Steven Pinker on Bill Maher

Steve Pinker appeared on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” show last night, and here’s a seven-minute clip of their chat. (I immediately noticed that PInker was wearing a blue suit, which I’ve never seen—he usually wears black—and is also sporting his cowboy boots.)

You may already be familiar with the indices of progress limned by Pinker here, but Maher also gives a list of bad things about the world (emphasizing “nukes and pollution), asking Pinker to respond, which he does at 4:45 and 5:30.  Unfortunately, Maher dominates the conversation here—not the behavior of a good host—and I can’t find any videos in which the conversation continues.

Here’s the “overtime” panel consisting of Pinker , Rep. Seth Moulton (Democrat, Massachusetts), MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, political commentator and comedian D.L. Hughley, and LA Times political editor Christina Bellantoni; they all answer audience questions. O’Donnell is asked to respond to the plaint that MSNBC is “just a liberal version of Fox News.” Maher interrupts Pinker again when Steve tries to point out how Democratic policies have worked.


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Read my mind

    Though I’ve noticed Real Time the show leaves little time for anything because Maher leads it to be fast and intense, with everyone contributing to discussion.

    But in this particular case, I wanted Maher to say “let’s let Steve have the last word.”

    I hope he goes back on the show.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

      That thing where Maher reads the list, then let’s Pinker start to respond, then cuts him off to read from list some more? That’s a “bit”; it’s what comedians do. Without the comedy, Maher’s show would be just more squawking heads marooned somewhere on the vast tundras of basic cable.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted August 11, 2018 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

        Yes I understood that.

        I mean at the end of that, where it seemed Pinker ought to have the last word.

  2. Greg Geisler
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Yes, disappointing interview. I like Maher but he routinely interrupts or dominates conversations. I’m grateful for his show as it features discussions that the mainstream media seems unwilling to engage in. But Maher’s ego often derails the conversations.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:10 pm | Permalink


  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Yes, Bill Maher’s show is not a good fit for Pinker. Serious discussion never last longer than 5 or 10 seconds before someone interrupts or Maher steps in with some kind of joke.

  4. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    Pinker was right on the money, as per usual.

    Plus, like the werewolf drinking a piña colada at Trader Vic’s, his hair was perfect. The suit, too. But then the tonsorial recapitulates the sartorial. (Didn’t some 19th century biologist say that?)

    Hope no little old ladies got mutilated late last night.

  5. Historian
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    There is no question that Maher was a poor host in giving Pinker almost no time to speak. But, Maher did ask the key question and I wish Pinker had more time to answer fully. The question was: granting that things are better now than ever, couldn’t this all turn around by climate change or nuclear war? Pinker responded by saying that there are solutions that he has proposed, such as a carbon tax to reverse global warming. Maher then interrupted to say, yes, there may be solutions, but nobody is implementing them, and that was the end of the discussion.

    Pinker’s book is essentially a work of history. That is, he describes the past, which can include the recent past. But, he seems to downplay the wisdom of the old adage that a trend is not destiny. Most historians are leery to make predictions about the future based on an existing situation because they know how quickly things can change. The unexpected onset of World War I is a frequent example. Thus, we have no idea what the state of the world will be in the decades to come. Pinker may say rightfully: “Cheer up, sourpusses, you never had it better!” But, this should not provide comfort to people living in a world where disastrous things can happen at any moment, and there is no inclination or will among world “leaders” to do anything about them, even though solutions are endlessly touted by academics.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I agree with all of that. I worry that the institutions of ‘democracy’ aren’t robust enough to be a force into the future – the largest multinationals & the political/industrial robber barons are holding a lot of cards at the moment.

    • Angel
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:51 pm | Permalink


    • Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

      I’ve said it before, but I think Steven Pinker is a fragilist who would have been blindsided by the Great Recession or any other surprise reversal from past trends. I think he will keep denying that bad changes are happening and insist on “optimism,” even if he were faced with overwhelming evidence.

  6. garthdaisy
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Pinker would be more suited to the one on one interview portion of the show. Even that is too short but it would have been much better for Steve,

    • Mark R.
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly, and when I saw he was on last night’s show, I was hoping he’d be the first guest. I agree with everyone here that Maher was far too dominating.

      • Angel
        Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        I agree

  7. Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Pinker was used as the setup for a (lengthy) punchline. Very disappointing.

  8. Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    There is also a little more on his Overtime segment where Maher and his panel answer selected questions from viewers. Not much participation by Pinker though.

    • Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Oops! I see you already have the Overtime segment. Feel free to delete my comment.

  9. Christopher
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Even with a far better interviewer like the late Johnny Carson, whose style encouraged a great deal of actual conversation, these shows always leave me frustrated. In Maher’s case, unlike with Carson, the show is really just a vehicle for off the cuff snarky comedy bits. Maher should just cut out the guests altogether and replace them with clips so he can play a piece, make his jokes, play another piece, make more jokes, repeat as necessary.

  10. Posted August 11, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Although Pinker wasn’t given much time here, I do think there was something of value here.

    D.L. Hughley claimed that the status of black people in the US hadn’t improved since the 70s and Pinker, with only a little support from Maher and the rest of the panel, countered with a few statistical tidbits. Unfortunately, since everyone else was white, it had the appearance of white people telling a black man that America’s racism problem had been solved though they did remind him that there was obviously still a long way. D.L Hughley was clearly not buying it. To his credit, Hughley didn’t play the color card though I suspect he wanted to.

    I’m guessing the SJWs are having a field day commenting on this exchange.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      Screw them. But I like D.L. Hughley. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s always got something interesting to say. And the brother’s flatout funny.

  11. dd
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    Has anyone noticed any change in Bill Maher’s delivery or ideas since this article ran in mid-July?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      Maher’s style & ideas: No change at all – the one liners [some good, mostly bad] are just the same. I don’t think Maher should inject so much of his opinion in those bits of his show where he’s presenting himself as an MC or interviewer. I prefer an approach where the host fades back & does the minimum of steering, but that requires a humility I haven’t seen in Maher.

      • Posted August 11, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        I have no problem with Maher driving the chat with his panel. Even though he drives it, there’s often one panelist that dominates the conversation. It would be much worse without Maher forcibly changing the subject periodically.

      • mikeyc
        Posted August 11, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

        Meh. Then he’d be just like everyone else. Maher is first and foremost a comedian. I like that he isn’t just another interviewer asking and doing the same damn things as everyone else. Often it’s annoying, but it’s rarely boring.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 11, 2018 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

          Right on, Mikey. As I mentioned to someone above, without the comedy, Maher’s show would be just more squawking heads marooned somewhere on the vast tundras of basic cable.

  12. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    D.L Hughley: “Democrats’ bragging is good. We gotta teach you guys to grab your nuts once in a while.”

    Bill Maher: “That would be cultural appropriation.”

    Gotta admit, that one made me laugh my ass off. 🙂

    • Mark R.
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      No doubt, me too.

  13. Jonathan Dore
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Exactly the same problem when he had Sam Harris on the show. Maher’s like an attention-seeking actor stepping on the other actors’ lines.

    • Filippo
      Posted August 11, 2018 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      I think it reasonable, appropriate and fair to point out that Lawrence O’Donnell has his own strong tendencies to interrupt/cut off others with whom he disagrees. I haven’t seen the show. I find myself hoping that he got his share of being interrupted/cut off. Maybe he will take a bloody hint, if he can.

      I subjectively perceive this to be the increasingly predominant style of conversation here in The Land of the Fee and the Home of the Craven. Apparently it’s not “cool” to let someone finish a sentence.

  14. Les Faby
    Posted August 11, 2018 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Bottom Line: Lots more people will buy his book and they will be smarter.
    Yes, it’s disappointing how little time he got for replying to questions.
    In particular, part of Pinker’s answer to the CO2 build up is non-Carbon fuel like nuclear power with safe designs.

    • Posted August 11, 2018 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

      His love of nuclear power troubles me too, it’s as if he has willfully refused to learn about the true long-term costs of the Fukushima disaster, (and the other nuclear disasters.) I certainly don’t want more nuclear power on flat lines, near tornado zones, or anywhere that a tsunami, hurricane or flood happen like the one that washed toxic waste into Texas.

      His last book indicates he sees environmentalism as a religion and as a current obstacle to progress, and when he speaks positively of the trends of using more energy with subelsequent generations per household, it suggest he thinks that using more electricity is progress, which usually works against the commitment to fighting global warming. He doesn’t seem to care about conservation and being more efficient. I don’t really care for Steven Pinker’ s ideas, because many seem like shallow thinking to defend the status quo even if the house is on fire.

  15. Keith Nemlich
    Posted August 12, 2018 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I have always thought that Steven Pinker has been most interested in advancing the cause of Steven Pinker and his appearance on Real Time reflected this belief. He quoted the work of the late Hans Rosling (see “Factfulness”) without giving any credit to Rosling. Pinker should have known better to do so.

  16. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 12, 2018 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    This looks interesting:

    Pinker and Fry discuss the enlightenment

    Didn’t listen yet

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted August 12, 2018 at 9:32 pm | Permalink


      Highly recommended

  17. Posted August 12, 2018 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    My reaction to the Pinker – Maher exchange wasn’t as negative as I expected it to be based on having read this WEIT article first. Maher interrupted Pinker. But, Pinker managed to convey some rather precise information anyway. He seemed in no way to be flustered by Maher. Interruption occurs frequently between Maher and his guests, and between Maher’s guests. We all know that Maher is first and foremost a comedian. Anyone coming on his show must also know that, and be prepared for it. Pinker did himself proud.

    • Jonathan Dore
      Posted August 31, 2018 at 4:00 am | Permalink

      What’s most puzzling is that Pinker (and Harris) are the kind of people that Maher presumably invites onto the show because he supports their work and wants his viewers to hear about it. And then he doesn’t let them speak.

      • Posted August 31, 2018 at 8:58 am | Permalink

        I think the problem is partly that Maher’s group conversations require participants to force their way into them if they are going to be heard. This is not really how Pinker and Harris operate. IMHO, Maher should only host them in his initial one-on-one interview segment.

  18. Itamar
    Posted August 14, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I can’t understand why Pinker did not get up and walk out…
    The only thing left for Hughly to say is that since Pinker is white, he cannot say anything about the happiness of black people in America…
    Oh well… I shouldn’t call Maher and Hughly liars… OK, I won’t.

    • Posted August 14, 2018 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

      Hughley’s reaction to Pinker’s stats was not really racist, IMHO. He expressed the same doubts about improved conditions that most of Pinker’s critics have. They don’t really believe in statistics that disagree with what they know in their gut. It is hard to get people to question their gut feelings.

      On the other hand, my gut says that conditions for black people in the USA have definitely improved. I suspect Hughley knows this too but he’s afraid that acknowledging it will lessen the urgency of the civil rights agenda. He’s not wrong but we deny the truth at our peril.

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