Steven Pinker

This article is a preview from the Spring 2018 edition of New Humanist.

Steven Pinker is a linguist and cognitive scientist who has published several popular books chiefly on language and the mind. His latest book is “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” (Allen Lane)

Is anxiety a small price to pay for progress?
We know as we take on the responsibilities of adulthood we can get more anxious. There was some evidence, for example, that showed there was a rise in Americans’ anxiety from the 1950s to the 1990s. But part of this anxiety comes from issues that their ancestors were complacent about; like pollution, war, inequality and poverty. And as we start to shoulder the burden of species-wide maturity, it’s hardly surprising that it comes with some amount of anxiety.

Why do you argue that people place too much emphasis on economic inequality in society?
For all the obsession with inequality over the last decade or so, it really is not a fundamental dimension of human well-being. If Bill Gates has a house that is 30 times the size of mine, it still doesn’t affect how I live my life; unless you assume that there is a fixed pot of money and the more some people have, the less others have.

What matters morally is not inequality but poverty: how well people are at the bottom. If you can see your child survive, can take vacations or sample the world’s culture, and are adequately fit, those are the world’s primary goods. But whether you do that to the same [degree] as someone else is really incidental.

Surely inequality implies other problems.
Yes there are [other problems]. Poverty being one. The other being unfairness. Societies in which there is inequality are societies in which the wealthy have too much political power. But the problem is really about keeping the integrity of the democratic system intact and preventing the wealthy from having too much influence.

You argue that there are more natural resources available in the world today than in 1960.
A lot of the environmental panics in the last 50 years have come from a mental model in which people think there is a lump of resources which we have been digging out at a constant rate and at some stage we will scoop out the last morsel. That hasn’t happened with oil, which stoked the most panic. As the easiest deposits of a resource are exploited, it becomes increasingly expensive to get at the rest. Economies adjust to the availability and depletion of resources. Which is why resources don’t get depleted.

Do societies need more than resources?
People need ideas, not just core resources. And ideas are part of an infinite universe of possibilities that never get exhausted. People need ways of heating their homes, of getting around, of making things, keeping fed and clothed.What they use depends on their ingenuity.

Why do you place so much emphasis on GDP (gross domestic product) when judging progress?
GDP is a crude measure of a society’s prosperity. But it’s still the best measure we have. The question is not why GDP is the best index of prosperity, but why prosperity correlates with so many other good things in life. Even when quantitative measures are coarse, they are better than no measures at all, because in the absence of data, you’re never entitled to use words like better, worse, improve or deteriorate.

Bobby Kennedy said in 1968 that GDP measured everything but “that which made life worthwhile”.
The wisecracks by Kennedy are childish. Things that make life worthwhile – schools, clinics, medicine, sanitation, fertilisers that prevent hunger, tractors that liberate children from farm labour, appliances that liberate women from the kitchen, clean energy – cost money. For people in rich countries to blow off the aspirations of people in poor countries to get richer is callous. Societies that are wealthy – however you measure them – are also better educated, more liberal, more concerned with the environment, more democratic, and less likely to go to war.

How does that last point square with the fact that a wealthy country like Britain has had troops engaged in combat almost every year since 1914?
That’s like saying: “How does the assertion of global warming square with the fact that it snowed yesterday?” Generalisations about societies are statistical, and don’t apply to every instance. Great powers like the UK and US do get embroiled in more interstate wars than other countries, but the majority of wealthy societies are not great powers. Also, the generalisation applies most strongly to civil wars, the major kind of war taking place today, and Britain has not had a civil war since 1745.

Yet Britain’s prosperity partly rests on the manufacture of weapons that are used in conflicts.
“Less likely to go to war” means “less likely to go to war”, not “doesn’t manufacture weapons”. Weapons don’t start wars all by themselves.

You argue that the left-right divide is reductive.
These constant divisions are a deplorable trend, although this is happening more and more in our culture. Experiments have shown that people who are committed to a left-wing or right-wing ideology will be so eager to read information that confirms their beliefs that they will make simple maths errors in analysing a table of numbers on a politicised issue – like, say, gun control.

Is it really possible to be free of any ideology?
I’m not sure what “free of any ideology” means. Of course all decisions have to be in the service of particular values, such as enhancing human welfare, but an ideology embraces beliefs about the world that are derived from a theory rather than motivated by evidence. As such there are grave dangers in basing decisions on an ideology, namely that the policies will not accomplish the desired goals.

Are you optimistic about humanity’s future?
Climate change and nuclear war are the two biggest threats. But solutions exist, and we can find better ones.

You see entropy as key to our condition. Why?
Because there are so many ways for things to be in a state of disorder rather than order, then by the laws of probability all systems will tend towards disorder. Without the intervention of energy, or human intelligence, things fall apart. What we need to explain is not why things go wrong. Everything will go wrong. We need to concentrate our efforts on how things can go right.