People are safer now than they were several hundred years ago: Prof. Steven Pinker

If we base our view of the world on quantitative trends over history rather than on news, we will get a different picture of the state of humanity, says the cognitive psychologist

Updated - May 02, 2018 09:33 am IST

Published - May 02, 2018 12:15 am IST

Professor Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist at Harvard University.

Professor Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist at Harvard University.


Professor Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University. His popular science books have dwelt on how we learn language and how our mind makes sense of the world. In his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress , he argues that the ideals of the European Enlightenment have played a key role in making the 20th century the most prosperous one in human history. In this interview conducted over the telephone, he says that pessimism from threats including terrorism and right-wing populism is largely unwarranted. Excerpts:

You’ve been a professional observer and analyst of language, psychology and cognitive science, and your early popular science works have focussed on these. However, since The Better Angels of Our Nature, you seem increasingly preoccupied with how the human race is progressing. Could you explain this transition?

I’ve always been interested in the big questions about the human condition. One of the reasons I went into cognitive science was that it seemed to deal with the issues of human nature — like the sort of questions dwelt upon by rationalists, empiricists, ancient Greek philosophers. On the other hand, cognitive science was more intellectually tractable as it relies on data and experimentation to illuminate debates on how the human mind works. But what triggered a shift in the focus of my own writing was an issue that I dealt with when I wrote The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, where I asked the question: Why is there a political and moral pressure for people to believe that there is no such thing as human nature? Why do so many prominent intellectuals deny it? I thought it was from an unspoken assumption that if you believe in human nature, you must lose all hope for progress and that there is no hope for improving society. The fear is that if people have antisocial traits — dominance, aggression, jealousy — then there is no hope for improvement. I argued there that this was an error. Human nature has many parts and along with all of these, it also has positive components such as the ability to come up with new ideas, solve problems, share ideas through language, have a sense of sympathy and the ability to be concerned about the welfare of others. What actually happens in a society depends on which part of human nature predominates. Social improvement is possible — and it has happened: slavery has been abolished, the Soviet Union went out of existence with very little violence, and I also noted that the rate of homicide in Europe had declined by a factor of about 35 since the Middle Ages. People are safer now than they were several hundred years ago and there are examples of how society can change even though human nature hasn’t. Instead of basing one’s view of the world on the news and headlines, if you base it on quantitative trends over history, you get a very different picture of the state of humanity.

A key message that emerges from your book is that we need to remain optimistic about the future of our species. Was the emergence of Donald Trump a major motivation for you to list and flesh out reasons for hope?

It wasn’t the original motive. When I began the book, Donald Trump was still a television star — and kind of a national joke who couldn’t dream he would be President. But I did realise, during the writing of the book, that a more evidence-based or fact-based picture of the world is essential in arguing back against the dark, dystopian view that Trump advanced. His advertising, his inaugural speech painted the picture of a country as degenerating, increasingly violent, increasingly poor — all of which are contradicted by facts. These are: crime had been declining in the U.S, war has been declining, terrorism is actually a minor phenomenon compared to other sources of death. So, yes, I thought that a more fact-based assessment of my country and the world was necessary to fight back against the panicky view that Trump and other populists had advanced.

You’ve mentioned the rise of right-wing populism in many countries. However, your book also speaks about an increasingly “leftward-bias” in American universities. Isn’t this a paradox?

I don’t think it’s a paradox; they are related, in fact, for a couple of reasons. For one, they both fail to appreciate the benefits of a secular, liberal democracy and the progress that we have enjoyed thanks to science, democracy, trade and an international community. These facts aren’t emphasised in the press, in the university, in intellectual magazines. It’s much easier to be a social critic and to cry out about all the problems than point out what has gone right.

Notably, several Enlightenment intellectuals themselves didn’t strive for universal human rights for women, residents of the colonies they controlled, minorities. Do you think in some way the Enlightenment gets more credit than it deserves?

I don’t see a connection between colonisation and the Enlightenment because European colonisation began much before, pretty much with the discovery of the Americas. With improvements in sailing technology and navigation techniques, empires — like several before them — expanded, conquered; they colonised and subjugated. It was only after the Enlightenment that we began to have criticisms of imperialism and, most notably, in the U.S. The guiding principle was independence from the British empire. It’s true that many of the people of the Enlightenment era themselves were blinkered when it came to questions of slave ownership, the rights of women.

One of your chapters is on the problem of inequality and you seem to take the position that concerns about inequality rising and threatening the world are overblown because, on average, people the world over are getting richer. So shouldn’t governments demand more transparency of the functioning of tax havens or impose greater tax on accumulated wealth?

Tax havens and tax evasion are forms of unfairness. Inequality has to be distinguished from different problems that are often lumped together. One of them is the well-being of the poor. That’s not the same as inequality because that deals with the gap between the rich and the poor. And human welfare is a matter of the well-being of the poor and only if one has a zero-sum view of wealth — as a finite lump — would one confuse poverty and inequality. An equal society where everyone is poor is not something to strive for. The other problem is that people often confuse inequality with unfairness. If the wealthy are gaming the system in their favour, then that absolutely must be opposed. The use of tax havens and the unbalanced influence of the wealthy in the political process, particularly in the U.S. — those are very serious problems. However, a higher tax rate on the wealthy will itself not reduce their influence on politicians.

Another concern that you see as hyped is the fear that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will progress to superhuman levels. Technologists such as Ray Kurzweil, the philosopher Nick Bostrom and even Elon Musk have warned that such a future is imminent. Using reason, how can non-experts decide which expert to take seriously or not, in matters such as AI taking away our jobs or AI becoming humanity’s overlord?

Well, the way out is to evaluate their arguments. Each has to make a case and we go with the most persuasive. We have to make a distinction though: there’s a difference between AI making certain occupations obsolete and AI turning us into slaves and spelling the end of the human race. It’s quite possible that AI will make truck drivers go the way of telephone switchboard operators. That may cause a displacement and that’s certainly not more dangerous than nuclear weapons or the end of the human species. Both the experts and people judging the experts have to evaluate the claims and make distinctions. There’s been an absence of commentators, journalists and analysts looking at past predictions and noting how off the mark prophets have been. I have a discussion in the book on the science of prediction.

China is an emerging scientific superpower but doesn’t care much for the core Enlightenment idea of liberal democracy. Japan, another science major, grossly underpays women researchers compared to men. Doesn’t this imply that liberalism and gender parity aren’t always a precondition for a country’s advancement?

It need not be, though Japan, which has had huge setbacks in the last couple of decades, will come to realise that by failing to take advantage of 50% of its intellectual talent, it’s putting itself at a disadvantage. China is not a liberal democracy but compared to what it was during the Maoist era, it is far more concerned about the welfare of its citizens than with ideology. Look at the direction that it is moving in: It is an advocate of trade, economic growth, and the well-being of the mass of its citizens — all Enlightenment values — rather than advancing the ideology of the revolution. China’s official statements may be about advancing communism, but in practice, it has been the exact opposite. It’s an interesting, open question as to how far the country can advance without democracy or have problems that never get addressed because the people do get fired or oppressed or jailed. So it’s possible that it will come up against its own limitations. It’s a fact that many more Chinese students come to the U.S. or Europe to study than the other way round.

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