Enlightenment Now

A colleague of Steven Pinker’s once told him: “I have observed many smart people who have little idea of how to logically think through a problem, who infer causation from correlation, and who use anecdotes as evidence far beyond the predictability warranted.”

Have you ever noticed this tendency in those who seem to have the strongest opinions? More importantly, have you ever noticed this glitch in your own world viewfinder? In almost every aspect of our lives–politics, news coverage, medical diagnosis and treatments, liberal arts, the humanities, your racist uncle at Thanksgiving, history, climate change, immigration–we just can´t help it.  And if you think the choice between deepening our collective understanding of the world and a reliance on ignorance and superstition is a no-brainer for everybody, sorry, it just ain’t so.

Because we humans are so vulnerable to our own cognitive biases and blind trust in our own “gut feelings” about questions that occur to us, we invariably get a distorted view of the state of the world.  Simply put, the world isn´t nearly as bad as you might think it is, and there are specific reasons why this is so.  In Enlightenment Now, Pinker not only relies heavily on data collected over time in graphs and charts (Max Roser´s graphs are wonderful and thorough. Click here to see), he explains why it is important to pay attention to this evidence, to understand how science and reason are often muddled in the public sphere, and to understand why things have gotten better.  He shows that the progress that the we have made as a species is quantifiable, despite the best efforts of influential people from all over the political spectrum to obfuscate and deny this fact. What has gone up globally? Life expectancy, GDP per capita, social spending, literacy, leisure time. What has gone down? For a start, work hours (in Europe and the US), costs of necessities, workplace-related deaths, terrorism deaths, rape and domestic violence, racist, sexist and homophobic opinions, natural disaster deaths, battle deaths, undernourishment, maternal mortality, extreme poverty, famine deaths, homicide deaths.

You may already be tempted to “whataboutery.”  What about ISIS? What about all these school shootings? I have personally overheard three different violent fights between a man and a woman in the last 6 months alone.  It is not the job of the statistics to ignore specific cases or highlight one or another, it simply represents averages and overall trends that come from the combination of objective observation and data gathering.  And it important to know how to read a graph and how to process statistics (which sometimes is surprisingly difficult).  I think the point of all these graphs isn´t to say that the problems they delineate don´t exist or are no longer important, it is to demonstrate the incredible progress we have made in the end.

Nor is Pinker suggesting that the path to progress is an easy one. There are many who surprisingly hate progress. And he argues that we are hard-wired to do stupid things: we follow passions, intuitions, faith, authority, gurus and celebrities and hunches, we rely on anecdote in lieu of logic and reason, we have a short-term memory, we relegate science to a corner when it conflicts with tradition. Many people even seem to reject ideas simply because they themselves do not understand them, and contend that to accept them is to be gullible. And nowhere is this more blatant than in the public reception of science. You must have noticed this in politicized issues like climate change, the Big Bang, evolution, public health and education.  And anti-science skeptics come from everywhere, from the congressman who brought a snowball to Congress to disprove global warming to Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator to flat earthers.  Have you seen that guy in California who sells raw, untreated water? This is a great option to hydrate yourself if you´re into Hepatitis A and diarrhea, and the reason we know this is because actual scientists found a way to treat water so more people could drink it without shitting themselves to death (Abel Wolman and Linn Enslow discovered the chlorination of water, which saved 177 million lives. Click here to learn more).

Indeed there have been important people in history that bucked these human tendencies and made our world a better place in which to live longer and happier. Thinkers like David Hume, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Galileo and Thomas Paine did not pretend that we are always rational movers fighting the chaos, nor were they without faults and errors themselves. Rather, they presented ideas that rose above our irrationality, showing how we can outsmart our own inner homo sapiens, with all our deficiencies. Emmanuel Kant declared, “Dare to understand!”  An important overlying theme for these thinkers was the Enlightenment idea that we should pursue reason in order to understand the complexities and problems of the world.  This book is clarifying my idea of what the Enlightenment even is, and has shown me the importance of reason in everyday life, and that the enemies of reason come from unexpected places. And even though we have made giant strides in the quality of life on our planet, it is self-defeating to ignore this progress and to forget these Enlightenment ideals, instead we must not cease to build upon them.




A Window on Russia

Photo by Robert Capa, book cover credit: Penguin Books (reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000).

” The old, old thing came up, that always comes up: ´Then why does your government not control these newspapers and these men who talk war?´ And we had to explain again, as we had many times before, that we do not believe in controlling our press, that the truth usually wins, and that control simply drives bad things underground. In our country we prefer that these people talk themselves to death in public, and write themselves to death, rather than bottle them up to slip their poison secretly through the dark.

They have a great deal of misinformation about America, for they have their yellow journalists too.  They have their correspondents with little knowledge, and they have their fiery typewriter soldiers.”




In the aftermath of World War II,  John Steinbeck and legendary war photographer Robert Capa went to the Soviet Union on a trip of cultural exploration. That was all it was.  They endeavored to avoid politics and polemics.  And although Steinbeck was more or less a disillusioned intellectual, at the time fed up with the status quo of the world and perhaps with his own work, they went not as communist sympathizers or angst-ridden activists, rather they wanted to write about and to photograph what was left of humanity after the devastation of war.  They certainly found it–simple, yet happy villagers, destroyed landscapes and industries, austere and suspicious Muscovites, broken men and families, inquisitive Soviets–and they also found a mundane, quotidian totalitarianism still in its infancy. Capa, accustomed to more action (the invasion of Normandy, Spanish Civil War), was even bored at times.

This is a modest little book, a long report for the New York Herald Tribune, (ironically, not quite a rich as his Log from the Sea of Cortez, an excellent memoir of his collecting marine specimens in barren Baja California), and a wonderful peek into the daily lives of simple Russians.  The book seems to have been a response to the strong curiosity that Americans had about Russians and Russia, and it at once shows us what we have in common and our fundamental, eternal differences.

Steinbeck often chooses humor over generalization, and of course he demonstrates keen powers of observation that never stray into condescension or veiled contempt.

Throughout the book, Capa´s photos are placed right alongside Steinbeck´s commentary, although I wish Penguin would have included better quality shots. For more high-resolution photos by Robert Capa, explore Magnum´s wonderful collection (click here).

The Decline of Violence

imageOf course, every generation is convinced that the world is going to hell, that it was better in the past.  More and more, I am convinced that this is little more than a dismissal of the complexities of the modern world, and I usually take the moaning about the degradation of morals, the disrespect of the youth of today…etc.,  with a grain of salt. In my opinion this is just a form of sentimentalism and nostalgia.  Also, because of the nature of our modern media, we see violence that happens everyday, in places all around the world, and we are less shocked all the time. Some of us are becoming panicked about our jadedness, and we respond in a wide variety of ways–some good for progress, most bad.

I have a feeling, from what I’ve seen and read in my adult life, though, that humanity is growing and evolving away from the widespread violence that has been taken for granted in the near and distant past.  But still, a mere feeling that something is right cannot be defended in any credible way.

I admit I began Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature” with a bit of confirmation bias because of this feeling.  To look for simple reaffirmation of one’s opinions is irresponsible, but it is another thing to gather proof and information to support a position. Pinker is a scientist who has packed his book with hundreds of citations, graphs, quotes, studies, numbers and overall credibility to put forward in support to his suggestion that violence has declined, overall, in modern history.

From women’s essential part in the civilization of the American West, to daily life in Medieval Europe, from child sacrifice to animal rights, with extensive discussions on modern war and tribalism, and with themes such as rape, child abuse, riot behavior, slavery and war, Pinker shows the sum of today’s incidents of violence is a fraction of what it was in the distant past, and less than in the near past. But it is much more complex than that statement, and it would do us well to figure out those complexities.

From the Steven Pinker website:

“Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.
With the panache and intellectual zeal that have made his earlier books international bestsellers and literary classics, Pinker will force you to rethink your deepest beliefs about progress, modernity, and human nature. This gripping book is sure to be among the most debated of the century so far.”

The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity    by Steven Pinker

New York, NY: Viking.