Reason, science promote progress, says Harvard professor in new book

Feb. 24, 2018

Despite the gloomy headlines, humanity is flourishing, according to Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard. In a Wall Street Journal column adapted from his new book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, he writes that in 1800 the world literacy rate was well under 20%. Today, that figure is over 80%.

Looking closer to home and over a shorter time span, he notes that just three decades ago, 11% of Americans fell below the poverty line; today, that figure is 3%.

That’s still too many, but, Pinker writes, “Americans work 22 fewer hours a week than they did in the late 19th century and lose 43 fewer hours to housework. They have more opportunities to use their leisure to travel, spend time with children, connect with loved ones, and sample the world’s cuisine, knowledge, and culture.”

This success translates to the rest of the world as well, and people in a majority of countries have become happier, he writes.

The reason for this progress? “The Enlightenment is working,” he responds. “Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition, and authority with reason, debate, and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science.”

He cites several advances:

  • Disease has been decimated by vaccines, sanitation, antibiotics, and other advances in medicine.
  • Famine has been staunched by crop rotation, synthetic fertilizer, selective breeding of vigorous hybrids, and new agricultural machinery.
  • Poverty has been cut through education, global trade, and social programs that help the young, old, sick, and unlucky.
  • Crime has been cut through innovations such as data-driven policing.
  • Everyday hazards have been blunted through safety regulation and engineering.
  • War is being marginalized through democracy and global commerce, “which makes trade more profitable than plunder,” he writes.

Despite the good news, he asks whether it isn’t good to be pessimistic—“to rake the muck, afflict the comfortable, speak truth to power?” He responds to his own question, “The answer is no: It’s good to be accurate.” Undue pessimism, he writes, can lead to fatalism, radicalism, and calls to “smash the machine.”

Pinker acknowledges that although real poverty is falling, inequality in developed countries is rising, with the result that such countries now devote almost a quarter of their wealth to children, the poor, the sick, and the aged—vs. 1% a century ago. In his essay, he offers no prescription for dealing with inequality.

Indeed, inequality is easy to identify, but what, if anything, can or should be done about it remains elusive. As I commented in an earlier post, MIT researcher and labor economist David Autor has cited geographic inequality, and new research published in Psychological Science addresses gender inequality in STEM fields.

Nevertheless, I think we can all appreciate Pinker’s observation Americans lose 43 fewer hours to housework than they did in the late 19th century. But the conveniences that make this possible have a critic in Tim Wu, who suggests in a column in The New York Times that convenience has become a kind of tyranny. “I prefer to brew my own coffee, but Starbucks instant is so convenient that I hardly ever do what I ‘prefer,’” he writes.

Read more on resisting the tyranny of convenience here.

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