Steven Pinker Makes the Case for Optimism [Interview]


Yesterday, 137,000 people
escaped from extreme poverty. That could have been the
headline in the New York Times everyday for the last 25 years. Why wasn’t it? My name is Steven Pinker, and
that’s one of the questions that I raise in my book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science,
Humanism, and Progress. Everyday, when we click on the news, we read stories of terrorism,
war, inequality, crime, racism, pollution, the
proliferation of nuclear weapons. It can feel crushing. It can feel that the world
is spiraling out of control. Journalism gives us our
picture of the world, but there are certain
biases that are built into the journalistic enterprise. News is about what happens,
not what doesn’t happen. When something goes wrong, it’s gripping. Bad is psychologically stronger than good. When something goes
right, often it’s nothing. It is a city that has not
been shot at by terrorists. It’s a country that’s been at peace. Since they never count as news, no one will learn about them. If you think that the
news has been getting more negative over time, you’re right. The major news outlets across the world have been getting steadily
more negative over time, even as the objective state of
the world has been improving. Let’s go to the data, starting with the most
precious thing of all, life. For most of human history, life expectancy at birth
hovered around 30 years, but today it is more 70 years
in the world as a whole, more than 80 years in the more fortunate, developed parts of the world. 200 years ago no more than
10% of people in the world lived above the line for extreme poverty. Today, more than 90% do. For most of human history
everyone was illiterate. Today, more than 80% of
the population is literate. Fewer people are dying in wars. Fewer people are starving to death. Fewer people are dying
of infectious diseases. So as the world gets better and better, the coverage gets more and more negative. Of course there are problems, and many of them are horrendous, but acknowledging the world’s progress is not a matter of having
sunny a disposition or wearing rose-colored glasses, or seeing the glasses half full. It’s paying attention to the data, paying attention to the
hard, cold, objective facts. My biggest hope in
writing Enlightenment Now is nothing short than changing people’s view of the human condition. Recognizing human progress
changes your view of the world. If you want to improve the world, there are a few steps to take. First of all, be humble. None of us is infallible,
none of us is omniscient. We’ve got to learn from our mistakes. Second, have some rational confidence. Many things have gotten better thanks to the confidence
of people in the past. That should embolden us to try to solve the formidable problems facing us now. Third, have a problem-solving mindset. Don’t begin by looking at who to blame, who the evildoers are, whose fault it is. Things naturally fall apart. Problems are inevitable,
but problems are solvable. If we understand the world, if we set as our goal
improving human welfare, we can gradually succeed. Applying human brain
power and human sympathy to making people better off is not futile. It’s not hopeless. It will never achieve a perfect world, but it can certainty
achieve a better world. (hopeful music)

36 comments

  1. Great book, read it now. And he doesn't just gloss over bad news either – he acknowledges problems while statistically demonstrating the larger positives.

  2. Christopher Ryan's forthcoming book "Civilized to Death" can be viewed as a good counter to this. Recommended listen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9tX0gme7Fs

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  4. Optimism? Pinker is ultimately pessimistic about our ability to pass the aggressive reforms needed in the west. He says to "take the word 'progress' back from progressives", progressives who are the actual optimists, who actually believe we can make these needed reforms that Pinker's curmudgeonly apologetics can only get in the way of.

  5. I recently read your book on how the world needs to celebrate the Western Enlightenment Now and while there is much to celebrate in your perspective, especially your insight that Humans are not born as blank slates,… I can't help but notice the various gaping holes in your presentation that things are generally getting better. Your book never mentions at all, the migrant crisis in Europe, the rising rates of children being born to single mother households because too many women would rather marry the welfare state than the biological fathers of their children, and the exploding debt world wide that is sinking Western Civilization which can never be legitimately retired. You praise the welfare state while ignoring the Moral Hazards created by it. How long is it substainable to tax people who behave responsibly to subsidize the behavior of those who continuously behave irresponsibly? You never mention libertarians except to belittle them for not wanting to contribute to the delinquency of the next generation. Like so many supposedly intelligent people in the world today, you apparently regard limitless wealth as something that spontaneously happens on its' own like an act of nature, rather than as something that requires hard work, skill, and savings,… instead the world gets ever increasing debts that no one ever expects to be paid down. How is it loving to children to continuously make each generation more in debt?

    Despite my disagreements, I largely regard Steven Pinker to be one of the good guys. You've interviewed with Dave Rubin,… how about Stefan Molyneux next? There is far more agreement than disagreements between us, but I find you disregard the very real damage done my moral hazards far too much. There is nothing wrong with the world that creating more savings, rather than more debt, wouldn't fix.

  6. Fantastic video!

    I never really considered that the news was negative because so many positive things are non-newsworthy according to journalistic standards. Very interesting!

    And this guy has such a wonderful voice, if he’s thinking of making the book into an audiobook, I hope he reads it himself! Would be lovely!

  7. I submited spanish subtitles, this video and channel need to reach far more people! hope it gets approved soon, pinker is awesome.

  8. I like Steven's message, but don't think he ever adequately responded to Malcolm Gladwell's point about the raised stakes in a post nuclear world… Should we really be optimistic knowing who carries the launch codes right now?

  9. Could be the 36416 people murdered yesterday. Or the 360,000 people are born every day. Or the 1.3 billion still living in poverty. The 200,000 acres of rain forest burned daily. The 62.1% of bankruptcy is due to medical bills. Five more pacific islands lost to rising sea levels. If you want to use metrics and data finish the job. Don’t stop when the statistics somewhat agree with you. Pollyanna drivel

  10. Life expectancy is statistically higher because of lower infant mortality. Not because people were only living to their 30s. Some clarification is needed here because this is only one instance of problematic statements based on poor use of metrics. I’m seeing this more and more from Professor Pinker. In the past I thought of it as a disagreement on details but now I’m wondering if he is diverging from the values that should be expected from a secular educator. He’s brilliant but I’m smart enough to contrast what he’s saying with other brilliant and reliable sources and what I’m seeing disappoints.

  11. Yes, the world is getting better if you do pay attention to the data. There is NO denying this fact at all. But the reality of this world is that even when you solve a problem others are abound to come up you even said it yourself. Ive never been one to say when at least i don't live in southern Mexico where all the cartels are at therefore my life is better. Optimist just use other people suffering to feel good about their own lives which is not sympathetic at all. I dont even think a Utopian world is good it will also most likely be a dystopia. No one as all the answers and it doesn't even matter how smart you are because you would have to be omniscient. People who believe in Utopia are also more willing to kill yes KILL people who dont agree with their world view. The world has finite resources and yet the population is still growing at an alarming rate.

    And how about we put it simply some people dont want to fucking work for their government and corporate masters for fucking 80 years and potentially have to go to war because some countries leaders are fighting with one another. How fucking disgusting it that. Optimist are insufferable people.

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