Pinker’s latest TED talk: Is the world getting better?

In case you don’t have the moxie to read Steve Pinker’s two latest books—The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now—you can see a summary of both in Steve’s new 18.5-minute TED talk. Posted three days ago, it concisely summarizes his theses that the world is getting better in almost every measurable way, that many liberals hate this progress as well as the general notion of progressivism, and that pessimism about the future is dangerous. He also analyzes what’s responsible for the progress he documents with endless data, and discusses why people simply don’t recognize that progress. It’s a good talk, dotted with humor, and also shows some defensiveness that’s come from Steve’s books being attacked by anti-progressives like the dolorous John Gray.

It’s hard to imagine that there are those who, in the face of data like these, think that the world’s getting worse. Yes, we face new challenges like global warming (these are discussed in Steve’s latest book), but would you choose, say, to have lived 200 years ago rather than now? You’d be a fool to make that choice.

h/t: Bryan


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    I liked how he didn’t even mention the Enlightenment until after 12 minutes – yes I’m a Pinker fan.

    I think the audiobook is on its way to me…

    Oh one criticism of all this fatality data – I don’t think he compares it to injury data – one could argue yes, there’s fewer fatalities- but that doesn’t mean there must be fewer, or less serious injuries.

    His point still stands, but I’d still like to see…

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      There probably are though. I’ve studied that particular data in the past in a limited context – both staff and patients in hospitals. There was a reduction in death, injury, and seriousness of injury over the years. My guess would be it’s the same everywhere. That was always the case in data I looked at from other industries etc. (There is often an increase though when people first start collecting the data, but that’s because management are taking notice and so staff feel it’s worthwhile to take the time to report.)

      There is also a standard statistical model that allows the calculation of the number of deaths and serious, moderate, and minor injuries, if you have the data for just one of the four points.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 26, 2018 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      I’m pretty sure, if you do a search, you’ll find the frequency and severity of industrial illness and injuries have been reduced as deaths have been. Traffic injuries as well. Of course I’d be shocked if deaths in war did not track approximately with injuries in war.

  2. Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I like how he’s condensed his message and added a response to his detractors. I wish his delivery was more relaxed.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 26, 2018 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

      “I wish his delivery was more relaxed.”

      I understand what you mean. It seems to me (however subjectively and imperfectly) to be part and parcel of the frenetic modus operandi and constraints TED Movers and Shakers impose on a presenter. This was the most unrelaxed (the Big Brother computer-in-the-sky doesn’t like my use of the word “unrelaxed”) presentation I’ve seen him give. Totally different when he can sit on stage for a relatively leisurely give-and-take with a host and audience.

      When I first laid eyes on “TED,” I thought that the “E” surely meant “Education.” But no, it means “Entertainment.” This was further reinforced for me when I attended a “TEDex” at Duke University, and was blessed with a chorus of “take notice of me!” whoops and hollers from the younger set audience.

  3. W.T. Effingham
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I had the fortuitous circumstance of both the audio and hardcopy coming available for me via two disparate library systems simultaneously. I first read The Language Instinct back in the mid nineties and have perused most of Dr. Pinker’s books since. I recommend all, even though I found some aspects of linguistics a bit “dry” for my tastes.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Progress does not make the nightly news clips and journalist don’t stand by for the next good news story. It is up to us to know and understand how much better off we are today than our parents and theirs and more. You could get some of this from history but who has time for that…boring. Pinker reminds all of us to chill out and stop following chicken little or Trump down the rat hole.

  5. Barry Lyons
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read Pinker’s new book (but want to; I’ve been a Pinker fan for years), and so I don’t know what to make of the attached item. To be clear: I haven’t attached it because I agree with it. I bookmarked it with the intention of examining it later (after I read the book). But if anyone wants to take a whack at it now, here you go:

    • darrelle
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t had the time to do anything but skim that so far, but my 1st impression is much skepticism. I don’t know anything about Lent so in that respect my 1st impression is unbiased. The terms he uses, the arguments he makes and the people he references to support his views make me think that he is full of it. He sounds like an ideologue. His characterizations of Pinker are inaccurate in my opinion.

      As with most all of Pinker’s critics so far his main gripe is that Pinker poo poos the environmental dangers we face and that Pinker thinks science & technology is capable of preventing a self induced collapse of civilization. The first part of that is just wrong. Disingenuous I’d say. Pinker takes our current / future, self inflicted environmental dangers quite seriously. The 2nd part is however true, and that seems to be what really pisses of his critics. Including Lent. Pinker does think that we have a decent chance of avoiding a collapse and he thinks that science and technology will be necessary tools for doing so. I really don’t understand how that can be disputed.

      • Barry Lyons
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for this.

        • darrelle
          Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

          Interesting what Michael had to say also. I’d forgotten that I had come across Lent once before, here at WEIT!

          Yeah, two strikes for me so far. With people like Lent it seems to me that it isn’t so much that he disagrees with Pinker’s (for example) claims, it’s that Pinker’s attitude just isn’t negative enough for him. And such people seem to elevate that to a grave moral and ethical failing that deserves to be denigrated.

          On a side note, it’s sadly funny to me that we have come to an era in which progressives are vehemently scornful of progress.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

        “I don’t know anything about Lent …”

        For a second there, I thought I might hafta Catholicsplain you the period between Shrove Tuesday and Easter. 🙂

        Thanks for the analysis, though.

        • darrelle
          Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

          Some day I’ll have to tell you my Ash Wednesday story.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      That Jeremy Lent geezer had a right old go at Dawkins in a dreadful, ignorant article on Salon & PCC[E] shreds his arguments HERE

      Like you, I haven’t the time to read Lent on Pinker today, but I will [even though Lent is a Space Cadet of the first order].

      • Barry Lyons
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        Ah, what a surprise! I didn’t know that Jerry once took a hammer to Lent. Good to know, obviously.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Here is a short clip of Lent discussing if life has meaning, wherein in passing, he casually pooh poohs the theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg for saying there appears to be none – while naming him wrongly as “Weinberger”

      This is Lent standard scholarship. All his little videos are littered with errors, misunderstandings, straw men & shiftings of meanings of words.

      • Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

        I’ll only say two things. I briefly looked at the link Barry provided and will point out that the eight graphs Lent uses are not his – he is reporting the work of others. HE may be a idigit, but those graphs ought to analyzed on their own.

        Having said that, number two thing I had to say is that even though I am no economist, even I can immediately see a problem with graph #5, wherein Pinker’s Elephant Graph is shown to disappear when incomes are normalized (in this case to 1998). My one and only Economics class was taken eons ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but even I remember to take care about normalizing income data; one must always take into account marginal rates of return. I have no idea if that was done here, and Lent makes no mention of it, but without that taken into consideration, I am skeptical.

        • Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

          As I see it, the only possible vulnerabilities to Pinker’s thesis are that his data is wrong somehow — some kind of lying with statistics. Given his data, I believe the conclusions. Perhaps Lent is not a reliable source but I would be interested to know whether any reputable scientist or economist has taken issue with his data.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

            “some kind of lying with statistics”

            this statement is completely bogus.

            • Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

              Please note that I did NOT accuse Pinker of lying with statistics. I am simply saying that IF he could be attacked it would be from that direction. So exactly where’s your beef?

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

                Just what I wrote – “some sort of lying with statistics” is a completely bogus argument in any case.

              • Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

                Ok, you got me. Please explain how this is bogus. I just hate it when someone just uses a vacuous negative term like “bogus” and just leaves it on the doorstep like a bag of poop. For a deeper definition of “lying with statistics”:

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

                Explain it – well, where should I start? And when will it end?

                Lying is bad, but lying with statistics is worse?

                And – jokes aside – what would lying with statistics look like, let alone “some sort” of it?

                For the record this isn’t personal it’s about the exact phrase used. And I don’t think you were using it in a full force argument, just a passing thing. But I’m a sucker for those things.

                Again – for me, commenting – especially backspacing – in this box on Chrome on iOS sucks big time.

              • Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

                You’ve written some words but explained nothing. I linked to a page explaining many ways one can lie with statistics. You’ve ignored it so let’s just forget about the whole thing and move on.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

                OK, how about this – it’s an argument that someone with zero understanding of statistics can make. A way to illustrate this, is to think about how many jurors in the O.J. case thought Dershowitz was, because they felt lost listening to Dershowitz talk about statistics, were inclined to think he was lying – because he was using statistics. I don’t know how the O.J. case really went, but I thought Dershowitz used likelihood calculations.

              • Posted May 26, 2018 at 10:58 am | Permalink

                Perhaps you have assumed that I routinely doubt statistical arguments because I don’t understand statistics. If so, you would be 100% wrong. Though not a statistics expert by any means, I have worked with mathematics all my life.

                Pinker’s arguments are stronger for their statistics assuming they are done properly. It is difficult for a reader who is not willing to do a lot of research to verify his statistics. They sound right but who knows? All I was suggesting is that we should look for Pinker critics who have looked into his statistics, even if they only confirm them.

                Sounds like this Lent fellow did not criticize Pinker’s statistics. If his critique is like the others I’ve read, it makes flimsy arguments about how the Enlightenment wasn’t as enlightened as Pinker makes out. I don’t find such arguments very compelling as Pinker is talking about the best ideas of the Enlightenment and not claiming it was all good.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted May 26, 2018 at 11:06 am | Permalink

                I’m done.

    • josh
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      I think Lent raises a couple of important points: one is basically issues of sustainability and environmental impact. That’s an extremely serious concern, and a case where previous progress in no way indicates a secure future. The second is fear that progress is being attributed to laissez-faire capitalism and will result in a glib Libertarian boosterism for the screw-the-poor powers that be. That’s also in general a valid concern.

      What I don’t know is how fair it is to attribute these problems to Pinker’s thinking. Some of the things Lent says are wrong, like arguing that Pinker’s approving citation of declining racism means he shouldn’t criticize political correctness/ SJW-type excess.

      • Posted May 28, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

        Those were some of my criticisms: a failure to realize “business as usual” is only in the methods (science and reason generally), not the details, since the details are unsustainable.

  6. YF
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Human life is indeed improving, but at the expense of extreme environmental degradation on a global scale which will eventually lead to the collapse of civilization.

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      It’s interesting that you say that because that idea is the essential thrust of Jeremy Lent’s essay that I posted in my remark above (comment No. 5).

  7. Martin X
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    There’s a great deal of hostility towards Pinker on the left, almost as much as towards Sam Harris.

    I think that much of the left is invested in the idea that capitalism can’t generate good in the world and the only solution is socialism, and any narrative that undermines that ideology comes from the devil. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”.

    • Posted May 28, 2018 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      The critique is (well, by some) that capitalism (and almost every other economic position ever tried, since they all rely on economic growth) is unsustainable.

  8. Posted May 25, 2018 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    It is unfortunate that Pinker chooses to take comments emanating from a narrow point of view and apply them to what he called the “chattering classes” and even worse “intellectuals.” Surely if any group exemplifies the application of science and reason towards the betterment of the human condition, it is intellectuals. Indeed it is anti-intellectualism that is a major threat to continued progress. More precise language to denote the problematic group would have been better.

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Have you seen the crap ‘intellectuals’ have been pushing lately?

      ‘There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.’

      George Orwell

    • Barry Lyons
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      I had a friend (now deceased) who liked Pinker but found him to be a sloppy writer. I can’t recall now what it was, but there was a passage in “The Language Instinct” that irked John so much that he wanted to send Pinker a letter. He never got around to doing it.

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but only the “good” intellectuals deserve recognition for the forward progress Pinker reports. He has been attacked by “bad” intellectuals. We have both good and bad intellectuals at every time in history but only the former will be remembered.

  9. mirandaga
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    “. . .the world is getting better in almost every measurable way.”

    Not everything that is important is measurable, and not everything that is measurable is important.

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      What are the immeasurable ways in which the world is failing to improve, and if you can’t measure them how do you know they aren’t improving?

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      True but when we have a leader who, since he even was a candidate tells us how bad it is, how crime has just gone unchecked with some cities almost lawless but he will fix this mess. In fact, only he can fix it. Yet, if you look at the facts, crime has been on a steady reduction for the past 30 to 40 years. How else do you know the truth if you do not measure it? By just saying what the masses like to hear. That works too.

      • Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        In a sense Trump was right. He can only fix our troubles by leaving office as soon as possible.

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Ok but the “important” should not go unmentioned.

  10. Historian
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    In the video Pinker acknowledges that climate change is a real danger, but we should not resort to fatalism. Rather, we should put our minds to solving the problem. Well, many minds have addressed the problem and proposed solutions. The problem arises when the politicians refuse to acknowledge the problem or legislate solutions. What do we do then, particularly when voters do not seem greatly concerned about the issue?

    The critique of Pinker by Jeremy Lent, as alluded to by reader Barry Lyons, should be addressed. However, Pinker’s statistics seem to be strong, and the progress of humanity as a whole seems beyond question, whether or not such progress can be attributed to some combination of Enlightenment values and capitalism. But, we must remember that Pinker is presenting a snapshot of the human condition at a given time – the present. As much as Pinker urges us to work towards solving the world’s current problems, there is no guarantee that will take place. Even though it is the meat and potatoes of journalism to magnify the potential of the world’s problems, cataclysmic events do take place. Progress can be reversed in a flash.

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      Sorry but Pinker is most definitely not giving a “snapshot of the human condition at a given time – the present.” In fact, it is the exact opposite, showing statistics over a century or two. His main point is to encourage people to take a longer, fact-based view of things and not solely rely on the current news.

      • Historian
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        Yes, it is a snapshot of the present. The snapshot shows that the world has never been better compared to previous centuries or even decades. This description cannot foretell the future, only make an educated guess. Must I remind you that at the beginning of 1914 many of the world’s leading thinkers thought that things were never better? While it is certainly a good thing “to encourage people to take a longer, fact-based view of things and not solely rely on the current news” is there any evidence that this happening?

        • Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

          He shows many graphs where things have gradually gotten better over time so, no, it is not a snapshot. His data could be used to show that, say, 1950 was better than, say, 1900. He explicitly addresses the idea of foretelling the future. He is not attempting to do that at all. Only in the sense that society should keep doing what has worked in the past: apply science and human reason to our problems. While that does embed a prediction that these actions will work in the future, it seems like a safe bet. Of course, it could all come to an end in the next few weeks if a giant asteroidd strikes the earth. Even then, I would want to use science and fact as long as we can.

          • Historian
            Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

            It is an unproductive debate to argue whether or not Pinker is presenting a snapshot of the present. Of course, we should try to apply reason and science to solve the world’s problems. It is unclear to me why Pinker is not more explicit in criticizing the right wingers who run the U.S. government and seem to believe in everything else but science and reason. Also, there are many more possibilities for the world experiencing a catastrophe other than it being hit by an asteroid. To reduce the chances of this happening, Pinker should be addressing his views to the politicians since the “people” don’t seem very concerned about them. Over time, the people could be educated to the extent that they will pressure politicians to take action, but there is no sign that this will take place in the immediate future. His criticism of progressives accomplishes very little.

            • Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

              My guess is that Pinker wants to deliver this message as apolitically as possible. We live in an era where science is increasingly politicized (eg, climate change, evolution). Better for him to leave it to others to refer to his work when attempting to set public policy or settle battles with politicians.

              Also, it is important that his message not be seen as pushing specific policy changes. If he pushed for address climate change with science and reason, it would unnecessarily limit its scope and risk it being labeled as a Democrat or Progressive message. It is much bigger than that.

    • YF
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Humans are definitely getting better, however, the world isn’t. We are increasingly trashing it on multiple levels and undermining its capacity to sustain human life in the longer term. These statistics are not covered in Pinkers talk, which thus gives an unbalanced view of the situation in my opinion.

    • Florent
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

      I agree. Maybe is this era the best ever possible, but things are just so in appearance. Like old kings, emperors, governors, senates, tribal chiefs, shamans… A few people hold the reins or power ; a few people decide ; greed and individualism guide our every days ; the “mass” doesn’t see, and it guided by blind obedience and awe.

      Just read Thucydide’s book, just watched “Once upon a time the Revolution” ; humans have to change on a much deeper level to even remotely be considered on the right path to betterness.

    • Mark R.
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      Progress can be reversed in a flash.

      Indeed. Craig Child’s book Apocalyptic Earth elucidates many examples of how this whole thing called civilization can come crashing down in a ‘flash’ (in geologic time that is).

    • KD33
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

      Confused by your “snapshot” comment. Pinker’s tool of choice is a graph vs. time, a powerful way to show change, and pretty much the opposite of what is termed a “snapshot” in this context. (It also has the benefit of properly representing the data from the hundreds of references Pinker draws from.) Also, you’re right that there’s “there is no guarantee that [working towards solving the world’s current problems] will take place”. But the huge amounts of data Pinker presents, showing this occurring for a couple hundred years, and then breaking down what efforts and changes effected such positive change (which he does in great detail in his book but does not go into much in this short talk) *is* the exhortation that we should keep so working. I like his approach: let the data do the talking.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    Pinker and John Gray had quite the heated exchange in “The Guardian”.
    Gray seems to be a kind of professional Eeyore among atheist humanists.

    Now Gray thinks that Pinker’s optimism is a relic of Christianity re an exceptionalist view of humanity.

    But….Gray’s own pessimism has all sorts of overtones of St. Augustine’s preaching on original sin, so this kind of reminds me of a black pot accusing a white kettle of having been come from a factory with diverse products that may have made both of them.

  12. Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    … many liberals hate this progress as well as the general notion of progressivism …

    This, I don’t get. A Pinkerian meliorism has been the very essence of American liberalism at least since the fin-de-siècle days of William James and John Dewey.

    • Historian
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Pinker’s statement is bizarre. Maybe he is confusing or conflating liberals with the far left, a common tactic of the right wing. Maybe he is disturbed that some on the left, including liberals, have on occasion been critical of the excesses of capitalism. Does he not realize that FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society established the foundation for millions to escape from poverty in the United States? Maybe he is pissed that some people raise questions about some of things he espouses as self-evident truths once one looks at the data.

      • John Taylor
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        He said many. Pinker is a big fan of a nice big social safety net and government spending on social programs.

        • Historian
          Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

          I’ll take your word on this since I have not researched it. In the video, it would have been nice if he gave credit for social programs to liberals and progressives with his attack on them.

          • johnw
            Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

            I don’t know much about S. Pinker, but the few times I’ve heard him speak of his critics on the left, and even just those who disagree with his positions, my impression has been he paints with an overly broad brush.

          • John Taylor
            Posted May 25, 2018 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

            If you have a couple hours to spare you can enjoy 2 hours of Mr. Pinker chatting with Joe Rogan!

            • Johnw
              Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

              Thanks…think I will.

          • kjf
            Posted May 26, 2018 at 10:26 am | Permalink

            That was one of Timothy Snyder’s criticisms of Better Angels. Pinker attributed the new peace and humanitarian revolutions to libertarianism while ignoring the role of the welfare state.

      • John Taylor
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        A topical tweet:

  14. Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    My gut says that progressives that are against his thesis believe that it will weaken their call to fix things. I can see some truth to that point of view. Most people are not very active when it comes to solving the world’s problems. They mostly leave it to others to deal with. Progressive activists (or activists of any kind for that matter) consider public apathy as their main obstacle. They aren’t wrong. However, as Pinker says, we can’t ignore the truth. We must recognize progress when and where it occurs and use it to inspire action.

    • Historian
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Pinker’s view that people cannot ignore the truth is a more wish than fact. The religious ignore fact and truth. So do members of the Trump cult. Perhaps there is a slow migration of more people who do not ignore the truth. But, it is the politicians who determine policy. Are there enough “people of truth” to pressure them to address such issues as climate change? I think that is an open question.

      • Posted May 25, 2018 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        Are you suggesting Pinker’s truth should be ignored for fear of making the public ignore our current problems? If so, I disagree. Nothing good comes of deliberately misleading people no matter how noble the cause.

        • Historian
          Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

          No, I’m not saying that´”Pinker’s truth should be ignored for fear of making the public ignore our current problems?” What I am saying is that all too many people do ignore the truth whether we like it or not and that convincing them of the “truth” is a difficult task. We should not give up the effort, but failure is a real possibility.

      • darrelle
        Posted May 25, 2018 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

        Come on Historian. Why do you misinterpret the phrase “we can’t ignore the truth?” Is it really not clear how that was meant? Do you really think Pinker or paultopping is that stupid to think that people literally are unable to ignore the truth?

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      This is my question — Why do some liberals hate this progress? I’ve noticed it, the dislike of Pinker apparently for his pointing out that things are getting better, and I don’t understand it.

      I would thing it would be welcome evidence that trying hard makes things better.

      • Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        I think this has been covered in the comments here. They fear that it will dilute the activist message and they distrust capitalism, globalism, and other institutions which are responsible for, or at least involved in, the progress that Pinker rightly lauds.

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted May 25, 2018 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

          It’s a terrible attitude — that acknowledging some progress is a distraction. It reminds me of people who hate space exploration because “we have problems right here on Earth!”

        • Filippo
          Posted May 26, 2018 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

          Regarding capitalism: it occurs to me that I have not (yet) heard capitalist Masters of Mankind refer to children (strictly and solely) as human “capital” and “resources” (however much they may have already silently thought of them as such). Maybe at least one of them already has and I simply don’t know it.

  15. Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    “Yes, we face new challenges like global warming (these are discussed in Steve’s latest book), but would you choose, say, to have lived 200 years ago rather than now? You’d be a fool to make that choice.” Absolutely. I completely buy Pinker’s thesis that humanity’s lot has been improving for centuries – and that it’s due to Enlightenment values. But here’s a harder question. Would you choose to live 200 years ago, or 200 years in the future? That, to me, is a harder one. My personal guess is that we’re going to continue making societal progress, Pinker style, right up until the point when it all collapses; and I expect that collapse to happen within the next 200 years. Maybe it’ll be due to the consequences of climate change; maybe due to a rogue biowarfare agent; maybe due to nuclear war after one or another geopolitical situation spins out of control; maybe the AI singularity will actually happen and the AIs will kill us all (I’m quite skeptical of that one though :->); in general, our power is growing faster than our control or our maturity, and I just don’t see how it can end well. Maybe we can make it through the bottleneck, and if we do, it will be science, technology, and Enlightenment values that enable us to do so; there’s no turning back from that path now. But I’m skeptical enough of our chances that I might well choose 200 years ago over 200 years in the future – apart from simple curiosity to actually see how things turn out, of course!

    • Posted May 25, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Only events like a nearby supernova, giant asteroid collision, visit from a black hole, alien invasion, etc, would really end it all. Humans are too well entrenched on earth to be wiped out by climate change. Sure, many people may die but many, many more will live on and adapt to new conditions.

  16. Posted May 25, 2018 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard to imagine that there are those who, in the face of data like these, think that the world’s getting worse. Yes, we face new challenges like global warming (these are discussed in Steve’s latest book), but would you choose, say, to have lived 200 years ago rather than now? You’d be a fool to make that choice.

    There’s also a subtle fallacy in wanting to live in previous decades — Good Old Times™ — say, the 1950s or 1970s: it not only adds a blend of nostalgia and perhaps juvenile carefreeness, but also more subtly, it’s a fantasy without big uncertainty: the future from now on is unknown and that’s always a tad scary, whereas you can’t imagine a previous decade with that same uncertainty — you can’t help but know that the place you imagine you’d like to be went alright afterwards; the acid rain did not melt the local forests. The Cold War didn’t turn thermonuclear, and you would not pick 1970s Chile, or 1950s Iran, anyway.

  17. Curt Nelson
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    But by living 200 years ago you could get antiques SO cheaply.

    • nicky
      Posted May 26, 2018 at 12:06 am | Permalink

      But you might have died of infectious disease before you could have bought them, or have been too poor to have been able to buy them even cheaply 😆

  18. Posted May 25, 2018 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

    I have not read Steve Pinker’s books. I do agree that many things are better, not all. Some things that are intended for good may be that way for a time until a bad use is discovered and implemented. Sometimes there are totally unforseen consequences.

    It was good that the Paris Accord took place to attempt world involvement in solving climate change problems. However, one of the processes they seem to be counting on (carbon sequestration) has only been tested and is not in production anywhere. It would seem weird that we would pin our hopes for saving the planet on an unrealized process.

    Following is one of a number of articles about this:

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

      @Rowena Nice article by Jason Hickel. Thanks!

      I’m now forced to investigate if he’s right [I know nuffin on carbon capture]! I agree with what he says about “planned degrowth” & how curious & depressing it is that our economic & political leaders still speak the language of ‘high GDP = good’

      HERE’S HIS BLOOOOOG if you’re interested.

    • nicky
      Posted May 26, 2018 at 12:10 am | Permalink

      Rowena, you have not read Pinker’s books? What an enviable position! Half a dozen books of pure reading and thinking pleasure to look forward to! And his endnotes are always worthwhile too.

      • Posted May 26, 2018 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

        Looking forward to the pleasure. I’ll have to move them up higher in my stack of books to be read ASAP. If only I could stop getting sidetracked onto totally different topics from the one(s) I’m reading, I might make better progress.

    • Filippo
      Posted May 26, 2018 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

      I’ve wondered if carbon might possibly be pulled out of the air and rendered as graphite. (Of course, the process would have to be sufficiently “economical” to “incentivize” a profit-maximizing capitalist to have a go at it. Otherwise, I guess the government(s of the world) would have to do it.)

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted May 26, 2018 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

        [1] There’s a project in Iceland pumping CO2 emissions underground & then converting to solid stone chemically using [I think] geothermal energy. The carbon remains locked up underground for millions of years if one chooses well where to do it.
        [2] Encourage more shelly marine critters to do their living & dying – sequestering carbon as sediments?
        [3] Plant trees [50% of the dry mass of a tree is carbon from the air] & harvest trees when mature for manufacturing stuffz: houses, clothes, airplanes, cars. Or use artifical trees to do same [these could be put all over our buildings for example. This isn’t sequestration of course, but if we work hard at recycling ll materials & get away from concrete & brick as materials it will help!

        The graphite thing: Splitting CO2 requires energy. If fossil fuels, which produce the greenhouse gas in the first place, supply that energy, the net result will be more CO2 than you started with. If you use solar panel energy as the source, then you could argue it’s carbon positive [but at the moment only if you don’t trace the entire process required to manufacture the solar panels & you don’t consider solar panel lifetime – something often under-calculated or not calculated by the ‘greens’]

        Another option is to convert CO2 into a useful product such as carbon nanotubes [using hydrogen & a metallic catalyst in the Bosch reaction] or to make synthetic fuel in a process nicknamed “sunshine to petrol” – the latter is only practical if you are somehow using ‘free’ or very cheap energy to drive the process.

        It’s mindbogglingly difficult to assess the true carbon footprint of renewable energies + the true financial & ecological costs [rare metal mining etc] – so I’m a fan of [1] above & [3] above – I have no idea if [2] is feasible, but the results are pretty [White Cliffs of Dover for example]

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted May 26, 2018 at 10:27 pm | Permalink


  19. kurtzs
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    I think he’s making the wrong di-pole (past-present.) The future is what should drive current planning. Pigging out now is false evidence of well-being. We are in biological plague phase having quadrupled in my 94 yr old mother’s lifetime; and cherry picking stats (like Hans Rosling and Bjorn Lomborg) is BS. Peak oil, peak aquifers, peak biodiversity, peak pollinators, climbing toxicity in water/air/food chain, peak topsoil, etc should give you a hint! And violent conflicts are not just wartime deaths as he points to. Cyber-wars, resource stealing from rural tribes, bio and chemo terrorism, pandemic risks, loss of local cultures and languages, all are symptoms of overshoot.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 25, 2018 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      @Kurt You have written about what concerns me. And I agree with you. Thanks.

      • Posted May 26, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        These things bother me too. While some of these trends can be reversed, others are more difficult — loss of species for example. It would be interesting to hear what Pinker says about them. I suspect Pinker would agree that these are bad things. He’s not arguing for any particular application of our science and reason-based efforts. Noting all these bad trends is really an argument about priorities going forward. He’s simply saying that regardless of what priorities we choose, use science and reason.

    • Posted May 26, 2018 at 11:02 am | Permalink

      Pinker is asking society to keep applying what has worked for a few hundred years: science and reason. He doesn’t suggest applying specific solutions used to solve past problems to our current ones.

  20. John Nunes
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    “It is one’s duty to be an optimist. Only from this point of view can one be active and do what one can. If you are a pessimist, you have given up. We must remain optimists, we have to look at the world from the point of view of how beautiful it is, and to try to do what we can to make it better.”

    – Karl Popper

  21. nicky
    Posted May 25, 2018 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    I love that quote from FP Adams: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory”.
    I’m in two minds about Pinker’s optimism, one the one hand he’s obviously right, we’re having it better than ever before, living longer, less poverty, there is less violence; torture, genocide, sexism and racism have lost much of their ‘Salonfähigkeit’, awareness of extinction, of the dangers of pollution, global warming, etc. etc. has risen.
    On the other hand, we are causing phenomena (eg. the latter 3 mentioned above) on a really global scale. Of course Pinker is aware of them too, but it is daunting, and it is not sure at all we’ll overcome them.
    Several threats have been overcome (eg. Ozone depletion, DDT’s ‘Silent Spring’ or acid rain), by action (ozone, DDT) or chance (acid rain).
    Mr Lent’s type of alarmist prophecies tend to be self un-fulfilling, because they raise awareness. Hence I’m not too harsh on the Lents of this world.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted May 26, 2018 at 12:08 am | Permalink

      Ozone hole: Emissions of CFCs have increased in the past six years or so. We know the source is East Asia, but no specifics yet. I hope we soon begin to try harder to enforce our decades-old treaty banning them altogether.

      Generally we need a more fanged approach to treaties involving existential risks. A new unpoliticised UN that actually works…

      • John Nunes
        Posted May 26, 2018 at 2:21 am | Permalink

        It’s not a “hole”. It’s a thinning of the layer. And it’s constantly regenerating itself. It’s thinner now, but it’s come back before after thinning.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted May 26, 2018 at 2:42 am | Permalink

          I know it’s not a “hole” – it’s the term bandied about by NASA & I’m happy to use the term “ozone hole” without fear that WEIT readers will think it’s a real hole! I know what ozone is.
          I know how ozone is produced & the processes that can lead to depletion. I know it can recover.

          So explain to me what the point of your comment is. Are you saying we should ignore the new producers of CFCs?

          • John Nunes
            Posted May 27, 2018 at 12:22 am | Permalink

            In science communication, using accurate terminology is important.

            Why is it being suggested I hold a position I don’t hold for pointing that out?


      • nicky
        Posted May 26, 2018 at 11:19 am | Permalink

        I was not aware that the ban on CFC’s and HCFC’s was not universal. Appears a great job still to do in China and the rest of SE Asia! ‘If the West could do it, why can’t you?’ Great line, 50% chance they will take that bait by that line alone

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted May 27, 2018 at 1:25 am | Permalink

        @John Nunes
        I wrote: “Ozone hole: Emissions of CFCs have increased in the past six years or so. We know the source is East Asia, but no specifics yet…”

        You wrote: “It’s not a “hole”. It’s a thinning of the layer. And it’s constantly regenerating itself. It’s thinner now, but it’s come back before after thinning”

        So I wrote: “….So explain to me what the point of your comment is. Are you saying we should ignore the new producers of CFCs?”

        Well it doesn’t matter now of course because I NOW know you’re ONLY correcting me on terminology [“ozone hole”], but if you look dispassionately at your comment you do seem to be saying the increase in CFCs doesn’t matter – your writing leads that way. So I asked you if that was your intent. I didn’t say that was your position!

        A bit of a Canada Goose chase this convo. LOL

        Now lets move onto terminology:
        [1] A very well respected site that has won multiple awards – it still casually flings out the term “ozone hole” in its reports.
        [2] The latest report [4 days ago] on the NASA Ozone Watch site starts like this:

        View the latest status of the ozone layer over the Antarctic, with a focus on the ozone hole. Satellite instruments monitor the ozone layer, and we use their data to create the images that depict the amount of ozone. Click any map image to bring up a new page with a high-resolution image

        [3] Another NASA website this year:-

        “We see very clearly that chlorine from CFCs is going down in the ozone hole, and that less ozone depletion is occurring because of it,” said lead author Susan Strahan, an atmospheric scientist from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

        I’m sticking with “ozone hole” TYVM 🙂

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted May 27, 2018 at 6:52 am | Permalink

          Not a hole. Got it.

          More of an orifice, really – even a meatus. Or just a lid – I mean, a hole by definition is nothing, so… the ozone would be more like a cover over a hole, or lid… ozone lid.

          I’m going with …. ozone sphincter- that’s more like it, because it can widen or shrink shut.

          • John Nunes
            Posted May 27, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

            As far as this thread is concerned, I guess I prefer “rabbit hole”.

            • ThyroidPlanet
              Posted May 27, 2018 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

              Or how about- since it’s way up in the atmosphere- “frigate bird hole”

              • John Nunes
                Posted May 27, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

                Some puff sites are claiming to build flying cars on the blockchain. Not unreasonable to suspect flying ships that look like birds are next.

        • John Nunes
          Posted May 27, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

          Nearly getting killed after being misdiagnosed for something relatively benign when I actually had necrotizing fasciitis has made me a stickler for correct terminology.

          The media (and even some support groups!) refer to NF as “flesh eating disease” when that’s not actually what happens. The bacteria produces an enzyme that cuts off the oxygen supply to neighboring tissue and the tissue then simply dies.

  22. Posted May 26, 2018 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    As others here have mentioned, Pinker is right that humans are better off now than in the past. BUt what about the rest of life on earth, and the planet itself? We continue to see them suffer declines and extinctions. Eventually that will impact us as well.

    I do like having this information for people who say to me that the world isn’t as safe for their children as it was when they were growing up. I always tell them that the media want them to think that, but the world is as safe if not safer now than when they grew up. We need to stop using that excuse to overprotect kids and keep them from experiencing a world of discovery

    • nicky
      Posted May 26, 2018 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Yes, but if I read Pinker right, we would not even be aware of extinctions and the like if it were not for the Enlightenment and it’s consequences. I think he’s right there.

      • Posted May 26, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        Good point!

      • Posted May 26, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        Being ignorant about it won’t keep it from eventually having a seriously detrimental effect on human life in the future.

  23. Posted May 26, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    The attacks on S. Pinker are fueled by the religious trope that we are sinful and living in a degraded world and that the only way it can get much better is to accept Jesus into your heart. Much of the improvements are happening, though, in places where Christianity is weak (China, India, Africa), so like scientific evidence that contradicts scripture is ignored, this evidence, that the world is getting better, is to be ignored, too.

  24. David Redfrost
    Posted May 27, 2018 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Here’s a counterpoint take on Pinker by
    David Bell in the Nation–“The Powerpoint Philosophe”–which I like and agree with. The comments here seem to tilt toward Pinker, so I thought this reasoned opposing view should be shared.

    • Posted May 27, 2018 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

      Although I only skimmed the last half of Bell’s review, it seemed to be more of the same as far as reviews of Pinker’s book go. As one would expect from a historian, he feels the need to supplement and correct Pinker’s view of the Enlightenment. That seems like a tangential attack at best. Bell sets up a straw man at the start by naming Pinker as a modern day philosophe and then shows that he isn’t through the rest of the review. The closest Bell gets to valid criticism is his claim that Pinker cherry picks statistics. This is something I am also worried about. To bolster that claim, he refers to a rise in the number of refugees worldwide in the last two decades. First, he gives no numbers for this. We don’t know if he is playing on our expectations based on the news, something that Pinker would warn against. Even if it is true, it is too short a time span to seriously weaken Pinker’s thesis. All in all, Bell’s review seems to be yet another hit job.

    • Posted May 28, 2018 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Pinker basically wrote four different books in one:

      1) How things are getting better
      2) What got us there
      3) What should we do to improve the “remaining work”
      4) What the “remaining work” *is*

      The book is criticized, correctly in my view, for 2 being very cursory (historically it is rather simplistic) and 3 is almost non-existent except at the “meta level”. 4 is really lousy. Yes, he says use both markets and non-markets. But how? On what basis? There’s no discussion whatever of externalities, for example.

      • Posted May 28, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

        In my opinion it is unfair to Pinker’s book to criticize it as a history of the Enlightenment as he doesn’t present it as one. Sure, bad things also occurred during that period. So what? We always should strive to take the good ideas and leave the bad.

        It is also unfair to criticize it for not describing our current problems in detail and for not advocating solutions to those problems. His thesis is a level above such concerns. He’s recommending we continue to apply the good ideas that came out of the Enlightenment to whatever problems we have now and in the future.

        Seems like people are trying to criticize him for not writing a book they wish he had written. This is a classic pit into which many reviewers fall.

  25. Posted May 28, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Just finished Angels. Enlightenment next on my agenda. Excellent argument.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] and hopes to travel into space >> * Pinker’s latest TED talk: Is the world getting better? >> * ISSUE 118: Bashing Competition […]

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