Pinker interviewed in New York Times

November 22, 2018 • 2:30 pm

For a bit of a digestif this Thanksgiving, have a look at a new interview of Steve Pinker in the New York Times. As it emphasizes the progressivism I’ve described on this site before, you might not learn much new, but you will find out whether he intends to run for office, how his work on the world’s improvement has changed him personally, why people still reject Pinker’s progressivism despite copious data in its favor, and, as the interviewer asks, “Does it matter that some things are improving if other things are getting worse?” (What a question!)

116 thoughts on “Pinker interviewed in New York Times

  1. I would think Pinker is too intelligent to consider politics and is far too polite for today’s dirty game. Maybe one of the reasons we have critics of his view is the age of Trump. They think, in this exact age how could things be getting better. Pinker knows that this is just a tiny moment in history and will soon pass. We had one a few years back with the Nixon/Agnew team. History does repeat itself but not often.

    1. Hello Randall,

      I’ve been out for a while and am just catching up. Just wanted to say that it’s good to see you back.

  2. Pinker wears pink (or is it blue?) glasses. The world population of 7+ billion and their struggles for existence is not represented by the tiny population of Cambridge MA.

    1. Huh? You’re show you’re not familiar with the data, nor Pinker’s analysis. I suggest you read “Better Angels”.

      1. I have read Pinker’s books and strongly feel that the analysis is flawed. An analogy is the claim one reads all the time that modern medicine is altering the evolution of Homo sapiens without realizing that only a tiny fraction of humans benefit from modern medicine

        1. Antibiotics are used all over the world. Not a tiny fraction.

          “Between 2000 and 2015, antibiotic consumption, expressed in defined daily doses (DDD), increased 65% … The increase was driven by low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where rising consumption was correlated with gross domestic product per capita (GDPPC) growth (P = 0.004).”

          So, you read the book?

          1. Not to mention vaccinations. They are much more important than antibiotics on a large population scale, and are -I think- instrumental in women having fewer children.

            Note that the increase in growth rate ‘turned’ in 1984. Populations are still growing, but at an increasingly slower rate.
            Projections of world population peaking at 15 billion have been abandoned, even 10 billion appears not on the cards. Most estimates give a peak of about 9 billion, somewhere between 2050 and 2100.
            Nobody really knows why this demographic shift takes place, but apart from the lower infant mortality, there are several other probable factors: more control of women over their bodies and lives in general, more social security, better -and longer- education, move from country-side to cities, secularisation, greater availability of contraceptives, etc. etc.

          2. You are right, the science is still up in the air on this, but it seems very likely that people have fewer children now because their children are more likely to survive infancy and modern society requires more per-child investment from parents, and probably mostly due to the latter. “I don’t think we can afford to put TWO kids through college, dear.”

      2. I trust Pinker’s data and agree that we have made a lot of progress. What he fails to mention is the FUTURE, and the problems that we are facing today whose consequences are only slowly unfolding and in ways that for most people do not seem connected to climate change. In addition he does not address the arguably bigger problem: the loss of biodiversity, due to the degradation and destruction of habitats and ecosystems. Most biologists, on the other hand, have made it clear that biodiversity loss, overpopulation and climate change are moving ahead fast and that there has been NO commensurate response from any government to mitigate them. Anyone looking at the reports coming out of credible scientific institutions and academia understands that we are dismantling the planet’s systems and species in the interest of industrialism and economic growth. Pinker has not followed this, sadly. So he thinks that our past accomplishments suffice to boast of progress in improving human welfare. But the sciences tell us that we are now
        doing things whose impact will be felt in the future….though of course wildfires and floods are happening right now and will only
        become worse. It is amazing to realize that people of Pinker’s stature has not taken the trouble to look around him or read the handwriting on the wall and that he prefers to blindly follow a technophile like Stewart Brand down the primrose path of perpetual optimism in the face of disaster.

        1. He discusses these things in some detail. Have you read his latest book? Myself, I have questions about his treatment of the concept of relative inequality versus absolute levels of deprivation. I’m not sure he does justice to the former. But, these are empirical questions and,far too often, they get treated as ways of comparing feels. The UK, for example, is about to learn what the differnece is between “feeling it was better in ye olden days” and actually being able to crunch the numbers.

        2. Yes, the loss of biodiversity is scary, and the most difficult to recover from, if at all. More difficult than the consequences of a nuclear war, or global warming (unless we get the Green Sky, as apocalyptically described by Peter Ward (“Under a Green Sky”). Note, Ward does not think it is inevitable, just a worst case scenario.

          However, Steven Pinker is well aware of all these things. Please read him more carefully.
          The simple fact that we (globally) are aware of these potential catastrophes is encouraging. Awareness is the first step to taking action. And we have the ‘demographic transition’.
          I think -well, hope- the denialism by the Republicans re global warming -and the despicable Mr Bolsonaro- is just a hiccup. I think in a few decades from now the world will get most of it’s energy from ‘solar’, the only viable alternative to fossil and nuclear fuels. (Biofuels are catastrophic, from a CO2 pov as well as a biodiversity one).

  3. “There are scientists who believe that Al Gore’s making of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is the worst thing that ever happened to climate change awareness, because he branded it as a left-wing issue, and then the right rejected it out of hand.”

    I hadn’t heard this before but it makes sense. On the other hand, the GOP is all about deregulation and our solutions to climate change are bound to involve more regulation. Also, the GOP’s support of the environment always loses against exploiting nature for gain.

    1. The republican opposition to climate change and human causes begins with their first rule of republican government. That goes back to Ronald Reagan and the distaste for government in anything. Less government and less taxes. The government cannot do anything well. That is republican creed.

      To do something on climate change would take govt. involvement and lots of it – that is a no no. So I would say, it does not matter if it was produced by Al Gore or your barber, you would get the same result.

      Remember the republican motto – Government cannot do anything well, just vote for us and we will prove it to you.

      1. In addition to their first rule, it also requires a good dose of the irrationality mentioned in the interview. Even if we grant that government is incompetent, Republicans know that the government was necessary to fight WWII. Now we are faced with WWClimate, and government will be needed to organize the response. Many Republicans leaders know this, but become irrational when faced with the several conflicting ideas buzzing in their heads.

        1. The Dems should make a stronger case for how government is needed to fight some battles, and not just the martial kind. The GOP cry that government always screws up things is just wrong. The people need to demand good, efficient government, not wish it away.

      2. You’re right about the leadership of the GOP, but when it comes to your ordinary, everyday person, I think the fact that Al Gore is who many in US see as the face of the issue does make a difference. The leadership exploit Al Gore’s involvement. Their philosophy may be less government, but they’re always prepared for more government when it suits them, such as when it comes to abortion, or stopping people voting.

        I think it’s significant that the US is the only developed country in the world where climate change science isn’t accepted by all major political parties. And the GOP used to accept it – they’ve noticeably changed their tune.

          1. It’s because I’m trying to take it out of my saved videos on YouTube. It keeps putting in the first one I ever saved to my “science” section instead of the 17th, and I keep mucking up deleting bits of the address. I don’t know why YouTube doesn’t make it clear this is what will happen and give you the option of what you want to post, especially for people like me who aren’t great with technology these days!!!

          2. That’s the wrong one too! But it’s better than before. I’ll see if I can get the one I want!!!

          3. I opened it in a new tab because that worked once before, but I think I screwed that up the first time. I deliberately didn’t use the share feature because I didn’t want it to embed, but I got that wrong every time, so maybe I should have just done that anyway!

          4. Doesn’t make much sense does it. Even when DT is gone, the fossil fuel industry will still be pulling the strings in congress.

          5. Yeah. There are plenty more politicians getting money from it. Just like guns, health insurance, and a few other things besides.

          6. And if you tried to get money out of politics you’d have to fight all the lobbyists at once. Catch 22.

          7. One peeve I have with YouTube is that if you leave a video running in a browser tab it automatically changes to the next video in its play list. By the time you come back to it in order to copy or share the original video, it has changed to some other one. If you don’t notice it has happened, you get the wrong link. Easy to fix with the Back button but still annoying.

          8. Yes, that’s annoying too. I’ve got into the habit of stopping videos before the end, which I shouldn’t have to do.

          9. It’s a great video, it shows Mr ‘Alzheimer’s’ Reagan ordered the solar panels installed by Mr Carter removed.
            I think Mr Carter is a greatly underestimated president (I say this despite him being a devoted Christian, not my cup of tea). Had it not been for the failed operation ‘Eagle Claw’, he would have gotten a second term and would probably have been rated in the top 10 POTUS-es.

          10. I think he was good too. He negotiated the Israel/Egypt agreement that’s still going strong despite the mess in the region.

            He publicly left his Church because they weren’t treating women as equals.

            He was the one who got the Mormons to treat African-Americans as equals – he was going to take away their tax-free status. Luckily they had a vision that God wanted them to change!

            I agree Carter was good, and certainly much better than he was made out to be. Reagan, otoh, was not a good president imho.

          11. Right. Historians rank presidents and it takes a hundred years sometimes to put one in perspective. But, I think Carter may well look pretty good as time goes on. He was brought down, perhaps, by the bad outcome of the chopper invasion of Iran. If it had gone the other way, he would have been a hero and had another term in office.

        1. Well, I’ll just say from my experience I don’t see republicans going around talking about Al Gore or that he was their main problem on this issue. Hell, Trump doesn’t even know who Gore is. Had we left it to the republicans we would not have social security, medicare or any kind of health care. They are for big business, bought and paid for. They are and have always been against any govt. program to do anything for people. This Trump call for America first is just garbage and should be Trump first.

          1. I wasn’t trying to diss you Randall. I agree with you on every point. It’s just that I think it’s possible there’s something to the fact that it’s Al Gore fronting ‘Inconvenient Truth’.

            The latest tax cuts make your case nicely. Not only did they largely benefit those who don’t need help, they are going to increase the deficit so much the GOP will use that as an excuse to cut or pull out of programmes that help the poor and part of the way they will sell it is that they’re making government smaller.

            Sorry about the way my comment above came across.

          2. Oh, worry not. I take no offense at all. I just don’t see the personality of Gore in this thing being an issue for the other side dragging their feet. After all, Gore was just the narrator for the science and it is the science you either believe or not. There could be 50 reasons the republicans ignore and deny. Another one I use to hear is from religion. They know that g*d put them here as master over all of the earth and he would not screw them, the chosen Christians, and mess with the climate. This is nuts but it is part of their religious reasoning.

          3. If you are of a certain mindset, it is easy to see Gore as a whiny, hypocritical, tree-hugger. He has a pompous, churchy, holier-than-thou tone of voice in his narration. I like his movies and what he is trying to accomplish but I can see how he’s an easy target for those programmed by Fox News, etc.

          4. But, don’t forget it’s not just Republicans. Democrats can be bought too. It’s a weakness in the system that would probably require amendments to the constitution. I doubt it can be fixed until there is a complete collapse. Maybe around 2100 when sea level has gained two meters. Pinker does not rule out worsening of conditions. He simply says we need to work against it.

          5. They are for big business, bought and paid for, yes, I agree. But -small detail- they have not always been against any beneficial program. Did not the Great Teddy try to break that? And even ‘Ike’ warned us about the military-industrial complex (I think he even coined the term)
            The ‘Great Switch’ from a relatively progressive party to a conservative, nay, reactionary one, happened in the sixties and seventies, the ‘Southern Strategy’.

        2. The trenchant Far Right analysis seems to be: Al Gore got fat and has a big personal carbon footprint, so climate change can’t be real.

      3. Exactly. Look at Donald Trump (if you can stand to). He ran as a populist, but his economic policy as been pure Republican trickle-down bullshit — tax cuts for fat cats and deregulation of health, safety, and environmental standards; fuck the poor and despoil the environment — while keeping his white nationalist base in check by playing off their anxiety and fears and resentments.

        It’s the reason about a quarter of the Republican Party establishment has steadfastly gotten in line behind Trump — they know he’s a dangerous, incompetent boob, but figure he can be used to advance their economic interests.

        Know who else thought they could use (and control) a dangerous nationalist dummkopf to advance their economic interests?

        1. “advance their economic interests”

          It’s interesting to note that the economic interests they now are confessing to do not match the traditional rhetoric which couched their rapacity in a cloak of the principles of small government(freedom) and big defense against arch enemies such as communist Russia, etc. Now it’s pretty much straight for the money, the whole money, and nothing but the money. So help us God.

        2. Yes Ken, that is an apt ‘analysis’, or at least an apt description.
          I miss the Russian angle though. No Russians, no Trump, as it were.

      4. Agree. That’s another important factor. I specially like your faux GOP motto in the last sentence. I’ve been saying something similar for decades. I never understand why Dems don’t make this one of their rally cries. It is yet another way in which they let the GOP dictate things, to which they only react.

      5. Yes, although I agree that the reaction started under Mr Reagan (he deliberately dismantled the solar panels on the WH installed by Mr Carter), Mr Gore’s valiant efforts resulted in a deeper entrenchment of the denialists.
        The excuse for Mr Reagan is that he had Alzheimer’s, already apparent during his presidency, there are no such excuses for the tea-party GOP, Mr Trump or Mr ‘Snowball’ Inhofe and their ilk, sold to the petrol industry (like Mr Bush (GW) btw).

  4. We Lefties have always believed that the human lot in life is improvable — not (as conservatives sometimes accuse us) that it is perfectible, but improvable, nonetheless. Steven Pinker gives us the data (copious, some might even say fulsome, data) to support our inherent meliorism. That, and Pinker himself, are alone enough to give thanks for today, you ask me.

    Plus, like the werewolf Warren Zevon saw drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s, his hair is perfect. 🙂

  5. ! t h a n k f u l l y ! in re
    Dr Pinker’s assessment of The Future … …


    t h a n k you, Dr Coyne, for this today:
    … … digestif !

    It has to it a lovely pronunciation I learn.

    And, too, today’s Woodford Reserve – usage that
    I happened to find upon my kitchen’s counter
    upon discernment o”he noun’s … … definition !


  6. “even when dt is gone” Yes they will. The reason for that is energy sources precede everything we do. Our supplies of coal natural gas, and petroleum are what make this site, and everything we do in the modern world.Solar,wind,nuclear are all dependent on fossil fuels. We will eventually face the depletion f these sources. Our economy cannot exist, and cannot grow without it.Energy supplies are not just another commodity like plastic American flags.It is a transportation crisis in that everything in our stores is moved by truck (mostly)and you cannot electrify trucking or air travel.The batteries weigh too much,and do not have the same energy density.

    1. You’re right. Fossil fuels will have to be with us for a long time. But at rapidly reduced levels. Our economy, as it is now constituted, does not have to exist forever. We can transition to a more sustainable future. We’ll need to start now to slow fossil fuel consumption to buy time. Eventually, we will need to develop the technology to suck excess CO2 out of the atmosphere so as to reduce, not just maintain levels. Actually trees do a pretty good job and the more we plant the better the atmosphere. Electric power plants are the main producers of greenhouse gas and we now know how to eliminate their use of fossil fuels. Use solar and wind.
      As far as aviation is concerned planes contribute 4 percent to overall greenhouse gasses. But, the use of renewable hydrogen, fuel cells, and the advanced batteries promise help. Fully electric aircraft may be coming fairly soon. Remember too, in any particular sector of the economy, obtaining 100% replacement of fossil fuel immediately is not required for substantial improvement in the planet’s heat budget. Over the next 50 to 100 years we will have gone through dramatic technological change. I wish I could stick around and watch, but, I gotta go.

      1. No electric batteries cannot in the near future accomplish the same things as diesel trucks do.If you can show me specific experiments where batteries efficiency has rivaled the energy density of fossil fuel please do so.Solar and wind cannot reproduce themselves without fossil fuel matrix Go to energy skeptic site Alice Friedman spent 20 years in logistics and wrote a book called when the trucks stop running solar is DIFFUSE and intermittent It cannot

        1. The kind baseline reliable Electric service thru which you and I are now communicating without massive increases in storage efficiency California is having major problems with solar being produced when it’s not needed during the day I have heard all the arguments and got an education

          1. And how long has California had significant solar energy? They already produce 11.79 percent of their energy from solar. I’d say that’s pretty impressive despite any problems they may be having. Are you suggesting they take them out of service because they over produce? Let’s see where they are in 10 or 20 years. And lets hope other states and nations follow there lead.

          2. I used to believe in solar and still do there are more issues than how much they are producing now How long will these systems last can they reproduce themselves while at the same time slowdown by down fossil use NO they only produce electricity not liquid fuels I’m not for or against anything I’m for the facts of energy reality the sun already runs the planets life support system

          3. Elon Musk has shown us that we don’t really need ‘fluid fuels’. We only really need them for our petrochemical industry, but that is but a small fraction (no pun) of our ‘oil needs’.

        2. “batteries cannot in the near future accomplish the same things as diesel trucks do.”

          I didn’t say that. Go back and read what I said. Battery efficiency is improving. It’s all about technology and the future. Your argument is basically saying that since we cannot replace fossil fuels in the immediate future, it will never happen. I reject that assessment.

          1. Go ahead prove me wrong build it enough blogging I didn’t misunderstand your argument I know my argument and the energy facts read Vaclac Smil

          2. I respectfully submit you are not engaging people here in a fair manner. The whole “get an education like I did” is not going to win any arguments. Instead, it is the refuge of the clueless.

          3. You misquoted me actually I am reading Jerry’s book faith not fact and I think I’m channeling the part where jerry talked about the rough and tumble atmosphere of scientific debates he encountered your criticism is valid regression to the mean I’ll mellow out I think in my subconscious I internalized the idea that people remember things that had a strong emotional content but at the end of the day you’ll catch more flies honey etc etc case closed thanks for caring I’m a lonely retired carpenter and I’ve been watching my single mother daughters granddaughter for the last two years

          4. I said “and then I got an education “ that was a self directed criticism and calling me clueless is kinda what I’m doing isn’t it but enough already I done I need to 🛑 Fare thee well and have a wonderful holidays

          5. We can replace fossil fuels with nuclear power in the mid-term…
            And now I’ll step back while knee-jerk anti-nuke activists fulminate and splutter for a while as they they try to square their magical hatred of nuclear power with the need to reduce carbon emissions while still keeping the lights on. Nudge me when the cognitive dissonance has worked its way through their systems,

          6. No you can’t you can produce more electricity and that’s good but as I said nuclear is still dependent on fossil fuel matrix do an experiment eliminate all fossil fuel use and try to build a nuclear system

          7. “eliminate all fossil fuel use”

            Again you seem to be totalizing. It is not necessary to eliminate all fossil fuel use in the near term to be successful at mitigating global warming.

          8. The fear is another Chernobyl. With new modern plant designs I think the chance of that is extremely remote. Another worry is waste storage, but I think technology is learning to deal with that as well. Nuclear would make an excellent transition.

          9. And your point is that transitioning to renewable energy is difficult and will take a long time to achieve? OK.
            The important corollary is we’d better start ASAP and explore any and all means to find solutions.

          1. Tesla is but a relatively small company. However, they showed that electric cars are in no way inferior to ‘liquid fuel’ ones.
            If only a few of the trillions used in the Afghan and Iraq wars had been used to enhance solar energy, not only would global warming have been short-cut, but most of the problems with radical Islam would have been solved. Petrol is the life-blood of fundamentalist Islam.

          2. Ok, but they have been driving it around and showing it off to potential buyers who have placed orders. I don’t know whether they would show it to me or you but people are seeing them. It is hard to imagine it is some kind of conspiracy.

          3. Who said anything about conspiracy? Diesel engines are king of the over the road trucking industry and I have never heard of Tesla trucks can you direct me to a site or company?

          4. Remember Jerry’s remark in the previous discussion about free will? I can do no other.But I’ll work on it😏your point is well taken I used to be an naive solar “extremist “ and I regret it Please vote visit Alice Freidmann site Energy Skeptic Thats where I learned a more realistic attitude about energy issues she’s a little too doomerish but my take away is this you gotta understand the problems and diffulties with these issues The universe doesn’t care one way or the other but then hey WE ARE THE UNIVERSE

        1. And note, these are not discs on the illustration, but spheres. Solar energy reaching the Earth annually is about 14 times all fossil fuel and nuclear reserves combined.
          And we do have the technology to harvest and store that.

  7. This current society will disappear but we cannot build the expensive new system you expect and operate and maintain the existing one you cannot resolve these problems wo crunching the numbers In spite of amr Pinkers optimism we still have tremendous challenges To guote George Carlin The isn’t half full or half empty-It’s too big

  8. Emphasis on one point You can’t slow fossil fuel use to transition You will need it to build that new infrastructure

  9. The point is not how much gases planes or trucks emit it is the energy density issue and that this society will not decrease that use it will grow the momentum will not abate without violent resistance

  10. Or something the Koch brothers and rosatam are in the drivers seat have you any suggestions on realpolitik strategies it is obvious from my perspective you need to do your homework

  11. Thank you jerry for letting me back on comments I would like to take this opportunity to publicly apologize for my past transgressions good night

    1. Thank you me rickflik-is that your real name? for engaging me in debate I salute good night all and Happy New Years get Christ out of humanities way ——- Christmas

    1. Where exactly do you read “Don’t worry, it will be all right.” in Pinker’s work? While his critics claim they hear it, I don’t think that is part of his thesis. Instead, it is “Keep applying the techniques that have worked in the past. It is the best we can do.” He does not encourage complacency at all.

      1. He *could* say discuss how we have to *change* specifics. The meta-point about thinking through the problem and so on is correct, but he skirts dangerously close to “business as usual”.

        He also fails to see there is evidence that increased inequality, regardless of absolute levels (if that’s the case in some situations) is itself a problem.

          1. Michael Shermer interviewed a guy on his science salons who has researched the inequality issue and wrote a book the great equalizer his thesis was the only thing that can change structural inequality is violence I couldn’t read the whole thing but he must have had some valid points

          2. Yes, I’ve heard that thesis. They might be right but it would be stupid not to try to fix inequality without violence. It is one of those theses that people have only to sell books and draw attention to themselves.

          3. Well this guy is a professional scholar at Stanford and he seems legit Yes you can’t believe everything you read but you can’t disbelieve everything either So did Jerry’s making money from the sales of his book WEIT make it less true?

          4. You are missing my point. Even if this guy is Einstein, he’s still a human guessing about the future. Do a cost-benefit analysis: him being right/wrong vs ignoring/addressing inequality. We should take action against inequality regardless of what your guy thinks.

  12. Pinker would be a huge improvement as a candidate for US president than any other candidate from either major party who have currently indicated an interest in the position. He may even be a better choice than the independent, Andrew Yang.

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