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Ansvar väger tyngre än frihet - Responsibility trumps liberty

22 okt. 2017

Pinker is dangerous

Steven Pinker is touring the world right now, promoting his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I watched his talk at FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) recently*, and I also watched his keynote speech (embedded at the end of this post) at the European Parliament's Science and Technology Options Assessment, STOA, the other day, titled Should We Fear the Future?, followed by a debate with, among others, Thomas Metzinger and my good friend Olle Häggström (who, by the way, currently heads a research program on existential risk at Chalmers, Gothenburg, including several prominent guest researchers).

As many of my friends, I have long held conflicting feelings about Pinker. He has obviously written a lot of really good stuff, and he is one of the world's most eloquent and ardent proponents of enlightenment values, rationalism and humanism. But he is also, and increasingly so, a right-of center liberal. And he is neither a natural scientist nor an environmentalist.

It is probably uncontroversial to describe Pinker as an optimist, and a techno-optimist at that. He does  so himself, when he ironically reports his critics calling him, among other things, a Pollyanna and a Pangloss. Somewhat more controversial, perhaps, is branding him a libertarian utopian; a market-fundamentalist; a laissez-faire ideologue; or an elitist neoconservative. But I think the case can be made that those are apt epithets.

But my biggest fear about Pinker is that he - somewhat surprisingly, given his proven intellectual rigor - seems to suffer from a bad case of ideological blindness and wishful thinking, and that he seems completely uninterested in or worried about physical reality, thermodynamics, planetary boundaries, and inequality, among other things.

Pinker made quite a stir two years ago when, in the wake of CRISPR-Cas9,  he famously exhorted bioethicists to "get out of the way". Already in 2011, his influential book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, intensified the age-old debate on whether the glass is half-full or half-empty - a debate brilliantly surveyed by Oliver Burkeman in his piece for the Guardian from August this year, Is the world really better than ever?

In some respects, Pinker reminds me of the late Swedish physician, statistician and public educator Hans Rosling. Rosling has made a great impact - mostly positive - when it comes to presenting, and contributing to, a more nuanced view of the state of the world, not least in so called developing countries. But Rosling always struck me as working backwards from a utopian future; extrapolating his curves onto eventually (potentially) benign end states. Still, compared to Rosling, Pinker does not exhibit any statistical sophistication whatsoever.

Pinker also reminds me of Immanuel Kant, as he comes across in Jonathan Israel's A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy. Despite revolutionary insights, he moulded his message so as not to upset the status quo; deferring, in the end, to the aristocratic powers-that-be. In the words of Israel:

Either history is infused by divine providence or it is not

Pinker's forthcoming book, except for a rousing introduction, seems to be a direct follow-up to "Better Angels" - except this time all graphs point (steeply) upwards. I can't help but think of a talk Sverker Sörlin gave to my students last week on his latest book, Antropocen (Anthropocene). Sörlin showed many of the same graphs that Pinker uses (and that Rosling used to do). But, critically, Sörlin also showed several other graphs that, although they also point upwards, paint a very different picture of the state and direction of the world. Many of these graphs are inspired by the work of Johan Rockström and his colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Center.

Conspicuously absent from Pinker's narrative are any graphs that plot negative developments. One might argue that there is nothing wrong in making a case as strong as possible. But there certainly is, in this case, since the continued rise in Pinker's preferred graphs hinges, among other things, upon just those kinds of negative "externalities".

To my mind, it is morally suspect to present such a one-sided argument when the stakes are so high. Furthermore, in his talk, Pinker explicitly denies, or minimizes, several very tangible negative trends, such as the rise of inequality. As an aside, when discussing inequality, Pinker first erroneously states that happiness is (unproblematically) correlated with income, and then contradicts his own view by claiming that inequality is unimportant as long as the least well-off have access to a minimum level of material resources.

No self-respecting public intellectual could pass by the opportunity to lament the impending climate and environmental catastrophe. Pinker begins and ends his talk with a cursory nod to these problems, and to the risk of nuclear war, so as to frame his account of progress with a measure of balance and responsibility. But the overall effect is the opposite: One comes away from his exposition with the feeling that these problems are mere wrinkles on the path to glory. Progress is not inevitable, says Pinker, but the obstacles to continued growth and prosperity are not physical or mathematical. The only thing standing in the way is backwardness. Not just superstition, lack of education, religion etc., but caution itself, and any concept of science, democracy, liberty and collective well-being other than the one Pinker himself subscribes to. So get out of the way!

As a further illustration of Pinker's callous disregard for other and wider perspectives, and even of consistency - when it obstructs his agenda - is his sweeping denigration of researchers (and others) who raise concerns about artificial intelligence (AI) specifically, and about technological developments in general. I find it very revealing that his arguments are exactly isomorphous to those of so called "climate deniers" (and even to creationist deniers of evolution) - if you strip away the rhetorical flourishes, and the insidious references to modern (economical) behavioral science.

This is how Pinker dismisses - and accuses - anyone who raises concerns about the development of AI and other technologies (scientists as well as others), under the disingenuous and highly sententious heading "Why do intellectuals and journalists deny progress?" (30-35 minutes into the stream). Watch and judge for yourself.

  1. Availability bias and publication bias

  2. Negativity bias and (evolutionary) asymmetry between errors of type I and type II

  3. "Gravitas" and supposed seriousness

  4. Competition for status and money (grants), and (conscious) undermining of other institutions' prestige and influence

  5. Fatalism and cynicism

(Neo-Luddites, romanticism and "cabin-porn" come to mind.)

The debate rages on. Pinker's latest contribution constitutes a particularly strong (and tangy) swell to one side. Considering the currents, I think it is dangerously one-sided.


For context, read The Long Ecological Revolution.

For more context, read Trump Team to Promote Fossil Fuels and Nuclear Power at Bonn Climate Talks

And then some Meditations on Moloch.


One of the more thoughtful and balanced thinkers on progress, and an extremely important voice today, is Kate Raworth. I highly recommend her initiative, Doughnut Economics.


* Pinker's hour-long talk at FFRF has subsequently been removed from their Youtube channel, and replaced with a short introduction.

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