This will surely be taken down very soon (only clips of Maher’s shows can be shown), so I’m putting it up without having watched it. It’s Bill Maher’s entire show from last night. The interview with Pinker, discussing his new book Rationality, starts at 8:05 and ends at 18:26. (Note that he’s wearing his custom caiman cowboy boots.)
The panel includes reporter Robert Costa and musician Michael Render. Maher’s final solo comedy segment starts at 43:55.
UPDATE: As expected, the video of the whole show has been taken down. If a clip appears with the interview, I’ll post it here.
13 thoughts on “Bill Maher’s new show, including interview with Steve Pinker”
Thanks for the link, as I don’t subscribe to HBO. I often like what Pinker has to say, but I find him a little overenthusiastic at times. I believe that many people are skeptical of the modernist notion of “progress” not because they fail to see the reality of the situation as a result of an excess of cognitive biases, but because it turns out that much of what counts as progress has been achieved at the expense of other people and other life forms resulting from colonization, exploitation, environmental degradation, etc.
Yes, Pinker has legitimate examples of overall betterment of the human condition (I am grateful that my house has indoor plumbing), yet the analysis of “progress” is nuanced and not altogether as positive as his portrayal.
I think that is exactly what is missing. Of course medicine and technology have improved but there is a problem with environmental sustainability. Yet to read his new book. I will soon I hope. To give a couple of examples from the UK where the general rise in standards isn’t so even, As a child I believed beggars were like lepers something from olden times . Then Thatcher came to power and we started to see beggars on the street. Until a few years ago I’d never heard of foodbanks being necessary in the UK. It is as a result of the way the poor are mistreated.
On the environmental front. I have a particular interest in biodiversity. During the hard lockdown we had I was unable to do this because we were forbidden to travel for more than 5 miles except for essential things. As a child I could do this yards from my house. And the thing is I now live back in my childhood home! The loss of biodiversity here is severe in the UK I used to have an internationally recognized threatened species visit my back yard! There were insectivorous plants within site of the house and with in earshot of my mother calling me home!
Not an improvement for me and it is a general problem too not just a single site issue. Progress, like beauty is often in the eyes of the beholder. Watch Sir David Attenborough, whom I’ve met, crying about it on his latest film on Netflix. Lots of our prosperity is, unnecessarily, at the expense of the environment and it is not sustainable.
There is a brief, well known, slightly ad hominem (in a sense) rebuttal of your simplistic analysis: Except for the suicidal or religious nutjobs, don’t pretend that you would prefer to live (probably rather briefly, if you survived childbirth) in London 1000 years ago, or even 300 years ago, instead of today.
And Pinker has shown that the contrast is even greater than most thought, far greater.
That’s is a silly argument to make; because of a) none of us are given a choice of when to live, and b) we don’t have perfect knowledge of the past and you are (willingly or not) ignoring the ongoing suffering taking place.
Yes, a bigger portion of the population are better off today (we can debate if it is true for contentment or happiness). However, inequality is at an all time high, ecocide is happening at a faster rate than ever before. As for progress; it is beginning to dawn on people that their children will have a much harder life than they have. I would regress.
The loss of biodiversity in the UK is certainly a big problem:
“Nearly half of Britain’s biodiversity has gone since industrial revolution” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/10/nearly-half-of-britains-biodiversity-has-gone-since-industrial-revolution
Pinker is correct about the overall achievements made during the latest couple hundreds of years, however he is blind (willingly or not) to the suffering of contemporary life (be it human or otherwise). Let’s take the claim that never in the history of humanity have so few been poor. He uses the clever framing of percentage of the population to make the point. If we consider the amount of people in extreme poverty you can see that never in history have so many people been in extreme poverty as now; and the number increases every year. The same trend can be seen for refugees.
For my part, I cannot take him seriously because of this.
By the same logic, using absolute numbers, never have there been so many healthy, happy, long-lived people as today. Percentages are not a clever framing, but the way things are done. Think about comparing the standard of living. Would you claim that it is worse in Germany because Germany has, in absolute terms, more poor people than Fiji?
Note also that poor is often defined as earning less than a certain percentage of the median income. So multiply all incomes by a million and don‘t change the prices and the percentage of poor is the same as before. Such a definition can also obscure progress.
There is something to the argument that some of the improvement has been possible because, until recently, it was OK to treat the Earth as if it were infinite. That is no longer the case. Yes, civilization is improving, on average, but it is also true that, as H. G. Wells wrote, civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.
I do not think Pinker has denied nor been flippant about the following problem: Taking the next f-adjective literally, not as a (4+3)-letter word, there are too many fucking people in the world now, largely due to scientific progress. This does not deny at all his valuable contributions, however annoying they are to the thoughtlessly panicking public, especially regarding the need for nuclear power to have any chance of mitigating climate change.
Pinker is brilliant and I always enjoy hearing him talk. He has the ability to simply and convincingly explain his arguments. To the points made above, he isn’t making predictions about the future, he is simply explaining what the trend has been till now.
Here is a direct link to Pinker’s interview:
Bill’s segment regarding the slow moving coup is spot on at 46.25.
In a track of the Beatles song “Fixing a Hole” (Sgt. Pepper’s) there is a couple of lines for me that help sum up this perceived Pinker’s optimism conundrum.
The backing vocals below are in brackets and are sung at the end of each lead vocal line.
“I’ve got to admit it’s getting better”
“A little better all the time”
(it can’t get no worse)
yes (it can’t get no worse) and there it is to some, nothing can be as bad as it is now.
Not to mention the line is a double negative, just how BAD can it get!