What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

If you’re worried about the world, here’s reason to be hopeful — and keep worrying

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There are many days when news events can be overwhelming and even lead to a pessimistic sense of the world, especially after tragedies like the shooting in Florida. But it may help to take the much longer view.

    And that’s the focus of a conversation our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has tonight. It’s for his weekly series, Making Sense.

  • Steven Pinker:

    The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress” – Despite what you read on the news, humanity has been getting better off.

  • Paul Solman:

    That’s right, better, psychologist Steven Pinker insists.

  • Steven Pinker:

    All too often, something happens. There’s a terrorist attack, there’s a horrific killing, there’s a market plunge. And all of a sudden, it’s a symptom of a sick society and of a downward spiral.

  • Paul Solman:

    But in his new book, “Enlightenment Now,” Pinker accentuates the positive, to the delight of super fan Bill Gates, for instance, who’s dubbed it his favorite book of all time, even produced a trippy video about it.

  • BILL GATES, Founder, Microsoft:

    I loved “Better Angels of Our Nature.” I’m even more thrilled about your next book, “Enlightenment Now.”

  • Paul Solman:

    “Better Angels” argued that violence has been plunging worldwide for centuries. “Enlightenment” now insists pretty much everything has.

  • Steven Pinker:

    Fewer of us die of disease and starvation. Fewer of us are illiterate. Fewer of us are victims of violent crimes. Fewer of us die in wars. Fewer of us live under dictatorships.

  • Paul Solman:

    I’m doing this as the economics correspondent because the end goal of economics is welfare. And you’re saying that, overall, net welfare for humankind has never been better and is getting better all the time?

  • Steven Pinker:

    It’s never been better. Whether it will continue to get better depends on whether we continue to seek human well-being as our goal, as opposed to, say, the glory of the nation or the race or the faith, whether we continue to develop science and technology, whether we continue to apply reason, and not fall back on superstition and fallacies, which we know, as psychologists, humans are vulnerable to.

    And, by the way, it is the economists who tend to be more optimistic, I think because they’re more in tune with data showing that societies really do get richer.

    For most of human history, life expectancy at birth was pinned to about 30 years.

  • Paul Solman:

    Pinker pushes his case with data, in the book and on the hustings, recently at the World Economic Forum at Davos.

  • Steven Pinker:

    Our chance of dying in a car accident has been reduced by 96 percent from the 1920s. We’re 88 percent less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 96 percent less likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning.

  • Paul Solman:

    Well, but I mean, life expectancy in the United States has gone down now for two years in a row. Does that begin in to suggest that we have crested?

  • Steven Pinker:

    No, it doesn’t, no, absolutely not.

    The United States is just one country. And one of the reasons for the deceleration is the opioid crisis. The fact that there is a crisis doesn’t mean it’s going to last forever and that we’re never, ever going to figure out any way to make it any better.

  • Paul Solman:

    You write about sweet commerce, an idea that started in the 1700s, I guess, and how commerce basically begets peace, people getting along with one another.

    And you quote a famous conservative economist, ®MD-BO¯Ludwig von Mises, if the tailor goes to war against the baker, he must henceforth bake his own bread. Therefore, he doesn’t go to war.

    You can’t take the pursuit of self-interest, liberal democracy too far?

  • Steven Pinker:

    Oh, you could definitely take it too far, but you can also take it not far enough.

    And, empirically, commercial states, at least today, tend to be less warlike than protectionist states.

  • Paul Solman:

    But is it not arguable at least that we have moved so far in the pursuit of the fruits of commerce that we have sort of lost sight of the cooperative aspects of it?

  • Steven Pinker:

    That’s possible. It’s certainly possible when you have monopolies, when you have fraud, when you have resources that no one owns, like the atmosphere, where no one pays for the advantages they get from polluting it.

    I should also add I have spent a lot of pages on what I consider to be the biggest threats to progress. They include climate change. They include the possibility of nuclear war. They include the possibility of economic stagnation, and they include the rise of authoritarian populism.

    Indeed, I think it’s only by acknowledging the darker side of human nature that we can single out what it is that we’re trying to minimize.

  • Paul Solman:

    But do you not think that, at the moment in history, the darker impulses of human beings aren’t coming to the fore all over the world?

  • Steven Pinker:

    They are, but they always have been. I mean, things weren’t so great in the 1970s, when you had civil wars raging all over the world, when you had the war in Vietnam killing 10 times as many people as die in wars today, in the 1980s, when you had most of the world living in dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain or in military states of Latin America and East Asia.

    So, yes, there are threats, but the fact that there are threats now doesn’t mean that they’re worse now. They were pretty bad in the past too.

  • Paul Solman:

    But you’re basically placing your bet on liberal democracy and saying things have been getting better and better.

    And the Freedom House just came out with its 2018 report — and I quote — “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017, as its basic tenets, including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law, came under attack around the world; 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains,” 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

  • Steven Pinker:

    Couple things.

    First of all, I never use data from any Web site that has a button that says “Donate,” because advocacy organizations always cry crisis.

    There’s certainly been a deceleration in democratization, but remember the — you and I were alive in the ’70s. There were 31 democracies in the world at the time. Now there are, depending on how you count, 105.

  • Paul Solman:

    Whether you think Pinker a prophet of progress or its prime P.R. shill, you have admire his book’s purpose.

  • Steven Pinker:

    It just puts the events of the day into context, and it prevents people from becoming fatalistic, thinking there’s no point in trying to solve problems, because everything is hopeless. So why support…

  • Paul Solman:

    Yes. I think there’s a lot of that now.

  • Steven Pinker:

    I think that’s a severe problem, that people have become so cynical about our ability to deal with problems that they either withdraw from politics altogether or embrace radicalism, the calls to smash the machine, to drain the swamp, to burn the empire, to hand power to charismatic would-be dictators, as only I can fix it.

    That’s appealing if you think that the incremental technocratic solutions are failing. It’s only when you zoom out and you look at the historical trajectory, you realize that some of these incremental measures really can work over the long run.

  • Paul Solman:

    But we’re all worried about the here and now. That’s what your readers, like me, are going to be thinking when they hear this argument not to worry, or not to worry so much.

  • Steven Pinker:

    The book never says not to worry.

  • Paul Solman:

    No, but…

  • Steven Pinker:

    Quite the — in fact, quite the contrary. Worry, because the people who worried in the past led to the improvements that we see today.

  • Paul Solman:

    That’s why it has to be enlightenment now. This is a call to arms; is that what you’re saying?

  • Steven Pinker:

    Absolutely. Progress doesn’t happen by magic. It happens to the extent that embrace what I identify as the ideals of the enlightenment, reason, and science and humanism.

    That’s what gave us the progress that we have enjoyed. And the imperative is to rededicate ourselves to those ideals, so that we will enjoy more progress in the future.

  • Paul Solman:

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” this is economics correspondent Paul Solman, corresponding from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Listen to this Segment

Latest News