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Interview: It May Not Seem Like It, But The World Is Getting Better


Steven Pinker: "The effort to spread democracy and human rights is not futile, it's not utopian, it's not romantic, it has happened in much of the world."

Canadian-American global thinker Steven Pinker uses statistics in his latest book to show how health, prosperity, peace, and happiness have vastly improved for most people in the world and living conditions continue to rise, despite media headlines that make it seem as though life is getting worse.

RFE/RL Belarusian correspondent Alex Znatkevich interviewed the Harvard professor and psychologist about his book, Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, And Progress, and discusses how too much bad news can lead to apathy and "radicalism."

RFE/RL: You show that…over the last several centuries human progress rooted in the ideas of enlightenment has been real and measurable...but if we look at the current picture, for example, of Belarus...it has been ruled for almost 25 years by an autocrat.... Politically the country is less free than 25 years ago.

And in the last several years there has been this resurgence of Russian nationalism, the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, and we have [Russian President Vladimir] Putin next door talking of [people going to] paradise after nuclear war.

How would you reassure a person in Belarus who shares the ideas of reason, science, and humanism [that life is getting better]?

Steven Pinker: Those are undoubtedly threats to progress, and it's essential to realize that progress does not mean that everything gets better for everyone, everywhere, all the time. That would be a miracle, that wouldn't be progress. And there are definite threats to progress.

It's important not to let your view of the world be influenced by headlines -- because they report isolated incidents -- but to look at counts that add up all of the countries that have moved in one direction or another."

The importance of acknowledging progress is not to deny the problems we face but to understand what we have accomplished and what is threatened. Those are undoubtedly threats. At the same time…the overall trend over the decades has been for the world to get more democratic. Not only the countries of Eastern Europe -- which were under totalitarian Soviet domination 30 years ago -- but most of Latin America and East Asia, many countries in Africa were ruled by military or strongman dictatorships that are now democratic.

Now, again, this does not happen everywhere on Earth -- that would be magic -- but it has happened in so many countries that it should remind us that the effort to spread democracy and human rights is not futile, it's not utopian, it's not romantic, it has happened in much of the world. All the more reasons that we should try to make it happen where it is threatened.

RFE/RL: The historian Timothy Snyder says that history [flowed] from West to the East before [but is now] flowing from East to the West.... So would you disagree with his assessment of the recent years?

Pinker: Well, there's no single answer to the question because ideas flow in all directions. But by and large, in terms of culture, in terms of technology, the ideas are flowing from West to East massively. In terms of the spread of the Internet, of biomedical technology, and even of governance.

Although there's no yes or no answer to which direction ideas flow, over the span of several decades it's not the case that more and more countries have turned into Putin's Russia or [Chinese President Xi Jinping's] China. It's important not to let your view of the world be influenced by headlines -- because they report isolated incidents -- but to look at counts that add up all of the countries that have moved in one direction or another. And the counts show that although there have been some recessions, overall the movement has been toward democracy.

RFE/RL: You write about ideologies based on hostility to enlightenment, such as fascism, for example. But there is not much discussion in your book of communism. Some say the ideas of [Soviet founder Vladimir] Lenin were to some [degree] the product of enlightenment. Would you agree with that?

Pinker: No. There's no correct answer to that question because the enlightenment does not have an official creed. It's not like the Catholic Church with a catechism. But the ideas that I identify as being central to the enlightenment -- including individual rights, freedom of speech, freedom of inquiry -- were certainly not the driving forces behind communism.

Steven Pinker: "By and large, in terms of culture, in terms of technology, the ideas are flowing from West to East."
Steven Pinker: "By and large, in terms of culture, in terms of technology, the ideas are flowing from West to East."

Communism also was rooted in some counter-enlightenment ideas such as romanticism, romantic militarism -- the idea that struggle and violence were essential to the progress of humanity.

Again, there's no official answer as to whether that is part of the enlightenment or not because the enlightenment was not a club or an organization. But the ideas that I am championing in the book -- reason, science, humanism, and progress -- were not the driving forces behind Marxism, by any means.

RFE/RL: But Russian Marxism took the science from the West and basically they did emancipate some portions of the population, for example, [and] some of the most liberal laws for female suffrage, for example, were introduced in Soviet Russia earlier than in many Western countries, in certain respects.

Pinker: Yes, that is true. But by and large the direct pathway from enlightenment thinkers to governance is much more obvious in the constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence, which is founded on the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and sees government just as a means to achieve those ends -- a tool or a gadget to make individual people happier and freer….

You are right that all of the intellectual and political movements comprise several ideas; there is no pure enlightenment or counter-enlightenment. But certainly, the core of the enlightenment, especially as I have defended it in my book, [is] very much opposed to Marxism.

RFE/RL: ...Do you think in the current situation people in governments are already inoculated against this romantic militarism and the two world wars are not forgotten and they're still in the minds and in the hearts of enough people to make it highly improbable, the repetition of something like that?

Pinker: It is certainly less probable, [but] by no means impossible. And the probability is high enough that we should continue to work to make large-scale war unthinkable. But I think the probability is less than what it was before. And certainly, you don't see any leaders or the elites of any countries saying that war is inherently a noble, heroic, important force in nations and that countries should go to war just to keep their young people heroic, and altruistic, and masculine. That, for example, is an idea that is very rare to nonexistent today.

Again, it doesn't mean that war is impossible. And we should strengthen the norms and the organizations that are designed to prevent war. But I do think it is less probable than it was in the 20th century.

RFE/RL: ...With this new knowledge of biases [that people have], do you think there are potentially effective methods to educate people on a mass scale about this and change some of those patterns of thinking?

Pinker: It's not easy, and studies that try to make people more rational show that many of the educational curricula fail.... But there are some programs, some courses, some curricula that are successful in getting people to avoid their own natural fallacies and biases, and I think that those programs should be a part of the educational curriculum at every level and should be part of our everyday discourse and discussion.

If the news is systematically too negative, then it's giving people a distorted view of the world which, in addition to making them needlessly depressed, leads to error and misunderstanding."

That is, in newspapers, on television, in the editorial pages -- people should be constantly aware of the ways in which people can make irrational arguments. Such as arguing from a single anecdote: There was a terrorist attack yesterday; therefore, there has been a rise in terrorism. Now that's just an error. One incident doesn't mean that there is a rise because a rise or a fall requires at the very least two events separated in time.

But that's an example of a fallacy that even our best newspapers constantly make.

RFE/RL: You have this quote [in your book] -- "Remember, a single anecdote is not a trend." But newspapers and the media in general, by the very definition of news, do it in some stories, and even if they add context to it, that sometimes doesn't help. Negative events attract attention. "If it bleeds, it leads," they say. So what would be your advice to the media?

Pinker: ...It's not as if the mainstream media have a winning formula for retaining their popularity and commercial success. People have been abandoning traditional news sources, and one of the reasons they give is that it's too depressing, too negative. Now, of course, it's essential to report negative events. It would be irresponsible to fail to report dangers and suffering and injustice.

On the other hand, if the news is systematically too negative, then it's giving people a distorted view of the world which, in addition to making them needlessly depressed, leads to error and misunderstanding.

There are studies that show that [there are] stories about positive change -- and by that I don't mean feel-good stories like a good Samaritan or a cute puppy -- I mean stories of successful programs, say, to help the homeless, peace treaties in parts of the world that people don't pay attention to, like [recently in] Ethiopia and Eritrea; advances in democracy….

If the impression of the world that you get from the news is that all of our institutions are failing -- that democracy has been a failure and the United Nations is a failure and modern economies are a failure -- then that encourages radicalism."

And so it may be that the media, even for their own survival, have to provide a more balanced view…. I think it is an unexamined part of the ethics of journalism that serious journalism equals bad news. And there is a problem with that because it turns people into fatalists. They are liable to think that, since nothing that we can do makes the world any better -- all of the efforts of people to improve governance and society and poverty have been failures, then the natural response is: Let's not even bother, let's just enjoy our lives.

And another natural response is radicalism. If the impression of the world that you get from the news is that all of our institutions are failing -- that democracy has been a failure and the United Nations is a failure and modern economies are a failure -- then that encourages radicalism. The idea [emerges] that we should just destroy all of our institutions because anything that rises out of the ashes and rubble is bound to be better than what we have now.

That, I think, is a consequence of journalism as it is now practiced. And conscientious, responsible journalists, I believe, should take a look at the views of the world that they have been inadvertently spreading.

RFE/RL: [Your] book...has on the cover a quote from Bill Gates that "it's my new favorite book of all time." If [Microsoft founder] Bill Gates asked you for advice about where to put his money to promote humanistic ideas -- that is, on enlightenment -- what would be your advice be to him?

Pinker: Well, Bill Gates has devoted more thought to that than anyone, including me -- that is, "Where would the dollars that he has do the most good?" And it's to his enormous credit that he asked that question and rather than just giving money away in a way that would make him even more famous, he analyzed: "How would my money do the most good?" ...

Certainly, what he is already doing -- namely, improving public health and education in the developing world -- that gives an enormous boost to human well-being.... I would not give him advice because he has asked the question himself and he has done a superb job at saving lives. He has been credited with saving 100 million lives, he and his wife, Melinda.

This interview was edited by RFE/RL correspondent Pete Baumgartner for length and clarity.
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