The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking. 576 pp. $35.
Reviewed by Glenn C. Altschuler
These days, anyone who watches television and movies, listens to the radio, logs on to the internet, reads newspapers, fiction, or the works of pundits, professors, and public intellectuals on the right and the left may well conclude the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
"Crises" are everywhere, many of them posing "existential threats." Think Y2K, 9/11, Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," SARS, bird flu, the Great Recession, ISIS, climate change, Russian hackers, or the risks of nuclear confrontation between the United States and North Korea.
A professor of psychology at Harvard University, Steven Pinker is an implacable adversary of gloomers and doomers. In Enlightenment Now, a companion volume to his earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), Pinker makes a compelling case that thanks to reason and science, the human condition has never been better.
"Progressophobia," Pinker points out, is fed by an "availability heuristic" through which people estimate the probability of a disaster occurring by extrapolating from vivid stories they have seen on the news. Thus, they obsess about flying, even though airplane crashes are extremely rare; about crime, even though crime rates have fallen; and about ISIS terrorists. Our "negativity bias," Pinker adds, also provides a market for purveyors of bad news.
Drawing on an avalanche of data, Pinker demonstrates that people around the world live longer and are healthier and better educated; that poverty, inequality, violent crime, wars, racism, sexism, and homophobia are declining; that democracy is on the rise; that necessities of life are cheaper; and that opportunities to enjoy the world's intellectual, cultural, and natural delights are growing.
To counter cognitive and emotional biases and recent "spasms of irrationality in the political arena," Pinker presents a passionate and persuasive defense of reason and science.
Enlightenment Now is not without flaws. Pinker's characterization of "greenism" as apocalyptic, quasireligious, misanthropic, indifferent to starvation, and subject to ghoulish fantasies seems, well, hyperbolic. His attacks on "the institutional review bureaucracy" in the sciences and social sciences, and on bioethicists for bogging down research, impeding work on "medical miracles," and "failing to protect, and even harming, patients and research subjects," seem rather one-sided. His analysis of the separation of church and state in the United States is misleading. He refutes a claim - "religion is rebounding" in America - that virtually no one is making. Most important, perhaps, Pinker's "conditional optimism" and his claim that "problems are solvable" underestimate, at times, the political and cultural challenges to sustaining what he calls "the benevolent forces of modernity."
That said, at a time when science, reason, and objectivity are being stigmatized, Enlightenment Now is an urgently needed reminder that progress is, to no small extent, a result of values that have served us - and can serve us - extraordinarily well.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.