The Data Should Make You Happy!

Michael Roth considers Steven Pinker's paean to progress.

April 10, 2018
Cover of 'Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress' by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker has become chief cheerleader for modernity. In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, he marshaled mountains of evidence to show that violence, both private and public, has significantly declined over the last 200 years. While atrocities naturally continue to draw our attention, they are actually less prevalent than ever before. If we avoid the “availability bias” of sensational headlines and study the broad spectrum of relevant information, we can see that, as a species, we are moving away from violence.

In his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker expands his purview to include progress in everything from access to basic nourishment and health care to income and increased choices in how we spend our time. In every important area, Pinker sees robust improvement. The world is getting safer, more prosperous and less authoritarian. “Look at the data!” he cries again and again, and you will see that human beings have much to cheer about and much to look forward to. Evidence from surveys even suggests that we are happier -- although not nearly as happy as we should be, given the progress we’ve made.

Pinker himself is not happy with colleges and universities, especially humanities programs, which, he claims, tend to emphasize the tragic, the negative, even the apocalyptic. He takes particular aim at Nietzsche and the streams of critical theory that flow from his thinking. Nietzsche’s antimodern polemics against smug, middle-class complacency especially rankle the Harvard University professor who can’t seem to imagine why anyone wouldn’t be grateful for the greater access to food, shelter and leisure that modernity has created.

There is plenty to criticize in Pinker’s historical portrait of triumphant modernity. He ignores any part of the Enlightenment legacy that doesn’t fit neatly into his neat, Popperian understanding of how scientific progress is made through disconfirming hypotheses. In describing progress in societies that behave more rationally, he says almost nothing about the social movements and struggles that forced those with power (and claims to rationality) to pay attention to political claims for justice. When science leads to bad things, like eugenics, he just dismisses the results as bad science. He criticizes those with whom he disagrees as being narrow-minded or tribalistic, but he seems to have no self-awareness of how his own thinking is plagued by parochialism. He writes that we have to cure “identity protective cognition,” but for him history is an effort to find figures like himself in the past so that he can write a story that culminates with people who have the same views as he. “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for human culture; the answer has to be today.” Maybe he thinks that the gesture of expecting an even better future is an expression of intellectual modesty.

But as much as Pinker’s self-congratulation may annoy anyone concerned with (or just curious about) the ways the achievements of modernity have been built through oppression, exploitation and violence, it would be a mistake to ignore the extraordinary accomplishments that he documents in Enlightenment Now. Take the astonishing reductions in poverty around the world. Over the last century, the portion of people living in extreme poverty has been reduced from 90 percent to under 10 percent. The acceleration of this progress in the last half century has been truly remarkable, and we can see similar good news in regard to decreased child mortality and increased life expectancy (to pick just two of the subjects Pinker covers).

And Pinker is right that many of us in the humanities and interpretive social sciences are loath simply to celebrate such gains when discussing the legacies of the Enlightenment or embracing contemporary critical thinking. Why? Part of the reason is that the story of those achievements should not be divorced from an account of how social injustice has made them possible. Humanists don’t dismiss the importance of reductions in poverty, but neither do they simply want to describe slavery, colonialism and other forms of exploitation as the price one has (always?) to pay for progress.

A judicious history of the dramatic increase in the powers of science and rationality should include chapters on the massive increases in the destructive power now in human hands. Those chapters are missing from Pinker’s book, and that’s important because of the asymmetric risks now facing the planet. Pinker’s caricatures of doomsayers of the past predicting environmental or nuclear disaster can be amusing, but his cheerful account of an ever more peaceful and prosperous world reminds one of the optimists writing in 1914 just before the outbreak of World War I. They, too, were quite sure that in their century war was a thing of the past and that economic development would go on more or less steadily.

Yet as Daniel Callahan recently showed in The Five Horsemen of the Modern World, the risks of massive destruction and deep ecological dislocation today have been greatly magnified by nuclear weapons, global warming and profound challenges in regard to food and water. These risks are not reduced because we’ve already made progress in regard to poverty and life expectancy. Some of the same forces that helped create the positive changes have also led to enormous problems. And past performance is, as they say, no guarantee of future results.

Pinker does spend time on contemporary challenges, seeing them as technical problems to be solved through inquiry and experimentation. That seems reasonable enough. We’ve produced nuclear weapons that could destroy millions of lives -- we need mechanisms to make their use less probable. Economic development has put too much carbon in the atmosphere -- we need to develop tools to take the carbon out while creating jobs and enhancing prosperity.

This story of progress begetting more positive change rather than intractable problems is, of course, very much end point dependent. Pinker’s claims for enhanced freedom around the world today run into the obstacles of authoritarian rule in Russia and China. So, he says, Putin and Xi are not nearly as bad as Stalin and Mao. And when he started writing Enlightenment Now, Pinker could not have predicted President Trump. He acknowledges the threats that Trump and other antiscientific populists pose to his idea of continual progress, but he suggests that demographic trends will naturally shrink the base of know-nothing authoritarians. And if we all just emphasized how positive things are, populists claiming only they can save us wouldn’t have as much to work with: “By failing to take note of the gifts of modernity, social critics poison voters against responsible custodians and incremental reformers.” Cheerleading as activism.

The Enlightenment was never just one thing, and its most serious exponents often thought long and hard about the negative consequences of reducing all thinking to the narrowest forms of the science of their time. Humanists in colleges and universities today can extend the legacies of the Enlightenment not by celebrating the virtues of science with unalloyed optimism nor by denigrating them with unadulterated nihilism. Instead, humanists today can acknowledge the gains of science and economic development while continuing to question both their premises and their unintended consequences.

Pinker writes that “none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.” But we don’t need cheerleading psychologists telling us we should be happier than we are. We need teachers whose broad-based thinking builds hope and inspires positive change by critically challenging complacency. That’s still the best bet for what Kant recognized as the goal of Enlightenment: freedom from self-imposed immaturity.


Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and author, most recently, of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.


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