Pinker's progress: the celebrity scientist at the centre of the culture wars - 2021-09-28
On a recent afternoon, Steven Pinker, the cognitive psychologist and bestselling author of upbeat books about human progress, was sitting in his summer home on Cape Cod, thinking about Bill Gates. Pinker was gearing up to record a radio series on critical thinking for the BBC, and he wanted the world's fourth richest man to join him for an episode on the climate emergency. "People tend to approach challenges in one of two ways – as problem-solving or as conflict," Pinker, who appreciates the force of a tidy dichotomy, said. "You can think of it as Bill versus Greta. And I'm very much in Bill's camp."
A few weeks earlier, Gates had been photographed in Manhattan carrying a copy of Pinker's soon to be published 12th book, Rationality, which inspired the BBC series. "We sent it to his people," Pinker said. Pinker is an avid promoter of his own work, and for the past 25 years he has had a great deal to promote. Since the 1990s, he has written a string of popular books on language, the mind and human behaviour, but in the past decade, he has become best known for his counterintuitive take on the state of the world. In the shadow of the financial crisis, while other authors were writing books about how society was profoundly broken, Pinker took the opposite tack, arguing that things were, in fact, better than ever.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2011, he gathered copious amounts of data to show that violence had declined across human history, in large part because of the emergence of markets and states. Understandably, the book struck a chord with people who move markets and run states. Gates called it "the most inspiring book I've ever read", and Mark Zuckerberg included it on a list of what to read at Davos. Then, in 2018, at the height of Donald Trump's presidency and amid the accelerating climate crisis, Pinker published a follow-up, Enlightenment Now, which expanded his argument. It wasn't just that life had become less violent; thanks to the application of science and reason since the 18th century, the human condition had dramatically improved in health, wealth and liberty, too. Bill Clinton had Enlightenment Now on his bedside table, and Gates declared it his "new favourite book of all time".