“Market economies, in addition to reaping the benefits of specialization and providing incentives for people to produce things that other people want, solve the problem of coordinating the efforts of hundreds of millions of people by using prices to propagate information about need and availability far and wide, a computational problem that no planner is brilliant enough to solve from a central bureau.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“A dollar today, no matter how heroically adjusted for inflation, buys far more betterment of life than a dollar yesterday. It buys things that didn’t exist, like refrigeration, electricity, toilets, vaccinations, telephones, contraception, and air travel, and it transforms things that do exist, such as a party line patched by a switchboard operator to a smartphone with unlimited talk time.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Are all these new products positive? Is it possible / reasonable to expect people to opt out?
“Within a decade of this writing, most new cars will be driven by computers rather than by slow-witted and scatterbrained humans. When robotic cars are ubiquitous, they could save more than a million lives a year, becoming one of the greatest gifts to human life since the invention of antibiotics.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Overly ambitious timeline, revealing some of his positive bias here. Still essentially right though.
“Many early innovations, such as in steam engines, looms, spinning frames, foundries, and mills, came out of the workshops and backyards of atheoretical tinkerers.9 But trial and error is a profusely branching tree of possibilities, most of which lead nowhere, and the tree can be pruned by the application of science, accelerating the rate of discovery.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
A nice idea here: Science prunes our trial and error tree of discovery.
“The first piece of wisdom they offer is that misfortune may be no one’s fault. A major breakthrough of the Scientific Revolution—perhaps its biggest breakthrough—was to refute the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Among African Americans, the poverty rate fell from 55 percent in 1960 to 27.6 percent in 2011.14 Life expectancy rose from 33 in 1900 (17.6 years below that of whites) to 75.6 years in 2015 (less than 3 years below whites).15 African Americans who make it to 65 have longer lives ahead of them than white Americans of the same age.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“People have goals, of course, but projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion. Things can happen without anyone taking into account their effects on human happiness. This insight of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment was deepened by the discovery of entropy. Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for want of a horseshoe nail.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Electronic media are commonly cited as a threat to human relationships, and certainly Facebook friends are a poor substitute for face-to-face contact with flesh-and-blood companions.28 Yet overall, electronic technology has been a priceless gift to human closeness. A century ago, if family members moved to a distant city, one might never hear their voices or see their faces again. Grandchildren grew up without their grandparents laying eyes on them. Couples separated by study, work, or war would reread a letter dozens of times and tumble into despair if the next one was late, not knowing whether the postal service had lost it or whether the lover was angry, faithless, or dead (an agony recounted in songs like the Marvelettes’ and Beatles’ “Please Mr. Postman” and Simon & Garfunkel’s “Why Don’t You Write Me?”).” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Maybe a touch optimistic, though it is important to understand how positive technology has been.
“Economists speak of a “lump fallacy” or “physical fallacy” in which a finite amount of wealth has existed since the beginning of time, like a lode of gold, and people have been fighting over how to divide it up ever since.4 Among the brainchildren of the Enlightenment is the realization that wealth is created.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Value is created and not zero-sum (and value ~ wealth)
“The moral value of quantification is that it treats all lives as equally valuable, so actions that bring down the highest numbers of homicides prevent the greatest amount of human tragedy.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Friendly Utilitarianism, but maybe without the friendly when Pinker discusses it.
“The philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist Joshua Greene has argued that many deontological convictions are rooted in primitive intuitions of tribalism, purity, revulsion, and social norms, whereas utilitarian conclusions emerge from rational cogitation.20 (He has even shown that the two kinds of moral thinking engage emotional and rational systems of the brain, respectively.)” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Relevant to the Scientific case for utilitarianism
“High-tech agriculture, the critics said, consumes fossil fuels and groundwater, uses herbicides and pesticides, disrupts traditional subsistence agriculture, is biologically unnatural, and generates profits for corporations. Given that it saved a billion lives and helped consign major famines to the dustbin of history, this seems to me like a reasonable price to pay. More important, the price need not be with us forever. The beauty of scientific progress is that it never locks us into a technology but can develop new ones with fewer problems than the old ones (a dynamic we will return to here).” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Reasoning thus has deep evolutionary roots. The citizen scientist Louis Liebenberg has studied the San hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari Desert (the “Bushmen”), one of the world’s most ancient cultures. They engage in the oldest form of the chase, persistence hunting, in which humans, with their unique ability to dump heat through sweat-slicked skin, pursue a furry mammal in the midday sun until it collapses of heat stroke. Since most mammals are swifter than humans and dart out of sight as soon as they are spotted, persistence hunters track them by their spoor, which means inferring the animal’s species, sex, age, and level of fatigue, and thus its likely direction of flight, from the hoofprints, bent stems, and displaced pebbles it leaves behind. The San do not just engage in inference—deducing, for example, that agile springboks tread deeply with pointed hooves to get a good grip, whereas heavy kudus tread flat-footed to support their weight. They also engage in reasoning—articulating the logic behind their inferences to persuade their companions or be persuaded in their turn. Liebenberg observed that Kalahari trackers don’t accept arguments from authority. A young tracker can challenge the majority opinion of his elders, and if his interpretation of the evidence is convincing, he can bring them around, increasing the group’s accuracy.8 And if you’re still tempted to excuse modern dogma and superstition by saying that it’s only human, consider Liebenberg’s account of scientific skepticism among the San: Three trackers, !Nate, /Uase and Boroh//xao, of Lone Tree in the central Kalahari, told me that the Monotonous Lark (Mirafra passerina) only sings after it has rained, because “it is happy that it rained.” One tracker, Boroh//xao, told me that when the bird sings, it dries out the soil, making the roots good to eat. Afterwards, !Nate and /Uase told me that Boroh//xao was wrong—it is not the bird that dries out the soil, it is the sun that dries out the soil. The bird is only telling them that the soil will dry out in the coming months and that it is the time of the year when the roots are good to eat. . . . !Namka, a tracker from Bere in the central Kalahari, Botswana, told me the myth of how the sun is like an eland, which crosses the sky and is then killed by people who live in the west. The red glow in the sky when the sun goes down is the blood of the eland. After they have eaten it, they throw the shoulder blade across the sky back to the east, where it falls into a pool and grows into a new sun. Sometimes, it is said, you can hear the swishing noise of the shoulder blade flying through the air. After telling me the story in great detail, he told me that he thinks that the “Old People” lied, because he has never seen . . . the shoulder blade fly through the sky or heard the swishing noise.9” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“But Stevenson and Wolfers scoured the literature for what longitudinal studies there were, and found that in eight out of nine European countries, happiness increased between 1973 and 2009 in tandem with the country’s rise in GDP per capita.24 A confirmation for the world as a whole comes from the World Values Survey, which found that in forty-five out of fifty-two countries, happiness increased between 1981 and 2007.25 The trends over time close the books on the Easterlin paradox: we now know that richer people within a country are happier, that richer countries are happier, and that people get happier as their countries get richer (which means that people get happier over time).” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Another attempt to debunk the Easterlin Paradox. But are we measuring Happiness correctly? Also, this isn’t decisive that all countries exhibit this behavior. What’s the pattern in the ones that do not?
“It’s not just that there is almost certainly no God to dictate and enforce moral precepts. It’s that even if there were a God, his divine decrees, as conveyed to us through religion, cannot be the source of morality. The explanation goes back to Plato’s Euthyphro, in which Socrates points out that if the gods have good reasons to deem certain acts moral, we can appeal to those reasons directly, skipping the middlemen. If they don’t, we should not take their dictates seriously.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“In 1954 Paul Meehl stunned his fellow psychologists by showing that simple actuarial formulas outperform expert judgment in predicting psychiatric classifications, suicide attempts, school and job performance, lies, crime, medical diagnoses, and pretty much any other outcome in which accuracy can be judged at all. Meehl’s work inspired Tversky and Kahneman’s discoveries on cognitive biases and Tetlock’s forecasting tournaments, and his conclusion about the superiority of statistical to intuitive judgment is now recognized as one of the most robust findings in the history of psychology.47” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Internal representations that reliably correlate with states of the world, and that participate in inferences that tend to derive true implications from true premises, may be called knowledge.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Since we cannot replay history thousands of times and count the outcomes, a statement that some event will occur with a probability of .01 or .001 or .0001 or .00001 is essentially a readout of the assessor’s subjective confidence. This includes mathematical analyses in which scientists plot the distribution of events in the past (like wars or cyberattacks) and show they fall into a power-law distribution, one with “fat” or “thick” tails, in which extreme events are highly improbable but not astronomically improbable.7 The math is of little help in calibrating the risk, because the scattershot data along the tail of the distribution generally misbehave, deviating from a smooth curve and making estimation impossible. All we know is that very bad things can happen.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“When humans took up farming, they became more disruptive still. According to the paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman, the adoption of wet rice cultivation in Asia some five thousand years ago may have released so much methane into the atmosphere from rotting vegetation as to have changed the climate. “A good case can be made,” he suggests, that “the people in the Iron Age and even the late Stone Age had a much greater per-capita impact on the earth’s landscape than the average modern-day person.”6” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
A fun, if essentially irrelevant factoid.
“Recall that people are poor at assessing probabilities, especially small ones, and instead play out scenarios in their mind’s eye. If two scenarios are equally imaginable, they may be considered equally probable, and people will worry about the genuine hazard no more than about the science-fiction plotline. And the more ways people can imagine bad things happening, the higher their estimate that something bad will happen.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“If, in this sense, things never get better, one can wonder whether all that economic, medical, and technological so-called progress was worth it. Many argue that it was not. We have been spiritually impoverished, they say, by the rise of individualism, materialism, consumerism, and decadent wealth, and by the erosion of traditional communities with their hearty social bonds and their sense of meaning and purpose bestowed by religion. That is why, one often reads, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and suicide have been soaring, and why Sweden, that secular paradise, has a famously high rate of suicide. In 2016 the activist George Monbiot prosecuted the cultural pessimist’s time-honored campaign against modernity in an op-ed entitled “Neoliberalism Is Creating Loneliness. That’s What’s Wrenching Society Apart.” The tag line was, “Epidemics of mental illness are crushing the minds and bodies of millions. It’s time to ask where we are heading and why.” The article itself warned, “The latest, catastrophic figures for children’s mental health in England reflect a global crisis.”6 If all those extra years of life and health, all that additional knowledge and leisure and breadth of experience, all those advances in peace and safety and democracy and rights, have really left us no happier but just lonelier and more suicidal, it would be history’s greatest joke on humanity. But before we start walking around with a donkey with pots clanging on the sides, we had better take a closer look at the facts about human happiness.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“The historian William O’Neill entitled his history of the Baby Boomers’ childhood years American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945–1960. In that era, everything seemed great. Belching smokestacks were a sign of prosperity. America had a mission to spread democracy around the world. The atom bomb was proof of Yankee ingenuity. Women enjoyed domestic bliss, and Negroes knew their place. Though much about America was indeed good during those years (the economic growth rate was high; rates of crime and other social pathologies were low), today we see it as a fool’s paradise. It may not be a coincidence that two of the sectors that underperform in happiness—Americans and Baby Boomers—were the sectors that were most set up for disillusionment in the 1960s. In retrospect we can see that a concern with the environment, nuclear war, American foreign-policy blunders, and racial and gender equality could not be put off forever. Even if they make us more anxious, we are better for being aware of them.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
If these studies aren’t sobering enough, consider this one, described by one magazine as “The Most Depressing Discovery About the Brain, Ever.”28 Kahan recruited a thousand Americans from all walks of life, assessed their politics and numeracy with standard questionnaires, and asked them to look at some data to evaluate the effectiveness of a new treatment for an ailment. The respondents were told that they had to pay close attention to the numbers, because the treatment was not expected to work a hundred percent of the time and might even make things worse, while sometimes the ailment got better on its own, without any treatment. The numbers had been jiggered so that one answer popped out (the treatment worked, because a larger number of treated people showed an improvement) but the other answer was correct (the treatment didn’t work, because a smaller proportion of the treated people showed an improvement). The knee-jerk answer could be overridden by a smidgen of mental math, namely eyeballing the ratios. In one version, the respondents were told that the ailment was a rash and the treatment was a skin cream. Here are the numbers they were shown: Improved Got Worse Treatment 223 75 No Treatment 107 21 The data implied that the skin cream did more harm than good: the people who used it improved at a ratio of around three to one, while those not using it improved at a ratio of around five to one. (With half the respondents, the rows were flipped, implying that the skin cream did work.) The more innumerate respondents were seduced by the larger absolute number of treated people who got better (223 versus 107) and picked the wrong answer. The highly numerate respondents zoomed in on the difference between the two ratios (3:1 versus 5:1) and picked the right one. The numerate respondents, of course, were not biased for or against skin cream: whichever way the data went, they spotted the difference. And contrary to liberal Democrats’ and conservative Republicans’ worst suspicions about each other’s intelligence, neither faction did substantially better than the other. But all this changed in a version of the experiment in which the treatment was switched from boring skin cream to incendiary gun control (a law banning citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public), and the outcome was switched from rashes to crime rates. Now the highly numerate respondents diverged from each other according to their politics. When the data suggested that the gun-control measure lowered crime, all the liberal numerates spotted it, and most of the conservative numerates missed it—they did a bit better than the conservative innumerates, but were still wrong more often than they were right. When the data showed that gun control increased crime, this time most of the conservative numerates spotted it, but the liberal numerates missed it; in fact, they did no better than the liberal innumerates. So we can’t blame human irrationality on our lizard brains: it was the sophisticated respondents who were most blinded by their politics. As two other magazines summarized the results: “Science Confirms: Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math” and “How Politics Makes Us Stupid.”29
Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (pp. 360-361). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
“Ultimately the greatest payoff of instilling an appreciation of science is for everyone to think more scientifically. We saw in the preceding chapter that humans are vulnerable to cognitive biases and fallacies. Though scientific literacy itself is not a cure for fallacious reasoning when it comes to politicized identity badges, most issues don’t start out that way, and everyone would be better off if they could think about them more scientifically. Movements that aim to spread scientific sophistication such as data journalism, Bayesian forecasting, evidence-based medicine and policy, real-time violence monitoring, and effective altruism have a vast potential to enhance human welfare. But an appreciation of their value has been slow to penetrate the culture.46” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
This is essentially an appreciation for Think more scientifically, and more morally
“What happens when a society starts to generate substantial wealth? An increase in absolute inequality (the difference between the richest and poorest) is almost a mathematical necessity.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Relevant to Poverty vs Inequality. This point may be true, but it doesn’t mean it is necessary that the increase in absolute inequality grow exponentially.
“Lawmakers have made people better off by discouraging acts that are individually beneficial but collectively harmful.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Last but not least, access to the finest products of the human mind has been fabulously broadened and democratized. It’s hard for us to reconstruct the gnawing boredom of the isolated rural households of yesteryear.31 In the late 19th century there was not only no Internet but no radio, television, movies, or musical recordings, and for the majority of households not even a book or newspaper. For entertainment, men would go to the saloon to drink.32 The writer and editor William Dean Howells (1837–1920) entertained himself as a boy by rereading the pages of an old newspaper which his father had used to wallpaper their Ohio cabin.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
More sex too, presumably. Not clear that this is a worse world, may have been more peaceful in its own way. Brings up an interesting debate about quality of life being measured by recreation or amusement. How much does quality of life depend on recreation and amusement? How do we assess the quality of life for older societies?
“Gay rights is another idea whose time has come. Homosexual acts used to be a criminal offense in almost every country in the world.34 The first arguments that behavior between consenting adults is no one else’s business were formulated during the Enlightenment by Montesquieu, Voltaire, Beccaria, and Bentham.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
But was homosexuality always in need of such a defense? Seems like this is put in to support the narrative that the enlightenment fixed this problem too, though maybe it wasn’t always the same kind of problem. How much of our modern improvements were started by the enlightenment?
“Our brains are limited in their capacity to process information and evolved in a world without science, scholarship, and other forms of fact-checking. But reality is a mighty selection pressure, so a species that lives by ideas must have evolved with an ability to prefer correct ones. The challenge for us today is to design an informational environment in which that ability prevails over the ones that lead us into folly. The first step is to pinpoint why an otherwise intelligent species is so easily led into folly.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“The confusion of inequality with poverty comes straight out of the lump fallacy—the mindset in which wealth is a finite resource, like an antelope carcass, which has to be divvied up in zero-sum fashion, so that if some people end up with more, others must have less.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“A recent study using longitudinal data showed that half of Americans will find themselves among the top tenth of income earners for at least one year of their working lives, and that one in nine will find themselves in the top one percent (though most don’t stay there for long).47 This may be one of the reasons that economic opinions are subject to the Optimism Gap (the “I’m OK, They’re Not” bias): a majority of Americans believe that the standard of living of the middle class has declined in recent years but that their own standard of living has improved.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Any curriculum will be pedagogically ineffective if it consists of a lecturer yammering in front of a blackboard, or a textbook that students highlight with a yellow marker. People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through, to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems. A second impediment to effective teaching is that pupils don’t spontaneously transfer what they learned from one concrete example to others in the same abstract category. Students in a math class who learn how to arrange a marching band into even rows using the principle of a least common multiple are stymied when asked to arrange rows of vegetables in a garden. In the same way, students in a critical thinking course who are taught to discuss the American Revolution from both the British and American perspectives will not make the leap to consider how the Germans viewed World War I.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Inequality in self-reported happiness in the American population has actually declined.60 And though I find it distasteful, even grotesque, to celebrate declining Ginis for life, health, and education (as if killing off the healthiest and keeping the smartest out of school would be good for humanity), they have in fact declined for the right reasons: the lives of the poor are improving more rapidly than the lives of the rich.61” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“But it’s in the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come. An axiom of progressive opinion, especially in universities, is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society—which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Yet the single best predictor of emancipative values is the World Bank’s Knowledge Index, which combines per capita measures of education (adult literacy and enrollment in high schools and colleges), information access (telephones, computers, and Internet users), scientific and technological productivity (researchers, patents, and journal articles), and institutional integrity (rule of law, regulatory quality, and open economies).44 Welzel found that the Knowledge Index accounts for seventy percent of the variation in emancipative values across countries, making it a far better predictor than GDP.45 The statistical result vindicates a key insight of the Enlightenment: knowledge and sound institutions lead to moral progress.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Spinoza’s dictum is one of a family of principles that have sought a secular foundation for morality in impartiality—in the realization that there’s nothing magic about the pronouns I and me that could justify privileging my interests over yours or anyone else’s.5 If I object to being raped, maimed, starved, or killed, I can’t very well rape, maim, starve, or kill you. Impartiality underlies many attempts to construct morality on rational grounds: Spinoza’s viewpoint of eternity, Hobbes’s social contract, Kant’s categorical imperative, Rawls’s veil of ignorance, Nagel’s view from nowhere, Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal, and of course the Golden Rule and its precious-metallic variants, rediscovered in hundreds of moral traditions.6 (The Silver Rule is “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself”; the Platinum Rule, “Do to others what they would have you do to them.” They are designed to anticipate masochists, suicide bombers, differences in taste, and other sticking points for the Golden Rule.)” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism. (Despite the word’s root, humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals, but this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.) It is humanism that identifies what we should try to achieve with our knowledge. It provides the ought that supplements the is. It distinguishes true progress from mere mastery.” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
Two economists have developed their own versions of a human development index that can be estimated retroactively into the 19th century, each of which aggregates measures of longevity, income, and education in different ways. Leandro Prados de la Escosura’s Historical Index of Human Development, which goes back to 1870, averages the three measures with a geometric rather than an arithmetic mean (so that an extreme value on one measure cannot swamp the other two), and transforms the longevity and education measures to compensate for diminishing returns at their high end. Auke Rijpma of the “How Was Life?” project (whose data have appeared in a number of graphs in this book) developed a Well-Being Composite that goes back to 1820; together with the big three, it throws in measures of height (a proxy for health), democracy, homicide, income inequality, and biodiversity. (The latter two are the only ones that don’t systematically improve over the past two centuries.) The grades for the world on these two report cards are shown in figure 16-6.
To behold this graph is to apprehend human progress at a glance. And packed into the lines are two vital subplots. One is that although the world remains highly unequal, every region has been improving, and the worst-off parts of the world today are better off than the best-off parts not long ago.45 (If we divide the world into the West and the Rest, we find that the Rest in 2007 had reached the level of the West in 1950.) The other is that while almost every indicator of human well-being correlates with wealth, the lines don’t just reflect a wealthier world: longevity, health, and knowledge have increased even in many of the times and places where wealth has not.46 The fact that all aspects of human flourishing tend to improve over the long run even when they are not in perfect sync vindicates the idea that there is such a thing as progress. (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
No one has calculated this vector of progress underlying all the dimensions of human flourishing, but the United Nations Development Programme, inspired by the economists Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen, offers a Human Development Index that is a composite of three of the major ones: life expectancy, GDP per capita, and education (being healthy, wealthy, and wise).44 (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
“Eighty-six percent of those who are asked about their happiness in the World Values Survey say they are “rather happy” or “very happy,” and on average the respondents in the 150-country World Happiness Report 2016 judged their lives to be on the top half of the ladder from worst to best.18 Thoreau was a victim of the Optimism Gap (the “I’m OK, They’re Not” illusion), which for happiness is more like a canyon. People in every country underestimate the proportion of their compatriots who say they are happy, by an average of 42 percentage points.19” (Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
While I generally agree with most of his points, sometimes it feels like he pushes too far. Some of his examples or arguments do not feel fully convincing to me.
For Enlightenment Now#^b21dff|this excerpt, does he account for the change over time of what is needed to live a modest working life? For example, maybe cars are more required to live well in 2015 than in 1965? I’m not certain, but he doesn’t address this. He also uses smartphones and other technological advancements to argue that being poor is very different now than it used to be. While true, it runs the risk of sounding cold against the suffering that still exists in poverty. ^cacd4b
Some examples of a potentially over-rosy perspective: