Is the world getting better or worse?
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Since 2016 — for some simply “the worst year ever” — there has been a stream of commentary lamenting things like the death of liberalism, or even the end of reason and truth as such. Bucking what seem like clear trends in the age of Trump, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has issued “a case for reason, science, humanism and progress”. Enlightenment Now is less a manifesto in the sense of trying to motivate citizens to do something than a long treatise to make empirically manifest just how far humanity has come — and that things are bound to get better still. Like Pinker’s other blockbusters, this broadside against cultural pessimism is brimming with surprising data and entertaining anecdotes. But, in a curious way, some of the book’s core claims actually undercut the very Enlightenment cause Pinker is committed to championing.
Pinker sets out 15 different measures of human wellbeing, and the progress report card for each of them looks impressive indeed. It is not just the obvious scores: people live longer and healthier lives. There is also the fact that Americans have benefited from a 37-fold decline in the chances of being killed by lightning since the beginning of the 20th century (because of better weather forecasting, better education and better safety measures). And when it comes to the fears most often voiced in opinion polls, Pinker coolly deploys data to demonstrate that an American is 3,000 times more likely to die in an accident than in a terrorist attack.
Progress is not just about safety or, for that matter, fancier gadgets: Pinker cites surveys according to which people across the globe are becoming less prejudiced and more liberal. But it gets better yet: because of healthier nutrition, schooling and more incentives for analytical thinking, humanity is also getting smarter overall — IQ scores have been going up everywhere by about three points a decade.
So why then all that anxiety and anger across the west at the beginning of the 21st century? Pinker offers a number of psychological explanations. Humans are wired for nostalgia; time heals all wounds, so we remember the past as greater than it was. We are also likely to pick out the bad news because of what in Pinker’s discipline is known as the “availability heuristic”: everyone can vividly remember a horrific terrorist attack or Donald Trump’s victory; what does not happen — plots foiled and populists who failed to gain power — does not factor into the picture. We thus systematically overestimate the amount of bad news — which, it so happens, is also the main business of a media operating according to the principle “if it bleeds, it leads”. Not quite an accusation of “fake news” here, but still a health warning from one the world’s most famous psychologists that “heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated”.
At times, Pinker is struggling mightily to keep up the overall rosy picture, and never more so than when he deals with what he deems one of today’s “obsessions”: inequality. His main philosophical argument, inspired by libertarians, is simply that this is not such a big deal: if people want to make JK Rowling insanely rich by buying her books, well, that’s their free choice. But since in the end for him “quants” as opposed to philosophers carry the day, he also reminds us that even in increasingly unequal societies, the poor are still getting more stuff and benefit from technological innovations; he also correctly points out that the world as a whole is becoming more equal (even if it is a stretch to say that it is becoming “middle class”). For good measure, he cites a study demonstrating that inequality is not linked to unhappiness, at least in poorer societies. In those benighted parts of the world, inequality is apparently “not dispiriting but heartening”.
Pinker largely leaves out social mobility and hence does not have to bother much with citizens’ legitimate expectations for themselves and their offspring to better their lot. The dramatic decline in upward mobility in the US has hardly been “heartening”; instead, it has reinforced a sense that the system is rigged. Pinker mentions that people are more upset by unfairness than inequality as such — true enough — but he fails to see that figures such as Bernie Sanders are not suffering from “progressophobia” (Pinker cannot resist quipping that progressives actually hate progress); rather, for them inequality as a result of unfairness is the real issue. Critics of widening inequality are not irrationally obsessed with the inventor of Harry Potter, but concerned about a cartel of self-dealing chief executives and the inordinate (and empirically well-documented) political influence of business interests.
The range of data Pinker marshals is impressive, as is the number of concrete ideas to address some of our most urgent problems — in that sense, this is a genuinely enlightening book. But there is also an unmistakable taste of technocracy here: Pinker on many occasions suggests that, sooner or later, there will be one single rational solution for every policy challenge (even if people might resist it). He shows that despite everyone getting smarter, we remain deeply irrational about many issues — an example being nuclear energy, which Pinker sees as the answer to global warming, a problem, he concedes, unlike any humanity has ever faced before. Of course, we want “evidence-based policies”. But sometimes the evidence will simply not speak for itself. Policy choices are legitimately informed by values and different tolerance levels for risk (yes, Germans have angst and might be too hung up on a particular notion of human dignity — but that is what they are comfortable with). Democratic politics is not like a scientific experiment.
The notion of one universal rational solution is of course what some philosophers (and poets) deeply disliked about the original 18th-century Enlightenment. Pinker caricatures “Counter-Enlightenment” figures as crazed romantics who advocated all-out irrationality. But such thinkers were not “against reason” and hence, in Pinker’s scheme, “against humanism” understood as a desire for human flourishing; rather, they criticised rationalism for missing important dimensions of human flourishing. Even the most reactionary conservative today could not really live without the Enlightenment; but, by the same token, even the most rational contemporary cosmopolitan liberal could not imagine human existence without the intuitions of the Romantics.
Unfortunately, Pinker’s book is marred by an — dare I say — obsession with academics and pundits who err on the side of pessimism. Intellectuals competing for public attention are effectively in what he calls the “gravitas market”: sourness signals sophistication. Hence his complaint about “prophets of doom” being the “all-stars” of university curricula and his practical advice to just “drop the Nietzsche”, for the latter was not a nice humanist and, by the way, also inspired the Nazis. But five cherry-picked quotations from the German philosopher and some potted intellectual histories will probably not sway the postmodernists Pinker despises so much.
In any case, a quick self-check in light of the availability heuristics would have suggested that these figures are hardly the ones subverting the Enlightenment today: for an academic, they come to mind most easily, but real power belongs to figures who tell citizens on live television that people are tired of experts (remember Michael Gove’s Counter-Enlightenment moment?) or that they should trust their gut feelings and not the statistics (as in Newt Gingrich giving the American people a lesson in criminology on CNN).
There is a more serious philosophical point here. The spirit of the Enlightenment was and remains the spirit of criticism. The sceptics on whom Pinker heaps pages and pages of sarcasm continue in that spirit — which is not to say that they are always right, or even always know what they are talking about. But they certainly are not fatalists in the way Pinker insinuates. He thinks that reminding us how far we’ve already come is the best morale-booster, whereas activists he ridicules as “social justice warriors” and “climate justice warriors” think that pointing to the long road ahead might be a better motivator.
But then Pinker also suggests that certain problems will basically solve themselves. Like everyone today, he is worried about the rise of populism. But, unlike many social scientists, he thinks it is clearly “an old man’s movement”, and that it will disappear because of demographics. As he puts the point not too finely: “Sometimes society advances funeral by funeral”. Yet such talk — alongside his notions of modernity as a “tide” and a matter of “tectonic force” — is alien to the Enlightenment notion of human autonomy. Things will not happen by themselves; we need to do something. And we need not hold our tongue as critics because of the worry that if the west is too self-critical, the enemies of the open society will win.
It is fine to try to be a cheerleader for the Enlightenment. But cheerleaders should not spend quite so much energy on trying to silence members of the band who occasionally strike a melancholy tone.
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker, Allen Lane, RRP£25/Viking, RRP$35, 576 pages
Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and author of ‘What is Populism?’ (Penguin)