Progress Not Guaranteed, Pt. 2


Last year I wrote about Steven Pinker and his naïve take on human progress, one that was not aided by a third-party dissection of a small part of the first chapter of Pinker's book Enlightenment Now. I was reminded, in a bad way, of Noam Chomsky's equally blowsy attitude towards evidence and citations.

Now The New York Review Of Books has weighed in on Pinker as well. They are not as negative as the above-linked analysis, if only because they didn't check every single citation and find most of them were in fact lacking. But this graf was what caught my attention (emphasis mine):

Who does the most to make people richer, healthier, happier, and less likely to be killed by lightning? Is it those who accentuate the positive or those who accentuate the negative? Rosling notes that progress in human rights, women’s education, catastrophe relief, and many other matters is often largely thanks to activists who believe things are getting worse, though he speculates that they might achieve even more if they were readier to recognize improvements. Bill Gates, in his call to optimism, acknowledges that to improve the world, “you need something to be mad about.” Focusing on bad cases is indeed no mere cognitive malfunction. Voltaire would hardly have waged his campaign against clerical abuses of power if he had been struck by the fact that, statistically speaking, most priests were perfectly decent chaps.

What annoyed me the most about Pinker's work, right off the bat, was the way he always seemed to be chiding people for assuming things were in fact getting worse. In other words, the main component of his argument was not logic but emotional rhetoric.

The other issue I have, now that I think about it, is that Pinker is conflating two issues: the need to be urgent about urgent problems, and the retreat from progressive thinking about problems into fatalism, cynicism, and nihilism. If you handle the former poorly, you end up with the latter, but the connection between the two is by no means automatic. Being urgently angry about something that demands urgent anger to motivate people does not automatically produce a backlash that negates it. If there's a big problem, and all the facts are on your side about it, it does no good to be modest.

Intellectual issues are always rife with messy real-world political, sociological and psychological dimensions, and it does no one any good to pretend they don't. We're never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy.


Tags: Steven Pinker  science 


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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2019/01/31 08:00.

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