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Wednesday 17 April 2019

Enlightenment.... soon ?

Immediately after finishing Niall Ferguson's rather gloomy network-based approach to history, I finally embarked on one of Stephen Pinker's happy-clappy books. Having seen much criticism of Pinker beforehand, I felt duty-bound to give him a go. After all, his main claim that standards of living have been largely improving throughout history seems like a no-brainer, and objecting to this feels like objecting to... I dunno, cute cuddly kitties or something.

Well, this is certainly true as far as materialistic concerns go. Today the minimum standard of living includes things like access to freeview digital television, whereas not so long ago it was more like being able to survive past age three and not eat your own dung. That the absolute standards have increased seems so obvious that I'm going to skip over this, even though it's by far the biggest section of the book. Kudos to Pinker for showing it statistically, but it hardly seems necessary.

Instead I want to tackle something much harder to directly measure, something that appears to have slipped through Pinker's detailed statistics. Perhaps civic harmony isn't something you can even measure at all. As the Upanishads say :
All those who are devoted to what is not real knowledge enter into blind darkness; those who delight only in knowledge, enter, as it were, into greater darkness.
The "too long didn't read" version of this post is that Stephen Pinker is utterly incapable of understanding this quote.

What's it like to read ?

It's not that Pinker doesn't attempt to tackle some more nebulous aspects of society : happiness, knowledge, freedoms, etc. It's that when he does so it feels like there's some critical aspect of the whole thing that he just doesn't (perhaps can't) understand. That's not to say he doesn't have some very good points, because he does. It's more that he veers wildly from insightful to amateurishly stupid, which makes the whole book difficult to deal with. I was constantly wondering about the claim in the blurb that "Stephen Pinker is one of the world's most influential thinkers", or of the gushing praise from the review quotes.

I often felt that Pinker was writing in a modern form of Gibbonish : using words as weapons so that argument is impossible. He's unapologetic for his opinions and ideologies to an absurd degree, refusing to acknowledge that they are opinions and ideologies. By way of contrast, I recently read Marc Morris's Norman Conquest. That books handles uncertainty with extreme deftness, making the missing information something interesting to examine rather than an inconvenience to be carefully avoided. Pinker, instead, simply cannot handle uncertainty or the prospect of different interpretations. All gaps must be plugged, all avenues of attack hastily plastered over. By completely omitting any hint of disagreement, except for the most crude and obvious alternatives, he avoids permitting the reader any line of argument at all. And since he's not as good at this as Edward Gibbon, it makes it a very frustrating experience.

It's made worse because the whole idea that society is getting more rational and less certain rests, by very definition, on its increased ability to analyse and handle uncertainty. Pinker, on the other hand, is almost at the level of, "you must think for yourself and agree with me !" as NewsThump once satirised.

And it's not that Pinker doesn't have some very good points or at least something provocative to say - he undeniably does. To be fair, since the, "everything is collapsing into ruin" vibe is infinitely more prevalent in the media, that point of view absolutely deserves a good hard kick in the teeth. But Pinker ends up fighting the narrow-mindedness he doesn't approve of with another kind of narrow-mindedness of which he does. His opinions and methods may be different to what he's refuting but something much more fundamental feels far too familiar.  For want of a better word, it's a strange and very perverse sort of dogmatism, just replacing one kind of ideology with another.

To his credit, Pinker is clear, lucid, and highly readable. The book is also incredibly focused and never strays from its central goal or narrative. I was never bored, even when the points raised were obvious. That said, Pinker's humour generally escapes me and usually feels weird and forced, like, say, randomly talking about GREAT BIG BOOBIES or enraged lemons or cataclysmic caterpillars just for the sake of enlivening the text. By his own admission he's not good at mass persuasion but I would hope this is more true than he would like to believe.

In the end, it's not so much good or bad as it is downright weird. I give it 6/10 overall, but it's highly variable with some chapters being as low as 2 and others maybe as high as 8 or 9.

What does the book say ?

Lots of things, some of which I've covered already. Overall I had the impression he plays fast and loose with the data : countries and data ranges (especially time) feel as though they've been selected arbitrarily, or worse chosen to support the desired conclusions. The book attempts to present a global view but often becomes extremely America-centric. Its conclusions and interpretations feel plausible but not robust; data completely lacks error bars and definitions are sometimes completely inadequate. It's also not at all clear which parts (if any) Pinker was personally involved in. That's a problem, because I'd like to know on what basis Pinker claims statistical expertise for a book primarily about statistics. It feels a lot like he's claiming an impossible breadth and depth of knowledge and never makes it clear what he holds to be his opinion and what he regards as fact (more on that later).

Pinker's central thesis is that Enlightenment philosophy has made absolutely everything better in every conceivable way. It would have been far better if he'd explicitly narrowed the range of data significantly, so as to present a much more homogeneous view and be in a much better position to see what works and what doesn't. His conclusions would have been massively strengthened if he'd looked for some exceptions that prove the rule, rather than taking the idea that everything is improving quite so bloody literally.

This all makes me sound like I despise the book, which I don't. If you're not following my other blog, let me briefly recap some of his more interesting sections :
  • He notes that there are different interpretations as to the purpose of democracy - for example direct rule by the people, the peaceful transfer of power, and hearing grievances. Sometimes these purposes are at odds with each other.
  • He is strongly in favour of incremental rather than revolutionary progress. I generally agree with this, but as he notes in the very interesting chapter on populism, overall cultural improvements are not necessarily uniform. This means that large demographics can persist in retaining very different values to everyone else and can, if provoked, lash out.
  • He believes the underlying causes of improvements will eventually win out in the end. This, I believe, doesn't necessarily account for the strong variation between generations all that well, and seems to neglect his own conclusions about so many people feeling culturally left behind. That values are changing for the majority doesn't mean that a significant minority can't cause backsliding - after all, history shows that some disastrous choices have simply resulted in disasters. It's far from easy to tell the currents of history from the mere surface eddies.
There are three aspects of the book I found really irritating and kept thinking, "but you've got it all backwards, Pinker !". One was the chapter on environmentalism, which seems positively dangerous. The other two are more moralistic themes that run throughout the whole book : the nature of complaints about progress, and whether society really has become such a lovely place to live as Pinker thinks.

1) To complain or not to complain, that is the question

Pinker often says that progressives hate progress, essentially meaning that they want out-and-out revolutions whereas real progress is made incrementally. Yet it often feels like Pinker actively despises the crucial engine of progress : criticism. Throughout the book he rails against those who say the world is getting worse. While he does have many good arguments against painting a picture of the world as already sliding into ruin and decay, he never addresses what makes a complaint legitimate and what makes it counterproductive. He realises that activism and calls for (de)regulation have often driven improvements, but most of the time he just ends up ranting about how silly it is to whine about the state of the world when clearly everything's amazing and nobody's happy.

To be fair, I used to subscribe to that view myself. I think now I'm able to understand where I went wrong : it's the default nature of our comparisons to be relative, recent and local. Yes, aeroplanes are amazing - in a sense. But doors and wheels and light bulbs are amazing too, and no-one thinks we should be continuously standing awestruck by their majestic presence. If we did that, we'd be struck dumb every time we realised that the roof over our heads was keeping us dry. It wouldn't take long before we all became a bunch of raving lunatics, albeit very happy ones, which I suppose is better than a bunch of depressed lunatics but only slightly.

So aeroplanes are indeed amazing, but a more psychologically useful statement is that aeroplanes were amazing when they were invented. These days they are as technologically developed and ordinary as doors. We absolutely should take them for granted, because we've got them licked (sure we can still improve but the basics are there). Pinker says that it's the nature of progress to cover its tracks as we shift our standards, yet simultaneously he wants us to think in more absolute terms, that "we're not as happy as we ought to be".

The problem is you can't have it both ways. Pinker actively wants us to shift our standards, saying explicitly that this is what progress looks like. He even calls criticism of consumerism "thinly veiled snobbery", calling those who are against it hypocrites who simply indulge in their own form of consumerism :
The elites who condemn is tend themselves to be conspicuous consumers of exorbitant luxuries like hardcore books, good food and wine, live artistic performances, overseas travel, and Ivy-class education for their children.
I think it's a complete false equivalence to equate reading books with the vain pursuit of adornments, not to mention that many of those things are accessible to everyone and decried by no one. This is a classic Pinker straw man attack*, picking out weak arguments that few if any actually believe, whilst completely omitting more intelligent counterarguments that could be raised. More on consumerism itself later.

* In debates, a "straw man" fallacy is committed when someone attacks an argument their opponent didn't actually make. But in a book, where you get to pick which arguments you want to respond to, I think it's helpful to generalise this as the case of deliberately attacking weaker arguments when there are other, much stronger arguments against something. It creates a false impression of your opponents as being much stupider than they actually are.

Still, though he chooses terrible examples to support it, he does have a point that shifting standards are a desirable consequence of progress. The problem is that it necessarily follows that the topics and nature of complaints will shift too, but he never tries to develop a consistent framework - never defining helpful from unhelpful criticism or enlightening us as to what kinds of complaints he approves of. Certainly some complaints do smell strongly of people being over-indulged jerks who deserve a good kick in the shins, but others are inevitable thanks to progress. And without a system to distinguish the two, Pinker gets very confused and conflicted. As I said, you can't have it both ways.

For example, he decries warnings of the Y2K bug as being, "barely more serious than the lettering on the sidewalk prophet's sandwich board", citing dire apocalyptic prophecies which again smacks of a straw man (similarly, while I don't believe in a robot apocalypse, Pinker's arguments against it were so weak it almost made me think again). Sure, some loonies claimed the Y2K would be an instrument of divine wrath, but loonies would probably say that about my gonads if they thought it'd get them attention. Crazies are easy to refute by definition, because they're, well, crazies. Saying stupid stuff is what crazy people do.

A wiser approach is to seek out the warnings coming from the most intelligent people and listen to them instead. Indeed, most people seem to think that more serious, credible warnings resulted in fixes being applied so that the Y2K crisis never happened - a self unfulfilling prophecy. Similar claims have been made for limiting the damage to the rainforest and saving critically endangered animals from extinction. For example with still only a few thousand left in the wild, there appears with hindsight to have been every chance the tiger could have gone extinct years ago if not for the warnings of activists. The fact that it didn't does not mean the warnings were unnecessary - quite the opposite !

Sometimes dire warnings are necessary calls to action, but sometimes they do more harm than good. The whole book would have been substantially improved if Pinker had made the effort to work out the general conditions for complaining to have positive and negative effects, instead of just whining about whinging.

The irony that I'm complaining about his complaints about complaining is not lost on me.

What's particularly vexing is that sometimes he does, very eloquently, acknowledge the value of complaining, e.g. :
As we care more about humanity, we're apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of  how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen... But progress has a way of covering its tracks. As our moral standards rise over the years,we become alert to harms that would have gone unnoticed in the past.
... whereas at other times this notion gets a brusque dismissal. It's very frustrating.

As for Louis C.K.'s tirade about aeroplanes, yes, flying through the sky at 600 mph is impressive. But being stuck in a metal tube with very little room to move, bad food, low air pressure and hydration, minimal entertainment and no real possibility of sleeping for 12 hours... that's not impressive -  no-one has ever been impressed by those conditions. And we don't experience the sensation of travelling at 600 mph, so that purely intellectual knowledge is never going to override the much harder, more direct certainty of being tired and cramped. It's the age-old dilemma of knowing when to be happy with what you've got and when you can realistically expect something much better.

This isn't just about modern conveniences either. Pinker has several darker moments, such as when he's similarly dismissive of concerns about welfare in the Industrial Revolution. This is a major moral point he desperately fails to address.
The appropriate standard in considering the plight of the poor in industrialising countries is the set of alternatives available to them where and when they live... Radlet observes that, "while working on a factory floor is often referred to as sweatshop labour, it is often better than  the granddaddy of all sweatshops : working in the fields as an agricultural day labourer."
Which feels like a lame attempt to justify unnecessary suffering and cruelty in the name of incremental progress. There was absolutely no need for the first factory owners to inflict harsh and dangerous working conditions on their employees, but they did. It is and always has been self-evident that inflicting cruelty on others for the sake of your own profit is unethical. That workers at the time chose to leave the fields for a perceived better alternative is a poor excuse to justify villainy; people, after all, do not always make the best choices. Consent is very far from being the whole of morality. Did the factory workers actually enjoy it more than farming, for instance ? Once they were employed were they free to leave ?

More fundamentally, this particular issue feels like a choice a shit sandwich and a shit hotdog, one of which could very, very easily been replaced with a delicious fruit flan* but wasn't. No, Pinker, incremental progress should not be seen as a moral license for exploitation. Material benefits do not equate with fairness or justice. It's activism that drives reform, not gratitude.

* Or something.

The consent issue is not an isolated case for factory workers either. Later on he describes "the hobbling of research", stating that in his view research has far too many pesky safety and ethical regulations :
Today anyone who wants to do research on human beings, even an interview on political opinions or a questionnaire about irregular verbs, must prove to a committee that he or she is not Josef Mengele... Anyone who talks to a human being with the intent of gaining generalisable knowledge must obtain prior permission from these committees, almost certainly in violation of the First Amendment. Anthropologists are forbidden to speak with illiterate peasants [what, we're in the Middle Ages now ?] who cannot sign a consent form, or interview would-be suicide bombers on the off-chance that they might blurt out information that puts them in jeopardy.
I find it very hard to take this seriously. I'm not in this field of research, so I've no idea when Pinker is trying to use hyperbole and when he means to be taken literally - the Nazi reference (Pinker has no truck with Godwin's Law) muddles the waters for no good reason. It's not credible to suggest people are forbidden from speaking with anyone, or that if there's really a conflict with the Constitution that no-one has tackled this already. It just leaves me feeling that Pinker is a a bit of an arse. And again, there's a clear conflict between raising ethical standards and complaining about the results. If he'd set out a framework to explain when complaints are legitimate, he'd be able to present a much better case for why he's so darn cross.

2) The environment

Pinker immediately falls into the same trap in this chapter, praising the environmental movement's successes but then instantly and repeatedly dismissing their apocalyptic warnings. But let's move on.

Probably the most obvious rebuttal to the undeniable achievement of technological progress is that it has come at a tremendous and unsustainable cost. The enormous habitat destruction and consequent loss of biodiversity, not to mention centuries of actively hunting animals to extinction, the problems of deep sea trawling and over-fishing, the obscene amounts of waste that's simply emptied onto the natural world... all these are cheerfully glossed over by Pinker in favour of success stories. This then completely avoids tackling a huge part of the sustainability issue he himself raises.

To be fair, he does have some very good points here on the topic he concentrates on : global warming. He favours a combination of carbon taxing, increased renewable and nuclear engineering, and geoengineering. I think he overstates the case for the world having reached peak carbon intensity (the amount of CO2 emitted per capita, as opposed to the absolute total) but generally the solutions proposed seem reasonable and recognise the severity of the problem they have to tackle.

And yet elsewhere Pinker falls into the trap of blindly trusting technological advancement to fix any and all problems. Statements that "we could do this that and the other" litter the whole book, often failing to distinguish "possible in principle" from "possible in real life", much less acknowledging whether people are actually likely to implement such suggestions. Probably the most spectacular example is this utterly pointless throwaway statement :
NASA has also figured out a way to pump water at high pressure into a supervolcano and extract the heat for geothermal energy, cooling the magma enough that it would never blow its top.
Umm, have they ? Have they really ? No, of course they bloody haven't.  This is like saying that NASA has figured out a way to travel at warp speeds by harnessing the power of perpetual motion from cats and buttered toast.

To be fair, he does have another good point that some particular ecowackies genuinely think that we should just go back to living in the trees, or better yet exterminate ourselves for the good of the planet. But throwing out wildly speculative ideas about how technology might progress only hurts his cause. Pinker is resolute in denying technology any role in the world's problems whatsoever, insisting that science only causes the beneficial things whereas it's only ever other forces that misuse it. More on that later, but it seems to be to be very stupid to pretend that some technologies aren't inevitably destructive. He quotes that Stone Age man may have had a greater per capita impact on the environment than modern humans - the kind of remark that deserves an extensive justification, but none is provided. Honestly, sometimes I just think the guy is a massive tit.

Perhaps the worst example of a Pinkersism might be :
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.
Bullshit. It's not the fact that fossil fuels or herbicides are being used that people object to, it's the effect that they had on the environment. Profits for corporations ? Again, that's fine as long as they use them wisely. Do they ? BWHAHAHAHA no. I find it absolutely bizarre that anyone would try and justify something in this way. Let's not worry about the massive loss of species and disruption to the global environment because overall things have got better for humans ? There can be only one response to that.

Finally, Pinker gets terribly confused by his own straw men arguments against apocalypses. He says that they have repeatedly failed to come true in modern times. And that's true. But he also acknowledges that sometimes apocalypses do happen :
As Ozymandias reminds the traveller in Shelly's poem, most of the civilisations that have ever existed have been destroyed. Conventional history blames the destruction on external events like plagues, conquests, earthquakes, or whatever. But David Deutsch points out that those civilisations could have thwarted the fatal blows had they had better agricultural, medical, or military technology.
For starters I'm pretty sure that conventional history comes up with a variety of causes, some internal and some external, after carefully considering the evidence in each case. For another thing, Romans with submachine guns* is a terrible idea. It's a completely pointless counterfactual because it ignores the changes to the sociopolitical structure that would be necessary for ancient peoples to have had made major scientific breakthroughs : if the Mongols had medical research centres, they would not have been Mongols as we understand them today. Or in cruder terms it ignores the fact that technological progress can be a mixed blessing.

* Look, if Pinker wants to make ridonclulous straw man attacks, then I'm going to fight fire with fire. Straw men hate fire.

In fact, so often does Pinker pick on poor defenceless straw men that I have to wonder if he's exalted it to a whole new fallacy. One could imagine a computer set to churn out endless idiotic predictions that are easy to refute. This one could proudly say, "most predictions are bollocks", which would be technically true but also completely stupid. People have always made stupid predictions throughout history. Picking on the idiots is just a mean way of sticking oneself on a taller pedestal - not by elevating oneself so much as by bashing everyone else into the ground.

3) Politics,ethics and society

As mentioned above I've already covered some chapters where I thought Pinker had something genuinely interesting to say elsewhere. He has plenty of other good points too, and he gives, I think, a very fair appraisal of the failings of the left and right, noting that political tribalism "scrambles people's judgement". He presents concrete examples in support of this, noting that identity demonstrably influences support of policies depending on who proposes them.

Pinker finds the main fault of the right to be a belief that:
... Western civilisation has careened out of control since some halcyon century, having abandoned the moral clarity of traditional Christendom for a decadent secular fleshpot that, if left on its current course, will soon implode from terrorism, crime, and anomie.
Whereas the faults of the left are :
... its contempt for the market and its romance with Marxism... Partly this is because their brains autocorrect these terms to unbridled, unregulated, unfettered, or untrammeled free markets, perpetuating a false dichotomy : a free market can coexist with regulations on safety, labour and the environment, just as a free country can coexist with criminal laws.
Leaving aside Pinker's rather dubious environmental claims, this seems like a generally fair assessment to me. The left does tend to forget that capitalism has improved the economy and absolute standard of living. And the notion that we should default to assuming "freedom" to mean "freedom under law" rather than "absolute freedom" is, I think a very beneficial one. He goes on to note that the right is guilty of the same thing, taking any form of regulation to mean a complete loss of freedom (or at least a slippery slope towards one). This too seems fair.

The problem is that Pinker's own inclinations aren't much better. It's all very well to proclaim that politics makes us mean and nasty, but if you're going to claim that everyone else is screwing up, you'd better claim have an alternative. Pinker does, but it's disappointing :
Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignorance - a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.
It seems to me that without eugenics (we all know how that turns out) we can't fight evolution so it's pointless to consider; nor can we fight entropy. The main struggle of human societies, I think, has been to find a system which balances our strengths and weaknesses, allowing diverse beliefs to flourish rather than finding the One True Way. Though persuasion to get individuals to agree with each other is important, the real problem is in finding a system that best accommodates individuals who cannot agree. So it's not so much individuals who we should be fighting so much as the system itself - the system that engenders ignorance, pollution, corruption, and the Tragedy of the Commons, that enables cronyism and excuses arseholes rather than trying to mould them into something better.

Unfortunately Pinker utterly neglects any network analysis and instead simply opts for a straightforward "let's all believe this instead". It's a very dark aspect to the book, cloaked in optimism. More on that at the end. Suffice for now to say that Pinker takes a highly questionable approach to morality, bluntly stating his own judgements about what's right and wrong without ever examining why :
Life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. 
I would add :
Chocolate pudding is better than cauliflower soup. Shiny shoes are better than dirty ones. Long hair is preferable to short hair. More puppies are preferable to less. More puppies ! More I say ! Hang those who talk of less ! MORE ! MOOORRRRE ! MOAAAAARRRR !!!!
Okay, he may be trying to make a rhetorical point, but because the book is riddled with straw men I'm not going to let him get away with this. Is life better than death if life is permanent suffering, either your own or your infliction of suffering upon others ? Is abundance better than poverty if abundance is unsustainable ? Doesn't too much abundance sometimes lead to a sense of privilege, entitlement, and disrespect for those in poverty ? Is peace better than war if the cost is living under a brutal despot ? Don't some people enjoy genuine risk, and doesn't experiencing risk lead to us being more cautious and aware of difficulties while too much safety causes hubris, complacency, arrogance, and massive insecurity when things go wrong ? Isn't too much freedom a recipe for a Libertarian disaster, and don't some freedoms conflict with each other ?

All of these questions are never answered. He simply takes them as blunt, irrefutable facts : of course everyone wants to live a safe, prosperous world, even if that meant everyone was fat and stupid. These questions are philosophically and morally complex and deserve an extensive analysis, not simply plucked out of the air on an ideological whim.

There are a whole bunch of other points I'll gloss over : Pinker says wealth inequality is actually a good thing but then apologies for it; he dismisses gun control laws without any justification whatsoever; he largely ignores any problems social media may have caused in recent years - similarly he seems ignorant of Plato's observation that too much freedom results in tyranny (a.k.a. the Toleration Paradox). I could go on about these and others at length, but luckily for you, dear reader, I won't.

What I will mention though is whether society really is getting better overall. Accepting that societies in the past could not possibly have access to the technologies we do today, is it really fair to say that ours in the best way to live ? Are things really just improving all the time or are we, as I've speculated elsewhere, continually living on the edge of chaos ?

Pinker's defence of liberal democracies is a robust one : they are nice places to live. Plato, though, thought that they were unsustainable and vulnerable to demagogues skilled in persuasion but lacking in wisdom. And that certainly does feel like a serious, credible threat right now.

My main issue is with Pinker's claim that people are continually getting smarter. He says the Flynn effect shows that people's analytic intelligence is continually increasing, but while this is valuable, it doesn't meant that people are getting more critical, sincere, or less corrupt. He says that politics is a "flaming exception" to the general increase in intelligence. Yet that would seem, at the very least, to put at risk all the other gains, and it's very hard to agree that this is the case anyway. Is the existence of Instagram-based "influencers" really a good thing ? Isn't the shallow, hedonistic consumerism damaging from the environment which we all share* ? He says that "those who are nostalgic for traditional folkways have forgotten how hard our forebears fought to escape them". True, but it doesn't follow that they'd be impressed by how we live today.

* As well as ignoring how much leisure time was available in the distant past, he completely ignores what it is people are actually doing with their leisure time.

Hint : this didn't end well.
Here's my alternative interpretation (criticism welcome) : over the last few centuries, the best and brightest of society have shifted the Overton window in a generally favourable direction, and similarly have advanced science and technology to give us better opportunities. Because, as Pinker says, the gains aren't uniform or equal, there have been many setbacks along the way. While in absolute terms the values of all demographics have shifted, the relative difference between them might have remained roughly the same as it ever was. And just as in the earlier example of aircraft, we should take these new values for granted; it's not sensible for us to shut up and be happy with what we've got. That's how progress works.

What this means is that we haven't made everyone into intrinsically better people. We have the same shitty arseholes today as we had a thousand years ago, we've just made it harder for them to cause more serious problems. If the relative differences between the liberal left and conservative right are as strong as they've ever been, their absolute values are only different because they are largely a product of society. That's how we can appear to be perpetually on the edge of chaos but somehow keep getting lucky. It's the window of acceptability which has shifted, not the intrinsic properties of the people themselves.

And there are further caveats. Various hard right populists and religious ideologues around the world appear to be credible threats to many decades of social gains. It would be nice to think that these are momentary aberrations, but as with the rise of the Taliban in the Middle East*, sometimes backsliding can go a very long way. Even if they are eventually overturned, the fact that disasters are not actually full-on apocalypses doesn't make the situation the slightest bit more bearable to anyone actually experiencing them. Pinker seems to think that just because it's not actually literal Armageddon, complaints about real disasters are just overblown and shouldn't be taken seriously.

* Pinker says that Islam needs its own Enlightenment, supposing that while Middle Eastern nations were more tolerant and liberal than the West in the medieval era, this was only because the West was so abysmally awful. This neglects just how radically values can shift in the matter of a few decades : Afghanistan wasn't any less Muslim in the 1970s, but it was certainly a nicer place to live.
He also notes that sometimes the left are wont to apologise for Islamic atrocities. This is a claim I've heard before, but I've never once heard anyone make such apologies. Everyone condemns the recent atrocities; to say, "there's more than religion at work here" is not even close to excusing them.

That's my theory anyway. I'm sure there are much more sophisticated alternatives possible, but Pinker doesn't discuss any of them.

Pinker appears to contradict himself several times on the subject of increasing intelligence. He says that more educated people are both more and less likely to vote. This conflict appears to be due to glossing over some complex statistics : more education might mean a greater likelihood of voting in general, but it also causes a loss of religious faith - which decreases the chance of voting (perhaps especially in a religious country like the US). It's not impossible to reconcile this, but Pinker doesn't seem to even spot the contradiction. A more blunt contradiction is the observation that it's extremists, not the more intelligent moderates, who are more likely to vote. So I don't hold out much hope that intelligence really is rising as Pinker seems to think it is. There's more to society than intelligence anyway : in the wrong hands, greater analytic intelligence just enables more sophisticated bullshitting.

Finally, wealth inequality. As I said, Pinker seems very confused by this because he both defends it and apologises for it. He's convinced that what matters to people is their own personal absolute standard of living, not how well those at the top are doing. This is not entirely unreasonable, but it completely misses the undue influence that wealth begets, never mind privilege and an entirely unfair advantage given to the children of the very wealthy. Once again, major issues are badly shoved under the carpet of pointless optimism.

Nor is it really clear if those at the bottom are so free from problems as Pinker seems to think. Yes, the poorest no longer have to worry about fending off tigers, and we can be grateful for that. But they still have to worry about making ends meet, and again, it's absurd to pretend they should stop complaining about their measly salaries and instead be constantly jubilant that they didn't get their leg bitten off by a cave bear for the billionth time. Some threats - as Pinker quite correctly points out at length - are largely imaginary, like terrorism. So while we absolutely should stop worrying about those, by the same token we can't insist that people start being grateful for the lack of totally unrealistic problems. Asking us to feel grateful for not being sat on by a giant sloth necessitates that we first start to worry about being sat on by a giant sloth, which is stupid.

And moreover, unfairness does seem to be a major concern for a lot of people. That Pinker thinks it shouldn't be doesn't change the fact that it is : it's to some extent a self-fulfilling problem. Happiness, it's been said, is the correlation between expectation and reality, and none of Pinker's statistics seem to account for that. Self-reported happiness is no more than a beginning, because self knowledge can be flawed. Pinker does make a very important point that happiness is not the same as finding something meaningful, but I have little faith he could ever understand how individual this can be. It's just not something you can ever plot on a graph.

So we can now give at least one major reason why Pinker's book is full of weird contradictions. Complaints about the state of the world do ignore progress, but for a very good reason : we don't appreciate things unless we're deeply concerned about them; appreciating things which we have no chance of ever losing makes no sense. Whether or not mere technological progress can make us happier or lead more meaningful lives, or how to decide when complaints are those of spoiled idiots and when they are legitimate, I think we can leave for now. It's high time to finish this up by addressing an even more fundamental problem with Pinker's reasoning.

Conclusions : utilitarian scientism is a terrible idea

To recap :
  • Materially our lives are generally improving, but huge questions remain as to sustainability.
  • Pinker lacks a framework to distinguish sensible complains from ludicrous overreactions, and cannot tell when dire warnings were just noise and when they actually prevented disasters.
  • Pinker forgets that major disasters do in fact happen, often ignores previous societal collapses, and does not have a clear strategy for selecting the data he chooses to display.
  • Although he often has many insightful and carefully thought-out arguments, Pinker often ignores alternative interpretations by attacking straw men in droves.
  • He claims that progressives hate progress, but he attacks the very engine of progress because he thinks we can and should judge the world by an absolute standard. More likely, the reason we can't and don't do this is not ingratitude but because we don't appreciate things when they are guaranteed.
Pinker does a good job of explaining the various psychological biases that prevent us from seeing some of the very real gains that have occurred. I would suggest another : the flaw of averages can be seen as a bias as well as a statistical observation. Hardly anyone, it turns out, is actually close to the average on more than a very few parameters. So the news reports all kinds of disasters and indeed some long-term trends that are getting worse, but hardly anyone at all actually suffers from all the things that are going downhill. Hence the reports and trends are real, but give a misleading picture of overall suffering.

Similarly, when it comes to safety, we may not perceive the improvements because their per-capita gains are simply too small and too slow. Overall this adds up to substantial numbers of lives saved, but a marginal change in probability per person is not something we can ever be consciously aware of. And gains in workplace efficiency may cause substantial economic improvements but be too small for any individuals to witness.

So in some ways Pinker does have a very good point : the world has got better without us noticing, while various biases conspire to make us think that it's getting worse than it is. And yet in his final chapter, for which he promises so much, he delivers little, collapsing instead into a prolonged vent, a mass of contradictions about all the evils of the world and how much of a moron everyone else is. It makes him sound like a colossal jerk.

What leads someone to such a weird and inscrutable mixture of the insightful and the "that's just fucking stupid" level of reasoning ? Take, for instance, the following line of "reasoning" which Pinker quotes in apparent agreement :
To delay by one year the development of a treatment that cures a lethal disease that kills 100,000 people per year is to be responsible for the deaths of those 100,000 people, even if you never see them.
Which is so stupid I'm not going to bother refuting it. But it nicely illustrates something at the very heart of Pinker's problems. For someone who professes to have no truck with political tribalism, he has no problems falling into other tribal groups - and quite fails to recognise what he's done. Pinker is nothing less than an anitheist feminist humanist scientismist utilitarian, which I imagine is as much fun at parties as it sounds.


I've dealt with the problems of antitheism before at length. Essentially this is the condition not of merely lacking a belief in deities as with agnosticism or atheism, but of believing so strongly that deities can't exist that one forgets that this is a belief and presumes that it's a simple fact (Pinker claims that the existence of an immortal soul predicts supernatural phenomena, which is is a bit like saying that the existence of immortal numbers predicts demonic forces). Adherents of this sort of cult often excuse the same sort of insulting hate speech they claim stems solely from religion, although I'd be surprised in Pinker ever does this.


Scientism is something I've touched on several times before. Just as atheism isn't a religion but antitheism is, so science isn't just another ideology whereas scientism is what happens when you try and make it into one. It essentially presumes that empirical data and mathematical reasoning are the only forms of true knowledge, that we can know reality with absolute certainty. It ignores key assumptions about how we measure that data, forgets that those assumptions and other parameters are literally immeasurable and untestable, and tends to beat anyone who disagrees with an angry hammer.

While few would deny that science can inform us regarding ethical choices (e.g. by predicting the results of research or implementing policies), scientism - or at least Pinker's version of it - goes to the extreme of saying that only scientific methods can be used for moral inquiry. Hence Pinker doesn't think science can ever be blamed for anything but praised for everything. Perhaps most stupidly of all, he confuses the notions of scientists with scientism, as though everything a scientist ever does is proof of rationality (except for when they do something bad, of course).

It's just plain dumb. Need an example ? Pinker's got the perfect straw man again. He notes a Harvard statement about education reform :
"Science and technology directly affect our students in many ways, both positive and negative : they have led to life-saving medicines, the internet, more efficient energy storage, and digital entertainment; they have also shepherded nuclear weapons, biological warfare agents, electronic eavesdroping, and damage to the environment." 
Well, yes, and I suppose one could say that architecture has produced both museums and gas chambers, that classical music both stimulates economic activity and inspired the Nazis, and so on.
Riiiight. Pinker is right to point out that scientific knowledge also matters, because knowledge of how devastating nuclear and biological weapons could be has played an important role in preventing their deployment. Hence it has important moral consequences.

But this hasn't always happened : the end result of internet surveillance is far from known, for example, so the moral value of that aspect of technology is questionable at best. Nor did knowledge of the efficacy of machine guns prevent their widespread use. And to equate architecture with gas chambers is patently absurd : artistic design didn't lead to a desire for genocide, but scientific studies have led to more efficient killing tools. To view man's analytic investigations as being utterly blameless in the development of society is folly. If you accept that technologies have led to improvements, as, say, medication undoubtedly has, than you can't pretend that chemical warfare is somehow magically divorced from that. It's hardly as though there aren't other fields which are similarly seen as a mixed blessing (economics, for example), it's just that Pinker picks ludicrous counter-examples.


Of course I have no problems with feminism, saving that Pinker makes the dubious claim that women are actually superior to men which to be misses the whole point and probably isn't true. I shall skip also humanism, but it should be easy to see how utilitarianism fits into this somewhat toxic mix. Utilitarianism says that we should strive for the greatest good for the greatest number. There's obviously an appeal to someone who believes so staunchly in measurement and observation and utterly rejects any other form of knowledge.

Just as scientism stems from science, which is not itself at all objectionable, and antitheism stems from atheism, which is not at all an unreasonable philosophy, so too is utilitarianism not devoid of merit. But it cannot possibly be the whole story. Existential Comics has a hilarious rebuttal here, in which the corpse of its founder goes on a killing spree to harvest organs for transplants - thus increasing the total happiness in the world (with some obvious disadvantages). A more subtle aspect also brilliantly illustrated by Existential Comics is causally dismissed by Pinker :

Pinker says that utility monsters don't seem to have caused any problems. But utility monsters don't have to actually exist. Like the trolley problem, they point at a key issue which does occur all the time - and often goes unsolved. If an action causes someone happiness but another misery, how do we judge if the action is a good one ? Utilitarianism would say we can calculate in some way the net gain of happiness, but often this is impossible because happiness is not something you can truly measure, at least not with anything like sufficient accuracy.

You might think that maybe we could at least say an action is good if it causes happiness but no suffering, but this is not so either. Let's start with an extreme case. Suppose there's a serial killer who takes great pleasure in murdering hermits who never interact with the outside world in any way. This particular killer values stealth, so the victims are dispatched swiftly and without suffering. The serial killer's pleasure has increased and the victim hasn't actually suffered.

Or suppose someone hates you and secretly conspires to rid you of opportunities, say, preventing you from being offered a promotion or an award you were unaware of. They've gained pleasure, robbed you of something you deserved, but you haven't actually suffered. Maybe they do something even more minor, like adopting (and taking good care of) the cutest cat at the rescue shelter so you don't get it and have to settle for a less cute kitty but one which you still adore. And suppose they did intend harm to the kitty but ended up treating it kindly. Were they right or wrong to act as they did ?

Or take incest. For certain people this clearly does cause a great deal of happiness and doesn't - so long as precautions are taken - cause anyone to suffer.

It looks to me like trying to maximise happiness and goodness is fine as a general guideline, but as anything more than that - especially as guide to justice and fairness - it's pretty lousy. Intentions, surely, also play a role in determining morality, as perhaps do other, less tangible aspects.

Pinker doesn't seem to understand that. He asks the right questions, but dodges the answers by attacking the straw man of religious morality. From him it's a world of blunt statistics, and if it can't be measured, it isn't real; if morality can't be from God, it must flow from numbers. If people say they're getting happier, then it must be true. If people have enough wealth to avert poverty, then they ought to shut up and enjoy their bread and circuses expensive Nike trainers. Animals are going extinct ? Never mind, we're probably going to be able to figure something out at some point. Politicians are saying inflammatory hate-filled rhetoric as a means to power ? That's okay, the rise of fact-checking shows how rational people really are.

The underlying basis of these ideologies all have value. A dose of atheism cautions against ascribing everyday events to magical deities, while humanism provides a plausible basis for rational morality. Utilitarianism may not be complete, but neither is it wrong to remind us to consider the full consequences of our actions. And while making science into a religion is as mad as a bag of clams, a more scientific approach to politics would probably do the world an awful lot of good. Science has managed to find a system of establishing objective truth that is outstandingly good at self-correction and, perhaps most importantly, able to harness the power of dissenting voices rather than shutting them up. God knows it's a messy business, but it works. We ought to be extremely careful about applying the scientific approach of competitive collaborations in politics, but that doesn't mean there aren't lessons to be learned here.

Here's my take on Pinker's overall conclusion : the uncanny valley applies to more than just facial recognition. That is, cartoon people look fine, and realistic drawings look fine, but get the results slightly wrong and things... well, see for yourself.

The thing is, if the tattoo was of similar accuracy but of, say, a tree or a sheep or a lawnmower, you'd probably think it was pretty good. If you could somehow measure it, the accuracy is probably not that low. Yet those subtle differences make the world of difference. That's what I think is going on with society : objectively, we're probably a lot closer to a Golden Age than we suspect, but there's a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) but incredibly powerful wrongness to the final result. Like seeing a 99% solar eclipse, the result is very different from totality.

Even if this is correct, that doesn't mean the remaining improvements won't be tremendously difficult : we still don't have anywhere near a complete enough understanding of human psychology for that. But to end on an optimistic note, a wise man once said that it's easier to burn down a house than build a new one. I prefer a slightly different take, that it's also easier to improve a house than start from scratch. For all his faults, Pinker has some valuable contributions. His most important message is a work the problem vibe. Don't despair because your revolution failed. Don't insist on "perfection or bust", because often you'll get the latter and fall victim to self loathing. Instead, go for the gradatim ferocite approach of Blue Origin : step by step, ferociously.

This always makes me think of the Ankh-Morpork national anthem.

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