Getting Better All The Time


Steven Pinker has been garnering attention for his book Enlightenment Now, in some sense a spiritual sequel to his earlier book The Better Angels Of Our Nature. In the latter, earlier work, Pinker asserted that life is on the whole becoming less violent and more generally livable, despite whatever in-the-moment bad news we might see. Pinker's right, but the way he makes his case is a study in self-sabotage.

I'm going to reproduce the quote from the linked article in full for that reason. I'm operating under the assumption the excerpt below is an accurate representation of the book's stance and not a selectively malicious mischaracterization of it, since from all I've heard this is not only the substance of Pinker's argument but the tone and tenor of it, too.

Deric's MindBlog: Progressophobia

Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves “progressive” really hate progress. It’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you: most pundits, critics, and their bien-pensant readers use computers rather than quills and inkwells, and they prefer to have their surgery with anesthesia rather than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class.

In History of the Idea of Progress, the sociologist Robert Nisbet agreed: “The skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the nineteenth century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this final quarter of the century, but to many millions of other people in the West.”

The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.It’s easy to see how the Availability heuristic, stoked by the news policy “If it bleeds, it leads,” could induce a sense of gloom about the state of the world.

Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count. How many people are victims of violence as a proportion of the number of people alive? How many are sick, how many starving, how many poor, how many oppressed, how many illiterate, how many unhappy? And are those numbers going up or down?

Seeing how journalistic habits and cognitive biases bring out the worst in each other, how can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count. How many people are victims of violence as a proportion of the number of people alive? How many are sick, how many starving, how many poor, how many oppressed, how many illiterate, how many unhappy? And are those numbers going up or down?

The incredulous reaction to Better Angels convinced me that it isn’t just the Availability heuristic that makes people fatalistic about progress. Nor can the media’s fondness for bad news be blamed entirely on a cynical chase for eyeballs and clicks. No, the psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper. The deepest is a bias that has been summarized in the slogan “Bad is stronger than good.” The idea can be captured in a set of thought experiments suggested by Tversky. How much better can you imagine yourself feeling than you are feeling right now? How much worse can you imagine yourself feeling?...

The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise. (As a psycholinguist I am compelled to add that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones.)

In the wake of the 2016 American election, the New York Times writers David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg reflected on the media’s role in its shocking outcome: Trump was the beneficiary of a belief—near universal in American journalism—that “serious news” can essentially essentially be defined as “what’s going wrong.” . . . For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root. . . . One consequence is that many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change.

…the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.

And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.

Information about human progress, though absent from major news outlets and intellectual forums, is easy enough to find. The data are not entombed in dry reports but are displayed in gorgeous Web sites, particularly Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder. (Rosling learned that not even swallowing a sword during a 2007 TED talk was enough to get the world’s attention.) The case has been made in beautifully written books, some by Nobel laureates, which flaunt the news in their titles—Progress, The Progress Paradox, Infinite Progress, The Infinite Resource……none was awarded with a major prize, but over the period in which they appeared, Pulitzers in nonfiction were given to four books on genocide, three on terrorism, two on cancer, two on racism, and one on extinction.

The first thing that strikes me about all this is the tone: Quit yer bitchin'.

That's bad enough. But beyond that, on the rhetorical level, Pinker's argument is underlaid by something that I can only think of as a categorical error, and one so fundamental I'm of the belief he doesn't even think he's making it.

First, I think Pinker's most central assertions — that life is markedly better for all of us now than it was a century ago, or even a decade ago — are correct. But I think the way Pinker defends this insight leads him into all sorts of idiotic rhetorical yoga, and causes him to miss a fundamental point.

The reason there's such a focus on the negative is because that's how said progress takes place at all. The arc of history bends towards justice, but only because tons of people are grabbing it and yanking it for dear life.

When Pinker says that intellectuals (which ones?) "hate" progress, or that people have taken a fatalistic attitude towards it, I think he is ignoring how at least some of that is skepticism that progress happens automatically. Such skepticism is evinced both by people who have legitimate and well-placed concerns, and by those who are simply pouncing on that one atom of truth to weaponize the rest of the conversation around it. But those who are sincere about the world's problems still have to focus on what's wrong and how it could be made right — although not because we find modernity insufferable or because we think there's no hope. It's because the only way we push back the dark tide is by being ever-vigilant of what shores it threatens to wash away.

Another thing worth noting here, although others have gone into it in greater detail, is how Pinker's approach constitutes a bad emotional argument. Individual people are not typically persuaded by statistics, especially if those statistics run directly contrary to their own personal experiences. They are persuaded by emotional arguments, and they care less about the state of the world as a whole than they do their particular, immediate palpable slice of it. That said, in time you can (and should) use those emotional arguments as a lead-in to giving them the resources to think about their problems independent of their emotional contents.

But if someone just lost their son to a drunk driver, what's the point of blithely telling them that auto accidents have plummeted since the Fifties? Factually true as it is, it's not what matters to that person in that moment. I can't help but think the point of such an agenda is not to equip others with the tools to put their problems into perspective, but instead to avoid dealing with their pain.

Pinker's other assertion is that because of all this focus on negativity and problems, "many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change." I think he is, again, onto something useful: there's constructive and unconstructive ways to be skeptical about progress. But here again, I think the tone of his criticism is misguided. Reportage on what is broken in our world is not the chief reason why people are opting for radical solutions; it's the politics of resentment and revanchism that have driven people to seek them out, even when they yield only sour grapes. (If anything, that's the one bad-news story that has gone almost totally unreported in the last decade, and which needed it most.)

What I find hardest to figure out is what Pinker wants to accomplish by calling attention to this issue in this manner. Maybe he just wants nothing more than a plea for science writers to spread at least as much good news as they do bad. Or maybe to take ammunition away from those who think we're all doomed, doomed I tell you. That's all fine. The latter deserve to have their arguments shown up for what they are, and we could always use some more intelligent reporting and analysis (not Pollyanna-ism) about how things get better and why.

But from what I've seen, it's hard to take Pinker's argument as anything but a scolding that things are better than they used to be so stop whining already. Kind of an irony for someone purporting to be a champion of Enlightenment values, and god knows we need them more than ever these days.


Tags: Steven Pinker  politics  society  sociology 


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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2018/03/06 08:00.

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