You know, of course, what the most grating and infuriating human behavior is. It is not when another person is simply being unreasonable. It is when that person is constantly insisting that they are Just Being Reasonable, and wondering why you’re acting so crazy and irrational, while they themselves are in fact being extremely goddamn unreasonable. It is not when they are just wrong, but when they top it off by patronizingly explaining your own views to you, purporting to refute them, while not having the faintest understanding of what those views actually are.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is that guy. He thinks many people are very unreasonable, and makes sweeping claims about their irrationality and moral imbecility, but often doesn’t bother to listen to what they actually say. While insisting for page upon page on the necessity of rationality, he irrationally caricatures and mocks ideas he hasn’t tried to understand. Then, when the people who believe those ideas become upset, he sees this as further proof of their emotion-driven thinking, and becomes even more convinced that he is right. It is a pattern displayed by many of those who are critics of “social justice” and the political left. (For an entire book about this, see The Current Affairs Rules For Life: On Social Justice and Its Critics.) Pinker, however, takes it to an extreme: Nobody has ever tried to look more Reasonable while being so ignorant and condescending.
Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, makes the case for “reason, science, and humanism” and has what he thinks should be an uncontroversial thesis: Human beings have made a lot of progress over the years, and if they embrace humanism and reason, we can solve more problems in the future. Pinker says that he is defending the idea that “we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing,” and admits that this may seem “obvious,” but claims “it is not” because “we take its gifts for granted” and there are those on both the right and the left who think “the institutions of modernity have failed and every aspect of life is in deepening crisis,” and lack “a positive vision that sees the world’s problems against a background of progress that it seeks to build upon.”
Banal as this may seem, while Enlightenment Now was “Bill Gates’ new favorite book of all time,” reactions elsewhere have been so polarized that the Chronicle of Higher Education ran an article entitled “Why Do People Love To Hate Steven Pinker?” The author, Tom Bartlett, seemed mystified that anyone could dislike Pinker.
[T]he pushback against his more recent work, beginning with The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), feels harsher, more personal, at times tinged with real anger. Which is surprising, in part because his message — that, hey, despite some significant challenges we’re making progress as a species — seems benign enough. Pinker doesn’t come off like a bomb-thrower. … How did such a nice guy become such a big target?… One reason [for negative reviews, Pinker thinks,] is simply that it’s more enjoyable to take shots at the guy writing popular books than to praise him, and he cites a study that suggests reviewers who pan books are considered more intelligent. The book he’s working on now, tentatively titled “Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo,” will attempt to unpack the psychology behind such outsized responses.
The Chronicle suggested that “by proclaiming the gospel of progress,” Pinker “has made a lot of enemies.” (It cited a cartoon printed in Current Affairs as an example of the “hate” Pinker gets.) Pinker’s friend Jerry Coyne thinks people dislike Pinker because he is famous. This confirms Pinker’s own view, which is that “intellectuals hate progress” and become upset at him because he dares to use quantitative data to assess the human condition. “Intellectuals who call themselves progressive really hate progress… the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class [is] the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition.” Pinker writes about the reactions to his previous book:
“The objections revealed not just a skepticism about the data but also an unpreparedness for the possibility that the human condition has improved. Many people lack the conceptual tools to ascertain whether progress has taken place or not. Here are stylized versions of dialogues I have often had with questioners: So violence has declined linearly since the beginning of history! Awesome!”
I would like to posit an alternative explanation: Those of us who react negatively to Pinker’s work do not do so because we are statistically illiterate, or “lack the conceptual tools to ascertain whether progress has taken place,” or because we hate progress. Rather, Pinker is controversial because he is dismissive and contemptuous of anyone who disagrees with his highly debatable propositions, and he presents dubious political opinions as mere objective analysis of data.
If you would like proof that hate for Pinker does not emanate from hatred of “progress” itself, I will happily write a book arguing precisely what Pinker says he is arguing: that reason is good, and many features of society are better than they were 100 years or 1000 years ago, and that things would be better if the world were more reasonable. And I can write that book in a way that won’t be very controversial. Perhaps, then, the debate is not about the “human flourishing is a positive” and “vaccines exist now and are good” parts of the book.
One thing that pisses some of us off about Pinker’s work is that, while he presents himself as “such a nice guy,” in the words of the Chronicle, a person who just loves Facts and Data, he peppers his books with nasty, utterly irrational swipes at those to the left of him. Let us look at a small sample (I’m not even sure these are the most extreme):
- “Many social critics have expressed nostalgia for the era of factories, mines, and mills, probably because they never worked in one.”
- “Those who condemn modern capitalist societies for callousness toward the poor are probably unaware of how little the pre-capitalist societies of the past spent on poor relief.”
- “An axiom of progressive opinion, especially in universities, is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society—which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.”
- “It may be satisfying to demonize the fossil fuel corporations that sell us the energy we want, or to signal our virtue by making conspicuous sacrifices, but these indulgences won’t prevent destructive climate change… The human moral sense is not particularly moral; it encourages dehumanization (‘politicians are pigs’) and punitive aggression (‘make the polluters pay’)”
- “Some feminist theories have embraced the Blank Slate and with it an authoritarian political philosophy that would give the government sweeping powers to implement their vision of gender-free minds.”
- “Starting in the 1970s, the mainstream environmental movement latched onto a quasi-religious ideology, greenism, which can be found in the manifestoes of activists as diverse as Al Gore, the Unabomber, and Pope Francis… Greenism is laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin…”
- “It’s time to retire the morality play in which modern humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers who will hasten the apocalypse unless they undo the Industrial Revolution, renounce technology, and return to an ascetic harmony with nature… We must not accept the narrative that humanity inexorably destroys every part of the environment… [Climate justice warriors] advocate a regime of ‘sustainable development.’ … Climate justice warriors [say] that rather than enriching poorer nations, we should impoverish rich ones, switching back, for example, to ‘labor-intensive agriculture.’ (to which an appropriate reply is: ‘you first’)”
- “Many on the left encourage identity politicians and social justice warriors who downplay individual rights in favor of equalizing the standing of races, classes, and genders, which they see as being pitted in zero-sum competition.”
- “We have seen that when a creed becomes attached to an in-group, the critical faculties of its members can be disabled, and there are reasons to think this has happened within swaths of academia.. [A] faction of academic culture composed of hard-left faculty, student activists, and an autonomous diversity bureaucracy… has become aggressively illiberal. Anyone who disagrees with the assumption that racism is the cause of all problems is called a racist… [Professors] have been subjected to Stalinesque investigations for politically incorrect opinions…[The left has been captured by] identity politicians, political correctness police, and social justice warriors.”
I say “irrational” because some of this stuff isn’t even logical. It does not follow from the fact that “we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society” that prior social movements have accomplished nothing. If environmentalists believed humanity “inexorably” destroyed nature, we wouldn’t be pushing for a Green New Deal. Most of this is just vicious, inaccurate cartoonish misrepresentation. I doubt you could find anyone to affirm that racism is the cause of “all problems.” Do those who say capitalist countries are ungenerous think feudal societies were more generous? Of course we don’t. Do we express nostalgia for the era of child labor and workhouses? No. Do mainstream environmentalists demand a “renunciation of technology”? Even radical anti-civilization anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan is on radio and podcasts. What Pinker calls the “demonization” of fossil fuel companies is the recognition that they engaged in practices they knew to be destructive, misleading the public to maintain profits the same way tobacco companies did. It’s important to treat this as what it is: fraud and theft, because those who are responsible for knowingly causing damage ought to pay for it. “Make polluters pay” is not immoral “punitive aggression” but an application of basic tort law principles.
Pinker is supposedly “such a nice guy,” a person who is restrained and moderate and reasonable, who laments that politics has gotten so vicious and tribal. And yet in his books, you find him comparing environmentalists to Nazis and campus anti-bigotry initiatives to Stalin’s purges. Those he disagrees with are “quasi-religious,” “authoritarian,” they push “emotionally charged but morally irrelevant red herrings.” Al Gore and the Unabomber belong together. When anthropologist Jason Hickel critiqued Pinker’s theses in the Guardian, Pinker snapped that Hickel was a “Marxist idealogue” while leaving many of Hickel’s arguments unaddressed. Is this what the Chronicle called Pinker’s “relentless friendly persuasion, a kind of indefatigable reasonableness”?
I do not mean to dwell too much on the tone of Pinker’s writing, but it’s important to see how dishonest centrist critics of social justice rhetoric can be. Pinker treats the left as hysterically overstating its case, of calling everybody racists and despoilers, even as he brands them Nazis and Stalinists. One of the common themes I see in critics of social justice politics is engaging in the very thing they’re accusing the left of doing. There are countless examples of this in Pinker’s work. For example, in The Blank Slate, which is strongly critical of mainstream feminism, he cites Gloria Steinem saying: “What you need is people who see through literature like Andrea Dworkin, who see through law like me, to see through art and create the uncompromised woman’s visual vocabulary.” Pinker concludes from this quote that Steinem is “oblivious to the danger inherent in a few intellectuals’ arrogating the role of deciding which art and literature the rest of society will enjoy.” This is an incredibly audacious remark for a book with entire sections on which art is the Good Art and which art is “ugly, baffling, and insulting art”:
“In this chapter I will diagnose the malaise of the arts and humanities and offer some suggestions for revitalizing them… Once we recognize what modernism and postmodernism have done to the elite arts and humanities, the reasons for their decline and fall become all too obvious.”
When you say it, it’s dangerous elitism. When I say it, it’s Science!
Hypocrisy doesn’t make the underlying arguments untrue, but I think it’s critical to explaining why the left can end up with an unwarranted reputation for being unreasonable and emotional: Our critics operate just as much from “feeling” and instinct, but insist that they’re just being Objective. My colleague Aisling McCrea has written about how mere invocation of the word “logic” is used as proof that one is being logical. “Reason” becomes a brand rather than a description of an actual process by which the other side’s arguments are carefully analyzed and responded to fairly. (I’ve shown how both Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro mangle basic reasoning.)
A core part of actual reasoning is humility, critically examining your own positions and the possible arguments against them. At this, Steven Pinker does not excel. Frequently, when he responds to critics, he does not respond to actual critics, but uses his own paraphrases of the critics’ arguments, the “stylized versions.” Thus he poses himself questions like “Why were you so mean to Nietzsche?” to answer rather than engaging closely with the actual philosophers who criticized Pinker for wondering why Nietzsche, with his “sociopathic ravings,” “continues to be a darling of the academic humanities.” Pinker says his critics thought “I had no right to criticize anything [Nietzsche] said.” In fact, the critics mostly just thought he sounded like he hadn’t read a single book or asked a single philosopher why they found value in Nietzsche. This is a consistent tendency in Pinker’s writing, and it makes him a shoddy and irresponsible academic: If you choose to misrepresent the arguments against you, and exaggerate to make them look ludicrous, you’re the Ideologue in the room, and definitely not a serious scholar.
It’s important to see that Pinker is unreliable, and not simply a neutral presenter of The Data, because his books are bestsellers and are widely praised as brilliant. Yet they reinforce many right-wing talking points and accepting some of their conclusions would have extremely destructive political consequences. I actually agree with perhaps 80 percent or more of what is contained in Enlightenment Now, insofar as it is simply presenting statistics showing that crime has dropped and we are not presently in a world war, or making arguments for secular humanism and democracy. But he also (1) staunchly defends the inequality produced by free-market capitalism, (2) is irrationally dismissive of the scale of the risks facing humankind, (3) trivializes present-day human pain and suffering, (4) whitewashes U.S. crimes and minimizes the dangers of U.S. military aggression, (5) repeats right-wing smears about anti-racist and feminist ideas, and (6) has a colossal ignorance about the workings of politics and the struggle necessary to achieve further human progress. Pinker is one of those people who believes that Donald Trump’s presidency represents a “backsliding” into unreason after a long period of Progress, and that we simply need to appreciate the Progress and commit ourselves to maintaining and steadily improving upon the pre-Trump status quo.
Pinker’s broad thesis is that, aside from a few unfortunate statistical blips like the Second World War and the rapid acceleration of climate change, for the most part life on Earth has been getting better all the time. Usually, he qualifies this by saying that Of Course There Are Still Terrible Problems and he’s Not Saying This Is The Best We Can Possibly Do (this is how he distinguishes himself from Professor Pangloss, who already thought the world was as good as it could get). For the most part, he remembers to add the fine print disclaimer “*Results may vary, your experience of Progress may not match the aggregated median trend.” But sometimes he accidentally lapses and says things like: “Everything is amazing… None of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.”
This is, of course, false, insulting, and enraging. Even assuming Pinker’s thesis is accurate, life is clearly not “amazing” for everyone, like the tens of millions of refugees around the world. “None of us”? The spectacle of a Harvard professor, with millions of dollars in book sales and friends among the jet-setting global elite, telling the Rohingya to perk up, and Black Americans to be more grateful for iPhones, is grotesque. Pinker may reply that by “us” he does not mean everyone, just the statistically average people for whom things have gotten better. But this is precisely the point: Casually switching between “things are better at the median than during 1940 or 1410” and “everything is amazing” is appallingly insensitive to the reality of pain and deprivation. “If we have a shred of cosmic gratitude,” Pinker writes, we “ought to be” happier. “An American in 2019,” he writes “will live nine years longer” and “have an additional eight hours a week of leisure,” which they can spend “reading on the Web, listening to music on a smartphone, streaming movies on high-definition TV, … or dining on Thai food instead of spam fritters.” When people who are not among the Americans who can do these things read a passage like that, is it any wonder that they get a little ticked? The Thai food in Cambridge may be excellent, but my friend who teaches elementary school in Detroit still has students coming to school hungry each day. I am sure they’d happily take a spam fritter, though perhaps they just lack a “shred of cosmic gratitude.”
One of Pinker’s critics says that despite Pinker’s tendency toward ignorant hyperbole, it does him a “grave disservice” to “mistake his data-driven assessment of encouraging global trends for an insouciance towards continued injustices.” I’m not so sure about that. Dismissing the idea that racism remains deeply embedded in society seems a bit like insouciance to me, and so do his constant attempts to show that things aren’t “crises.” “Activist organizations feel they must always cry ‘crisis’ to keep the heat up,” he says. When he tries to “debunk” the idea that suicide rates in the United States are at “crisis” proportions, for instance, he admits that there are 40,000 suicides annually in the country, and that this is a 30-year high that has been growing each year, but points to previous eras in which suicides had been even higher. Because “suicide was more common in the past than it is today,” it’s “alarmism” to say there is an “epidemic of unhappiness, loneliness, or suicide” and “dire warnings” about a “plague” of suicide or depression “don’t survive fact-checking.” Besides:
“Not every problem is a crisis, plague, or an epidemic… A modicum of anxiety may be the price we pay for the uncertainty of freedom. It is another word for the vigilance, deliberation, and heart-searching that freedom demands.”
Now, for me, it is trivializing, even downright insouciant, to talk about the depth of anguish and despair that millions of people endure daily in this country as a “modicum of anxiety.” And it is dismissing the urgency of the problem to say it might just be a price we have to pay. 40,000 people, measured in the official American mass death unit, is over 13 annual 9/11s. It does not matter if this was worse long ago. It doesn’t follow that it’s not a “crisis,” merely that the crisis is a recurring one and we have never done what we ought to do in order to try to fix it. It is trivially true that “not every problem” is a “crisis.” But surely, if you do not see 40,000 people taking their lives each year as urgent, you are the most insouciant of insouciant assholes.
In fact, even when Pinker is talking about things that are pretty obviously calamitous, he has a tendency to encourage us to Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life:
“Suppose there was an episode of bioterror that killed a million people. Suppose a hacker did manage to take down the Internet. Would the country literally cease to exist? Would civilization collapse? Would the human species go extinct? A little proportion, please—even Hiroshima continues to exist!… [P]eople are highly resilient in the face of catastrophe.”
Hiroshima: a statistical blip! World War II: a mere outlier along the bumpy road to peace! Mass murder: Please, it’s not like the human species is literally going to be extinct. Somewhere through Enlightenment Now, I became positive that Eric Idle’s whistling idiot from Life of Brian, who encourages the crucified men to cheer up and laugh and sing, is Steven Pinker. They even have the same hair.
There is a giant analytical mistake underlying many of Pinker’s arguments. He suggests that the proper measure of whether things are “amazing” is comparing the present to the past. Both Enlightenment Now and Better Angels show version after version of a similar graph: a trend line of a good thing going up or a bad thing going down. So, if poor people globally are getting “less poor,” then we can conclude that Capitalism, Democracy, and Science are doing a good job. But you should not measure your success against what came before, you should measure it against what you ought to have been doing and could be doing. “Better” does not actually mean “good,” and it might well be that even if things improve, if they still fall unacceptably short of what we are capable of, there is no reason to diminish one’s amount of outrage.
You could have made the argument that things were “better” than they had previously been in 1870. You could have told people to look at all the amazing advances the Industrial Revolution had made. You could have made it in 1910. Hey child laborers, did you know that you’re actually luckier than previous generations? Let me show you a graph of infant mortality rates. You could have made it in 1936. “Hey,” you might have told the GM workers during the Flint sit-down strike, “You’re not peasants or slaves. You are substantially better off thanks to capitalism. Show some cosmic gratitude.” And the GM workers would have responded to you as we should respond to Pinker: “You do not measure the justice of working conditions by the working conditions of prior generations, but by the capacity for presently-existing companies to improve the lives of workers.” As Jason Hickel puts it, what matters in determining how well our economic system is doing is not the trajectory of global poverty, but “the extent of global poverty vis-à-vis our capacity to end it,” meaning that the moral egregiousness of poverty is growing and growing.
Pinker uses an argument that is frequently used to defend sweatshop labor: “The appropriate standard in considering the plight of the poor in industrializing countries is the set of alternatives available to them and when they live,” he writes. This is what gets you articles like “the feminist side of sweatshops” and Nick Kristof’s defense of sweatshops as a “dream,” because “in the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.” If working in a sweatshop is better than the presently-existing alternatives in a given place, then it is Good. But that’s not true: The women who worked in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory may have taken the best jobs they could get, but that doesn’t mean their working conditions weren’t outrageous. Sweatshops are bad because there is no reason the world has to have sweatshops in it. Adding strong labor protections to trade agreements is a perfectly feasible thing, it’s just that hardly anybody with political or economic power cares much about the rights and well-being of people in other countries.
A lot of the “Capitalism Is The Greatest Poverty Reducer In History” type argumentation is also based on using distorted charts that minimize the full extent of the gap between rich and poor people around the world. Jason Hickel, in his response to Pinker, shows that the case for “liberal democratic capitalism” as a powerful poverty reducer is massively overstated, and the numbers give us little to celebrate. Countries with significant government intervention in the economy, public health initiatives, and public education have good poverty-reduction track records, and the much-touted “gains” made by the poor in the Global South are (1) often not nearly large enough to constitute being “lifted out of poverty” by any reasonable metric and (2) dwarfed by the amount of wealth that has been accumulated elsewhere.
It’s easy to produce charts showing that poor people are “gaining” while disguising the fact that poor people are gaining a pittance compared to what rich people are gaining. So Pinker uses the “elephant chart” that shows both rich people’s incomes and poor people’s incomes have increased, but tracks the gains in percentages. That’s a good way to make it look like both rich and poor are doing great, even though a 20 percent boost to an income of $2 is far less than a 20 percent boost to an income of $2,000,000. If you track absolute gains, it just looks like wealthy people are hoarding all the fucking money.
So here’s what income gains look like if you use percentages:
But as Hickel puts it:
The elephant graph shows relative gains, with respect to each group’s baseline in 1980. So the poorest 10-20th percentile gained 82% over this period. That sounds like a lot, on the face of it. But remember that they started from a very low base. For people earning $2.40 per day in 1980, their incomes grew to no more than $4.36 per day… over a period of 36 years. So, about 5 cents per year. That’s not much to celebrate, particularly when these gains don’t come anywhere close to lifting people out of poverty. Remember, the poorest 60% – the ones depicted as the “winners” in the elephant graph – continue to live under the poverty line of $7.40 per day (2011 PPP).
Here’s what they look like if you care about how much money people have:
The extent of the gap between rich and poor is actually gigantic, but easily obscured—look at this chart, which misleadingly sizes the gap between $100 and $1,000 identically to the gap between $10,000 and $100,000. All the celebrations of how people have been “lifted out of extreme poverty” are based on things like: There are a lot more people living on sums near $5 a day rather than under $2 a day. But go and try living on $150 a month, or, hell, even $300, and contrast it with the lifestyles on display in the Wall Street Journal’s Mansion section, and see if you think it’s fair to call this a reasonable distribution of the fruits of the world’s labor. Pinker says that “eventually, a rising tide lifts all the boats.” My yacht just happens to have been lifted a lot higher than your leaky raft.
Actually, Pinker has made it clear that he doesn’t really care about inequality per se. He insists that it is “not a fundamental dimension of human well-being” and that an “increase in inequality is not necessarily bad.” The presence of staggering levels of inequality in our time, then, is not a “counterexample to human progress.” I have previously addressed Pinker’s inequality arguments. He believes that, because you could make people equal by making them equally destitute, and both poor people and rich people can simultaneously increase their wealth, it is not inequality but poverty that matters for “human well-being.” This, however, ignores the way in which wealth is power, and the relative quantities of it held by different parties determine the degree to which their “free choices” will be honored in a market system. If I have more wealth than you, my preferences are considered more valuable than yours, and “minority of the opulent” can override the social preferences of the majority.
Pinker is determined to exonerate the rich for any responsibility they might have for the condition of the poor. He says that poverty “has no causes” because it’s the natural condition of humankind, criticizing the irrational “blaming of misfortune on evildoers,” the effort to hold someone responsible for problems that are nobody’s fault: “today, when few people believe that accidents or diseases have perpetrators, discussions of poverty consist mostly of arguments about whom to blame for it.” This is wrong, since even accidents and diseases often occur because of “perpetrators,” through negligence and malpractice. But more importantly, Pinker is avoiding the critical moral question. Yes, we are all born naked, and wealth has to be produced and distributed. But if rich people could alleviate poverty, and decline to do so, how are they not behaving monstrously? If it’s possible to have a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, then surely the failure to implement the change is “causing” there to be continued poverty when there doesn’t have to be. Even with “accidents,” you’re supposed to prevent them if you can do so, and the failure to do that is negligent.
Pinker can get very touchy, actually, about those who make fun of his rich friends:
“As for sneering at the bourgeoisie, it is a sophomoric grab at status with no claim to moral or political virtue. The fact is that the values of the middle class—personal responsibility, devotion to family and neighborhood, avoidances of macho violence, respect for liberal democracy—are good things, not bad things.”
If you think that sounds a bit like he thinks poor people have bad values, you’re onto something. In Better Angels, Pinker partly explains the post-’60s uptick in U.S. violence by lamenting that people had stopped emulating their wealthy superiors. As he writes:
“As Western countries became more democratic, the upper classes became increasingly discredited as moral paragons, and hierarchies of taste and manners were flattened… People started to address their friends with first names instead of Mr. and Mrs. and Miss… The stuffy high-society lady… became a target of ridicule rather than emulation… Instead of values trickling down from the court, they bubbled up from the street.”
While he concedes that this wasn’t entirely bad, it’s very clear where he stands on those who hold “street” values rather than “bourgeois” values. Middle class people are “devot[ed] to family and neighborhood,” after all.
“Harvard Professor Is Snob” isn’t exactly news worth dwelling on, of course. A more alarming aspect of Pinker’s work is the way he mocks and trivializes the concerns of the environmental movement and the anti-war movement. The threats of global climate change and nuclear war are urgent and affect everyone on earth, yet Pinker, a Champion of Reason and Science, dwells more on bashing leftists trying to solve the problems than on understanding political impediments to saving the planet from the destructive consequences of our actions.
Pinker is not a climate change denier, though he does believe “there are judicious climate change skeptics, sometimes called lukewarmers, who accept the mainstream science but accentuate the positive.” He does say he has a “skepticism that the status quo will doom us,” because he doesn’t believe “that knowledge will be frozen in its current state and people will robotically persist in their current behavior.” He is much kinder to the “lukewarmers” than he is to those most alarmed about climate change like Naomi Klein, the Pope, and those “climate justice warriors” who “see the human capture of energy” as a “heinous crime against nature.” Pinker cites Klein saying that “We’re not going to win this as bean counters… We’re going to win this because this is an issue of values, human rights, right and wrong.” As a proud bean-counter, Pinker is indignant, saying that “blowing off quantitative analysis as ‘bean-counting’ is not just anti-intellectual but works against values, human rights, right and wrong.” Of course, Klein didn’t say quantifying things was bad, she’s fully aware that all of climate science requires quantifying things! She said we needed to make values-based arguments in order to win the political fight. Pinker adds in his response to Klein: “Even when it comes to the purely rhetorical challenge of ‘moving people’s hearts,’ efficacy matters: people are likelier to accept the fact of global warming when they are told that the problem is solvable by innovations in policy and technology than when they are given dire warnings about how awful it will be.” Perhaps he should have picked up Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, the last third of which is devoted to profiling those who are fighting for actual policy solutions to climate change.
Pinker’s approach to environmentalists really is nasty. Environmental journalist James Murray, no radical, replied to Pinker’s description of a “misanthropic” greenism that “in more than a decade covering environmental issues and meeting hundreds of campaigners and environmentalists I can count the number of people who you could reasonably accuse of misanthropy on one hand.” Pinker advocates an “enlightened” environmentalism, which he distinguishes from the mainstream movement with its Nazi-like and “quasi-religious” tendencies. Yet, as Jeremy Lent writes, this “enlightened” environmentalism chooses to ignore things like… the warnings of the actual scientific community:
In November 2017, around the time when Pinker was likely putting the final touches on his manuscript, over fifteen thousand scientists from 184 countries issued a dire warning to humanity. Because of our overconsumption of the world’s resources, they declared, we are facing “widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss.” They warned that time is running out: “Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory.” They included nine sobering charts and a carefully worded, extensively researched analysis showing that, on a multitude of fronts, the human impact on the earth’s biological systems is increasing at an unsustainable rate… Taken together, these graphs illustrate ecological overshoot: the fact that, in the pursuit of material progress, our civilization is consuming the earth’s resources faster than they can be replenished… Pinker claims to respect science, yet he blithely ignores fifteen thousand scientists’ desperate warning to humanity.
(Lent’s entire critique of Pinker is worth reading.)
Tell you what, why don’t you have a read of the latest IPCC report and the U.S. National Climate Assessment, and then read the closing passage in Pinker’s “Environment” chapter. See if you think this is a fittingly “scientific” approach:
Just embrace those “benevolent forces of modernity.” Of course, the IPCC says we need “unprecedented changes” and “‘rapid and far-reaching’ transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities.” But as we know, intellectuals just “hate progress.”
Of course, it’s the same with Pinker and war. 2011’s Better Angels of Our Nature argued that violence had been in decline steadily and we are now living in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. It was an absurd book, because it required readers to treat our own era, when thousands of nuclear weapons are stationed around the world ready to be fired, as “peaceful.” This is like saying that if somebody puts a gun to your head, they are being “nonviolent” until they actually fire it. A “Mexican standoff” is “peace” in the Pinker sense. (The thesis also required us to ignore the lives of non-human animals, who are massacred by the billions through factory farming and being exterminated through having their habitats destroyed.)
Nuclear weapons pose a strong challenge to Pinker’s thesis of declining violence, one he never dealt with adequately. He argues in his books that the “long peace” since World War II was not the result of nuclear weapons, and argues that nukes are essentially “useless in winning wars and in keeping the peace” since no country would dare to use them:
“Incinerating massive numbers of noncombatants would shred the principles of distinction and proportionality that govern the conduct of war and would constitute the worst war crimes in history. That can make even politicians squeamish, so a taboo grew up around the use of nuclear weapons, effectively turning them into bluffs.”
Of course, this means the United States itself has committed the “worst war crimes in history” since it intentionally dropped nuclear weapons on two civilian populations. And while there is certainly a “taboo” on such behavior—Hiroshima horrified much of the world, though Americans tend to think it was fine—U.S. commanders contemplated using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, too. (Good thing Lyndon Johnson got a bit “squeamish,” although not so squeamish as to stop a war that killed two million Vietnamese people.) Realizing that the presence of thousands of weapons that can vaporize cities, and the giant U.S. war machine constantly researching terrifying swarms of autonomous flying death robots, rather undercuts the whole Most Peaceful Era Ever theory, Pinker points to the fact that “the United States has reduced its inventory by 85 percent from its 1976 peak.” He concedes, however, that “Cynics might be unimpressed by a form of progress that still leaves the world with 10,200 atomic warheads.” Indeed, cynics might!
The big problem with Pinker’s violence thesis has always been that it declares victory prematurely. He is quite clear in saying he doesn’t think peace is necessarily here to stay, or that progress can’t unravel, and thinks this should silence critics who think he is overly optimistic. But the truth is that we’re just not far enough past the end of World War II to begin to comment on a general trend. The two global bloodbaths occurred within the lifetimes of people who are still alive. Over the course of human history, this is a nanosecond. It’s not a “long peace,” but a very short one. One should probably not be drawing any conclusions about what kind of era this is until we’ve seen a bit more of it, otherwise you might end up like the people who said World War One had been the war to “end all wars.”
Others have pointed out that Pinker’s worldview requires him to minimize some pretty heinous violence, especially that perpetrated by the United States. (A good overview of this is found in the International Socialist Review.) He trumpets Democratic Peace Theory without much attention to the way the “democratic” U.S. has squelched popular uprisings abroad that threaten its interests. He even goes so far as to say:
“Among respectable countries… conquest is no longer a thinkable option. A politician in a democracy today who suggested conquering another country would be met not with counterarguments but with puzzlement, embarrassment, or laughter.”
Probably true, if they said “conquering.” If they said “liberating” or “spreading democracy to,” on the other hand, they’d be met with quite a different reaction! To avoid acknowledging U.S. aggression, he has to downplay the hideousness of the Vietnam War, and mostly blames “communists” for it, saying that “the three deadliest postwar conflicts were fueled by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese communist regimes that had a fanatical dedication to outlasting their opponents” and “the American democracy was willing to sacrifice a tiny fraction of the lives that the North Vietnamese dictator was willing to forfeit.” This exoneration of the U.S. for the Vietnamese deaths is downright despicable, and Pinker needs to get himself much better acquainted with the reality of what we did.
Naturally, Pinker is more critical of anti-nuclear activists than of the military industrial complex. “Stop telling everyone they’re doomed,” he warns. “The message that many antinuclear activists want to convey is ‘any day now we will all die horribly unless the world immediately takes steps which it has absolutely no chance of taking.” And after all, “the world has survived half-mad despots with nuclear weapons before, namely Stalin and Mao, who were deterred from using them, or, more likely, never felt the need.” Very reassuring. (He also points out that “war is illegal.”)
What’s maddening about Pinker’s body of recent work is that it attacks the very people who are doing the most to address the problems he says he cares about. Progress is made by progressives, as Jeremy Lent pointed out, and it’s yesterday’s “social justice warriors” that are responsible for the declines in racist language and corporal punishment that Pinker shows off as accomplishments of Our Great Liberal Democratic Capitalist Order. The Pinkers of times past were the one Martin Luther King was addressing in Letter From Birmingham Jail, who placed trust in the “benevolent forces of modernity” to make things better rather than actually taking part in a social movement. As my friend Sam Miller McDonald put it, “most of those good things that Steven Pinker likes to brag about came about because of the hard work and sacrifice of the kind of people Steven Pinker likes to complain about.”
Indeed, Pinker is quite open that he doesn’t believe in “struggle.” He views political problems as “mistakes,” errors to be corrected through the application of rationality, rather than “conflicts” between values and interests. He wants to “depoliticize issues as much as possible” and “treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine.” This is why he refuses to see that certain kinds of power are zero-sum, that the interests of the boss does not coincide with the interests of the worker. That would mean that advancing the interests of the worker required a political fight, rather than simply the application of technology.
This is the Obama worldview, and the Obama presidency proved why it doesn’t work. It turns out that interests do conflict, and that if you try to take actions that enrich working people and threaten corporate power, the people whose power is threatened will do everything they possibly can to destroy you.
Steven Pinker’s works are worth examining for a few reason. For one thing, they show how deeply conservative a “liberal” worldview can be. Pinker is all for Equal Rights, Democracy, Sensible Regulation, Secularism, and the other great Liberal values. And yet like many liberals, he seems to detest the left more than the hard right. (He infamously praised the “highly literate, highly intelligent” alt-right. Then when he was criticized, he said: “A lot of people who are ignorant of the alt-right equate them with the skinheads and the Nazis carrying the tiki torches, I was referring to the alt-right strictly from its origins in internet discussion groups.” So, not Richard Spencer, but… Richard Spencer?) He simply accepts the right-wing narrative of various events. This often shows up in small framing comments. Bernhard Goetz was “a mild-mannered engineer” who “became a folk hero for shooting four young muggers,” not a vigilante who attacked four Black men after one of them asked him for money. (I’ve never looked up what Pinker thinks of James Damore, but I’m sure he thinks he was an intelligent young man fired for reporting the uncontroversial results of scientific studies.*) He partly defends the Tuskegee syphilis study, calling it a “one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people,” that “may even have been defensible by the standards of the day” (It was actually 400 people that the United States government allowed to believe they were being treated for syphilis when they weren’t, and it lasted 40 years.)
Pinker doesn’t think he has an ideology. He insists that his conclusions simply follow from data, contrasting his own work with the “statistical obtuseness” common among journalists and humanities professors, who use “Anecdotes, headlines, rhetoric, and the ‘highest-paid person’s opinion.’” If you look through his work though, you’ll find anecdotes, headlines, rhetoric, and appeals to authority abound.
- ANECDOTE: “The moral and political track record of modernist artists is nothing to be proud of. Some were despicable in the conduct of their personal lives, and many embraced fascism or Stalinism. The modernist composer Karlheinz Stockhausen described the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as ‘the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.’” Well, if Karlheinz Stockhausen said that, and “some” were despicable, I’m convinced that modernism is tied to a decline in morality.
- HEADLINES: “Preventing climate change is an idea whose time has come… one indication is a trio of headlines that appeared in Time magazine within a three-week span in 2015: ‘China Shows It’s Serious About Climate Change,’ ‘Walmart, McDonalds, and 79 Others Commit To Fighting Global Warming,’ and ‘Americans’ Denial of Climate Change Hits Record Low.’” I am certain those corporations are very sincere.
- RHETORIC: Literally everything from the first set of passages I cited about the Stalinist left.
- HIGHEST PAID PERSON’S OPINION: “Why should intellectuals and artists, of all people, kiss up to murderous dictators? […] One explanation, offered by the economist Thomas Sowell and the sociologist Paul Hollander, is professional narcissism. Intellectuals and artists may feel underappreciated in liberal democracies. … But tyrannophilia is also fed by a Nietzschean disdain for the common man… Well, if that’s Sowell’s explanation, I’m satisfied.
Pinker hates the word scientism, seeing it as an attack on scientists, but if he understood it, he might be better able to understand his own biases. Charges of “scientism” are a defense of science, not an attack on it. Scientism is what happens when you don’t notice that your own reasoning is the slave of the passions and you might not be as objective as you think you are. It’s what makes you think you’re Just Being Logical when you write a passage like this:
“Evidence-free pronouncements about the misery of mankind are an occupational hazard of the social critic. In the 1854 classic Walden, Henry David Thoreau famously wrote ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ How a recluse living in a cabin on a pond could know this was never made clear, and the mass of men beg to differ. Eighty-six percent of those who are asked about their happiness in the World Values Survey say they are ‘rather happy or ‘very happy’ and on average the respondents on the 150-country World Happiness Report 2016 judged their lives to be on the top half of the ladder from worst to best.”
- Thoreau was writing in 1854, and Pinker’s whole thesis is that things are better now, so the World Happiness Report 2016 is not a good way to suggest Thoreau was wrong.
- He said it was “quiet” desperation, not “desperation you tell strangers about when they call you to ask you how happy you are.”
- Believing yourself in the “top half” is consistent with the mass of men leading lives of quiet desperation.
- Pretty sure Pinker never read Walden, since he can’t get through the opening chapter without going into “Well, Actually” mode.
“Scientism” is when you don’t notice that even though you’re using numbers, you’re actually doing pseudoscience. At one point in Better Angels, Pinker cites an absolutely ludicrous study purporting to have calculated the intelligence of 42 different presidents using adjectives their contemporaries described them, such as “witty,” “brilliant,” etc. (Could it be that there’s a confounding variable called “people’s tendency to flatter the powerful”?) The author of the study admits that it’s “more of an art than a science,” but Pinker uses it to conclude that: “The theory that we are better off with unintellectual leaders is just embarrassing, and the reasons for the embarrassment may be quantified.” George W. Bush, he says, was “Third-lowest among the presidents in intelligence” and “dead last in openness to experience.” He continues:
“The relationship between presidential intelligence and war may also be quantified” with presidential IQ since 1946 “negatively correlated with the number of battle deaths in wars… one could say that for every presidential IQ point, 13,440 fewer people die in battle, though it’s more accurate to say that the three smartest postwar presidents, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, kept the country out of destructive wars.”
(Kennedy nearly brought civilization to an end during the Cuban Missile Crisis, of course, but no matter.) There’s another study purporting to show that “nuance” makes political speech smarter and more peaceable that I shan’t even go into, except to point out that the metric would lead us to conclude that “human beings of all races have absolute and inalienable rights” is a dumber statement than “human beings of all races have rights, but there must be exceptions.”
Mr. Quantification also resorts to plain old narrative history when trying to explain facts inconvenient for his story. In trying to show how progress against violence can be reversed, he offers a cultural conservative’s take on the ’60s. It was an “intergenerational decivilizing process” when teens “saw other young people like themselves in the audience of the Ed Sullivan Show grooving on the Rolling Stones and knew that every other young person in America was grooving at the same time.” That created a “horizontal web of solidarity,” and as we know, “a sense of solidarity among fifteen-to-thirty-year-olds would be a menace to civilized society even in the best of times.” As a result, “the body was elevated over the mind,” and individualism took root. Pinker cites popular songs like the Chicago’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It is?” and B.T. Express’ “Do It Till You’re Satisfied” to show that standards of punctuality and self-control were breaking down. (“The demands of self-control and the embedding of the self into webs of interdependence were historically reflected in the development of timekeeping devices and a consciousness of time,” he says, and points out that at the beginning of Easy Rider Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda throw their watches away.) The idea that people “should devote their energies to a monogamous relationship in which they raise their children in a safe environment became a target of howling ridicule.” It was an era when people would “celebrate the flouting of standards of cleanliness, propriety, and sexual continence” as exhibited by the fact that—I kid you not—on the cover of The Who Sell Out, Roger Daltrey is swimming in a bathtub full of baked beans! (Wait ’til he sees the pastry fights in 1930s Three Stooges flicks. He’ll be appalled!)
Yeah, okay. This is Science. This is Reason. Give me a break. Look, I’m just peeved because Pinker is treated as a serious and sober-minded public intellectual when he is no better than the rest of us. And I get particularly annoyed at guys who rail against “populism” without showing a bit of empathy for those who have serious grievances, or considering the possibility that the world looks a bit rosier from their personal position than it does once you get out of Harvard Yard. I wouldn’t even mind so much if he didn’t also take gratuitously unpleasant and unfair swipes at the left. We’re not “progressophobes” or fucking morons who don’t recognize that the internet is cool and the Black Death was not.
I find Steven Pinker the most annoying man in the world because he’s certainly one of the most patronizing men in the world, and that contest has a lot of impressive contenders. I even sense that he’d be proud to be called annoying: “Ah, you’re annoyed because you can’t handle the facts due to your cognitive biases. It must be because of envy and narcissism.” He’s even writing a new book trying to explain why people hate him, and of course it’s all going to be because they’re defective reasoners who subscribe to idiotic Blank Slate theories of nature, not because he’s an asshole who doesn’t bother to listen to a word anybody says. I’ve seen this type of guy so many times now. Harris, Peterson, Shapiro. They all want to explain before they’ve empathized, irrationally diagnose others’ irrationality, insist that their ideology isn’t an ideology while ours is. Is there any way to make it stop? Is there anything you could say to them in response that wouldn’t just further convince them that they’re right? Is there hope for an Enlightenment that doesn’t just consist of the word “Enlightenment” repeated ad infinitum?
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