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Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker — don’t believe the false doom-mongers

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker — don’t believe the false doom-mongers thumbnail

Towards the end of this passionate book in praise of Enlightenment values the author sounds a defiant but plaintive note. “Persuasion by facts and logic, the most direct strategy,” Steven Pinker writes, “is not always futile.” You can almost hear the “despites” in his mind. Despite the widespread belief among fashionable intellectuals that emotions and tribal loyalties are more important and somehow more authentic than fact-based evidence. Despite the steady stream of news reports (this week including another mass school shooting) suggesting that chaos is eroding the edifice of order.

It’s just as well that Pinker — among many other things a professor of psychology at Harvard — concludes that there is some point to logical persuasion, because he has spent several hundred pages using logical persuasion. He equips the reader with the information necessary to join in a defence of “the ideals of science, reason and humanism”, at a time when they seem to be under assault.

If Pinker is an optimist concerning human capacity for reason, it’s not because he is Professor Pollyanna. He begins the book by outlining the second law of thermodynamics — which is that “the laws of probability nudge the system towards disorder or uselessness”. It is usual, in other words, that things fall apart and the centre cannot hold, from space matter to humans beings. To make them cohere, to make them make something and keep making something, takes effort. It so happens that humanity has been adapted to make that effort. It could always choose, however, out of ennui, despair or error, to stop.

One source of all three malign motivations is the taste we have for pessimism. Pinker notes that recently Pulitzer non-fiction prizes were given to “four books on genocide, three on terrorism, two on cancer and one on extinction” and none for any one of the myriad efforts to tell stories of human achievement. This suits what he calls “progressophobes” like our trendy declinist John Gray, or the American intellectual Naomi Klein, whose visceral dislike of the idea of progress is in the essentially reactionary tradition of Romanticism, ie human beings were much more properly themselves in the days before vaccination and air travel.

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A good half of the book — a refutation of such progressophoboia — is a factual examination of what humanity has achieved in the past couple of centuries. The chapter on the extraordinary (and to many counterintuitive) reduction in deaths from wars or violence will be familiar to those who have read Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Much of the rest is new and is designed to establish that, for all the wailing, human existence has been measurably transformed for the better by, in Pinker’s words, “the virtuous cycle of education, knowledge and wealth”.

Pinker’s canvas is a panoramic one and this review by comparison is hardly a frame in a cartoon strip, but I just want to give a flavour of the granular fun to be had here. Because in building his case he has amassed a series of stats, examples and arguments that are as entertaining as they are important.

So here goes. A taste. On health, Pinker’s “favourite example in the history of the English language” is the Wikipedia entry on smallpox, which begins, “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by one of two virus variants . . . ” There is no country in the world where infant or child mortality today is not lower than it was in 1950. The US rate of dementia is falling not rising and the average age at diagnosis rose from 80.7 to 82.4 between 2000 and 2012. The recent spike in death from opioids is not a horrible new phenomenon but, given that the main age of those overdosing is 50, it is “largely an epidemic of the druggy baby boomer cohort reaching middle age”.

Or on wealth. Inequality is not the great cause of social problems that authors such as Thomas Piketty suggest. From the facts “it’s not obvious that people are whipped into competitive anxiety by the existence of JK Rowling and Sergey Brin, as opposed to their own, local rivals for professional, romantic and social success”. Also as societies become richer they tend to get more munificent in supporting the less fortunate.

On the planet, environmentalists are right to be worried about global warming, but wrong about nuclear power, genetic modification and other advances which some reject out of an almost punitive desire for mankind to suffer. Also beware of false doomsters. Remember peak oil? Well actually in many cases we are using things much less than we used to, and by 2070 even the world’s population will be falling. In fact “we may have reached peak children, peak farmland, peak timber, peak paper and peak car. Indeed we may be reaching peak stuff.”

I very much liked the chapter on safety written because, in Pinker’s words, “humanity’s conquest of everyday danger is a peculiarly unappreciated form of progress”. Between 1921 and 2009 in the US there was an almost 24-fold fall in the road traffic death rate. And on homicide and crime, where Pinker reminds us that far from being all round us, murders tend to be concentrated in certain countries, in certain towns in those countries, in certain neighbourhoods in those towns, and that the policies to reduce such horrors are well-understood. On terrorism Pinker re-establishes the point that the Seventies and Eighties, for those of us in the West, was peak terror.

Pinker’s point is that, when we look at the facts, we know what works. Mixed capitalist economies operating in the framework of law and basing their policies on evidence, do much better for us than any other systems. It is better to trade than not, to mingle than not, to educate than not, to argue freely than not. The facts tell us so.

But sometimes we forget or quarrel ourselves into forgetting and say that the evidence doesn’t matter or that we prefer other more congenial evidence. And that, as Pinker makes clear in the final third of the book, is the danger he sees today. The victory of Trump and the (qualified) rise of populism, as well as the new fashion for “patronal authoritarianism” (Putin and Erdogan) and the “squirrely” lack of a defence of the Enlightenment by intellectuals, is presenting a challenge to the values that have kept entropy at bay and allowed humanity to progress.

Because progress is not regarded as heroic, but “is a kind that is easy to miss while we are living through it”, it is badly undersold. Pinker uses this book to resell it. He does a pretty good job. We want to hope his efforts are not futile.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress by Steven Pinker, Allen Lane, 556pp; £25

Reasons to be cheerful . . .

● In 1870 the average western European worked 66 hours a week; they now work 38 hours.

● Life expectancy in Kenya increased by ten years between 2003 and 2013, meaning the average Kenyan lived for a decade without losing a year of their remaining lifetime.

● Newspapers could truthfully have printed the headline “number of people in extreme poverty fell by 137,000 since yesterday” every day for the last 25 years.

● In 1919 an average American had to work 1,800 hours to pay for a refrigerator; in 2014 they had to work fewer than 24 hours (and their new fridge was frost-free and had an icemaker).

● Between 1820 and 1900 global income tripled. It has tripled three more times since.

the times

178 Comments on "Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker — don’t believe the false doom-mongers"

  1. fmr-paultard on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 7:20 pm 

    why do supertards say they don’t want captured jihadists? i’d take hundreds if not thousands chop off hands and feet and house them at supertards farm in MO. many will die but many will produce enough crops to feed themselves. i personally harvest the best crops to bring to supertards table.

    attrocity ofthe week
    Russia: 5 Women at a Church
    Service are Gunned Down

  2. GregT on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 7:40 pm 

    To be fair, this isn’t only an American problem. Mediocrity is pervasive in Canadian society as well. Many of the e-mails that my office received on a daily basis were undecipherable. There is an entire generation behind us that never should have graduated from high school, let alone attended post secondary institutions.

    I blame it mainly on the no child left behind policy. That, and young people today don’t seen to care how stupid they make themselves look.

  3. makati1 on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 8:01 pm 

    Well, you know, Greg, only superficial things count, like, you know, name brand clothes with the logo on the front, like Apple I-trash, like fashion, like sexual identity, like safe spaces, you know. Education is not necessary. We are the exceptional/ indispensable country, like, you know.

  4. GregT on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 8:13 pm 

    The attitude of most; to get by with the bare minimum of effort, everything should be handed to them on a silver plate, and the belief that three years of post secondary education trumps thirty years of experience. I dealt with this attitude on a daily basis. It’s no wonder that society is rapidly going down the shitter.

  5. fmr-paultard on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 8:20 pm 

    truth to be told the freaks here are impossible to get along IRL. I was one and then I became a paultard, it got worse.

    islam is a genius invention. the scammers know exactly what make human tick and they make fighting the focal requirement of the religion

  6. MASTERMIND on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 8:27 pm 

    Greg and Madkat

    I am hitting Autism levels that shouldn’t be possible! ..I am like the collapse “Rain-Man”…Spitting out scholarly sources and references!

  7. GregT on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 8:31 pm 

    Most of your scholarly sources and references don’t support your conclusions MM, as has been repeatedly pointed out.

    You are more like the collapse “ne’er-do-well”. You don’t even display a rudimentary level of intelligence.

  8. MASTERMIND on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 8:33 pm 

    Its obvious that Greg and Madkat inhaled too much lead in their gasoline growing up. And it has now lowered their IQ’S substantially. Madkat will soon be shitting his paints everyday…And eating his food through a straw…

  9. GregT on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 8:43 pm 

    “Madkat will soon be shitting his paints everyday”

    Like I said above, mediocrity.

  10. fmr-paultard on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 9:21 pm 

    (mm) i’m not against u bro. just cuz i said you’re not supertard doesn’t mean UMAD??

    please don’t grab Luke 22:36 bro.

    Nothing personal, I’m not a hater

  11. makati1 on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 10:03 pm 

    MM, I’ll be around, enjoying life when you are gone. You are slipping deeper every day, If you are truly in your late 20s, I have at least 45 years of real life experience to base my view of the world on, and my decisions. You have only what you were told to believe.

    BTW: It is Tuesday noon here in Makati and 89F. It is still in the 20s to 40s there in Chicago. I don’t have to worry about freezing to death, you do. Just one of many plus’ for the Ps.

  12. MASTERMIND on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 10:11 pm 


    Experience is a lousy teacher, first comes the test, second comes the lesson..

  13. GregT on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 10:18 pm 

    Education is learning from somebody else’s experience, which may, or may not be, correct.

    Experience is the best educator.

  14. MASTERMIND on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 10:28 pm 


    We learn from history, we learn nothing from history.

    -George Bernard Shaw

  15. makati1 on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 11:13 pm 

    MM, quoting dead people is not a rebuttal unless it pertains to the subject. History is not learning from others experience. It is learning what the writer wanted you to see/read. History is rarely reality. It is ALWAYS written by the winner.

    Learning is by experiencing life. Real life. That takes time. You cannot learn how to do heart surgery from a book. You have to learn from someone while you observe them doing it just as they had to learn from their teacher the same way. You might learn on your own, but how many of your patients will die while you learn? Hundreds? Ditto for most anything worthwhile. I, an un-degreed designer/engineer, had to teach a lot of newly minted ‘engineers’ how to do their job when they were hired at the company I worked for in the 80s. They had no clue. Degrees are worthless. Experience is king.

  16. Cloggie on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 11:15 pm 

    “Personally I dont care to take the effort to fact check everything I type. ”

    A rare moment of honesty with millimind.

  17. Cloggie on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 11:17 pm 

    “Degrees are worthless. Experience is king.”

    Degree + experience is emperor.

  18. MASTERMIND on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 11:23 pm 


    I said spell check not fact check…Nice try you know my sources are as good as it gets..

  19. Cloggie on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 11:30 pm 

    If you want to be a good engineer you first have to absorb the entire edifice of science before you can even hope to expand the edifice. It ain’t called a discipline for nothing. Studying is one big struggle, but it can payoff in the decades afterwards. Experience is valuable and self-made men do exist, but nothing beats the effectivity of a formal education, provided of course that the student is ready to absorb that knowledge from inner motivation.

  20. Cloggie on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 11:49 pm 

    Steven Pinker: “the world is getting better all the time”

    “humanity is doing better than ever before”, which is true, in a strictly material sense. But the guy is skipping over the very real concerns as was most prominently expressed by the Club of Rome, of which overpopulation is the most dangerous one, energy not so much.

    But he really misses the point if he thinks that tribalism is a thing of the past. But this Pinker fellow is another time bomb under European civilization, his tribe seeks to destroy from within, like they did to the Roman Empire and Czarist Russia and now to America with their political correctness = kosher sharia with which they dominate and destroy the fabric of society.

  21. MASTERMIND on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 11:55 pm 


    The human IQ peaks around 25 years old and goes into permanent decline..That is why people like you can barely drive fast..You can’t react and think quick enough…Basically what I am saying is your computer is bogged down and is running matter what you learned it makes no difference if you can’t get online…LOL I bet you can’t even get a boner anymore..Thus is the reason for your nonstop hate and over compensation…LOL

  22. makati1 on Tue, 20th Feb 2018 12:08 am 

    Mastermind, the body stops growing at about age 25 and then begins to die. It has nothing to do with the brain. If you want to compare anything, you should compare the brain to a computer with limited capacity to hold info and retrieve it. At age 25 there is not much in the files and they are easy to retrieve. At 75 the files are getting full and retrieval takes a while longer, BUT it is still there. A picture, smell, sound or location can trigger it all back as if it were yesterday. Your bullshit about losing it is just that, pure bullshit.

    The only exception to that fact is if the brain is subjected to drugs, alcohol or a trauma, THEN memory is lost. I have learned at least one new thing every day of my 73+ years. That is over 26,800 new things and I continue to do so to this day. You should be so lucky.

  23. MASTERMIND on Tue, 20th Feb 2018 12:15 am 


    You people can’t even drive properly and you think you have it all together more than someone like me in my prime? LOL And my IQ was naturally higher than yours due to the Flynn effect. Which proves IQ keeps increasing ever generation. Face it you need to retire to a rocking chair…And you will never survive post collapse.

  24. MASTERMIND on Tue, 20th Feb 2018 12:52 am 

    The Last Judgement

  25. GregT on Tue, 20th Feb 2018 1:38 am 

    “You people can’t even drive properly and you think you have it all together more than someone like me in my prime?”

    My father will be 86 this coming June MM, and he still flies his private plane.

  26. makati1 on Tue, 20th Feb 2018 2:01 am 

    Muddymind, I can still drive ANY vehicle better than you ever will. My parents drove until they hit their late 80s. I have driven most vehicles from an Abram’s army tank to a semi. It’s called: EXPERIENCE. Age has zero to do with it. If your claim is true, why are most car accidents caused by teens and early 20s? Answer: INEXPERIENCE!

    You have a definite mental problem that needs attention soon. Prime what? Stupidity? All young people have this superiority problem. They get over it, IF they live long enough. Unfortunately, it kills a lot of them first. I don’t see you getting to 30.

    You are seriously ill, Muddymind. Even more delusional than your crazy buddy, Davy.

  27. MASTERMIND on Tue, 20th Feb 2018 6:29 am 

    What about Cars? They kill people too..Should we ban all Cars? /s

  28. fmr-paultard on Tue, 20th Feb 2018 12:33 pm 

    fmr paultard on Mon, 19th Feb 2018 6:40 am

    Exceptionalist Davy, when was the last time your old lady gave you a good bitch slappin’? Obviously, you are long overdue. I would also speculate you are in desperate need of a good cornholing or a very brisk cornhusking, although in Missouri you should be able to take care of this need without delay.

    Answer truthfully.

    How sloppy. sad!

    This one is fmr paultard
    And I’m actually fmr-paultard with dash

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