Rosenkranz Remarks

The Blog of Robert Rosenkranz

Recommended Reading: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now

by robertrosenkranz on August 30, 2018

Robert Rosenkranz’s  Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

In an age of increasingly pessimistic and bleak world views, Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, couldn’t come at a better time. It’s a sort of balm from the recent surge in authoritarian populism and the general hopelessness that stems from it. Through the lens of Pinker’s optimistic philosophy, Enlightenment Now expands on his seminal book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and creates a cohesive overview of the liberal Enlightenment values that are currently under attack from both extremes of the political spectrum. While he paints a rose-colored picture of humanity right now, he also explains the media biases that cause most people to feel much worse about human progress than they ought to feel.

Contrary to the doom and gloom vision that your Twitter feed might like you to subscribe to (after all, a negative headline or critical review always gets more likes/retweets than a positive one), human life is actually getting better. Pinker provides copious amounts of data to support his thesis that progress has been made in every facet of humanity. People across the globe live longer, suffer from fewer diseases, receive better education, live in more peaceful communities, earn more money, and lead happier lives.

Enlightenment Now explains that the humanities as they are taught in academia tend to focus on problems, challenges, and things that have gone wrong, perpetuating a risky catastrophism and vicious cycle of negative thinking. C.P. Snow established the classical idea that there are two worlds: the sciences and the humanities. Pinker claims that by taking a skeptical approach to Enlightenment values, liberal journalists and left-leaning professors have exacerbated the divide between these two spheres. As the sciences and the humanities become more at odds with each other, people have lost sight of the facts. Pinker’s rational humanism reminds us to focus on what has gone right and to use that knowledge and positivity to progress into a brighter future.

But all is not positive in Pinker’s telling.   He cites as a conspicuous counter example democratic politics.  In his view, politics is an unusual sphere of human activity where progress has been elusive.  He sees it as almost an irrationality magnet.  No one believes his individual vote will change an outcome.  Most don’t trouble to inform themselves about issues.  Arguably its irrational to even spend time doing so if your vote is going to be swamped by the votes of the ignorant.  As a result, people vote based on their emotions, and politicians are all too ready to stoke their anger and their fear or to propose utterly simplistic solutions to complex problems. Or they vote to express their identity, to signal virtue or loyalty to a group.

In my own view, this tendency, which worried America’s founders deeply, has been exacerbated by developments in the last several decades. Gerrymandered congressional districts make the primaries the only elections that matter, and primary voters skew toward extremes.  So do television networks; perhaps because when there are dozens of cable channels, the best business strategy is to create a strong emotional bond with a narrow group of viewers.   Social media plays a part too: facilitating “filter bubbles” in which people only receive stories that reinforce their pre-existing views.  My own antidote to these tendencies is our Intelligence Squared debate series, which brings reasoned discourse to the public square through public radio, podcasts, cable television, and multiple social media channels.  We have been producing these for 12 years.  Sadly, I cannot find evidence that our politics is becoming more enlightened.

robertrosenkranzRecommended Reading: Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now