Tuesday, May 29, 2018

My review of Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now from the Sydney Morning Herald

Enlightenment Now
Steven Pinker
Allen Lane, $35
Those of us of a certain age will remember with affection Ian Dury's hit Reasons to Be Cheerful Part 3 that came along at the dog end of the economically depressed 1970s. Dury's list of things to be happy about included rock 'n' roll, Elvis, porridge oats and the smallpox vaccine.
Enlightenment Now continues Steven Pinker's pursuit of an optimistic view of human progress.
Enlightenment Now continues Steven Pinker's pursuit of an optimistic view of human progress.
Photo: Supplied
Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now is a 556-page update of Dury's list. Elvis and rock 'n' roll don't quite make Pinker's cut but the smallpox vaccine and porridge oats (sort of) do. This is Pinker's second book-length venture into the territory of Pollyanna Whittier and Dr Pangloss, his first, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was a skilful argument against intuitional thinking on the endemic nature of violence and war; in fact, Pinker showed that violence has been declining since at least the Middle Ages and probably since the Paleolithic and we are living now in the least violent age human history has ever known.
The first part of Pinker's new book deals with the objections that were raised to his last. He dismisses his critics as woolly-headed philosophers and social scientists who clearly don't have the maths skills to read a simple bar chart. Those readers still foolish enough to resist Pinker's new and improved Whig interpretation of history are deemed to have "progressophobia".
As the book continues, Pinker explains why everything else on Earth is getting better too. This is where porridge oats and smallpox come in. Again, in a series of very impressive, well-researched and well-presented statistics, Pinker demonstrates how we are winning the war against infant mortality, infectious diseases and famine. Pinker is absolutely right about this and only a foolish contrarian could argue otherwise.
In the 18th century the grim cleric Thomas Malthus argued that saving people from disease would only mean that they would die later from famine, but Pinker explains how the Green Revolution and improved chemical fertilisers have virtually ended famine in the First and even the Third World.
Pinker wants to show us that absolutely everything is better now than the "good old days" and, at least to me, his arguments become less convincing as he delves into the more esoteric subjects of "happiness", "quality of life", "the environment", "existential threats" and "inequality". Pinker is a very intelligent guy but in a book this broad you would need to be an expert in a dozen different disciplines to avoid making blunders and he is clearly not as well read as he might like to be in either economics, ethics or philosophy.
In his chapter on "inequality", for example, he dismisses the notion that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor by updating Robert Nozick's famous "Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment" to examine the bank account of J.K. Rowling. He explains that Rowling's wealth comes purely from the collective free choices of less wealthy people buying her books and thus everyone is better off. Pinker seems to be completely unaware that the Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment has been challenged and debunked many times since the 1970s, most notably by the philosopher G.A. Cohen, who argues that people such as Chamberlain (and Rowling) could not have become rich without an entire system in place to facilitate their good fortune and it's this system that has clearly generated vast inequalities of wealth and power.
More alarmingly, Pinker is not much worried that World War III could be a species-ending event, nor is he concerned about climate change: "humans are smart, we'll figure something out", seems to be his frighteningly glib response.
The overall effect of this book can be a little exhausting and I wonder if it really adds much to the burgeoning optimism genre that includes Pinker's earlier title, Peter Diamandis' Abundance and Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist.
I mostly enjoyed Enlightenment Now and it is a useful corrective for those doom-mongers down the pub who tell you that everything is going to the dogs. It isn't. Most things are getting better and Pinker has the stats to prove it. Pinker's hero is the charismatic late Swedish health statistician Hans Rosling, whose TED talks have electrified millions of people. Pinker urges us to look up Rosling on YouTube and if you want to feel less depressed about the future you should definitely do that or you could buy this agreeable and readable book, or you could just give Reasons To Be Cheerful another spin instead.
Adrian McKinty is the author of the Sean Duffy books (published by Serpent's Tail).