Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism

The legendary scientist argues that things are getting better, not worse. If only he could get the world to believe him.

Darryn King
Jan 10 · 11 min read
Illustration: Paul Lacolly

The rise of populism. The threat of domestic and international terrorism. The destruction of the environment. In recent years, you’d be forgiven for getting the feeling that the world was on a fast-accelerating slide.

But in two recent books — The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress — cognitive scientist Steven Pinker set out to demonstrate quite the opposite: that life is better now than it has ever been.

Armed with data encompassing everything from the tone of the news to the declining rate of violence worldwide to the potential for death by lightning strike, Pinker also argues that a culture of pessimism has rendered the very notion of progress unfashionable.

For this month’s forward-looking theme, we spoke with Pinker about Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment thinking, distortions of worldview, and reasons for not despairing about the state of the world.


MEDIUM: Steven, we’ll get to the specific themes of ‘Enlightenment Now,’ but first let’s tie in your expertise in linguistics. What are we to make of the fact that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones?

Steven Pinker: I think it reflects the fact that we have greater diversity of negative emotions than positive emotions. There are a lot of ways to be upset and not as many ways to be happy.

Are we generally more galvanized by negative thoughts than those of optimism and hopefulness?

It depends on our assessment of how our actions can affect the world. That is, if you are optimistic in the sense that good things will happen no matter what you do, then there’s no need to do anything. But if you have an attitude of what Hans Rosling called “possibilism” and what Paul Romer, the winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, called “constructive optimism,” that attitude can lead to action. Again, with that variety of optimism, it’s not that good things will happen; it’s an if-then statement—namely, if we perform the following actions, then positive results could ensue.

What did the reaction to your research and writing, both in ‘Enlightenment Now’ and ‘Better Angels of Our Nature,’ suggest to you about why people are resistant to optimism?

One problem is the nature of journalism, which covers events, not trends: Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and many consist of things that don’t happen — such as wars in most of the world.

Another is the biblical prophet syndrome, in which journalists and intellectuals who accentuate the negative are considered serious and moral — and it’s always easy to predict doom if you compile a list of all the worst things that are happening anywhere in the world at a given time. Both of these feed into a cognitive bias, the availability heuristic, in which we base our sense of risk and danger on anecdotes and images that are available from memory.

Finally, people misunderstand progress. Both cynics and believers think of it as a mysterious force that lifts the world upward, rather than the result of problem-solving.

On the nature of journalism, you’ve pointed out that the tone of the news has become increasingly bleak over the past few decades.

Part of it might be the increased scope of journalism — that events happening anywhere in the world can be reported because of improvements in the technology. And part of it may be the culture of journalism, where journalists are so fearful of being propagandists or handmaidens to power and see their moral duty as exposing corruption and injustice that they tilt toward the negative to carry out a moral mission. We know that’s part of the answer: Studies that present editors with positive and negative stories, or positive and negative framings of a given story, show that they opt for the negative. And I’ve encountered journalists who will say things like, “Well, positive developments aren’t news. They’re advertising. They’re propaganda, propagating government information.” It’s like Prada announcing that sales of high heels are 10 percent higher this year.

It’s also easy to get the impression that a specific form of violence—active shooter incidents—is on an exponential rise. Yet you’ve made the case that rates of violence on the whole have decreased worldwide.

Well, active shooter incidents are not on an exponential rise. That’s a typical journalist’s distortion of reality. They actually represent a tiny fraction of the violence in the world. Ordinary homicides—the kinds that police deal with day in, day out—kill hundreds of times more people than active shootings. Active shootings are designed to achieve saturation press coverage. It’s a deliberate manipulation of journalists by rampage shooters, who can be motivated by nothing other than gaining publicity. The publicity is way out of proportion to the actual rate of homicide, including the ones that don’t make the papers, which have, in the United States, been going downward for the past 25 years. And over the course of history, they have been going down for centuries.

You’d say that journalists are perhaps well meaning but irresponsible?

I think there is some irresponsibility, yes. In giving such lavish coverage, especially showing the name, the face, and often the manifesto of the shooter, together with calling attention to the fact that a particular shooter, for example, broke the record for the number of people killed in a day, which is basically an invitation to the next shooter to try to break that record.

Speaking of disproportionate risk assessment, it’s a cliché now that we’re more afraid of our plane crashing than texting while driving, which statistically is far more lethal. What’s getting in the way of us assessing danger more rationally?

I think there are hardwired biases in our assessment of probability and risk—namely, that we’ve always had our own search engine for memory. It is, on average, a guide to frequency. If you estimate that there are more sparrows in the city than red-breasted nuthatches because you can’t remember the last time you saw a red-breasted nuthatch, you would be correct. Very often your own experience is a rough-and-ready guide to frequency in the world.

But now that we have data, and we have ways of tabulating events that are outside our own experience, it takes a conscious effort to use those data as opposed to our own experience. Unless people are aware that their own intuitions are likely to be biased and that they should discount their intuitions and consult the statistics, they will naturally fall back on their own imagination and their own memory. There’s a lot of research being done on de-biasing—that is, teaching people to circumvent their own cognitive biases and illusions. And that research shows that it is not impossible, but difficult.

So, in your research for your past two books, did you come to a conclusion as to what is the single biggest danger facing the human race?

The climate would be one of them. The threat of nuclear would be another, not because I think it’s particularly likely, but because the consequences could be so disastrous that it deserves our attention, even if it is improbable. And as a general phenomenon, whether it’s the rise of political extremism, whether it’s authoritarian populism on the right, or Marxism and its variants on the left.

The recent paper by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) posited that we’re on course for disaster. But you point out in your book that we have made progress.

I don’t know that we will do the right thing. It’s incorrect to extrapolate that the fact that we’ve made progress is a prediction that we’re guaranteed to make progress. People have so much trouble understanding the concept of progress that they misinterpret data showing that we have made progress as a mystical force that will make things turn out all right, no matter what we do. And that is certainly not the lesson to be drawn from data that we’ve made progress on various measures so far. What will happen to the climate will very much depend on what we do at this point.

You were some way into writing ‘Enlightenment Now’ when the most radically counter-Enlightenment figure imaginable came into office. How did that influence your thinking in writing the book?

The natural forces of the universe militate against progress: the second law of thermodynamics, the conflicts inherent in evolution. It is only by a commitment to the values of the Enlightenment that progress can happen. And there’s no guarantee that it will prevail, because we know that ever since the Enlightenment unfolded, there have been counter-Enlightenment forces of nationalism, of authoritarianism, of religion as a magical thinking, of demonization, that are probably rooted in human nature and always have the potential to push back against the ideals of the Enlightenment. The rise of authoritarian populism, including Donald Trump, would be a prime example.

Trump is a classic counter-Enlightenment figure. And we are seeing a pushback against Enlightenment values that made it, for me, all the more important to make the case for those values. Because people are apt to forget them. And, in fact, a lot of the commentary in the press, including the left-wing press, has failed to acknowledge the gifts of Enlightenment, of science, of reasons, of liberal democracy, of cosmopolitanism, and cleared the ground for authoritarian populism by almost conceding that the institutions of modernity are all failing and therefore leaving the field open for someone to claim that we need to lurch backwards.

Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: Problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas.

Can you elaborate on the threat of Marxism you mentioned earlier? You’ve commented before on the dangers of the academic, intellectual world being dominated by it.

None of us is omniscient, none of us is infallible, and we know from the history of ideas for the progress of science that, unless you have an open debate, then knowledge is impossible. And if there is a demonological view of history and the world — that there are oppressive forces and liberationist forces, that progress comes from liberationists vanquishing the oppressors, and that the designated oppressors therefore have no right to present their views — then that is bound to lead to error and possibly oppression. The self-appointed liberators themselves, being human, are apt to a magnify their own wisdom and virtue.

A number of years ago, you wrote about a sort of moral panic that was fueled by what you called a “growing sexual assault bureaucracy” as a result of a number of high-profile cases of rape on college campuses. Have you revisited those thoughts in the time of #MeToo and #TimesUp?

I don’t know if it’s a moral panic, but certainly there is an illiberal response to the fears of an epidemic of sexual abuse on campus. We know that it has led to injustices, such as the wrongful expulsion and tarnishing of an innocent accused. I have actually had female students write to me saying they’ve heard rumors that some scientists are afraid of accepting female graduate students because if any of them makes an accusation of a sexual harassment in an atmosphere where you believe the victim, it’s impossible for them to defend themselves. They don’t really want to take the chance. So that’s a negative consequence of having a policy that is not driven by principles of evidence.

And a third is that accusations of sexual misconduct, if they are not based on fact and evidence, can be used as a weapon to attack enemies, such as the accusation that Robert Mueller, the director of the investigation about Russian interference in the election, has been the target of a presumably bogus accusation. You can see the potential for abuse: If victims are always believed, then anyone can be accused of anything, no matter how innocent. That is, of course, why standards of justice arose in the first place, because by many people’s standards of justice, where an accusation of, say, witchcraft is sufficient to burn a witch, it’s clear how that led to horrific abuses. And that’s why we have rule of law, principles of justice, and rights such as confronting one’s accuser — things that go back to the Constitution, and probably before that to the Magna Carta. It would be unwise go back to the Middle Ages when it comes to accusations of wrongdoing.

While arguing that life has vastly improved, you also point out that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Is there any data that gives you cause for optimism about what’s in store the future of our species?

One is that the major positive trends — prosperity, longevity, education, peace, democracy­ — are not doing a U-turn, despite panicky claims of the past two years.

Another is that many ideas are being developed for supplying carbon-free energy to the world, including fourth-generation nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, large-scale storage of energy generated by renewables, and even nuclear fusion.

A third is that the world may have reached peak populism: The number of countries led by nationalist populist governments has plateaued over eight years, and populist policies are facing strong pushback.

How can we combat our own pessimistic tendencies?

As I said in the book, remember your math: An anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: The fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a crisis, plague, epidemic, or existential threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: Problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas.

I’m more aware of how our norms can change for the better if people use their ingenuity to come up with better ways that we can manage our affairs.

On a more personal note, has your research into the Enlightenment values influenced the way you live your own life?

It has reinforced to me the importance of self-control and emotional regulation, of taking other people’s opinions into account, and double- and triple-checking my own intuitions and gut feelings. And it has also engaged me more in both politics and philanthropy. I think I’ve been reminded of how much progress we’ve made. I was apt to think that charity was just a means of feeling good about yourself, that political action was a way to feel a form of do-goodism that didn’t really lead to any progress. Now I’m more aware of how our laws, our norms, can change for the better if people use their ingenuity to come up with better ways that we can manage our affairs and apply pressure to implement them.

So, in saying that violence has decreased, you’re saying that civilization has ennobled an essentially nasty, violent species?

Well, nobler. Noble would be an overstatement. But I would say yes. I think a species that has managed to outgrow tribal feuding, sacrifice, slavery, and possibly interstate war has become nobler despite itself. Not because our impulses have gotten nobler, but simply because we’ve developed a workaround for the ignoble parts of our nature. We’re an inventive species that has the means to not only come up with new ideas but also share them using language, learn from our mistakes, retain innovations that work, and every once in a while, we figure out a way of taming our dark side. And if we retain those as part of our norms and institutions, then we can behave better, even if we haven’t become any better.

One last question, because I noticed your music selection for ‘Desert Island Discs’ a few years ago, where the most recent piece of music you chose was Elvis Costello’s song ‘God’s Comic’ from 1989. If the theme of our discussion today is that life has gotten better, will you at least admit that music and music tastes have declined?

[Laughs.] Well, I actually worry about that, because that is my intuition. But based on the self-doubt we just talked about, I have to check myself before saying it, because I know that it’s what every generation says. I do ask my students about their favorite period of music — this is a generation that was unborn when my musical tastes were formed — and a number of them listen to Simon and Garfunkel, Marvin Gaye, and so on and tell me that the best time for popular music was the ’60s and ’70s. So that’s a useful reality check before I leap to the intuitive conclusion that popular music has gone downhill.

2069
2069
2069

About this MAGAZINE

2069

Bionic brains. Robots. Cutting-edge efforts to blunt the effects of climate change. The future of health care, and tech, and business. Our January issue of Medium magazine — 2069 — draws on reporting, expertise, and imagination to predict what life will be like in the next 50 years.

Bionic brains. Robots. Cutting-edge efforts to blunt the effects of climate change. The future of health care, and tech, and business. Our January issue of Medium magazine — 2069 — draws on reporting, expertise, and imagination to predict what life will be like in the next 50 years.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade