Mehdi Hasan tries to destroy Pinker on Al-Jazeera

I’ve been reading Steve Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, at the same time reading the many reviews of this book. While a few reviews have been positive, most are negative, often very negative (e.g., this one). (These don’t seem to have hurt the book’s huge sales.)  And I often feel that these reviewers have read a different book from the one I’ve nearly finished. They often accuse Pinker of neglecting issues that he actually deals with in the book, take his quotes out of context, or use anecdotal examples to refute a general thesis documented with lots of data.

One of these nay-sayers is Mehdi Hasan, a British journalist of Indian ancestry, a Muslim, and, as far as I can see, a Muslim apologist along the lines of Karen Armstrong (who’s a Muslim apologist but not a Muslim). Hasan’s also quite aggressive, as he should have been in this debate with Richard Dawkins, but not necessarily when he’s interviewing an author, as he does here during a 15-minute “interview” with Pinker on Hasan’s Al-Jazeera’s show.

Hasan’s nastiness about the book, unseemly in a journalist, is on view in the video below. Over and over again Hasan accuses Pinker of saying things he didn’t, and repeatedly interrupts his subject. He should at least have let Pinker discuss his thesis rather than having to respond to a barrage of hostile questions. Well, maybe this isn’t a Steve Paikin-like interview but a debate, but that’s not how it’s billed.

At any rate, Pinker keeps his cool (although you can see his dawning awareness of Hasan’s motives), and bests the interviewer. It’s similar to the discussion between Jordan Peterson and the “gotcha” Channel 4 interviewer Cathy Newman, who repeatedly tried to put words in Peterson’s mouth, and failed miserably to damn him (see here).  The one good thing about Hasan’s interview is that you can see the kind of criticisms leveled at Pinker, and how he responds.

Reader Luke, who sent me this link, had his own comment:

Mehdi Hasan has proven himself a dishonest journalist before, which I’m sure you’re aware of. In this interview, Hasan asks Pinker numerous questions, but before Pinker even has a chance to finish his answers Hasan interrupts. Pinker tries his best to rebut the interruption, but Hasan dishonestly condemns Pinker for his non-response before moving on to the next question. It gives the impression that Pinker has no answers for Hasan’s questions, while all the while, Hasan only has anecdotes and vacuous rhetoric. In fact, one of Hasan’s comments is: some enlightenment thinkers were racist; completely ignoring that enlightenment ideas have led to the last 200 years of progress.
All in all, this is a very disappointing interview, given that Pinker has much to say and the data to back it up. Some YouTube users have described this interview as worse than Jordan Peterson’s with Cathy Newman on the UK’s Channel 4, and I tend to agree. I’ve personally read Enlightenment Now (excellent as ever) and see much to disagree with Hasan’s misinformed statements.

Hasan once did a debate with Dawkins where he misrepresented and misquoted the Koran.

He professes to be an advocate of secularism, but seems to be against all Western and Enlightenment values. Dawkins later tweeted challenges to his statements. As always with live events, you can only check your facts after the event.

I do recommend Steve’s book, and its predecessor Better Angels. You might disagree with it, though he musters a ton of data in support of his thesis (the world is improving, not getting worse, and that’s because of reason, humanism, and science). But if you want to deny his claims of progress, or dispute the reasons for that progress, the onus is on you to read the book and see the data.




  1. Posted March 21, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Saf Ali's Blog and commented:
    The world today is in much better shape, thanks to the Enlightenment.

  2. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    A good demonstration of the difference between skepticism and cynicism.

    Hasan brings up important things! However, cynicism is left to drive what might be a good discussion into the ditch – more ways to be wrong, than correct,….

    Very sad.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Ok I saw the whole thing

    I wonder how much of that is expected- as in, he knows it’s supposed to be taking heat…

    It’s also funny that Pinker has to enter the domain of journalism, a domain he shows to be gruesome in his book…

    • Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Given Steve’s reaction, I don’t think he was expecting that barrage. To his credit, though, he answers calmly but forcefully.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        Specifically, he appeared to be seeking out ways not to outright embarrass Hasan. I doubt Dawkins would’ve taken as many steps.

        But hey, I’m a Pinker fan, so what can I say…

      • rickflick
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

        I agree. Pinker was simply brilliant under fire. I found Hasan a forceful opponent that brought out Pinker’s skill as a debater.

  4. Martin X
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    One historian critic on Twitter said that Pinker blamed the crime increase during the 60s on Woodstock.

    The fact that anyone could think that Pinker said such a thing indicates a reader strongly determined to hate on anything Pinker wrote.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

      Three days of Peace, Love & Music — and nuthin’ but Peace, Love & Music, man. 🙂

      • rickflick
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

        Groovy man.

  5. Posted March 21, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Math is hard.

  6. Colin
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of the old Monty Python skit: “Yes, hello, I’ve come here for an argument.”

    • drew
      Posted March 22, 2018 at 8:39 am | Permalink

      Oh, I’m sorry, this is abuse. You want the room down the hall.

  7. garthdaisy
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I’m a Pinker fan and was expecting to be as mad at this interviewer as Kathy Newman, but I was surprised to find the interview to be quite fair. Challenging, but fair. I agree with Pinker’s overall assessment in his book but I also agree with a lot of counterpoints made by the interviewer. Not all of course.

    Pinker could alleviate the kind of criticisms he is encountering if he would stop denying that inequality is a problem that is getting worse, and that it is possible that we are heading towards some very serious existential threats.

    I’m an optimist like Pinker, but I would never play down that extreme inequality is getting worse not better. Pinker’s claim is that the way to being up the bottom 1% is to make the richest 1% richer. This is the folly of capitalism in it’s current form. It’s a snow job.

    Whether it’s Jordan Peterson or Steve Pinker, the less these otherwise intelligent pundits shill for capitalism, the less valid criticism they will encounter. Science and reason and logic and rationality lead me to the conclusion that our current form of capitalism is making things worse not better.

    No I am not a Communist, nor a Marxist, nor a post modernist. Just someone noticing the folly of our current capitalist system, and people on the side of reason, science and logic have no good reason to defend it.

    Oh boy, now I’ve done it.

    • Peter
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t yet read Pinker’s book. You say that Pinker denies that inequality is a problem that is getting worse, and that it is possible that we are heading towards some very serious existential threats. Are these claims really true?
      In the interview Pinker makes neither of these claims.
      About climate change he says we can be conditionally optimistic. That is to say, if I understand his position correctly, based on the favorable trends in human well-being that he examines in his book, we can solve the problem of climate change. In the interview he admits that so far not enough has been done to address climate change and then refuses to say how he perceives the political prospects of effective climate change action. As to inequality, he does not deny that there has been an increase in inequality over the last few decades (though I do not know whether there really has been an increase in global inequality). He says that inequality is not a dimension of human welfare.
      Also does Pinker really write in his book that, to quote you, “the way to bring up the bottom 1% is to make the richest 1% richer”? I strongly doubt that he has made this claim because I know of no convincing empirical evidence that this is so, and Pinker is pretty careful when evaluating the evidence.

      • Jamie
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        I have not read the book. But I think I disagree that inequality is not a dimension of human welfare. I would have loved for the interviewer to give Pinker a little more time and space to explain why he thinks it is irrelevant. I’m sure Pinker would say something worth considering about it. But I’m not sure he would win me over on it. I take the overall distribution of wealth in society as a fairly basic measure of social welfare.

      • Luke Hatton
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

        In Pinker’s book he says global inequality has been reduced. However, he also says, in developed countries such as the UK and the US, that inequality has increased. He admits that this is a problem, which needs to be solved, but says that it’s more important at present to lift the global population out of extreme poverty. The trends in this direction are positive. Pinker does not claim “the way to bring up the bottom 1% is to make the richest 1% richer”; that, I think, is an inference. I will hedge that though, by saying that innovation and wealth creation is partly possible due to capitalism, and this is largely in the domain of the richest 1%. I do recommend you read his book. I’m not an academic in any sense, and I fall short in explaining the nuance of his argument.

        As for climate change, you are correct. He states that this is a problem, that there are actions in place to combat this problem, but at present they may not be as effective as anticipated. But given the progress already made the solution is within reach. Hasan completely misrepresents this. Pinker has the data to back up this claims.

        I’ve also read ‘The Beginning of Infinity’ by David Deutsch, which Pinker quotes in Enlightenment Now. In it Deutsch describes the acquisition of knowledge as the beginning of infinity. New knowledge and new explanations lead to progress. Not every advancement is perfect, and inevitably this leads to some problems. But, given knowledge, all problems are ultimately solvable. This statement is made abundantly clear in Enlightenment Now. I believe this is the source of Pinker’s optimism. And I believe that most reviewers have ignored this fact.

        Enlightenment values have led to 200 years of progress. But one tiny drawback (which is ultimately solvable) and they condemn the whole movement.

        • Peter
          Posted March 21, 2018 at 5:14 pm | Permalink


          I cannot argue the case here, but I strongly suspect that this claim of yours is false:
          innovation and wealth creation is largely in the domain of the richest 1%. Of course, one needs to allow people to get rich from their work. But wealth creation requires technological progress which is not simply a matter of low tax rates on the super rich. Don’t take my word for it – you could check out economist David Weil’s undergraduate textbook Economic growth
          For instance, the US experienced high economic growth per capita in the 1950s and 1960s when marginal tax rates on high incomes were much higher than they are today.

        • Posted March 22, 2018 at 11:46 am | Permalink

          The other thing he omits is that policies in the “first world” are partially responsible for the economic situations in the third – so plausibly we owe it to those affected to make good. (World Bank reform, etc.)

      • David Evans
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        Pinker is hard to summarise. I can’t find any such claim about the richest 1%. What he does say, and document, is that recent gains by the 1% have been at the expense of the middle class, not of the poorest. He says there have been large reductions in extreme poverty, in the US and worldwide.
        Also he’s in favour of a universal basic income, which doesn’t make him sound like the right-wing apologist he’s accused of being.

        • Peter
          Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          Whether inequality is a dimension of human well-being is debatable. There’s a new book out on subjective well-being/happiness written by some heavy-weight social scientists, published by Princeton University Press:
          The Origins of Happiness: The Science of Well-Being over the Life Course
          The publisher’s site for this book states this empirical finding from the book:
          “Contrary to received wisdom, income inequality accounts for only two percent or less of the variance in happiness across the population”
          I think it’s clear that inequality should not get to big because that would create problems for the functioning of both democracy and the market economy. (The rich will then have the means of rigging things in their favor.) But how big is too big?

        • Posted March 22, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          He’s right wing in *Canadian* or European terms, as far as I can tell – for various reasons. Which makes him a Democrat in US federal terms. 😉

      • darrelle
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

        “Are these claims really true?”

        No, they are not.

      • Posted March 21, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

        You’re correct; Pinker does not say that about the 1%–at least not that I recall, and he certainly is not sanguine about existential threats. He just thinks that people worry too much about nuclear threats, but takes climate change very seriously and proposes ways to deal with it. Many people who say such things haven’t read his book.

        • Angel
          Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

          I think he’s quite good in his area of expertise, but no so when he enters the realms of phylosophy or politics. Anyhow, following the advise of others here I will read Pinker’s book (in the public library long queue list). Now for those here who think things WW are getting (in overall) better: please travel worldwide and look and learm; in my opinoon, there is no way that you can honestly claim- perhaps the exceptions are USA, Europe (north), Japan, and SK- that people in LA, Africa, ME, India are “better” – whatever that means. We need an instance superior to the current system, and no Marxism – in all variants – isn’t a solution. I do agree with his position on the environment, but needs to confirm by reading the book.

    • Posted March 22, 2018 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      The way I put it is: there really *are* “ceilings” to certain things – where the margin of error is small. So one cannot be optimistic to the extent that Pinker is, IMO. It is true that ignoring science and technology and adopting some sort of “ecoprimitivism” is also wrong, and he’s right to say *that*. But even that’s a strawman: as my Inuk friend puts it, the tradition of the Inuit is to not use harpoons, spears and clubs; it is rather to use the best available weapon (when hunting)!

      So unlimited growth (as necessary under most political economies) is suicide, alas, and needs replacement. How to do this? I have no idea how to make a steady-state economy, but that’s the way to think about it, IMO.

      Similarly, people keep putting utilities and such on public internet so the IT security risks he dismisses I think a bit too fast.

      I also think if one reads his book as an *intellectual* history, one has problems, but that reading is itself a mistake. (Though, I must say, a somewhat expected one.)

      • Posted March 22, 2018 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        “unlimited growth … needs replacement. How to do this?”

        Doughnut economics.


    • eric
      Posted March 22, 2018 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      if he would stop denying that inequality is a problem that is getting worse,

      In the last 150 years we’ve gone from slavery and gays being killed when caught to arguing over whether not-making a gay person a cake is as horrifically socially unacceptable as not-making a black person a cake. In that same time, we’ve gone from women not having a right to vote, or practice law (or even go to law school), or keep their own wages, or have access to birth control, to today’s situation.

      There’s still a lot of work to be done. No argument there. But seriously, in what way are today’s inequalities worse than the inequalities of, say, 1918 or 1818?

      • Posted March 23, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        Share of incomes despite rising productivity has gone almost all to the top in the US, a little less so in Canada, and a bit less again in Europe since c.1970. This is the inequality in developed countries.

        Then there are the rich countries getting richer and the poor countries getting, again, less of the pie (yes, I’m deliberately flouting the “fallacy” P. mentions – it isn’t one – see above about finite resources), in part because the rich countries have dictated policy etc. to the poorer ones. This inequality *is* doing better, but is still not there yet. (And there’s some “intergenerational” stuff there which is hard.)

        And then there is the version between dominant or results-of-invasions and the indigenous which were killed off, abused, treatises broken, etc. So there are “third world” pockets in many rich countries which have to be addressed too. Canada, the US, Australia and NZ, for example, though likely also the Ainu in Japan might want to do something better with their colonizers, etc., Tibet as another case, etc.

  8. John Switzer
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Part 1 of an interview with Pinker is up on YouTube, Rubin Report.

  9. Posted March 21, 2018 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the newest Pinker book nor have I watched the interview. But, it sounds like another case of a journalist “preaching to the choir”, rather than providing an information exchange that leaves it to viewers to decide what they’ve learned, and from whom. It’s just one more instance (of too many) that intentionally doesn’t present more than one viewpoint to the viewer. This is a shame for Al Jazeera and the journalist.

  10. Barney
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    “Well, maybe this isn’t a Steve Paikin-like interview but a debate, but that’s not how it’s billed.”

    The programme is billed as:

    “With the thrust and parry of rigorous debate, Mehdi Hasan cuts through the headlines to challenge conventional wisdom, highlight contradictions and uncover double standards. ”

    This seems roughly as billed. I think Pinker defends his book well. I notice there’s a second part to come in a couple of days.

  11. Brad
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    The “parasitic press” strikes again. The interviewer seems to have no real qualifications, but has been well-coached to play “gottcha” with the phrase “some critics say.” I don’t think Dr. Pinker expected a debate, but acquitted himself well. BTW, I have now re-read the book several times & purchased 6 of his books for colleagues & family. Some are left leaning college graduates others are right wing religionists; neither group seems happy with any of the data or conclusions.

  12. Howard Neufeld
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    I won’t comment on Hasan. But I have read Pinker’s book. It is an excellent accounting of enlightenment values and their importance for improving the human condition. Some of his trends and conclusions run counter to one’s expectations, but it’s hard to argue with the “facts”. It is light in some areas, particularly ecology and conservation biology, says little about food security or looming water shortages and has a somewhat scary dependence on technology to solve our future problems. I would like to have seen more exposition on the impacts of future human population growth (he seems a disciple of the recently deceased Hans Rosling), and most of our problems are population related. While the trends for now are in the right direction with regard to poverty, literacy, diet, and so on, there is no discussion of how to handle the situation when a country may have negative population growth (e.g, Japan, Russia, Italy) and how these positive trends continue when the working class becomes fewer in number than the retiree class. In Japan, there used to 9 workers for every retiree; now it is 1.5 to 1. But aside from these quibbles (not to diminish their importance) I found the rest of the book well-written, convincingly argued, and an excellent justification for why we need Enlightenment values more than ever.

    • Petu W
      Posted March 23, 2018 at 2:07 am | Permalink

      I agree. Pinker’s points about population growth and biodiversity crisis are poor. For example, he doesn’t mention any serious ecological references about current extinction rates and what it could mean for our future. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been any reviews by ecologists, yet.

      Otherwise I liked the book.

  13. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Can I cram in a dumb question about Pinker’s book?

    what is the rationale for leaving out discussion of error in the plots? And Is a technical note on error made on Roser’s Our World In Data website?

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      Didn’t mean to disparage

      A different way to ask :

      Are error bars on all the plots in Enlightenment Now omitted to make all the plots legible? or a statistical reason I don’t know about?

      • Craw
        Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

        Good questions. See my comment below about Taleb, who made telling criticisms of Pinker’s use of stats in his earlier book. But even talking about error bars makes assumptions about the distributions that might not be justified.

  14. kelskye
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read (or have had read to me) just over 2 hours of the 19hr audiobook. Before that I read about 3 or 4 reviews, and so far it’s been difficult to tell whether we’re going from the same source material. It feels like Pinker is being dismissed for making schoolboy errors, rather than refuting the points Pinker made.

    Though I’m quite sympathetic to Pinker’s thesis, as it gels with what I came to realise in my 20s – this imperfect unfair somewhat-corrupt media-distorted capitalist-lite pseudo-democracy is about the least worst of all the possible options humanity has ever tried and this relative peace and prosperity is itself a hard-won luxury that can all to easily vanish. Though the pessimist in me worries were in a slide back to oligarchy and authoritarian governments – it seems to worry Pinker too if the early chapters are anything to go by.

    In regards to inequality, there are three serious concerns that need to be addressed. The first is the buying of democracy, where powerful people use their excessive wealth to manipulate the democratic process. The second is that it’ll eventually push more people into relative poverty, so that we’ll be going backwards collectively so that a few can live lives of extreme opulence. Third is that the excessive wealth could easily be used now to end extreme poverty, but extreme poverty remains. Without addressing those, inequality is going to remain a stick in the craw of anyone who professes an optimism in the direction of our species.

  15. Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Hasan could have just as easily interviewed himself and quoted counter claims to the book.
    This is what i heard:

    Hasan quotes non answering quotes by Hasan.
    It was rubbish.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 21, 2018 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

      I agree that Hasan was often unfair in his rapid fire questioning. But Pinker was able to succinctly refute every charge. I don’t think the overall result was rubbish. In one way it was a very useful interview because it allowed listeners to experience Pinker’s brilliance under fire and appreciate the value of his thesis.

      • Posted March 22, 2018 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

        Showing how Pinker can handle a barrage is not the same as discussing mega data and it’s implications for progress. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, where we have come from and the trajectory of where we are going, all things being equal. We know there are lots of problems, etc. but like “The Better Angels…” this book sounds like a book of our time.

  16. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I think this shows Hasan is an expert at _debating_ – I can’t speak from experience, but I’ve read about debate clubs, where it’s not really about reasoning per se, but reasoning only as a means to win a game, finding gaps (as the senator sees it) in the opponent’s position.

    I have heard Hasan in Oxford Union debate, and with Dawkins.

  17. Roo
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Mixed feelings. I think Hasan did zero in on the least conclusive points in Pinker’s data set (the relationship between inequality and various harms; and climate change – and at a more subjective level, whether we should celebrate how far we’ve come, or if that’s no excuse for not feeling some sorrow over how far we have left to go [although I don’t think the two are actually mutually exclusive]). That he went straight for the negative, interrupted, and seemed to insinuate some sort of nefarious motivation on Pinker’s part seemed unnecessarily confrontational, but then, I’m not sure how much of that is a cultural thing. I remember not long ago watching a British journalist interviewing someone who was quite literally the victim of a *crime, and she had the same sort of knee-jerk hostile tone, almost as if she was accusing the victim of making it all up (when that wasn’t reasonably in question.)

  18. Rob Munguia
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I will read Pinker’s book since I have found in the past his ideas appealing, particularly the case he makes against considering the mind a blank slate. However, what I see in the interview are two honest persons that disagree in their worldview.

    All the familiar viewers of Upfront, Hasan’s program in Al Jazeera, know that the tone of interview was not different for the other interviews he has made in the past. It is the style of the program, similar to BBC program hardtalk with Stephen Sackur.

  19. Craw
    Posted March 21, 2018 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    Nearing the end of the book I am in some ways disappointed. I think the kind of criticism Taleb makes is quite strong: small samples and an underlying assumption that the data is somewhat normal, where it might actually follow a power law. There are also some simple errors in stuff. Still I strongly agree with the general thrust of the book.

  20. Rupinder Sayal
    Posted March 22, 2018 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Ha! I came across this interview while ‘browsing’ my Youtube feed on Sunday. The interview reminded me of Jordan Peterson’s infamous interview, but Mehdi’s was a bit toned-down version. I was very glad to see Pinker keeping his cool.

    BBC Hardtalk’s interview of Pinker with Stephen Sackur was much more balanced and nuanced, in my humble opinion.

  21. Posted March 22, 2018 at 3:39 am | Permalink

    Some of the dishonesty from Pinker’s critics is breath-taking. For example, David Bell in his review in The Nation shamelessly doctors a quote from page 240 of the book by removing these first words from a sentence: “Also, it beggars belief to think that”. He does this so he can pretend that Pinker “claims” that: “An average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards.”

    In reality, of course, Pinker would never make such an idiotic claim: the sentence is one of a list of reasons why people were initially sceptical about the Flynn effect. Yet this “quote” is flying around Twitter as a reason to rubbish Pinker. (If anyone here subscribes to The Nation, I would ask them to challenge Bell in the comments – unsurprisingly, you have to be a subscriber to comment there.)

  22. Posted March 22, 2018 at 4:31 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  23. Posted March 22, 2018 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    That was a challenging interview alright–and had that sort of intemperate interupting that we seem to enjoy in British interviewers who model themselves on Jeremy Paxman. Paxman goes into every interview going “why is this lying liar lying to me?” Pinker isnt lying–but his views are open to challenge. Hasan makes some valid points (the effects of affluence versus inequality is a live issue in behavioral science for example). But–Pinker handles the aggressive approach really well (as does Peterson with Cathy Newman). Handling interviews like this is something of a trial by combat–you win by keeping your cool and sticking to the point. Very little information gets conveyed. But Pinker will have impressed folk with his sang froid

  24. Posted March 22, 2018 at 7:03 am | Permalink


  25. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 22, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    ^^^^ read all this above, felt like commenting again:

    I used to think debates were the pinnacle of intellectual activity. Then, certain public intellectuals expressed resistance to debates, and it took me a while to understand. This interview is another straw for me on this point – and illustrates a poisonous aspect of intellectual activity, namely, making the objective to bury the “opponent” in “small fires”. To be sure, I woudn’t have been able to come up the erudite (sort of) barrage of counter argument that Hasan unleashed in a short period of time on Pinker. It doesn’t seem Hasan really turns over any of Pinker’s responses in his head – he just grabs the nearest “small fire” he can to toss out, and looks, in my view, an embarrassment.

    One other comment about intended audience, and specifically, for Pinker’s book (which I know is not the topic here per se, but hey) – the audience cannot be a narrow range of academics – it MUST be as broad an audience as possible, because the future depends on it. For intellectuals like Hasan, or Nassim Taleb to raise tedious, technical, or “but this article says…” arguments – that are much more sensible, or worthwhile for a technical audience, or academic audience is to miss the point. It is supposed to be clear, simple – the trend of many of the measures of misery, say – it is downward. If it turned out to be a power law or some other interesting possibility, it is still a downward trend.

    I hope there’ll be an Enlightenment Now discussion here on WEIT later.

    • Posted March 23, 2018 at 8:57 am | Permalink

      An interesting comment. If I pick you up on a technicality though. In what universe is Nassim Taleb an “intellectual”? Might I suggest replacing that term with “obscurationist fraud with an ego the size of Texas” throughout?

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted March 24, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        I dig your humor


        More seriously, it is the very nature of him, Hasan, and others, in possessing strong intellectual abilities, that this sort of derailment takes place – while simultaneously being nominally interesting, churning up all sorts of important ideas or topics or things to understand. Is it confidence trickery disguised as intellectual dialogue? It is hard to put a finger on it without blaming e.g. Hasan for driving the bus into the ditch. I can see it, but I’m not sure the general audience sees it. And yet, I still come away with a list of misconceptions I didn’t think of before, for instance.

  26. Bruce Gorton
    Posted March 22, 2018 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    It is one of the things that I don’t get with the far left – they hate the idea that, for the most part, because people worked to make the world better, the world has actually become a better place.

    Instead it has to be shit, constantly, unchangingly shit, no matter what we’ve tried it is all shit because wow that’s a good way of motivating people to do something about all that shit lying around.

    And nobody ever gets tired of dealing with a perpetual drip.

  27. Posted March 22, 2018 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    My only quibble with Pinker is over his chapter on the environment, where he quotes and relies on questionable unqualified sources like Stewart Brand, and Nordhaus and Shellenberger, the BreakThrough buddies who (I am not making this up) asserted that prosperity was the solution to all of the world’s evils. Pinker consulted the wrong guys! His other fault was failing to address the Micro world: the negative impact of technology and human resource exploitation, and of course overpopulation in Africa and the middle east. His cheerleading for nuclear power was a big mistake, and overlooking the biosphere (ecology, natural systems, biodiversity, etc.) where the impact of “progress” is presently shredding its integrity is arguably his biggest flaw. But his comments on reason are right on the mark.

    • Posted March 22, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s a big one – see above about “error”.

  28. Diane G.
    Posted March 22, 2018 at 12:44 pm | Permalink


    (I keep trying but WP has not let me subscribe to any WEIT post recently. I.e., if I’ve ignored anyone’s response to a comment of mine it’s because I’m unaware of it.)

  29. Posted March 23, 2018 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    Mehdi Hasan repeatedly interrupts Steven Pinker – most unprofessional.

  30. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 24, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink


    Love it*

    I think this sailed over Hasan’s head.

    *it = the word “Enlightenmentolatry”, and more to the point, how Pinker apparently invented this word as a consequence of writing Enlightenment Now – it does not mean I love Enlightenmentolatry itself. I hope obviously.

    That clear?

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