If you’ve only been reading news lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world is falling apart. News is how adults continue learning about the world we make our home. But news also has a strong bias toward highlighting the problems we are facing, rather than noting the incremental but important progress we continue to make.
Steven Pinker has an antidote in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now. The Harvard professor and prolific author of bestselling books says that “reason, science, and humanism”—ideals of the 18th century period called the Enlightenment—can be used against the forces like populism, nationalism, and militarism that threaten to turn back human progress. The book has become a bestseller and received rave reviews from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.
In a conversation with Quartz, Pinker spoke about why he wrote the book, what he would have changed in hindsight, and how to gain a more realistic picture of the world we live in. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Quartz: Enlightenment Now comes after your previous book The Better Angels of Our Nature. What inspired this follow-up?
Pinker: One motive was the realization that the kinds of progress that I had documented in Better Angels, namely the reductions of violence, were part of a larger picture of improvement in the human condition, such as longer lifespan, reduction in poverty, more leisure time, more education, more literacy. The story was not just that life had gotten more peaceful, but also longer, healthier, safer, and richer.
The other motive was that to remind people that there is a system of beliefs and values that is easy to take for granted. That’s not authoritarian populism, religion, or reactionary nostalgia for a golden age, but it’s the use of knowledge and science to improve human well-being. I call these the values of the enlightenment, just as a term for them.
I am certainly not arguing that we should go back to 18th century thinkers and do exactly what they recommend. I think a lot of people already are committed to these values, but they don’t know what to call them. I was trying to articulate a set of values that had been left in the background.
You write in your book that these “enlightenment” values are under attack. What do you mean?
Note the rise of populism, militarism, and nationalism in many developed countries, including the United States with the election of Donald Trump. There is also a denigration of organizations of international cooperation, like the European Union, the United Nations, and the Paris Climate Accord. We’re seeing a neglect of science. From the political right, it is in the form of denial of the evidence for climate change. From a lot of the academic left, there is a tendency to blame science for pollution, racism, and war. Both of which I think are wrong. There is often a denigration of reason, and of using logic and evidence in favor of gut feelings and intuition. For these reasons, a defense of reason, science, and humanism is timely and important.
What can turn the momentum against populism?
There are several forces that will naturally push back. One of them is urbanization. Populism is much more popular in rural regions and the global trend is for people to move to cities. Second is education. People who are more educated tend to be less sympathetic to authoritarian populism and there is a trend for people to get more education. But the most powerful trend is generational turnover. Populism is more popular among the baby boomer generation and the World War II generation than it is among the millennials and generation Z. As the elder generations die off and are replaced by younger generations, there will probably be a movement away from populism.
Enlightenment Now was published about 18 months ago. Has anything since then made you want to change something in the book?
I would not change anything major at this point. It hasn’t been out that long. None of the trends have gone into reverse. I might have added some of the negative news that has come out about the environment and on species extinction. I did have a major section on climate change, but since I wrote it, the news has gotten probably a bit worse with more severe warnings on climate change. So I would’ve perhaps altered that.
Bill Gates says Enlightenment Now is his “favorite book of all time.” You have also talked about having a speaking relationship with Gates. How much of an impact did Gates have on the book while you were writing it?
Not directly. I had long recognized that Gates’ efforts have been a major force for human improvement. According to one estimate, the efforts of his foundation may have saved 100 million lives. But his approach would be an example of how an evidence-based focused attempt to improving human life can succeed.
Back in 2009, I had, almost as a joke, asked readers who is more moral. Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, or Norman Borlaug. This was before Gates had been famous for his philanthropy. Most people still thought of him as just the founder of Microsoft. The fact that almost everyone would say Mother Theresa is the most moral … it shows how the human moral sense works. Namely we are impressed by super signs of austerity and self sacrifice. Whereas the amount of actual good that Mother Theresa is far less than what Gates has done through his philanthropic efforts. And both of those are less significant than the achievement of Norman Borlaug, who practically no one has heard of. Borlaug was the father of the Green Revolution. He did win a Nobel Peace Prize. He is credited with saving one billion lives but no one has even heard of him.
Why are you optimistic about the future?
The word “optimism” does not appear in the subtitle of the book. The argument that progress has taken place is not an argument for optimism. It’s an argument for basing one’s understanding of the world on trends and data rather than on headlines and stories. The rate of extreme poverty has declined by 75% in the last 30 years or the rate of death in war has fallen by a factor 20 since the early 1950s… it’s not a question of optimism. It’s a question of being aware of facts that most people are unaware of.
It’s not optimism to know that fact, it’s being knowledgeable. The argument that I make in the book is that progress has taken place. It can be measured. Most people are ignorant of it because if you understand the world through news rather than through data, news gathers all of the worst things that are happening anywhere in the world on any given day and presents them to readers. And therefore provides a highly biased picture of the world.
The many positive developments consist of nothing happening, like a country that is not at war or a city that has not been attacked by terrorists. And many positive developments consist of gradual changes, such as a continuous but gradual reduction in extreme poverty. They never make the news, they’re not headlines.
There is an opening for optimism in the sense that since we have solved problems in the past, it reminds us that it’s possible to solve problems in the present. So it can encourage some degree of optimism, but what will happen in the future depends entirely on what we do now. And that depends on strengthening the values of what I call the Enlightenment, namely reason, science, and humanism.
How could journalism change to provide a fuller picture of the world?
All of news should borrow some of the practices used by those covering sports, business, and weather. All of which report quantitative indicators of the world. Not just things going wrong. So in the business section, if the stock market goes up, it’s reported. If the stock market goes down, it’s reported. If the stock market stays the same, it’s reported. Same with sports. The sports section doesn’t just report when the team loses. They report whatever the team does and reports the standings of the whole league every single day.
There should be far more coverage in the news of weekly or annual indicators of data such as the rate of violent crime, rate of death in war, carbon emissions, literacy, school achievement scores. And then I think that it should be a part of the practice of journalism that any report of an incident that has some chance of affecting people’s impression of which way the country is going, be accompanied by a short summary of which way the trend has gone.
So if there is a plane crash, it should be accompanied by statistics on how dangerous plane travel is and whether it’s gotten safer or more dangerous. Likewise if there is a school shooting, it should be in the context of how many people are killed in school shootings versus other types of murder that don’t get as much attention but they kill far more people. And for that matter, whether the trend has been going up or down. Better still, if it’s accompanied by an actual graph. Now of course, not every story can be accompanied by a graph, but if people were presented with graphs, say in the week in review section, they’d have a better understanding of the world than if they simply had isolated stories. Which is the current practice of journalism.
There is an opinion among many journalists that the responsibility in journalism is to report what goes wrong. That what goes right is corporate public relations, it’s government propaganda, it’s feel-good stories. This in particular would be easier to counter because it really is a philosophy, an attitude, a mindset. Just knowing the corrosive effects of negativity in journalism might encourage journalists to realize that reporting positive developments can be a progressive move.