Enlightenment Now by Pinker: Review, Criticism, Summary

enlightenment now book cover

Enlightenment Now (2018) describes how the values of the Enlightenment, such as science, reason, and humanism, have led to constant progress since their inception. The world has never been better, implies Steven Pinker, and it will keep getting better, if we defend and promote the Enlightenment values.

Bullet Summary

  • There is a negative bias in the news, which makes people more scared and depressed than they should be
  • But the truth is that thanks to the enlightenment, the world has improved for the better
  • The enlightenment ideals are reason, science, humanism, which naturally lead to progress
  • If we stick to those, we’ll solve all our problems

Summary

About the Author: Steven Pinker is one of the most popular and influential intellectuals today. He also wrote “The Better Angels of Our Nature“, “How the Mind Works” and “The Blank Slate“.

We Need to be More Convinced of Enlightenment Ideals

The West is shy of its values. 
Contrast that with the Islamic State, which knows exactly what it stands for.
Why it matters?
Because that certainty is very seductive.
People gravitate towards certainties.

So, Steven Pinker seems to suggest, the West should more openly and more strongly embrace the ideals of Enlightenment.

I agree with Pinker.
In the absence of an ideal, people will pick their own ideals. Or they will take whatever ideal comes from the latest charismatic leader. And those ideals are often not for their own good.

News Are Inherently Biased

People tend to believe that the world is far worse than it really is.

Partially it’s because of human’s normal cognition, which focuses more on the negatives than on the positives.
In part, it’s because negative news sell more.
And in part, it’s because news is inherently skewed towards the negative.

You will never hear a reporter tune in and say: “I’m reporting live now in a country where no was has yet broken out”.

News also only reports upticks, and not general trends.
You will never hear that “violence is on a general trend decline”, but you will hear of all the episodes of violence. And of all the times that violence has been increasing in this or that city.
And that despite the fact that violence, says Pinker, is on a general decline.

Pinker also introduces research showing how news has gotten gloomier over the years.

The Reasons Why Poverty Has Declined

Steven Pinker says that poverty declined because of three factors:

  • The global retreat of communism
  • The spread of capitalism
  • The spread of democracy
  • The increasing number of level-headed humanistic leaders
  • The end of the cold war
  • Globalization

Defending globalization, Pinker quotes:

Some argue that globalization is a neo-liberal conspiracy designed to enrich a very few at the expense of the many. If so, that conspiracy was a disastrous failure.
Or at least, it helped more than a billion people as an unintended consequence. 
If only unintended consequences always worked so favorably..

Where We Improved (The Effects of Progress)

These are  the areas Pinker describes a measurable and quantitative improvement:

  • Life: We all live longer, and better lives.
  • Health: We have conquered many threats of infectious diseases that killed people by the millions. Our general health has improved, and we get less sick 
  • Sustenance: Hunger and famine are less and less frequent. People are better fed today than they have ever been. Weight problems today are on being too fat, which, Pinker says, is a much better problem. Much of that improvement is because of technology applied to agriculture, and genetic engineering will keep making things better 
  • Wealth: Since the beginning of the Enlightenment, wealth has increased almost two hundredfold. This happened everywhere in the world, not just in the West. Thanks to science and technology, a poor man today lives better than a king a few hundred years ago.
  • Safety: Deaths from accidents have decreased as technology makes our lives safer, even though we keep moving more and doing more of what we did in the past. 
  • Quality of life: We work less and accomplish more 
  • War & Peace: Violence, both in wars and violent crimes, has reduced. Today we have international institutions, led by better educated people, which help avoid conflict
  • Democracy: Democracy is expanding, and that’s a good thing
  • Equal rights: Racism, sexism, homophobia, they are all on long-term declines
  • Knowledge: People are better educated than ever, and learning more and more

Individuals Must Come Before Groups

This is possibly the concept I like most in “Enlightenment Now”.

And, incidentally, the one I also agree the most with.

Pinker says that one of the counter-Enlightenment ideas is that individuals are the expendable cells of a superorganism.
A clan, a tribe, a religion, or a nation. And that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity instead of the well-being of the people who make it up.

This is also the same mistake that some extremist manosphere authors and feminist writers fall into. 
They focus on the well-being of their gender, which often ends up looking like “my gender against your gender”.

Steven Pinker even goes as far as quoting, and indirectly criticizing, the famous Kennedy’s words of “ask what you can do for your country, not what your country can do for you”.

I applaud Pinker for saying that, but I wish he had been even clearer against nationalism.

Also read:

And, most of all:

Threats to Enlightenment 

Counter-Enlightenment ideas we need to be wary of:

  • Religion
  • The “group above individual” ideals, where people become expendable cells of a bigger organism
  • Declinism, or the idea that we are getting worse and worse
  • Anti-scientific speech, based on the idea that science should not encroach on religion, ethics, or values. And based on the idea that science is the foundation of this or that social ill
  • Romantic green movement, such as the subordination of people to the ecosystem (in contrast to “humanistic environmentalism”)
greta thunberg angry with media manipulation comments

Clean Environment is A Tradeoff

Steven Pinker says that the environment might be not as pristine as it was a million years ago, but we should not be fundamentalists about it.

A clean environment is a tradeoff.
If people have to choose between some smog and electricity, they will tolerate some smog.

And as countries get richer, they naturally start caring more about the environment. 

There Is No Population Bomb

Pinker denies the risks of overpopulation.

He says that as countries get richer, they also slow down population growth. 
First, they go through a “demographic transition”. As they get richer, the population swells. But it’s not because they breed like rabbits, but because they stop dying like flies.

Then, eventually, birth rates adjust, and the population stabilizes.

The world population growth has already peaked and slowed down. 
And will hover around 0 in 2070.

Personal Ideologies and Convictions Blind People to Truth

This one was of my favorite parts, and the most relevant to people’s psychology and to this website’s credo.

Steven Pinker says that big ideologies blind people to the truth.

And people who are the best at understanding trends -and reality- are those who do not belong to any ideology.
And they are better at forecasting future events.
Says Pinker:

(the best forecasters) Are anti-impulsive, distrusting their first gut feeling.
They are neither left-wing nor right-wing. They aren’t necessarily humble about their abilities, but they are humble about particular beliefs, treating them as “hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.”

A strong ideology always biases people.
The “experts” were the wrongest exactly when the predictions happened to be within their realm of expertise -probably because they held the strongest beliefs there-.

Political Affiliation Makes People Biased

It’s not true that conservatives are more prejudiced. Sure, they might be more prejudiced against minorities, but liberals are more prejudiced against religious Christians.

And both conservatives and liberals fared poorly at basic tests on economics that were designed to trigger typical liberals or conservative causes.
Such as, people didn’t answer with what was true, but what their political doctrine dictates.

People with a strong belief are usually sealed off to new information. When a new piece of information doesn’t fit with their world view, they look for anything that would discredit the source.
And they end being even more entrenched in their own beliefs.

To Convince Conservatives of Climate Change We Need More Conservatives, Not More Scientists

People pick their beliefs based on their belongings.

That’s why more scientists aren’t going to help people conservatives change their minds on global warming.
Instead, we need more conservatives to embrace the cause of global warming, showing people that it’s OK to do something about global warming and still be a conservative.

More Wisdom

  • The digitalization of technology is helping us decrease waste
  • Global warming is real
  • We won’t solve the climate change with individual acts of virtue signaling
  • The climate is a public goods game, presenting the typical threat of the tragedy of commons
  • There is no data that Trump’s election brought an increase of hate crime. Beware of NGOs who have a hidden agenda
  • The best predictor of Trump support was pessimism
  • The discovery of cognitive and emotional biases doesn’t mean we are irrational (a zinger to Dan Ariely with “Predictably Irrational” and Daniel Kahnemann with “Thinking Fast and Slow“)
  • We need more science and less literature in school
  • Nietzsche’s philosophy is the philosophy of sociopathy

Quotes

On Enlightenment principles:

The the Enlightenment principles, that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old fashioned. I wrote this book because I have come to realize that it is not.

On the individual above groups:

A second counter-Enlightenment idea is that people are the expendable cells of a super-organism—a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class, or nation—and that the supreme good is the glory of this collectivity rather than the well-being of the people who make it up.

And again, on the individual freedom trumping his group or leader:

It’s quite another thing when a person is forced to make the supreme sacrifice for the benefit of a charismatic leader, a square of cloth, or colors on a map.

On who writes history:

History is not so much written by the victors, as by the affluent. 
The sliver of humanity with the leisure and dedication to write about it.

Pinker lists capitalism and globalization as the major causes of the rise in well-being.
But also to Mao:

Mao single-handedly and dramatically changed the direction of global poverty with one simple act. He died.

On the extremization of conservative politics:

Intellectual and political polarization feed each other.
It’s hard to be a conservative intellectual when American conservative politics has become steadily know-nothing, from Ronald Reagan to Dane Quale, to Jeorge Bush, to Sarah Palin, to Donald Trump

On political correctness contributing to extremization:

The capture of the left by identity politicians, political correctness police, and social justice warriors creates an opening for loud mouths to brag for telling it how it is

On reason VS tribalism:

The challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason, rather than by tribalism.

Amen to that.

Criticism

I loved this book, but there is much to criticize:

1. Pinker forgets the past doesn’t equal the future

More than once Pinker resorts to the argument that because something went well in the past, that’s the proof that it will go well in the future as well.

For example, his argument against the threat of resource depletion, includes the countless previous calls for “peak oil” which have always been proven wrong.

His argument for infinite growth is that “the world has always moved past a certain resource before that resource ever became scarce”.
Does it then mean that human growth will keep on going unabated just because it has done so, so far?
Again, another trend-extrapolation to infinity which makes no sense.

His argument against the danger of AI includes the Year 2000 fears that proved all exaggerated.

And of course, Pinker’s case against nuclear weapons dangers rests, in good part, on the failed forecasts of apocalyptic Armageddon. 

I think it’s idiotic to take what happened in the past as proof that things will go well in the future.
Like Nassim Taleb says, there were many pundits in Rome and Athens who got famous and popular saying that “Rome / Athens always come back”. Until they didn’t, of course.

2. Resources will never deplete? It makes no sense

Steven Pinker is quick to make fun of old prediction of resources depletion that never materialized.

He contrasts those failed predictions with today’s prices of some raw materials, which have never been lower.
He seems to imply that raw material will never run out.

But that makes little sense. 
A finite resource will eventually run out, no matter how wrong the calls for when they would run out were in the past.

3. Strawmen arguments to win easily: debating against made-up foes

Pinker seems to see a lot of enemies of the Enlightenment. 

Sometimes, he seems to exaggerate them, to make his point stronger -and to increase the need for his book and opinion-.

In “The Blank Slate” his enemies were feminists and left-wing colleagues. These enemies have not disappeared, but Pinker also found new ones.

The new enemies are the simpletons and backward forces against progress, which are to be found even among scientists and academics.

Says Pinker:

“Intellectual magazines regularly denounce “scientism,” the intrusion of science into the territory of the humanities such as politics and the arts. In many colleges and universities, science is presented not as the pursuit of true explanations but as just another narrative or myth. Science is commonly blamed for racism, imperialism, world wars, and the Holocaust. And it is accused of robbing life of its enchantment and stripping humans of freedom and dignity.”

“Regularly”?
Like, how regularly?

And I’d really like to see a few examples of universities where science is presented as a myth.
Who presents science as a myth, exactly?

And what’s the percentage of people doing it?
Because I think it would be incredibly small. 

And again, he says:

“It’s time to retire the morality play in which modern humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers who will hasten the apocalypse unless they undo the Industrial Revolution, renounce technology, and return to an ascetic harmony with nature.”

I actually fully agree with him.
But… Who is actually so extremist to call for the undoing of all technology?

It’s tempting to enlarge our enemies, make them bigger villains… So that we can look like bigger heroes by contrast. 
But I expect better from an enlightened scientist.

4. Never corrects his previous work, but sure loves attacking his critics

Pinker seems more intent in defending his previous work than in correcting and making it better.

This is something I have noticed in his previous books, updates, and answers to critics as well.

It’s the same here.
He pokes fun at the “people who can’t seem to accept that things are getting better”.

And of course, he conveniently picks easy targets to make his arguments sound more compelling.
For example, here is how he presents the criticism to his thesis that violence has gone down (thesis with which I agree, by the way):

So violence has declined linearly since the beginning of history. Awesome.

Or:

How can you predict that violence will keep going down, a war could break out tomorrow

Pinker addresses the most boneheaded criticism of his work.
But he does not mention the valid criticism to his data as pointed out, for example, by Nassim Taleb and, even better, by Robert Sapolsky.

5. Arguments based on ego, or ideas?

Pinker sometimes seems busier discussing who’s right or wrong -he is right, of course- than on providing neutral analyses and theories.

The time he spends defending himself and his previous work feels like a lot of wasted time, and unneeded space.

Here is an example:

As for the accusations of romanticism I can reply with some confidence. 
I am also the author of the staunchly unromantic, anti-utopian book “The Blank Slate”, in which I argue that.. 

It’s fair to discuss criticism. But it should be quick, and based on ideas and data. 
A scientist shouldn’t discuss based on personality and personal beliefs, but based on data and ideas.
I don’t say this lightly, but Pinker sometimes comes across as a guy with a huge ego.

6. Unconvincing on economic inequality “not mattering” for happiness

Steven Pinker says that “people are content with economic inequality, as long as they feel the country is meritocratic”.

Hmm, interesting. 
I agree.

But I disagree with the idea that people are not unhappy when they see they are much poorer.
There is much psychological evidence that crime rises when inequality rises.
Social psychology also shows that people are social animals. And that people’s happiness hinges, in large part, on their comparison with others.

7. Irrationally optimistic (AKA: Biased)

It feels like the author is not looking for truth, but for evidence that confirms his own theory.

It’s funny, because this is what Pinker says in this same book about the forecasters who did the poorest in their predictions:

The forecasters who did the worst were the ones with Big Ideas—left-wing or right-wing, optimistic or pessimistic—which they held with an inspiring (but misguided) confidence.
(…)
They kept pushing their analyses to the limit (and then some), using terms like “furthermore” and “moreover” while piling up reasons why they were right and others wrong.

Oh, the irony.

8. The “nature is a war” fallacy

Pinker cites part of his previous work in “How the Mind Works” and reminds us that “nature is a war”.

This is topic relatively common in modern evolutionary psychology, and David Buss also says the same.

Yet, that’s looking only at one aspect of nature and life.
Nature and life is a war, OK. But it’s also cooperation. Take our gut bacteria, for example: they’re not at war with us, but they survive while they help us survive.

There are countless examples of cooperation in nature.

9. Did philanthropism and international help really improve the third world?

Steven Pinker says that part of the reason the poorer areas of the world are improving is because of rich men philanthropism and Western government support.

He mentions Bill Gates, of course, which was mandatory since Bill Gates is always so kind towards Pinker (and helps him spread his books).

However, I am a bit more doubtful as to how much philanthropism can actually help.
Especially when the recipients of international help are governed by a dictator. 
See “The Dictator’s Handbook” for the rationale.

10. The Silliness That Terrorism is Ineffective

This is a common mistake many people commit.

They look at how many deaths terrorism has caused, and then they say “see? It’s ineffective, we are all getting too scared for nothing”.
Nassim Taleb correctly calls this “naive empiricism”.

But that fails to look at the costs of preventing terrorism.
Has Pinker gone through any airport recently?
The costs of 9/11 and terrorism, in general, are immense. The costs of security, inconvenience and, of course, the most limited resource we possess: time.
And everyone is paying it.

PROS

I list a lot of criticism.
Yet, this is a fundamental book for everyone to understand progress, together with what drives that progress.

  • A manifesto to science, reason, humanism: I couldn’t agree more

I agree with everything Steven Pinker says on the true blessing of the Enlightenment ideals.
Science, reason, humanism, they all lead to progress and better lives.

Let that be your religion.

  • The group must serve the individuals that form it, not the other way around. The individual can’t be sacrificed for the group

Amen to that.
I see way too many people today appealing to group belonging. Including feminism, men’s right movements, nationalists, religions, etc.
That’s fascist and backward. 

CONS

On top of the criticism above:

  • Great manifesto, but poorer analysis

“Enlightenment Now” is a great manifesto to scientific and enlightenment ideals.

  • Biased towards optimism

Pinker seeks to force optimism in every single topic it analyzes, though, and that makes his analyses come across as biased.

I actually agree with most of what Pinker says.
Yet, I also find it preposterous to take every single issue and threat, present and future, and somewhat turn it into a “it’s all good, we’ll solve it”.

  • Too much space wasted on Donald Trump

“Enlightenment Now” could be a manifesto for reason, science and humanism.
Pinker shouldn’t have wasted too much on Trump. 
Two decades from now, Trump will be gone, and this will feel “old”.

Instead, the values it espouses are immortal. 
That’s why he should have avoided wasting time with the most recent events.

Review

“The good has won”.

That’s what Steven Pinker seems to suggest.
And that’s true. In large part.
But since Pinker takes it to an extreme, that’s also the limitation of this book.
Triumphalism rarely made for good analyses based on reason.

The second issue I had to personally move past, was with the author.
I might be wrong here, and I might revise my opinion in the future. But today, from the little that I saw, I find him to be a covertly aggressive bully. He is smart, so he knows well how to position his attacks to make them seem based on ideas.
But he is very bellicose, and he argues for status more than for ideas.

Still, I give “Enlightenment Now” 5/5.
Both as individuals and as a society, we can only get better if we embrace the ideals of Enlightenment. 

Edit: I demoted to 4.5 as I reflected more on the limits of “Pinker’s exuberant optimism”. Especially when it comes to environment and overpopulation.

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