Knee-jerk cynicism is a failure of critical reasoning, says Steven Pinker in a new book

Pinker now.
Pinker now.
Image: Courtesy Penguin Random House
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Reader, kindly take your finger off that Tweet button. Before you rush off to bemoan the modern world, stop, have some unsweetened tea, and by the light of this lamp—humans made this! with science!—let Steven Pinker tell you about the miracle of human ingenuity and progress.

In a hefty new book, the Harvard psycholinguist extols the promise of human civilization and its potential to save itself from darkness. Enlightenment Now, out Feb. 13 from Viking, puts forth a case for optimism, based on humanity’s post-enlightenment track record. Through the ideals of progress, science, reason, and humanism, Pinker argues, people have improved their collective lot across myriad measures, including health, wealth, inequality, safety, peace, civil rights, even happiness. Panic that society is headed for self-destruction is not only unhelpful and misguided, Pinker says; it’s inaccurate.

The book, a follow-up to Pinker’s 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature, was lauded by the philanthropist, bookworm, and optimist Bill Gates as his “favorite book of all time.” It makes a convincing argument that our world, relative to history, is pretty good. If you’re a person living today, you’re likely better off than you would have been in the past, according to dozens of metrics, big and small, says Pinker. He plies the reader with uplifting charts, showing the increased proportion of people not living in extreme poverty since 1820; the nearly vertical slope of gross world product since the year 1; the rise in the number of calories per person per day across countries since 1700; and the decline in the number of people Googling “nigger jokes” and “fag jokes” since 2004, to demonstrate how far humans have come.

If we see that science and humanism have solved the world’s problems before, Pinker’s argument goes, we’ll see that the problems we face today can be solved again through science and humanism. This hope ought to inoculate us against cynicism.

Despite all this sanguinity, the book also contains plenty of exasperation. Pinker chastises: the mainstream media, liberals bemoaning the state of inequality, white nationalists, communists, anti-vaxxers, social justice warriors, “climate justice warriors,” and Nietzsche. What many of these groups or people share, in Pinker’s view, is a knee-jerk reaction to deplore the state of things. He’s especially irked by those who respond with cynicism as an intellectual crutch, as a way to appear smarter or more dignified.

“Since the time of the Hebrew prophets, who blended their social criticism with forewarnings of disaster, pessimism has been equated with moral seriousness,” Pinker writes. “Journalists believe that by accentuating the negative they are discharging their duty as watchdogs, muckrakers, whistleblowers, and afflicters of the comfortable. And intellectuals know they can attain instant gravitas by pointing to an unsolved problem and theorizing that it is a symptom of a sick society.”

Pinker’s criticism resonates with anyone caught in today’s maelstrom of online hand-wringing over What a World we live in or Now More than Ever-ism. You may well recognize in it the perennial naysayer, eager to interject: “Well things aren’t all good. There’s still [X thing] you haven’t considered.” Indeed, why is it that to argue that things are sometimes pretty good sounds uncritical and Pollyanna-ish at best, and complacent, dangerous, and ignorant at worst? Why is being positive so uncool?

Another way to get at Pinker’s criticism is to ask, what do we gain from all this fist-shaking? From being unreasonable, emotional, hysterical? There’s no doubt that the media chooses alarming headlines to drive clicks and appear serious. And the research that Pinker references on the negative effects of relentless bad news is troubling. But though Pinker concedes that there are upsides to pessimism—“The expanding circle of sympathy makes us concerned about harms that would have passed unnoticed in more callous times”—he doesn’t consider that overreactions could help bring about positive outcomes.

In a section on the environment, for example, Pinker says that today’s young people are less attached to material things than generations before. He praises the fact that we’ve dematerialized the world through digitization and therefore have become less dependent on making and throwing away more stuff.

Pinker attributes this to human ingenuity: “Social media have encouraged younger people to show off their experiences rather than their cars and wardrobes, and hipsterization leads them to distinguish themselves by their tastes in beer, coffee, and music,” he writes. “These remarkable trends required no coercion, legislation, or moralization; they spontaneously unfolded as people made choices about how to live their lives. … Something in the nature of technology, particularly information technology, works to decouple human flourishing from the exploitation of physical stuff.”

The zeitgeist changes based on a great host of factors we can’t account for, but it’s hard to imagine that the shouting and moralizing of environmental advocates, artists, writers, politicians, social media influencers, and celebrities weren’t at least among the factors that helped give rise to a less stuff-obsessed generation. (Also, increasing US student debt and the rising cost of housing make it harder for today’s young people to afford a lot of stuff.)

Pinker says more than once that his thesis is not to make us complacent or to encourage us to rest on our laurels, but to, basically, chill out on the hysteria and the negative clickbait. But that message is often lost. While Pinker’s book creates the overall effect of things being generally good, relative to the past, it also has a side effect of dismissing people whose tweet-complaints don’t end in, “But I know I’m privileged to be living in 2018 and not 1820!” In some ways this book can be boiled down to: Everything is much better than before (see: evidence), so quit your belly-aching.

“But if popular impressions are a guide, today’s Americans are not one and a half times happier (as they would be if happiness tracked income), or a third happier (if it tracked education), or even an eighth happier (if it tracked longevity),” he writes in a typical passage. “People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp, and kvetch as much as ever.”

Annoying as they are, those short-sighted, ahistorical youths marched against war in the 1960s, marched for economic freedom in the 1970s, marched for civil rights in the 2010s, and are today tweeting and shouting their way to social change. Outrage isn’t only a way to say, “Things are worse than they’ve ever been”; it’s also a way to say, “Things could be much better.”

To say, for example, that there are more people of color represented in mainstream Hollywood movies today than ever before, with roles that are more than just tropes or token characters, is very likely true. But for people who want to see the racial and cultural makeup of the United States represented in full range in the movies we watch and honor with awards, the current racial makeup is not good enough. To say that American society is more conscious than ever of the gender pay gap, and that the gap is smaller than it’s ever been before, is true. But for those who want to see that gap closed, to see more women in more leadership roles, and not hindered or limited from the get-go by unconscious biases, that progress is not enough. And the converse of that is also true: A person shouting, shaming, holding companies accountable for unfair practices, is not implicitly saying, “Because this is the worst it’s ever been for working women.”

We should all celebrate that fewer people today are dying from lightning, smallpox, falling into moats, world wars, and homicide; that there are fewer massive oil spills; that the advent of home appliances have freed women from hours of cleaning; that blatant racism on TV is no longer unremarked upon. And then we should get back to work.