Like many of you, I often (okay, obsessively) listen to SDPB Radio in my car. As host of In the Moment, I also often (okay, obsessively) contemplate the nuances of national stories as they relate to South Dakota.
I was intrigued by a recent study from Stanford, Harvard, and the U.S. Census Bureau that examined race and mobility. Reporting focused on the disparity between black boys and white boys in America. Equally significant – along with blacks, Native American children have the lowest rates of upward economic ability.
The study was released days before cognitive scientist Steven Pinker was scheduled to join In the Moment. His new book focuses on the massive progress humanity has forged since the Enlightenment and how reason, science, and humanism continue to make the world a better place.
Pinker describes himself as a “political centrist” and “contingent optimist.” He’s realistic about the areas where we are decidedly not making progress (suicide rates, climate change) yet he’s quick to point out that problems are, by definition, ripe for solving rather than harbingers of doom.
During the interview, I asked Pinker about Native Americans, and what struck me about his insight was this: Sometimes progress comes more quickly than predicted.
What would it take to change shameful racial discrepancies in economic mobility? Does the arc of history bend toward justice or does is crack and whip? Maybe if you dismantle enough branches from the dam, progress rushes forward, overflowing its banks.
Here’s my conversation with Steven Pinker. I hope it gives you much to contemplate.
This conversation has been edited for the web. If you would like to listen to in its entirety, click here.
Lori Walsh: If you're weary of bad news and political dramas, you might want to consider just how good we have it in the 21st century. Steven Pinker's new book is called Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It paints a slightly rosier picture of life as we know it than you might see, for example, on the evening news. But this isn't a pollyanna, utopian fantasy. It's a data-driven look at how humans and human-led institutions are making progress on the most complex problems facing humanity, and the areas where we are falling short.
Steven Pinker is an experimental cognitive scientist, one of the world's foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. He's perhaps best known for his books, The Language Instinct and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He was listed as one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world today, and he joins us on the phone now from Boston. Steven Pinker, welcome to In The Moment.
Steven Pinker: Thank you.
Lori Walsh: This is a book that is timely and urgent, and yet we're talking about people like John Locke, and Adam Smith, and the Enlightenment centuries ago. Why is it so important now?
Steven Pinker: Partly it's that people are looking for a narrative, a philosophy, a set of principles to organize what they believe in. Many people know what they're not. There are a lot of people who know they're not religious fundamentalists, they're not populists, they're not Marxists, they're not a whole lot of things. But what do we believe in if we don't believe in all of those things?
I suggest that these thinkers of the Enlightenment gave us a set of principles, namely, we should try to understand the world and apply what we know to make humans better off: to extend life, and health, and education, and richness of experience. That's a perfectly coherent world view and it's one that in large part has worked. We do live longer, thanks to advances in public health and medicine. We don't have the horrific wars that we had 70 years ago or even 40 years ago, because we have international institutions and global norms against conquest. We have less crime, because we have more intelligent policing and rule of law instead of the code of vendetta and revenge.
t's hard to notice it on a day-by-day basis, because a lot of these advances don't happen with a bang and so they don't make headlines; but, if you look at how they add up, how they accumulate over time, you see that now is really the best time to be born.
Lori Walsh: Is there a before and after in history, where you can say, "These are the ideals and the ideas of the Enlightenment" and you notice that progress right away, or is it a slow burn over time that we're seeing?
Steven Pinker: I think it's a slow burn over time. It wasn't as if the Enlightenment had opening and closing ceremonies like the Olympics, so you could say, "Here's when it began. Here's where it ends." I was struck, not even being a professional historian myself, that in chronicling the decline of violence, which was the subject of my book The Better Angels of Our Nature, I was just surprised at how many really good ideas came out in the second half of the 18th century, the American democracy being perhaps the most famous, but also: markets from Adam Smith; organizations of international peace and cooperation that Immanuel Kant proposed; arguments that we should have public torture executions; we shouldn't burn people at the stake or draw and quarter them as a form of routine punishment; arguments against cruelty to animals; arguments against persecuting homosexuals; the first arguments for women's equality.
They all were concentrated in the last few decades of the 18th century, spilling into the 19th and with predecessors in the 17th. This did seem to be a time at which a lot of ideas bounced back and forth, and we're the beneficiaries of them.
Lori Walsh: There are charts in this book, graphs, a lot of data. One of the things that struck me was that now is a time when people are sort of doubting charts, and graphs, and scientific data. How do we look at the facts here? For those people who say, "You can spin data to make it ..."? Do we live in a post-truth society? Are there alternative facts? Talk about that a little bit, if you will.
Steven Pinker: Yeah. We can't be living in a post-truth society, because if we were, then that statement wouldn't be true. So, it contradicts itself. There's just no thing as a post-truth society. The truth is what hangs around whether you believe in it or not. I actually think it's a corrosive phrase that we should retire, one of these instant cliches that does much more harm than good.
The thing is that in many domains of life we are getting smarter, more rational, more truth-based, more evidence-based. It's just in electoral politics that things seem to be going crazy. Medicine is looking more and more on evidence as to what works as opposed to trusting the wisdom and intuition of doctors. In sports we have Moneyball and Sabermetrics. In crime control we have data-driven policing, where the police every day look at where the hot spots in crime are and concentrate their resources there. In philanthropy we have the Effective Altruism movement that tries to distinguish feel-good programs that just give donors a warm glow from those that really do make people's lives better.
So, in area after area we're getting smarter; but, in electoral politics, we seem to be going in the other direction. That's because electoral politics is kind of theater, and it can appeal to our worst instincts.
Lori Walsh: You describe yourself in other interviews as a political centrist. As I read this book, there are times where I think, "Well, Democrats are going to get up and cheer over this chapter or this paragraph," and then other times I could see that Republicans would be saying, "Yeah, I told you so." In some ways this book is going to get a reaction, a negative reaction and a positive reaction, from both sides. You're not writing it to win a popularity contest, I doubt.
Steven Pinker: No. That's what we write and that's what's happened. You might think that if you have a kind of moderate centrist position, then you won't offend people, but it's the exact opposite. You offend everyone for different reasons. That's exactly what's happened.
It's not because I think the truth always lies halfway between extremes so that Goldilocks is right. It's partly because what we call a centrist changes over time. We try out different policies and ideas and we discard the ones that don't work. We often fail to even notice how what we call the center often by the standards of a few years ago might have been considered left or right. By and large the center has drifted kind of leftward, in that positions that were considered controversial in their time, like, "Women should have equal opportunity. Racial segregation is a bad idea. Homosexuality should not be illegal," everyone accepts them now, including people on the right.
That's not true of everything. There used to be the idea that, for example, it'd be a great idea if governments controlled economies and if we had a system that was more similar to Soviet Russia. That's an idea from the left that has fallen by the wayside, and almost everyone recognizes that some kind of market economy is better than central planning.
Lori Walsh: I want to pull one of these ideas, one of these topics, from the book, because you're talking to a statewide South Dakota audience right now. It's about agriculture. In your chapter on sustenance, you really talk about the Green Revolution, and high-tech ag, and then some of the criticisms that immediately followed about fossil fuel use and pesticides. You say, "Saving billions of lives and consigning major famines to the dustbin of history, it seems like a reasonable price to pay." Then you go on to say, "The price need not be with us forever." Talk a little bit about ag and famine throughout the world and the progress that we've made in that, because I think that's particularly interesting to South Dakota listeners.
Steven Pinker: Absolutely. Of course, ag underwent a revolution, starting really in the late 18th century, the same period we're talking about. It started in Britain, when they came up with ideas like crop rotation and more efficient ways of planting and harvesting. Then we had the invention of synthetic fertilizers in the early 20th century. We had the mechanization of agriculture so that we had tractors and then combine harvesters, which, aside from making a lot more food available a lot more cheaply, led to other advances, like: it made it a lot easier to eliminate slavery. Of course, there are overwhelming moral arguments to eliminate slavery, but it doesn't hurt if you've got machines that can pick crops better than people.
Another example is child labor. The biggest source of child labor is farming. Kids all over the world, especially in poor countries, are put to work on the farms. Once they have tractors, then you don't need Junior to do as much work in the fields. I even have an ad from the 1910s for Case tractors. The ad said, "Send your boy to school. Buy a tractor. You won't need him in the fields, and he's much better off for his future years if you send him to school." So, that's another advance.
Then you mentioned the Green Revolution and the development of hybrids. That has led to enormous gains, and there are many more that we can expect in the future, pushed along, of course, by genetically modified organisms, realizing, of course, that that is a hot button, that people have very strong opinions on them. My opinion that I lay out in the book, which I think is pretty close to a scientific consensus, is that there is nothing whatsoever that is harmful about GMOs and that they offer enormous hope for increased health and productivity, but they could be crops that require less water, less pesticide, less labor, less land, while delivering better nutrition, more vitamins, and other benefits. I realize that what I'm saying there is controversial.
Lori Walsh: Right. You also mentioned this notion of, "Higher yields per acre could eventually lead to the shrinking of the amount of land that needs to be farmed." That's not something that I'd ever really considered in that way before, because it just seems like there's an expansion, expansion, expansion; but, at some point you need less land for farming, and you have more land for the pheasant population and conservation areas.
Steven Pinker: Exactly. That's a recent realization by a lot of environmentalists and ecologists, that one of the best things for the environment is density. That is, since we have people on the planet, if they're in cities, if they use less land for farming, that's more land that can be reclaimed by forests and natural habitats and that it's actually good for the environment. We've seen that in temperate regions, where the amount of deforestation has pretty much fallen to zero. We no longer cut down forests for farmland, because we don't need as much farmland. In many parts of the country, particularly New England, farmland is being reclaimed by forests.
Lori Walsh: As we have these conversations and I read through your book, there's a constant reminder that this is not just happening by itself. Like, these are things that people are doing, policies that are put into place, that progress needs to be constantly ... Managed isn't the right word, but it's not going to happen on its own.
Steven Pinker: That's exactly right. I was careful in avoiding the conclusion that people naturally come to, that there is just this thing called progress. There's this magic escalator that carries us ever upward, and it's just part of human destiny. That's mystical. It's magic. It's miraculous. I don't think it works like that.
The way it works is that we understand more about how the world works. We understand more about disease. We understand more about plants, and animals, and about the planet. We apply what we know to make people better off. We don't always get it right. There are spectacular failures. But if we test things out ... keep the things that work, discard the things that don't work ... then over time things can get better. That's what progress is. Progress is problem-solving; it's not a miracle.
Lori Walsh: A recent study came out. I'm not sure if you have heard the story. I heard it on NPR. It was a study from the Census Bureau and Stanford and Harvard looking at economic mobility. We have a large Native American population in the state of South Dakota, and Native Americans have one of the worst rates of the opportunity to move up from an economic standpoint. My question is ... Some people are going to listen to this and say, "This is progress; but, yet, I look out my window and I see the violence," or they have a story of what's happening, or "I see poverty," or "I see racial inequality." What's your message to them?
Steven Pinker: Well, yeah. Progress doesn't consist of everything getting better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would be magic. That would not be progress. Progress consists of solving problems, recognizing the problems. It is certainly true that the situation of many Native American communities is a national scandal, a national crime, and that we ought to look at ways of providing greater opportunities, greater education, greater control of violence.
The way I see acknowledging the progress that we've made: it's giving us the confidence that problems can be solved, that what used to look like just permanent, intractable, unsolvable problems often turn out to be solvable if we set our minds to it. One example is violent crime in the United States. In the '60s, '70s, and '80s, throughout the United States there was a huge shooting up of the crime rate. It went from about four murders per 100,000 per year to more than 10; so, it increased by two and a half. At the time people said, "We've just got to get used to it. Until we solve the root causes of poverty, and inequality, and racism, we've got to get used to high crime in urban areas." People, of course, fled downtown areas, leaving burned-out cores, and moved to the suburbs.
Then, starting in the '90s, it started to reverse. The crime rate went down by half, now back to one of its lowest rates in our history. People have moved back to cities. Now we have the new problem of gentrification and high rents in downtown areas. What it tells us is that what often looked like intractable problems can be addressed. I certainly hope that the plight of Native American communities will be addressed and that we take an attitude that these are problems that we should and can address.
Lori Walsh: How quickly can something like that change, then, in the modern era when policies are shifted? Are there things that can happen, and all of a sudden, in a generation, it can be an entirely different story, or is progress always a slow grind?
Steven Pinker: It can sometimes happen surprisingly quickly. The Great American Crime Decline from 1992 to 2000 ... In eight years the crime rate fell almost in half. Then it kind of bounced around at the same level. Then, starting in 2007, it fell again during the Great Recession, when people were sure that the crime rate was going to go up, and it actually went down.
Other examples are: There was the Gay Rights Revolution that led to the decriminalization of homosexuality; that is, the Supreme Court eventually ruled that you could not put someone in jail for what they did in a bedroom that didn't hurt anyone else. Then, less than a dozen years later, we had gay marriage, and no one would have predicted that it would happen that quickly.
So, some things are slow and with reversals and setbacks: two steps forward, one step back, but others can kind of sneak up on you and happen surprisingly quickly.
Lori Walsh: If the Great American Crime Decline was not magic, what happened? What were the policies that we can look to now and say, "This worked?"
Steven Pinker: Yeah. Embarrassingly, we don't know for sure.
I'm kind of squeamish about saying that progress is a thing as opposed to people solving problems. Sometimes you have a lot of things that are pushing in the same direction that almost make me believe that progress is a thing. In the case of the Great American Crime Decline, there are probably a number of things that happened around the same time.
There was a simply hiring more police officers. That was one of Bill Clinton's accomplishments. So, you just had more cops. Policing got more intelligent. Instead of having cops sitting around in cars and speeding to the scene of a crime after it occurred, they were walking the streets. There was more data and intelligence so that you put the police where the crime hotspots were.
Crime is very uneven. Even in dangerous cities there are a few neighborhood where most of the crime takes place. In the dangerous neighborhoods, there are a few blocks where most of the crime takes place. So, if you can zero in on where crime is worst and concentrate the police efforts there, that can make a difference. Police also work with the community and aren't seen as kind of an invading force, but get to know the shopkeepers, and the preachers, and the moms, and the citizens, and convince people that they're there to protect them and they're not a kind of an enemy force.
It has to be said that probably our mass incarceration ... higher than it should be, but that played at least some role in the crime decline, that we way overshot how much we need to incarcerate in order to bring crime rates down; but, it can't be ignored, either.
Lori Walsh: In your book it seems like if you're particularly hard on any group, it's the media or it's journalists, and it's really how some of these stories are told. You're consistently calling out the way that journalists bring stories and what stories they choose to bring to the public. What's going on there? Expand a little bit more on the role of media in telling those stories and creating that narrative for Americans.
Steven Pinker: I certainly don't join in the chorus of denunciation of the mainstream media, because the mainstream media are a whole lot better than most of the alternatives. I have huge respect for journalists, for the ethic of accuracy, and fact-checking, and responsibility, and we need more of that. I do think, and here a lot of journalists agree with me, that there are some bad habits that have crept into the journalism profession, in particular the idea that serious journalism equals bad news, that you've got to report everything as a crisis, as a decline, as a failure, and if you don't do that, you're not doing your job as a serious journalist.
There are dangers in that. First of all, you can give people the impression that all our institutions are failing, so that either we can just throw up our hands and say, "There's nothing we can do about it," or we can open the door to radicalism, to people who say, "Well, let's burn our institutions down, because things are so bad that anything that arises from the rubble has got to be better than what we have now." That can be very dangerous. That's what's happened in violent revolutions, like in Russia, and China, and today in Venezuela.
If you don't tell people about the successes together with the failures, then leaders will conclude that there are no successes, that there's nothing we can do. In fact, we know from the decline of crime, from the decline of homelessness, decline of poverty that every now that then we do things that are right. Those should be news, too.
Lori Walsh: Again, South Dakota statewide audience. We're a rural state. Many rural Americans have a tendency to feel left out of some of the conversation of their traditional values and what's happening in the world or what's happening in the country. Does the Enlightenment apply in the same way to rural Americans as it does to urban Americans?
Steven Pinker: Well, it certainly ought to. It does in the sense that our Constitution, our Declaration of Independence were gifts of the Enlightenment. So, anyone who's proud of the origin of the United States is committed to Enlightenment ideals, because that's how our nation was founded. But you're right that there has been an uneven development across the different regions of the country. The country is urbanizing. The world is urbanizing. There are dislocations in rural areas that have to be addressed.
The thing is that it's not as if anyone is in charge of the entire economy. The idea that the president from the Oval Office controls what happens, or congressmen, or the so-called elites, and that everything that has happened is planned down to the last job. That's a fallacy that we've got to disabuse ourselves of. When you've got billions of people trading, selling, buying, making things; you've got technology that advances; you have trade and shipping, and every entrepreneur, every factory owner, every businessperson is constantly figuring out how to sell more products for less cost, there are going to be disruptions. Some people who've been involved in one job are going to find themselves displaced or out of work. The thing is, no one's in charge. There's no one necessarily to blame for that.
This doesn't mean that we should be indifferent to the people who are displaced. I think we need a government that attends to the plight of people who've been displaced. We can't think of itself as the design of some evil people who wanted it to happen. It's just naturally going to happen. We've got to fix it when it happens, but not assume that there's some evildoer who wanted it to happen.
Lori Walsh: People solving problems, that's progress ... all people, everywhere.
Steven Pinker: That's certainly what I argue in Enlightenment Now.