad” and even worse when read by the poet, which is why I almost never go to poetry readings. Unfortunately, poets have reacted to the lack of audience by writing for each other, though this has been true for at least 40 years and may be less true today than in the latter half of the last century.

        I stopped writing poetry years ago when I became a father, being unable to sustain to passions of that intensity. Today I seldom read it, though I know certain touchstone poems by heart (Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Frost’s “Birches” come to mind) and consider that they’re in there somewhere doing their beneficial work.

        As a kid, I grew up reading comic books and cereal boxes, so that when I did later become a poet I always tried to aim for an audience that, like my family, never read the stuff. (You can judge for yourself how well I succeeded by going to Frankly, I worry much more about people being deprived of contact with nature than contact with poems, though I believe “the news” Williams refers to can be found in both.

        In any case, thanks for the good reply.


        1. Gosh, it’s good to read (rare) replies such as yours! And, yes, I’m the ‘Reading with Lincoln’ guy. Thanks so much for your thoughtful, civil–and, yes–literary response to my comment.

    1. Don’t you know that facts and reason are tools of the oppressive white patriarchy and have no place amongst the woke?

      1. Yes!

        Facts –

        … people… people… I think that’s right.. I wrote it so many times and in caps the spelling looked wrong. Think I’ll lay off the caps.

  20. “Smearing people like Steven Pinker will, as so often happens on the Left, produce exactly the opposite of what’s intended.”

    My more cynical self would point out that perhaps the effect is not unintended at all. If you have an emotional cause, you most often need some kind of enemy. If the enemy doesn’t exist, you need to create him/her/it.

    One example that comes to mind is the old canard that women earn 79% of what men earn for the very same work. This question has been studied by economists for decades, and while it was undoubtedly once true that men in general earned more than women, today this claim only works if you don’t factor in relevant variables such as type of work (hospital data will show men earning more if there are more male than female doctors), number of hours worked, etc. But only someone very naive would expect the claimants to utter a sign of relief when they hear their claim corrected by evidence. The human brain tends not to work that way.

  21. The strategy in every anti-Pinker diatribe I’ve come across, from the Left or from the Right, has been to cast him as Dr. Pangloss, rather than as the hard-nosed, clear-eyed pragmatist he actually is.

  22. But Pinker *does* talk about income inequality in Enlightenment Now. Repeatedly!

    I don’t have the refs in front of me ton quote page numbers and text, but he talks about how income inequality has historically come down within nations, between nations, etc. He concedes that it is currently increasing within nations but contrasts that to the rates of decline in absolute poverty worldwide.

    He also points out the self-evident fact that rising income inequality within rich nations, while by no means good, is not the end of the world:

    If Jim has 20 apples and 30 other people have 4 apples each, that might be unfair, but it’s better than Jim having 10 apples and 30 other people having no apples at all.

    I’m not a Libertarian, and I think national income inequality needs to be arrested and scaled back, but the above is an undeniable fact. What’s weird is that something so self-evident is considered controversial.

  23. As many people have pointed out above, nearly all the criticisms of Pinker are blatant straw-manning.

    The whole thesis of Enlightenment Now can be summed up as:

    By any sane criteria the world is a much better place now than it was 500 years ago, so we are clearly doing something right, let’s work out what it is and make sure we keep doing it.

    He is clearly arguing against complacency.

  24. What I want to know is how these people who think the world is getting worse can even manage to get out of bed in the morning. If all the great figures of social and political reform ultimately failed (as they unwittingly imply), why would any young progressive think they could do better? If you believe this garbage, then isn’t all activism so much pissing in the wind?

    I find this defeatist attitude far more likely to cause “complacency” than Pinker’s thesis.

  25. I think you’re being ‘to say the least!’ right that the author believes the Enlightenment to have been a ‘bad thing.’ The fear and loathing of the science that Enlightenment has inspired began with its contemporary ‘anti-partical’ of Romanticism and has continued (at least in the arts and humanities)into our time, where now it is a troubling and ugly boil on the civic organism of the U.S. I think of Blake’s ‘Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau’ in this connection (though why Rousseau in the second seat is puzzling, since he became a darling of the Romantics. . . .).

    For every Diderot, a Wordsworth.
    For every Newton, a Hegel.
    For every Hume, a Descartes, Kant, etc.
    For every Tom Paine, a gaggle of preachers.

    Why the hatred? I think it has to do with Enlightenment science’s gradual defeat of every form of soul-subjectivity: God’s, Nature’s and now Homo sapiens’. No privileged self, no exceptional introspection. And no extraordinary epistemology by which to relate to a material world that many, perhaps even most, still believe to be interwoven with immaterial magic. I suspect also that some who no longer hold such a belief nevertheless wish it were true, and pine for it.

    Meanwhile, neuroscience is busy ‘deconstructing’ Continental philosophy’s post-phenomenological stance on consciousness, and thereby reconsidering what a human being is–merely an animal–and can be–a less perverse one. As Alex Rosenberg put it, neuroscience is in the process of showing that ‘there is no first-person point of view.’

    That means one can’t be ‘Woke’. And that’s intolerable to those who believe they are.

    1. Maybe the Woke movement ultimately stems from postmodernism in lit departments, etc. And it’s understandable that they are romantics. I think the death of God, the loss of the soul, and the rise of scientific materialism, are a shock to the system. But they’ll get over it.

  26. Once again, the ctrl-left displays a depressingly similar penchant for science denialism as we’ve come to expect from the alt-right.

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