Listening to, or reading the news everyday, can only leave the impression that the world is spiraling downward in a degenerative state of decline. And with all we see and hear, our degeneracy is accelerating. And humanity is accompanying the world in this accelerating deconstruction. There seem to be two problems with this perception. First, is that the impression is false, since it’s emotionally driven; devoid of quantification which provides the relational perspective of rationality, and secondly, it’s entirely driven by the most salacious headlines and other nefarious elements that prey on our emotions.
These are the apparent conclusions of Steven Pinker, an acclaimed cognitive psychologist and Harvard Professor of Psychology. His latest book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” has been described by Microsoft founder Bill Gates as his “…new favorite book of all time!”
Pinker’s underlying premise is that science and technological advancement have contributed significantly to improvement of the human condition. Easily two thirds of the over 500-page book is quantitative data used definitively to validate his premise. He is addressing the temporal or physical condition, not the spiritual or cultural, which is clearly in decline.
As he says at the outset, “How can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.” And count, he does. His voluminous data documents how globally, mankind is improving in nearly all of the critical areas that we’re bombarded with in the media on a daily basis: health, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, democracy, literacy, longevity, and even social issues like racism and violence.
In each of those areas, mankind is better off today than at any juncture in human history, mostly due to technological advancement and rationality.
With regard to racism, Pinker points out that “surely it is an essential and welcome feature of modern societies that people are restless and dissatisfied, even as things improve. Armed with hard data, he points out “notwithstanding the habitual self-flagellation by Western intellectuals about Western racism, it’s non-Western countries that are the least tolerant.”
It must be discomfiting to Pinker to invalidate most of the social and governmental premises of liberalism. But the conclusions are impossible to ignore given the author’s voluminous historical data evidencing amelioration in quality of life on a global scale.
So why do we collectively harbor such a dim view of our human condition today? Pinker faults several primary sources for “darkening our world view.” At the top of the list is journalists, or perhaps that should be “journalists,” who weave some news factoids and events in and around their “reporting” in a way to comport with their presumptions and biases comprising their ideological narratives. Consequently, they report less on the actual news, and instead shape their reporting of it to indoctrinate, rather than inform.
As Pinker says, “Our gloom is largely self-imposed and is entirely a function of our media and news diets.”
He also lists “intellectuals” and the university culture, that foments so much discord based on presumed injustices and inequities. Much like a small scab, issues like race and inequality can be scratched to disproportionate levels of agitation, magnifying issues beyond their rational reality.
Politicians are also to fault, based on that same logic, as they prey on victimhood based on assumptions akin to the self-professed “intellectuals.” Tell a story (an ideological narrative) enough times and with sufficient emotion, and even without the data (or using a smidgeon of extrapolated data) to validate their arguments, and their emotional appeals fall easily on the ears of uninformed or misinformed voters.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, as an atheist, he faults “almost all forms of faith.”
Perhaps unwittingly proving Pinker’s point, The New York Times, columnist David Brooks, while praising Pinker’s book, warned that “Conscious reason can get you only so far when tribal emotions have been aroused, when existential fears rain down, when narcissistic impulses have been given free rein, when spiritual longings have nowhere to go, when social trust has been devastated, when all the unconscious networks that make up 99 percent of our thinking are inflamed and disordered.”
In explaining why we’re collectively so negative about everything, Pinker explains, “It’s in part because our intuitions about risk and danger are driven by narratives and examples from a constant feed of negative events. … We’re more attuned to things that go wrong than things that go right. For most of human history … being aware of what was going on was the most adaptive response. We are most appreciative of people who point out negative things we’ve overlooked. There’s a constant market for doomsayers and curmudgeons, and they accumulate a certain amount of moral seriousness.”
Pinker explains why our contemporary political culture is so devoid of reason. He explains, “Political polarization … is probably the major reason we have seen a departure from reason in the political arena. People depart from reason when they are seeking solidarity with their political camp. We can’t combat demagoguery with demagoguery. We need rhetorical skill and nuance that appeal to people’s emotions in ways that advance goals that we can rationally justify.”
Then transitioning from political populism to actual governance, he explains, “In policymaking, reason is the only thing that we should appeal to. But reason can take into account human emotional responses. In politics, appealing to emotion should only lead to policies we can justify.” And to Pinker, that which can be justified is that which is rational and validated quantitatively.
Finally, putting our progress into perspective, and with a word of warning, Pinker states, ““As we have slowly and surely attained more progress, we have lost something that undergirds all of it: meaning, cohesion, and a different, deeper kind of happiness than the satiation of all our earthly needs. We’ve forgotten the human flourishing that comes from a common idea of virtue, and a concept of virtue that is based on our nature.”
In short, life is good, and getting better. The data attest to these facts. The elements within our society who prey on our fears and presumed injustices employ emotion to shape our perceptions, to the exclusion of the data, and at the expense of rationality. If only our cultural, moral, and spiritual conditions were equally robust!
Associated Press award winning columnist Richard Larsen is President of Larsen Financial, a brokerage and financial planning firm in Pocatello, Idaho and is a graduate of Idaho State University with degrees in Political Science and History and coursework completed toward a Master’s in Public Administration. He can be reached at [email protected].