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Steven Pinker talks about Enlightenment values, conspiracy theories, and why we should all be more optimistic ...
2018-09-15 00:00:00

The Gospel According to Pinker
An Interview with Steven Pinker

Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard University
The Gospel According to Pinker
The Gospel According to Pinker

Steven Pinker reveals a terrible mystery to Tomasz Stawiszyński: we are living in the best of all possible worlds. As for our challenges, we are dealing very well with them. There is progress everywhere: less poverty, less starvation, less misery. The optimists are right and the pessimists should despair, because their apocalyptic visions aren’t coming true.

Read in 19 minutes

“We are facing a nuclear Armageddon,” said Noam Chomsky. “The Middle Ages are coming back,” declared Anthony Giddens. “A fight for liberal democracy awaits us – and so far we’re losing,” warned Carlo Strenger. “Man is and always will be an irrational being,” stated Tanya Luhrmann.

In other words, all my previous interviews for “Przekrój” were not so optimistic.

Meanwhile, Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now – which adorns the windows of every bookshop within a few miles of his alma mater, Harvard – is simply overflowing with optimism.

People’s lives are better now than ever before. Science is making progress. Reason reaches the deepest nooks and crannies of reality. What once seemed possible only for advanced magicians is now possible thanks to technology. True, there is still some dark irrational residue here and there, epitomized, for example, by populist political parties. But we have a dependable antidote for that: reason, science and humanism. These Enlightenment values will surely make our lives more peaceful, healthy, safe and happy.

All we have to do is understand that there’s nothing better than a world based on those stable foundations (and follow Pinker into the bright future).

But right now it is only I who follows Pinker to his office at Harvard’s Department of Psychology. I imagine – based on the interviews I’ve watched on YouTube – that in a moment I’ll be meeting someone who is exactly like his books: perfectly organized, communicative, neat and self-assured.

My hypothesis turns out to be based on solid premises – Pinker fulfils each condition 100%. He’s on time, no mess in his study at all; he answers every question without hesitation, with soothing certainty in his voice.

I wonder whether it’s all really based on rational analysis (as Pinker claims) or if he’s just an irrational optimist? For a long time, I’ve had my own answer to that.

Tomasz Stawiszyński: How does it feel to be the world’s greatest optimist?

Steven Pinker: I don’t consider myself optimistic, I consider myself realistic. Most of the data on progress that I cite in my books are just objective facts, but people don’t know about them. It’s not that they haven’t taken the right attitude, as in the old expression about seeing the glass half full versus half empty. I try to explain to my readers – even though it’s usually something they weren’t aware of – that the rate of death in warfare has come down, that the rate of extreme poverty has come down, that democracy is vastly more common than it was even 40 years ago, that the rate of death from accidents and from homicides are down. It’s not a question of being optimistic – these are facts.

Still, many observers emphasize that this is a very dangerous time for liberal democracy, that we are under threat from a rising wave of populism that may sweep away many of the achievements you have just mentioned. And you seem to be saying that there’s nothing to worry about, because if we look closer, everything’s alright with the world today. More, it is the best of all possible worlds.

I do believe that populism is a threat to the progress that we’ve enjoyed. In my new book, I identify the rise of authoritarian populism as one of the major threats to progress. And it’s precisely because we have made progress that we should push back against populist movements. They often gain their strength from the false perception that the world has gotten worse. So we should be pointing out the ways in which the world has gotten better. In my view, underneath all those positive changes, we find three values: reason, humanism and science. We will be able to defend them all the more strongly if we are aware of what we are in danger of losing.

You stress that it’s all about facts, not interpretation, but your critics – mainly the English philosopher John Gray and the American economist Nassim Taleb – claim that you manipulate facts to validate your claims.

It’s just wrong. There’s no data pointing in the other direction. You won’t find any data showing that, for example, global poverty has increased over the span of decades, that rates of war have increased over the last 70 years, or that the rates of violent crime have increased. John Gray suggests that we shouldn’t look at data at all, because there’s no difference between data and magic. That’s sheer nonsense and sophistry. If you don’t look at data, then you’re not entitled to use words like ‘better’, ‘worse’, ‘improve’ or ‘deteriorate’. As one social scientist put it, without data you’re just another man with an opinion.

But data are subject to various interpretations, and I guess that’s what the argument is about.

Of course. You can assume them to merely reflect random fluctuations, or you can assume that they are systematic.

So let us look at the example of wars, which you often quote. Certainly, there are now fewer wars, but is it because we are better people? Or maybe because a powerful weapon has been invented and due to our self-preservation instincts we are afraid to use it? You must admit that this motivation would be completely different to any noble passions resulting from humanity’s moral progress…

I wrote extensively on nuclear weapons in one of my previous books, The Better Angels of Our Nature. The worst case scenario would be a nuclear winter, although atmospheric scientists disagree over whether that’s likely to happen. Still, the risk that we would destroy humanity and all life on Earth must surely be taken into account. But that’s a different hypothesis from the one which states that the long peace the world has enjoyed since 1945 is a result of nuclear deterrence. Incidentally, Nassim Taleb denies that there has been a long peace – but you cannot say that, on the one hand, we’ve not been at peace, and on the other hand that we’ve been at peace and the reason for this peace is because of nuclear deterrence.

But you have dismissed the deterrence theory.

There is another possible explanation of the long peace after World War II that specifically refers to the disappearance of wars between great powers – that is the most powerful nations – and the general decline in wars between nations altogether. There have been civil wars, but the number of wars between one country and another have been in dramatic decline. There’s also been a decline in wars between non-nuclear nations.

Moreover, very often the nuclear deterrent has in fact not prevented war. Countries without nuclear weapons have challenged ones with nuclear weapons, such as Argentina taking the Falkland Islands from Britain. Britain was a nuclear power, Argentina was not. And likewise, Saddam Hussein defied the United States; Anwar Sadat defied Israel. Nuclear weapons are so indiscriminately destructive that they’re almost like a bluff. It would be too outrageous to use them. Finally, in the case of the United States and the Soviet Union, the conventional armies were so massively destructive, as we saw during World War II in Europe, that the conventional was completely adequate to prevent superpowers from declaring an all-out war.

In your book, you firmly stand on the side of the aforementioned trinity: reason, humanism and science. In other words, on the side of Enlightenment values. But it is precisely World War II and everything that happened then, especially the Holocaust, that is considered by some thinkers to be a specific consequence of the Enlightenment. For example, a critique presenting the Holocaust as a fundamentally modern process – rational and technologically-advanced – was proposed by the influential German philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, representatives of the so-called Frankfurt School. Their view of the Enlightenment differs radically from yours.

It’s total nonsense. It’s completely contrary to all the facts.

But they are just one fragment of the incisive critique of Western culture which claims that 19th-century colonization was a modernizing project too, and that it laid the foundations for many 20th century events. The Frankfurt School philosophers argued that Enlightenment values were dangerously instrumentalized, while reason simply became another tool of power.

Also nonsense. First of all, Nazis are to blame for Nazism. They hated the Enlightenment, they hated the idea of liberalism, of progress, of cosmopolitanism, free speech. They were rooted in the 19th-century counter-enlightenment: the valorization of blood and soil, of nationalism, of tribe and race. It’s intellectually the opposite of the Enlightenment values. Also, the proponents of Nazism were very clear: they detested the Enlightenment and the hopes of liberal progress. The attempt by the Frankfurt School to get the Nazis of the hook – “it wasn’t the Nazis’ fault, it was modernity’s fault” – is, I think, absurd.

I consider it an attempt to understand complex cultural processes, it’s not about lifting the blame.

Still, it is absurd. As is the idea that colonization was an Enlightenment project. For one thing, colonization began much earlier. Every empire by definition is imperialistic. European colonization of Africa and Asia begun well before the 18th century, and often had a religious motivation, mainly to spread the news about salvation through Jesus. In fact, the most prominent Enlightenment movement, the American Revolution, was designed to combat colonization, namely the colonization of the Americas.

Yet at the same time those enthusiasts of the Enlightenment colonized Native American territories. I think the problem is that you are talking about some pure ideal, not about social practices, which have often been very different.

Well, that’s true. My book doesn’t praise Enlightenment thinkers. It’s a book about reason, science, humanism, progress. I needed a label for that set of ideas, and so I called them the ideas of the Enlightenment, and they certainly were prominent themes of that era. But it contradicts the entire emphasis of reason to say that we should uncritically praise Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Montesquieu or Adam Smith. Some of them were great guys, but mainly they did have some good ideas, and it’s the ideas that are worth defending.

Some of them were racists and supporters of slavery.

Of course. They were people of their age. Voltaire was an antisemite, Jefferson was a slaveholder, he had sex with his slaves and exploited them very severely. Kant praised war. They had all kinds of crazy ideas. So it’s missing the point to say that we should look at their biographies to find out what they as humans believed, how they acted. That would be contrary to the whole idea that it is knowledge, ideas and arguments that should guide our decisions. All ideas have to come from somewhere, and the ideas of the Enlightenment came from flawed human beings of their time.

So this whole eponymous Enlightenment is simply your construction.

That’s right, and I make it very clear in the chapter on the Enlightenment. I coined the term ‘Enlighten-olatry’, that is idolatry of Enlightenment figures. This is not a book about that.

Let’s return to the present. Why is the current political situation in Western democracies so far removed from the vision you advocate in your book?

You mean the political situation of the last five years or so? My book is about a much larger sweep of human history. So far, all of my books have been in print for decades, and I hope this one will outlast the Donald Trump administration.

But to answer your question, I think there are two important circumstances. Firstly, Enlightenment ideals are not psychologically natural. We naturally fall back into tribalism, into demonization, into authoritarianism. There’s always a tension between the good ideas that we come up with and our natural ways of thinking. Secondly, even among intellectual and political factions there has always been a tension between Enlightenment and counter-enlightenment ideologies. Current populism is the latest iteration of the counter-enlightenment.

You stress that advocating Enlightenment values doesn’t necessary require the conviction that man is a rational being. Still, the data you so value show that irrationalism is in full bloom. Over 60% of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, and Europeans will soon catch up. Anti-vaccination movements are gaining popularity, which results in epidemics of diseases we used to think of as eradicated. How do you interpret all of this?

It was also present in the past, of course. There were The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, there was a long history of pogroms triggered by conspiracy theories. I think it’s a way of thinking that we naturally fall back into. We’ve evolved in tribes that were often in conflict with other tribes. It was natural to blame misfortune on others, not even necessarily people in other tribes, but also people in different families. We mobilize coalitions on our side to outnumber our enemies or to extort the benefits from them. I think it’s part of human nature, we fall back on that. It’s very hard to predict what allows our institutions of modernity to successfully push back. As information and knowledge have become more democratized, anyone can form new coalitions on the internet. There’s less alignment between the institutions that are more likely to seek objectivity and truth. We now have more flaky opinions out there.

Some have called this ‘post-truth’. They refer to a system in which the difference between fact and fiction, between truth and non-truth, is for all intents and purposes impossible to define.

The claim that we are living in the era of post-truth cannot be true, because if it were true, it would be false. [laughs]

You think there’s an inherent contradiction?

The fact that some people spread lies doesn’t mean that no one tells the truth.

But access to truth is now very restricted. The internet and virtual reality are just one side of the coin. The other is the complexity and specialization of science. All we know now is that we cannot come even close to knowing everything. So we must take most scientific discoveries at face value.

I don’t think that’s the problem. If anything, even the most abstract science has been made more accessible than ever by science popularizers. In every field there is a whole flourishing genre of popular science books. I like to think that I’ve contributed to that when it comes to psychology and cognitive sciences. There are sites like Khan Academy, where you can educate yourself in almost any field without paying tuition. There’s Wikipedia. There are fact-checking sites that did not exist 25 years ago. When a politician gives a speech, they go through it and they say which statements are true and which are false. So the tools are there to do it, it’s not that it’s beyond our intellect.

And you don’t think that those tools are only available for the elites? Or at least that the opportunities to access them are unequally distributed? For example, because of algorithms selecting the information that reaches our screens?

Oh yes, they are egalitarian. You don’t have to have money, you don’t have to go to a particular school. But there are also cultural tribes now. Some people have a moral worldview that says that there are evil forces in charge, and that they are deliberately causing harm, chaos and inequality. It’s that moral tribe that is the source of irrationality, not the fact that science is too hard for people to understand.

The belief that the Illuminati rule the world is much more attractive than any rigorous intellectual analysis. Maybe that’s the problem?

There’s some truth in that. It is in some ways a comforting vision, it gives a coherent narrative to a chaotic world, and also, crucially, it makes your tribe, your coalition, your clan or your faction seem noble, ethical and on the right side of history, while your enemies seem evil or deluded or stupid. And that’s a common denominator behind many conspiracy theories. They’re not the result of scientific ignorance per se – although scientific ignorance allows them to flourish – but their ultimate motive is to demonize their enemies and to ennoble their own coalition.

In sociology, however, conspiracy theories are viewed as distinct stories though which various social groups express their experiences. Especially disadvantaged or marginalized groups.

I think that’s right, I don’t think it’s purely a question of scientific illiteracy. When you get an education, you get more confidence in the methods of science, journalism and fact-checking, and you learn how difficult it is to acquire knowledge. But the main factor here is not ignorance, it is moralization and tribalism.

However, the fact is that the gap is growing between people with a high level of cultural competencies and those who lack them from an early stage.

There certainly is much attraction to the populist alternative, but I think it’s wrong to think that it’s the majority view of the future. In the United States, Hillary Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump, Barack Obama was far more popular going out than Donald Trump was coming in. In Canada, you have Trudeau; in France, you have Macron. And the populists, you have to remember, also have a bit of an artificial advantage because of electoral rules in many countries – especially the United States with the electoral college. And the millennial generation, which is by and large not as supportive for populism as baby boomers and the silent generation, will eventually replace them. So there are some long term trends which suggest that populism is not the way of the future, even though it’s enjoying strength right now.

In your book, you also criticize the so-called ‘liberal camp’, and you state that both conservatives and leftists ‘bend’ reality and select facts in their own ways, though they are all convinced that they speak nothing but the objective truth. Is the position you’re attempting to take – one based solely on the power of reasoning, not engaged on any side of political divide – even possible?

Yes. I don’t know how popular it can ultimately be, but it is a coherent and, I think, the more defensible position. Even though the Left is becoming more left, and the Right is becoming more right, the majority of people still describe themselves as moderate. The majority of people voted for Obama, for example. Of course, people on the Right consider him to be a flaming Marxist, and people on the Left consider him to be a traitorous neoliberal. But I think that rationalism is a coherent position and one that ought to be encouraged. Charismatic leaders need to combine appeal to our more primitive parts with rational arguments, and the skilled politicians are the ones that can combine them.

You’re now describing your project in a very, let’s say, modest way. But when I was reading your book, I had the impression that in essence you propose something akin to Plato’s concept of the state – ruled by experts, not by politicians.

Practically speaking, we can’t entrust governments to the elite, because government means a monopoly on violence. People are human beings, with all of their flaws. We know that pathologies can develop in closed circles, and so handing over totalitarian control to some elite would be a recipe for disaster. I think we’re always stuck with the messy compromises of politics, but we need to make our politics as rational, as evidence-based, as non-ideological as we can.

But doesn’t this notion of politics – free of ideology and evidence-based – lead precisely to the rule of experts; the rule of elites? I’m reminded of the classic slogan of Michel Foucault that knowledge is power. With such assumptions you can dismiss any political argument by invoking scientific research. And then it’s not the politicians, but the scientific method that governs. Or, to be precise, those who use it.

In political action, we should adopt the best possible ideas. There will inevitably be some control of experts, for the same reason that when I have a toothache I go to the dentist, I don’t ask my neighbour to come out with a drill. But it’s not handing power to a clique or a faction. It’s applying the best knowledge and acknowledging that knowledge is going to be unevenly distributed. The elite, the experts will only guide policy to the extent that they can defend their recommendations in a way that any citizen could understand and agree with. It’s not: “Trust us, we’re experts, do as we say”. It’s rather: “We’ve done a lot of research into this, here are the reasons why we’re proposing this policy”.

Isn’t that idealistic?

It already works that way. When the government builds a highway, they don’t ask me where I think the exits should be. They say: “Well, we’ve done some planning, we think the exit here will reduce traffic”. And I say: “Yeah, I do trust you, because the highways work better than the ones that I would design, or the parks, or the police force”. So we already have that. It’s just that it’s almost a taboo to bring up the obvious fact, namely that a typical citizen – and I include myself in that regard – does not have the expertise to implement policies. I delegate decision-making to people whom I trust. And I trust them not because they have authority, but because if challenged they will explain and justify why they implement the policies they do. Now, I don’t have time to make sure that the highway planners are planning the best highways, but in a society of many forms of expertise there are journalists who challenge government policies; there are university professors, think-tanks, even individual citizens who do acquire knowledge in relevant domains. So, we need to base our policies on the best information about what works and what doesn’t.

It’s just that – and no rational reasoning will help here – we must at some point realize that it is good to live in a world ruled by freedom and equality, not a world in which those qualities are absent.

We are products of evolution. If we weren’t social animals, we would never have acquired or evolved the power of reason. There’s no such thing as a solitary human. Our pleasures are part of the explanation for why we exist – namely, our ancestors, by pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, have allowed us to come into being. All of this put force behind the idea that health, knowledge, happiness and a flourishing life are all good.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Introduction translated by Jan Dzierzgowski

Arranging an interview equals dozens of phone calls, hours of preparation and lots of stress. Ultimately, though, more often than not the conversations we have with our interviewees are immensely enjoyable. We hope you’ve also enjoyed reading this interview. Thank you for visiting our website! Please support PRZEKRÓJ Foundation.

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