Steven Pinker: Rationality Saves Lives

The Harvard linguist says Enlightenment reasoning is central to both material and moral progress.


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In his bestselling books The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, the Harvard linguist Steven Pinker made the surprisingly controversial case that humanity has been getting richer and less violent over the past two centuries.

In Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, and Why It Matters, he argues that our ability to reason and think critically is central to human flourishing and undergirds our phenomenal material and moral progress since the Enlightenment. Pinker explains how cognitive defects such as the sunk-cost fallacy and myside bias cloud our thinking and contribute to intensely polarized, tribalistic worldviews, resulting in such phenomena as QAnon and what he calls "universities' suffocating left-wing monoculture."

Not afraid to shy away from controversy, Pinker insists that public policy should be largely driven by facts, not emotion, even in heart-wrenching cases such as the police killing of George Floyd. He tells Reason's Nick Gillespie that if the goal is to save the largest number of lives, including black lives, then basing policy on "a viral video is probably not the way to go." A more effective approach, he argues, "is to look at how many people are killed by police and compare it to how many people are killed from gang warfare and street crime. If you hobbled the police, you might actually increase the number of people of all races who were killed, which is in fact exactly what happened."

Reason talked with Pinker about Rationality, social progress, and why, despite the negativity, fear, and anger in the world, he's optimistic about the future.