Steven Pinker: Data Shows That Life Today Is Better Than Ever

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Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard, argues that the ideals of the Enlightenment deserve a vigorous moral defense. (Photo credit: Rose Lincoln / Harvard University)

The government shutdown. A volatile stock market. Climate change.

It’s so easy to get discouraged by the latest headlines, argues Steven Pinker, that we lose sight of the bigger picture: life today is actually improving.

"To appreciate the world, we've got to look at numbers and trends."

Pinker, a cognitive psychologist from Harvard, says in his book “Enlightenment Now” that we’re living at the greatest moment of progress in history, thanks to reason, science, and humanism. But today, he says, these ideals are under-appreciated, and we ignore them at our peril.

So he set out to provide a vigorous moral defense of the values of the Enlightenment by examining the evidence for their effectiveness. Across a range of categories from happiness and health to peace and safety, Pinker examines the data and reassures readers that this is a pretty great time to be alive. As we kick off the new year, he’s hopeful that our embrace of science and reason will lead to an even more prosperous future. But political and cultural hurdles must still be overcome before the heroic story of human progress can continue to unfold.

Pinker spoke with our Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff in advance of the book’s paperback release, which hits stores next Tuesday. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

One anecdote you describe in the book was particularly striking: how the public reacted when the polio vaccine was announced. People took the day off work to celebrate, they smiled at each other in the streets, they offered to throw parades. Today, it’s hard to imagine such prevalent enthusiasm for a new advance. How can we bring back a culture of respect and gratitude for science? 

That’s such a good question. And I wish I knew the answer. My contribution is just to remind people of how much progress we’ve made. It’s easy to ignore if your view of the world comes from headlines, but there are some built-in biases in journalism that we have to counteract. Most things that happen all of a sudden are bad things: wars break out, terrorists attack, rampage shootings occur, whereas a lot of the things that make us better off creep up by stealth. But we have to become better aware of them.

It’s unlikely that we’re going to have replications of the great Salk event, which happened on a particular day, but I think we have to take lessons from cognitive science, from the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, showing how misled we can be by images and narratives and that to appreciate the world, we’ve got to look at numbers and trends.

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The cover of "Enlightenment Now," which comes out in paperback next week.

You mention that the President’s Bioethics Council under Bush was appointed to deal with “the looming threat of biomedical advances.”  Do you think that professional bioethicists are more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to creating truly enlightened science policy?

I do. I think that there are some problems in the culture of bioethics. And of course, I would not argue against that the concept of bioethics. Obviously, we have to do biomedical research and applications conscientiously and ethically. But the field called Bioethics tends to specialize in exotic thought experiments that tend to imagine the worst possible things that can happen, and often mire research in red tape that results in a net decrease in human welfare, whereas the goal of bioethics should be to enhance human welfare.

In an op-ed that I published in the Boston Globe a few years ago, I said, deliberately provocatively, that the main moral imperative of bioethics is to get out of the way since there’s so much suffering that humans endure from degenerative diseases, from cancer, from heart disease and stroke. The potential for increasing happiness and well-being from biomedical research is just stupendous. So before we start to drag out Brave New World for the umpteenth time, or compare every advance in genetics to the Nazis, we should remember the costs of people dying prematurely from postponing advances in biomedical research.

Later in the book, you mention how much more efficient the production of food has become due to high-tech agriculture. But so many people today are leery of advances in the food industry, like GMOs. And we will have to feed 10 billion people in 2050. Are you concerned about how we will meet that challenge? 

Yes, I think anyone has to be, and all the more reason we should be clear about what is simultaneously best for humans and for the planet, which is to grow as much food on this planet as possible. That ideal of density — the less farmland the better — runs up against the ideal of the organic farming and natural farming, which use lots of land. So genetically modified organisms and precision agriculture of the kind that is sometimes associated with Israel —  putting every last drop of water to use, delivering it when it’s needed, using the minimum amount of fertilizer — all of these technologically driven developments are going to be necessary to meet that need.

"The potential for increasing happiness and well-being from biomedical research is just stupendous."

You also mention “sustainability” as this big buzz word that you say is based on a flawed assumption that we will run out of resources rather than pivot to ingenious alternatives. What’s the most important thing we can do as a culture to encourage innovation? 

It has to be an ideal. We have restore it as what we need to encourage, to glorify in order to meet the needs of humanity. Governments have to play a role because lots of innovation is just too risky with benefits that are too widely diffuse for private companies and individuals to pursue. International cooperation has to play a role. And also, we need to change our environmental philosophy from a reflexive rejection of technology to an acknowledgement that it will be technology that is our best hope for staving off environmental problems.

And yet innovation and technology today are so often viewed fearfully by the public — just look at AI and gene editing. If we need science and technology to solve our biggest challenges, how do we overcome this disconnect?

Part of it is simply making the argument that is challenging the ideology and untested assumptions behind traditional Greenism. Also, on the part of the promoters of technology themselves, it’s crucial to make it not just clear, but to make it a reality that technology is going to be deployed to enhance human welfare.

That of course means an acknowledgement of the possible harms and limitations of technology. The fact that the first widely used genetically modified crop was soybeans that were resistant to herbicides, to Roundup — that was at the very least a public relations disaster for genetically modified organisms. As opposed to say, highlighting crops that require less insecticide, less chemical fertilizers, less water level. The poster children for technology should really be cases that quite obviously benefit humanity.

"One of the surprises from 'Enlightenment Now' was how much moral progress depends on economic progress."

Finally, what is one emerging innovation that you’re excited about for 2019?  

I would say 4th generation nuclear power. Small modular reactors. Because everything depends on energy. For poor countries to get rich, they are going to have to consume far more energy than they do now and if they do it via fossil fuels, especially coal, that could spell disaster. Zero-carbon energy will allow poor countries to get richer — and rich countries to stay rich without catastrophic environmental damage.

One of the surprises from “Enlightenment Now” was how much moral progress depends on economic progress. Rich countries not only allow the citizens to have cool gadgets, but all kinds of good things happen when a country gets rich, like Norway, Netherlands, Switzerland. Countries that are richer on average are more democratic, are less likely that to fight wars, are more feminist, are more environmentally conscientious, are smarter — that is, they have a greater increase in IQ. So anything that makes a country get richer, and that’s going to include a bunch of energy, is going to make humanity better off.

What do you think?

We welcome all thoughts, feedback and constructive critiques: editor@leapsmag.com.
A curated selection of responses are collected here.