Steven Pinker is famous for observing that human material well-being has undergone tremendous, and vastly underrated, improvement over the last few hundred years. "We've got this problem called obesity," the famous Harvard linguist and psychologist wryly notes. "Historically, as problems go, that's a pretty good one to have compared to the alternative of mass starvation."
In 2012's The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker argued persuasively that we're "living in the most peaceful moment in our species' existence," with war, crime, and abject poverty all at historic lows. Microsoft founder Bill Gates called it "the most inspiring book I've ever read."
Many people assume this all means Pinker sees advancements as inevitable, irreversible. Not so, he insists: "We're always in danger of losing them," particularly if we forget the principles and commitments that have made possible the miracle of modern life.
In his telling, the world as we know it grew out of the Enlightenment, a philosophical movement that dominated Europe's culture in the 18th century and directly informed the great American idea that all people have inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But these all-important values are fragile, he explains in a new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (Viking), and the presumption in their favor is fraying under pressure from both left and right.
Pinker has been named among the 100 most influential public intellectuals by both Time magazine and Foreign Policy, though he may be even better known as the first nominee to the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, a project of the satirical Annals of Improbable Research. In March, he visited Reason's Washington, D.C., office to talk with Nick Gillespie about his work.
Reason: What comprises the Enlightenment?
Steven Pinker: My point of view identifies four things: reason, science, humanism, and progress. Reason being the ideal that we analyze our predicament using reason as opposed to dogma, authority, charisma, intuition, mysticism. Science being the ideal that we seek to understand the world by formulating hypotheses and testing them against reality. Humanism, that we hold out the well-being of men, women, children, and other sentient creatures as the highest good, as opposed to the glory of the tribe or the race or the nation, and as opposed to religious doctrine. And progress, that if we apply sympathy and reason to making people better off, we can gradually succeed.
Why did the Enlightenment happen when it did?
Because it only happened once, we don't really know and we can't test hypotheses. But some plausible explanations are that it grew out of the scientific revolution of the 17th century, which showed that our intuitions and the traditional view of reality could be profoundly mistaken, and that by applying reason, we can overturn our understanding of the world.
Maybe the more proximate technological kickstarter was the growth of printing technology. That was the only technology that showed a huge increase in productivity prior to the Industrial Revolution. Everything else had to wait for the 19th century.
Between the year 1000 and about 1800, people in many places saw very little increase in material well-being.
Yeah. Economic growth was sporadic at best. But printing technology did take off in the 18th century. Pamphlets were cheap and available, and broadsheets and books, and they got translated. They were circulated across all of the European countries as well as the colonies, so that the exchange of ideas was lubricated by that technological advance.
Another possible contributor was the historic memory of the wars of religion. That showed that dogmas about faith and scripture and interpretation and messiahs and so on could lead to tremendous carnage, and people thought, "Let's not do that again." These are all the ingredients. Which one was causal, we don't know.
A large section of the book documents the incredible material progress that we've made. What for you are some of the key markers that show the impact of Enlightenment thinking on our world?
Certainly the conquest of hunger—the fact that now we've got this problem called obesity, the obesity epidemic. Historically, as problems go, that's a pretty good one to have compared to the alternative of mass starvation.
There still is hunger, especially in war-torn, remote regions, but by and large famine—one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse—has been tamed. And sheer longevity, the fact that in the world as a whole, life expectancy now is 71. For most of human history, it was 30. Literacy—the fact that 90 percent of people under the age of 25 can read and write, when in Europe a couple of hundred years ago it was 15 percent. Less obviously, war has been in decline over the past 70 years or so, and crime has declined, even in a pretty crime-prone country like the United States.
But violent crime on a day-to-day basis started declining in the late Middle Ages, right?
Yeah, so we can't credit the Enlightenment for that, because it was part of the transition to modernity. But it got a boost in the 19th century with the formation of professional police forces and with the more systematic application of criminal justice, and then another boost in the 1990s and the 21st century with data-driven policing.
I found one insight related to criminal justice really interesting. Talk about the idea of having a prison sentence or a sanction against a criminal fit the crime.
Prior to the Enlightenment, there were gruesome criminal punishments for what we would consider rather trivial misdemeanors. Drawing and quartering, cutting a person open, ripping out his entrails while he was still alive and conscious.
I'm sure he was guilty of something, right?
Poaching. Criticizing the royal garden. Then in the 18th century, Cesare Beccaria, who also coined the term "the greatest good for the greatest number"—later picked up by Jeremy Bentham as a model for utilitarianism—argued for proportionality. Not so much to satisfy some cosmic scale of justice, but just to set up the right incentive structure. He pointed out that if you're going to apply the severest penalty to rather minor crimes, criminals could say, "Well, why stop at that? If I'm going to take a chance, I may as well go all the way—kill the witnesses, kill the witnesses' families, if I'm going to get the same punishment as just burglarizing the house in the first place." It's a real rational, incentive-based argument.
You say, "The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker. Almost no one knows about it." Why don't we acknowledge that more?
Some of it is that we have no exposure to it. Our view of the world comes from journalism. As long as rates of violence and hunger and disease don't go to zero, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news. Since our intuitions about risk and probability are driven by examples—the "availability heuristic"—we get a sense of how dangerous the world is that's driven by whatever events occur, and we're never exposed to the millions of locales where nothing bad happens.
I think there's also a moralistic bias at work. Pessimists are considered morally serious. As Morgan Housel put it, "Pessimists sound like they're trying to help you. Optimists sound like they're trying to sell you something." We attach gravitas to the doomsayer.
You beat up on Dr. Pangloss, the character in Voltaire's Candide who's fond of saying this is "the best of all possible worlds," so everything in it is perfect. If you want to be a data-driven optimist—a rational optimist, in Matt Ridley's phrase—how do you prevent yourself from becoming Panglossian? Because there's no question, compared to 500 years ago we're much better off, so stop complaining, you know?
As Matt points out, Pangloss was a pessimist. An optimist thinks that the world can be much better than what it is today.
Voltaire was really satirizing Leibniz's argument for "theodicy," namely that God had no choice but to allow earthquakes and tsunamis and plagues, because a better world was ontologically impossible.
[To keep from being a Pangloss, you should] stick with the data and notice that some things get worse. Right now, for example, the opioid epidemic is clearly an example. There have been fantastic setbacks: the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918–1919, World War II, the 1960s crime boom, AIDS in Africa. You've also got to be aware of low-probability but high-impact events. Such as nuclear war. Such as the possibility of catastrophic climate change.
Let's look at some of the groups that you see as anti-Enlightenment. The first one I want to talk about is the Romantic Green movement. What do you mean by that phrase, and who are these people?
Well, my particular foil for that would be Pope Francis, and I know that arguing with a man who's infallible must be the ultimate exercise in futility.
That's why you have tenure, right?
That's exactly right. This is the idea that humanity made a terrible mistake when it began the Industrial Revolution, that we've been raping and despoiling the environment, which has been getting steadily worse and worse and worse, and that we will pay the price in a dreadful day of reckoning.
Even if we did have 200 years of progress from 1800 on, everything's about to go to hell?
Right. Or the progress that we've experienced so far is illusory, since we're breathing in carcinogens as we speak and since species are dropping like flies, so actually our situation is getting worse and worse and worse. This movement tends to be opposed to the technology-driven increase in living standards over the last couple of years. It tends to see humanity as a scourge on the planet. In the book, I acknowledge that concern with the environment certainly is a good thing, and we have the Green movement to thank for reminding us that there can be harms from pollution.
However, there is an alternative approach to protecting the environment, sometimes called ecomodernism or ecopragmatism, that acknowledges that pollution has been a price that we have paid for enormous benefits to humanity—more than doubling lifespans, emancipating slaves, emancipating women from domestic drudgery, emancipating children from farm labor and getting them into schools. Some degree of pollution is worth paying just as some amount of dirt in your house is worth it, because the effort to keep it perfectly clean would mean sacrificing everything else good in life.
It's not that the world exists merely for us to blow it up if we want to, but rather that a lot of the Romantic Greens don't seem to put any value on human flourishing.
An example would be the implacable opposition to genetically modified organisms, which promise increased nutrition and in fact promise enormous environmental benefits—crops that need fewer pesticides, fewer fertilizers, less acreage.
Less water, fewer resources.
Right. So paradoxically, that would be a case in which adherence to a romantic ideology—what is natural is good, what is human-made is bad—actually can harm the environment.
Another aspect of ecomodernism is the recognition that affluence in general is good for the environment. When people are so poor that electricity itself offers a big leap in their living standards, they'll live with an awful lot of pollution in return for electric current coming out of their walls. Once you get a little bit richer, and you're starting to choke on smog and you can't see the horizon, then you're willing to pay for the pollution control devices that give you the electricity without all the pollution.
China 50 years ago just wanted enough to eat, and they were willing to industrialize without thinking about pollution. Now you're starting to see that as Chinese people get richer, they want cleaner air.
Absolutely. The world's most polluted areas are poor countries. Poverty is the greatest polluter.
I would think neo-Marxists would say, "Well, that's because the rich parts of the world are exporting their pollution to poor countries."
That's not literally true. Most of our pollution can't be exported because it's involved in the generation of power and home heating and so on. And a lot of the pollution in the developing world comes from burning wood or dung, especially indoors, and from contaminated drinking water.
Let's talk a bit about climate change. First and foremost, you believe that it's happening and that human activity adds to it, right?
"The world's most polluted areas are poor countries. Poverty is the greatest polluter."
You talk about how there's a strong argument for nuclear energy if what you care about is how to get the most energy out of the fewest greenhouse gases. How did you come to appreciate nuclear?
Partly from thinking through that we really do need scalable, abundant, affordable energy, particularly in the developing world. There's a moral imperative to allow India and China and Africa to enjoy the benefits that we've enjoyed from abundant energy. Nuclear energy doesn't involve burning anything, so it doesn't emit carbon, and a lot of our dread of nuclear energy is because it hits all of our cognitive buttons for the fear response: It's novel; we can imagine a catastrophe; it's man-made as opposed to natural. There are a few salient events that lodge in our cultural memory, mainly Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and now Fukushima, despite the fact that the human damage in each case was trivial compared to what we tolerate day in and day out from burning coal.
I hadn't thought about it in these terms, but you mention that only 60 or 100 people died directly in Chernobyl.
Yeah, and then there probably was a slightly elevated cancer rate, barely detectable.
So is this a case where we can imagine the disastrous outcome and that overwhelms the cognitive ability to talk about this stuff rationally?
That's right, because the far greater number of deaths come from fossil fuels—from mining, from transporting, from pollution. It just never happens all at once in a photogenic event. Coal kills, according to one estimate, about a million people a year, but that doesn't make the headlines.
You also note that France and Germany, which are countries that get a lot of electricity generation out of nuclear power, are moving toward getting rid of it, right?
Germany most of all, and their carbon emissions have gone up. Because when nuclear power plants are taken offline, they're replaced by fossil fuels.
Part of the Romantic Green movement is this idea that you can get something for nothing. But if you wanted to use wind energy or solar panels, there's a vast amount of area that would need to be covered with these things in order to generate the type of energy we need.
And also the wind is sometimes becalmed, and the sun doesn't shine at night. Even with the enormous penetration of photovoltaics, which is clearly a good thing, there's a limit to how much of the energy demand [solar] can assume, since a modern economy also has to provide energy at night, and there are long periods of time in which there's pretty thick cloud cover. If we need a fossil fuel backup, then it doesn't really help with reducing carbon emissions, because we still have to have those gas or coal plants.
This is all pursuant to the idea that climate change is happening, and that it makes sense for the planet to reduce carbon emissions. In your reading of the data, what are the odds the bad scenario is going to happen?
I couldn't assign a number to it. It strikes me as high enough that we should reduce the tail risk.
There's a range of pretty gruesome scenarios as to how high sea levels could rise, and possible flips like the Gulf Stream being diverted that would turn Europe into Siberia. Not definitely going to happen, but high enough of a probability that the consumer should worry about it.
Your preferred fix to this is a carbon tax. How would that work?
The idea would be to, as they say, internalize the externality of emitting the carbon that could result in climate change that harms everyone—but without the command-and-control mechanism where someone decides what source of energy we should use, what conservation methods we should adopt. The advantage of carbon pricing is that the decisions are distributed across billions of agents, who can weigh the various trade-offs—the benefit that you get from fossil fuels as opposed to the cost that the carbon tax would impose.
Political economy people worry about how to figure out the cost of a ton of carbon or exactly how much damage it does. How do you price it so that you don't create a false market that causes malinvestment?
That risk can never be zero, because no one's omniscient, but I think having one is better than not having one.
Some people hate modernity because of environmental concerns, but it seems that the anti-Enlightenment attitudes on the right come from a different place.
Some of the concerns are religious—we shouldn't play God by extending human lifespans, or, conversely, we don't even have to worry about climate change because God wouldn't let any bad thing happen.
Part of it comes from something that's called theoconservatism—the idea that the Enlightenment roots of the American social order were a big mistake, that it has led to relativism and homosexuality and pornography.
Women wearing pants?
And worse! Decadence and degeneration, because the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is just too tepid for a morally robust society. So we need something, some sort of rock-solid principles, which immediately are provided by religion—particularly Catholicism. This is a movement that distrusts science for its Promethean usurping of power from the gods, especially when it merges with classical liberalism and other Enlightenment values.
It seems to me that there are two major legacies of the Enlightenment. One is scientific progress, or the idea that we can and should investigate all aspects of the world and get to understand them better. But that leads to scientific determinism, where we know why things happen, and we know they're going to happen in pretty predictable ways, and that limits our autonomy. On the other hand, there is the political legacy of the Enlightenment, which is the idea that each of us should be able to run our lives more than we did in the past, because we're all thinking agents who deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Is there a tension between those two legacies? Because life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness means we have an open society, and an open society means we sometimes come across scientific discoveries that tell us we're not that special. You're never going to be a baseball player. I'm never going to be a Harvard professor. How do we maintain equality in the political sphere as science tells us we're more and more unequal?
We have to embrace the ideal of equality of opportunity and equality of treatment under the law, as opposed to equality of outcome. That's an inescapable consequence of the fact that we're not clones. We're genetically different. But if you adopt a principle that we're not going to prejudge an individual by the characteristics of his or her group, that's a moral and political decision that is justifiable, and it's one that we can stick to.
Talk about the structural postmodern critique of the Enlightenment.
It didn't take long after the Enlightenment for there to be a counter-Enlightenment movement. The 19th century Romantics, the cultural pessimists like [Arthur] Schopenhauer and [Friedrich] Nietzsche, led to the Frankfurt School of [Max] Horkheimer and [Theodor] Adorno, and to the existentialists, and then to the postmodernists, who rejected pretty much every one of the Enlightenment ideals. [They thought] reason was just a pretext to exert power, and the individual was a myth—individuals are embedded in a culture and it's the culture that's real.
One strain of that led to blood-in-the-soil nationalism. We're just cells of a superorganism. There's no such thing as objective truth, just competing narratives, and far from there being progress, there has been deterioration, and any moment now the entire society will collapse.
Are there critiques of the Enlightenment that you find convincing? I'm thinking of Adorno and Horkheimer saying the Enlightenment is totalitarian, because it controls every aspect of the human experience, much like Nazism or Stalinism or Maoism. You say, "No, those were perversions of the Enlightenment."
Yeah, there is the danger of the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. But no, Nazism was not an Enlightenment movement. I don't think you can trace it back to Adam Smith and David Hume and [Baruch] Spinoza and James Madison. It was counter-enlightenment in valorizing the tribe over the individual, and it was opposed to liberal movements of the 19th century that tried to generate wealth, reduce injustices, maximize flourishing of as many people as possible. These were all anathema to the Nazis.
Isn't there a hubris that's part of the Enlightenment legacy that we always need to be on guard against?
Yeah, and the Enlightenment had many contradictory strains, so it's in the very nature of the Enlightenment that it wasn't a doctrine or a catechism of beliefs. It would be impossible to say everything about the Enlightenment is worthy, because they disagreed with each other. There also was a critique of the Enlightenment from Edmund Burke, that we're just not smart enough to design a society from rational principles, so we should respect tradition and [existing] social structures even if we can't explain their rationale, because they keep us from teetering over the brink.
His great example of that was the French Revolution, which leveled all sorts of past institutions.
Here's the way I would put it: Yes, the Enlightenment as a movement was filled with flaws. Because they're just guys. They couldn't have gotten everything right on the first try. They disagreed with each other, and there was a lot of stuff they didn't know. They didn't know evolution. They didn't know thermodynamics. It's really the ideals that I associate with the Enlightenment that we ought to venerate.
You say in the book that politicization makes us dumb. What's your general argument?
People identify with what you might call tribes, and leftism and rightism have become tribes. We'll evaluate any idea in terms of how well it conforms with a particular set of ideas that happen to be associated with that tribe. We'll resist evidence to the contrary. We'll demonize those who disagree with us.
"We can't converge on a most likely hypothesis if there are some hypotheses that are undiscussable. It's only in the crucible of ideas and debate that you can converge on the truth."
There are studies that show that people, when evaluating data from a hypothetical experiment—if it's politically neutral, like the efficacy of a skin cream—do a decent job of interpreting the numbers. But as soon as it's a political hot button, like concealed weapons laws, then they'll systematically misread the data in the direction that favors the position associated with their coalition.
What are the ways around that?
Ideally, it would be reminding people that this phenomenon exists—that political tribalism makes us make math errors, that it is a human failing, and that we should evaluate policies in terms of evidence about their effects and how well they conform with what we want.
That is the idealization, but of course if we were rational enough to accept that, we probably wouldn't have fallen into tribalism in the first place. [Another solution], with perhaps more of an appeal to our emotional selves, would be to find spokespeople who are branded with the opposite coalition to speak in favor of a particular position. In the case of climate change, it would be far more effective if there were people on the libertarian right who were chosen as spokesmen, as opposed to Al Gore, who was the Democratic candidate for president, to frame issues in a way that doesn't immediately trigger your tribal affiliations.
We do know that issues can flip. Environmentalism used to be thought of as a right-wing position, because these were gentlemen in their country estates who valued the view and duck hunters who wanted the habitat preserved for their prey. Whereas serious progressives cared about real issues—
They wanted to put dams everywhere so that they could provide energy for poor people.
You chastise the libertarian right for embracing a rigid dogma over serious introspection on things. Libertarians will go right from a regulation getting introduced to "We're at the final terminus of the road to serfdom."
The next thing you know we're Venezuela, yeah.
Then there's the way politics damages academia. What are the worst outgrowths of this politicization as it affects you on a daily basis?
There are some hypotheses that are hard to advance without being branded as a this-ist or a that-ist. The fact that men and women aren't indistinguishable, the fact that intelligence is in good part heritable, the fact that parenting doesn't have a lasting effect on the personalities of children, the fact that rates of crime differ across ethnic groups, the fact that policing has a large effect on the crime rate. I could go on.
The problem is that because of the politics around these issues, you're not even supposed to investigate them.
I think there are two problems. One is simply that we can't converge on a most likely hypothesis if there are some hypotheses that are undiscussable. It's only in the crucible of ideas and debate that you can converge on the truth.
The other is that, by making certain hypotheses undiscussable, you open a niche for people who stumble across them outside of the sandbox of academia. And they can often attach themselves to the most extreme versions, since they feel empowered that they've discovered a truth that's undiscussable in academia.
You get communities in the alt-right that often embrace quite illiberal, extreme views, because they feel so exhilarated that they've come across them. A silly example would be Milo Yiannopoulos saying that because women place a greater emphasis on family vs. career in their lifestyle trade-offs, we should keep women out of medical school, because they're just going to drop out and have babies.
It is actually a fact that there is a difference in the distribution of life priorities between men and women. Of course, that doesn't mean that all men place 100 percent weight on their career and 0 percent on family, or vice versa. And there are moral and political arguments why, even if it were the case that more women drop out, we would not want to keep them out of medical school. But that debate doesn't even take place if you can't acknowledge the fact that men and women have different distributions.
But in the university, it's not the Milo Yiannopouloses of the world that are keeping that conversation from happening.
That's right, yes, but then these views can fester in these online communities. Likewise, another example that I've given is that you can't really understand crime in this country without noting that there are pretty severe differences in rates of incidence across different ethnic groups and races. But if that's undiscussable and then you stumble across it because you go to FBI.gov, you might think, "Oh, it shows that African Americans are inherently more violent." Which of course is nonsense, because rates of crime [aren't static]. At other points in American history, it was the Irish-Americans who had the high rates of violent crime. So actually, by suppressing a basic statistical fact, it can encourage racism in these alternative communities, because they never get pushback in an arena in which all hypotheses are out there and their limitations can be rationally discussed.
In grad school in the late '80s and early '90s, I had a lot of professors who had gone to Berkeley in the '60s. I was libertarian and they didn't particularly agree with me about a lot of things, but they were interested in discussing them. That seems to have faded. Why is the university no longer the place where you argue all ideas and get rid of the ones that can't go more than a few rounds without being revealed as lightweight?
I don't know the exact history, but there was a fair amount of intolerance in the '70s. It was not exactly a golden age for speech. A lot of speakers were, as we now say, deplatformed. But it does seem to have gotten worse in the last 5–10 years, and I don't know if it's that the baby boom generation itself had some intolerance toward non-leftist views, then became the establishment and established norms that the millennial generation has internalized.
Is it coming more from the faculty or the students?
I think a lot of it actually comes from the student life bureaucracy, the various deans and associate deans and Title IX administrators and affirmative action administrators. They have formed this new guild that operates outside the ordinary university chain of command, with a president and a provost who rose from the faculty and presumably have some commitment to intellectual values. This is an autonomous culture that moves laterally from university to university. They have their own norms, and the control of a lot of student life has been outsourced to them.
You make a case for studying the humanities as well as hard sciences. Yet you're also extremely critical of what's happening in the humanities.
Well, if the humanities are defined as the study of, say, products of the human mind—of symbolic creations including art, ideas, political philosophies, and so on—there shouldn't be a debate between the sciences and the humanities. We've obviously got to nurture scholarship of artists and writers and thinkers, past and present, and that has to be reinterpreted every generation with new understanding both of sources and of the greater intellectual context.
It's just this particular set of assumptions that happens to have taken over big sectors of the humanities that I think is a source of the problem. Obscurantism in expression—the fact that by far the most turgid, jargon-ridden prose comes out of the postmodernist humanities—the deep hatred of the institutions of modernity, the equation of liberal democracy with fascism, the feeling that society is in an ever-worsening spiral of decline, and the lack of appreciation, I think, that the institutions of liberal democracy have made the humanities possible, made them flourish. It's that cluster of ideas, which is not the same as the humanities, but just happens to have descended over large sectors of the academic humanities.
You're making a defense of the Enlightenment. Are you optimistic that your intervention here will help?
The honest answer is I don't know. I think it would be grandiose to say that my book will change the situation. I'm doing what I can. The optimism that I'm associated with in this book isn't just thinking that everything is bound to get better—that there's some law of nature that will carry everything ever upward. It's really more an empirical defense of progress. We have made accomplishments. They're precious, we're always in danger of losing them, and what will happen going forward depends very much on the choices that we make now.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a video version, visit reason.com.