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.