Steven Pinker
Why Our World Is Getting Better

Why are we such a pessimistic species? A question that falls at the feet of superstar psychologist and author Steven Pinker time after time.

Contrary to popular belief our world is getting better, not worse and this seems to be a hard pill to swallow for a lot of us. In his juggernaut release of 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker made the case that violence, in general, has steadily declined over time, presenting six major causes for this.

This is one thinker that wants the data to do the talking rather than his words. In his latest book Enlightenment Now, he continues this number fuelled charge for reason, going as far to say that the advanced benefits we’re experiencing are being “wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots”. We are far better off today than we have ever been. But we don’t seem to be paying attention.

There are tradeoffs along the way, existential anguish seems to be on the rise, innovation is pushing us into an unknown stratosphere, but overall our lives are a picnic compared to a century or two ago.
Part of this serenity we’re experiencing is what Pinker has coined the long peace much to the ire of contemporary thinkers such as Nassim Nicholas Taleb and John Gray, but as you will see in this dense chat, Pinker remains an important ally to rationalism, operating on an island, calling on all of us to awaken from our gloomy stupor.



In your book Enlightenment Now you say the world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of well-being, but almost no one knows about it. You even go as far to paraphrase the comedian Louis C.K. in your book, “that everything is amazing, but no one is happy”. So there’s clearly a gap in the appreciation we have for our lives. Why do you think that is?

Partly, it’s a discrepancy that comes from a worldview that we get from data and a worldview we get from journalism. Journalism has a built-in bias towards the negative, in that it covers events and it is easier for something to go wrong very quickly rather than right very quickly.

An explosion, a terrorist attack, a shooting, an epidemic can all break out quickly. Whereas improvements in well-being such as fewer wars, lower rates of crime, increasing longevity, literacy, prosperity, creep up a few percentage points of time.  There is never a Thursday in October in which they happen all at once and therefore could be worthy of a news report.

Data in a sense aggregates all of these events and non-events. When you’re counting up the number of crimes, the number of wars, people killed in war, the number of people who live below the line of extreme poverty as well as the happy non-events the view of the world that you get is not only different but as it happens, quite a bit more positive.

There’s a second reason and that is there is a bias among journalists and intellectuals generally toward accentuating the negative as a way of appearing wise and not naive.

It is a moral stance that journalists and intellectuals tend to adopt where they feel like gulls if they point to positive events and appear like prophets. If they remind people of all the ways in which they may be doomed, that is a dynamic that goes back to the Old Testament.

It is an increasing theme within journalism, and many journalists are quite upfront about it.  They believe that any positive development is not serious journalism but is corporate public relations or government propaganda.

Of course, my argument is that I think people have to be aware of the threats and the dangers, the injustices and sufferings. No one would argue that those should be minimised.  But if the improvements, success and developments are not reported I believe that is as bad as complacency, namely fatalism.

We can become fatalistic about the human condition figuring nothing anyone tries to do will be any good, but then we become more receptive to radicalism. Potentially to a charismatic strong man who claims that he alone can solve our problems. 

"If the improvements, success and developments are not reported I believe that is as bad as complacency, namely fatalism."

Steven Pinker on the media's lack of responsbility

You reference cultural rationalism a lot in your book. Thinkers like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown strong links between humans and our tendency towards irrationalism. The sentiment that the feeling of negativity is a bottomless pit. The history of irrational pessimism goes back centuries, embraced as you say by philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Do you think that there’s a fix for this kind of schadenfreude embraced by the intelligentsia and intellectual elite?

I think there is.  A cynical interpretation is that the elites in society belong to different factions. There are the politicians, business people, technologists, the journalists, the critics, the intellectuals, the religious elites and they all jockey for prestige and influence and the moral high ground in order to attack society as a way of attacking one’s professional rivals.

It’s a way for intellectuals to say that business people, technologists and politicians have laid waste to our society. Of course, it’s a trick that can also be used by politicians to look down on their own rivals especially incumbents. It’s a way for people in business to disparage politicians.

Perhaps one of the reasons why these ‘progressophobes’ as you call them don’t want to shout for joy is that they don’t want to rest on their laurels. Suffice to say that modernity has caught up with the intellectual elite and liberals and they need something to push back against?

We certainly raise our standards which is great. We’re less willing to tolerate harms that were passed and noticed a generation ago, contemporary examples include bullying among kids and sexual harassment in the workplace. And that’s all to the good as long as we place it in the context of improvements that we can continue to make as opposed to a decline or deterioration.

You use an enormous amount of stats, graphs, various data to demonstrate the world has gotten better. Let’s just say for the book’s sake,  the world is moving in one linear direction minus a few bumps along the way, that progress follows an incremental but positive direction?

That’s definitely wrong. That is probably the biggest misconception of progress, in that it is a force that is inexorably makes everything better, that wouldn’t be progress. That would be a miracle and progress is not a miracle. There are absolutely regressions, things get worse. The two world wars, the 1960s to 1980s crime boom. Epidemics such as the Spanish Flu or and AIDS in Africa. There was a burst of civil wars and decolonisation in the developing world starting in the 1960s so things could absolutely get worse and there’s no guarantee that they’ll get better in the future, it depends on what we do today.

In your last chapter, it feels like a strong emotional rallying call. Aside from taking heavy shots at the philosopher Nietzsche based on his vast contemporary influence, you try and advance the case for humanism and reason as opposed to extremism and a parochial mindset. Do you feel like your books have become almost a crusade in a way?

Not quite the crusade because I am distrustful of leading an argument by passion or by my moral fervour. But I decided partly at the urging of leaders and critics to not let the book be completely bloodless and to muster some moral and emotional energy for the values that I argue in the book namely humanism.
There is a built-in disadvantage to humanism it doesn’t necessarily get the blood pumping as much as religious ecstasy or nationalist fervour or militaristic passion and dreams of glory.

I think there is a need to remind people that combating poverty and illiteracy and violence is noble, is glorious, maybe even spiritual. So I did do my best, especially in the last few pages to inspire people as to what a glorious feat we have accomplished in reducing misery disease and illiteracy and violence.

"If you scoured the news for all of the greatest dangers in any given year in history it would sound rather dire."

Steven Pinker on the context of negativity

When you turn on the Internet, or you watch TV it does feel like there is an overwhelming sense of pessimism at the moment. A sense of turbulence and confusion and unease. Do you think we’re a species that ties itself to the minutes and moments of our lives, that we cannot see the long arc as you call it?

I think that there is a negativity bias in human cognition namely we dwell more on losses and dangers than gains and safety. Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have called it loss aversion and more generally it’s been called the negativity bias. The syndrome in which bad is stronger than good. As we discussed before this can be amplified by certain journalistic habits and indeed gimmicks such as listing everything that is currently going wrong, if you scoured the news for all of the greatest dangers in any given year in history it would sound rather dire.

There are many events in retrospect that we see have turned out well.  To give you a couple of examples:

In the early 1990s, there was tremendous fear that if Germany was reunified then perhaps we would see the Fourth Reich, there were fears in the 1980s that Japan would take over the world.

There was a fear in the 1970s that the world would very quickly run out of oil. Now, of course, the problem is too much oil not too little. So solutions create new problems and we do have new problems but its good to remember that the problems of yesteryear were pretty severe as well.

Just another example, a war between Iran and Iraq that threatened to shut the flow from oil from the Persian Gulf which would drive the world’s economy to a halt. The nuclear arms race of the 60s through the 80s. Double-digit inflation paired with double-digit unemployment in the 90s late 1970s early 1980s. Various catastrophes that we have now almost forgotten.

Reading between the lines. Would you agree with the idea that with the fortuitous circumstances we live in there is an increased sense of materialism echoed by globalisation? Don’t you think that it’s this particular capacity that has allowed us to become more greedy, isolated and less dependent on each other? I know you address the loneliness issue in your book, but could it be that with the advancing march of technology it will continue to wedge gaps in areas where we used to come together?

There is a worrisome trend toward increasing polarisation. Although the current fad of believing every ill in the world is to be blamed on social media is not insightful. Many of these trends such as polarisation are driven by phenomena that were set in motion long before social media. Such as people living and working in this same cultural mindset and the same professional echelon. That it’s less likely you will rub shoulders with people from a different social class, that phenomena took place well before Twitter and Instagram.

It is true that in some ways there is a risk of greater loneliness, for example, the fact that fewer people are married, that people are more likely to get divorced. On the one hand, that means some people are living alone and therefore will have more loneliness. On the other hand that is a product of the massive increase in personal freedom that society has been giving us.

It is an example of how changes always involve tradeoffs. And one of the tradeoffs that women have been making is the option of pursuing careers, choosing to remain single, choosing their mate as opposed to having their marriages arranged of having more meaningful lifestyles that go being a homemaker and mother.

Overall it’s unlikely that anyone would want to go back to an era in which women were less lonely because they were married all their lives but perhaps married to someone they didn’t care for and forgoing opportunities to develop other sides of their of characters.

Let’s dig a little bit deeper into that. There’s this idea that we are experiencing the death of mysticism, not dogmatic religious beliefs but rather the romance of the unknown or the unquantifiable. Perhaps people are pushing back on a resurgence of this over rationalisation in our lives, the scrutinisation of every aspect in our data based lifestyles?

People continue to pursue various kinds of irrationality or superstition. But you may be right that people recoil against the idea of overanalysing in their lives or over-rationalising.

Indeed any course of rationality has to be deployed in the service of some goal.  And we’ve known at least since the time that David Hume that being rational doesn’t by itself tell you what you should seek to attain with your rationality. So if other agents are deploying rationality at our expense and of course such as our privacy, there is a strong case to be made for pushing back. However, I would not blame rationality per se but on the empowerment of agents that may be pursuing calls that work against our interests.

We are witnessing the resurgence of strongman politics in our world, Orban, Erdogan, Putin. They show that world peace as an attainable goal is far from being achieved. Do you think this has become a broken notion?

I think world peace is eminently attainable particularly when it comes to wars between states. In fact, we’re getting there. The number of interstate wars has been in steep decline, and the world hasn’t had one since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. There are only 193 actors it’s not romantic to think that the world could come to an agreement to outlaw war in the same way that it outlawed slavery, human sacrifice, child labour and other practices which go on but which the world could be unanimous in condemning. Civil wars will be harder to eliminate because these actors can be a bunch of guys who get their hands on some semi-automatic weapons.

I doubt every civil war could be stamped out for all time but they could certainly be reduced as states become more competent.

I doubt every civil war could be stamped out for all time.”  (John Cantlie/Getty Images)

Adding to that, you say that knowledge could be an elixir for our emancipation. That it is certainly a key tool in advancing human destiny?

There’s no guarantee that increasing knowledge will improve humanity. But overall their net effects are enormously positive. An increase in education in a country is a predictor of greater affluence, lower probability of sinking into civil war, lower probability of falling into a dictatorship.

As countries become better educated and our educational systems improve many beneficial effects will follow.

"It's very hard to discern a coherent criticism beneath all of the belligerence and macho posturing."

Steven Pinker on his critics

Lastly, you certainly have your detractors, philosophers such as John Gray and Nassim Nicholas Taleb being the most vocal. The data you give is irrefutable but both say progress in a way is really just a matter of perception, that data can lure the mind into mistaken interpretations. Even though John uses a relativist approach, Nassim, more verifiable but very aggressive. How do you respond to your critics who say your work is all about perception and interpretation?

If you’re using the word more or less or improve or decline you’re already making a quantitative claim. If you do it without data, you’re talking through your hat. You’re just making stuff up. So the idea that we can do without data is just a recipe for your irrationality.

Of course, data can be misleading. They can be biased, and the attention to data has to be accompanied by a scrutiny of the validity of data, but it’s always better to look at the best data available and not to be driven by headlines and anecdotes.
I think that John Gray’s dismissal of data is sophistry. It’s a formula for surrendering to our own cognitive biases and to allow ourselves to be jerked around by entrepreneurs of attention like our politicians and the terrorists.

The Taleb critique is a different story altogether. It’s very hard to discern a coherent criticism beneath all of the belligerence and macho posturing. If one were to try to uncover a substance of the criticism, it would be that it’s possible for gradually improving trends to coexist with a non-zero probability of a catastrophic event.

What he doesn’t acknowledge is that I have an extensive discussion in my book on that very possibility, it doesn’t cite him which I think peeved him because the point was made long before he wrote The Black Swan. But the fact that wars and terrorist attacks fall into a statistical distribution with thick tails namely that there is a non-negligible probability of severe events which could be paired with an overall improvement in the average is a point that I acknowledge.

Particular scenarios for catastrophes are overblown, but it’s undoubtedly true that we have to pay attention to them and there is an extensive discussion in Enlightenment Now on how to reduce the threat of nuclear war and how to reduce the threat of climate change.

You could answer  Nassim Nicholas Taleb by quoting a line from Enlightenment Now,  “If the hands of a clock [atomic bulletin clock] point to two minutes to midnight for 72 years there’s something wrong with the clock indeed.”

Thanks, Steven.


Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress is out now on paperback

Feature images:  Scott Nobles