Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Optimistic Leftist Book Club Alert: Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

Steven Pinker has a new book coming out, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress. The book will be released February 27 and may achieve the coveted status of an official Optimistic Leftist Book Club selection. In the meantime, here's an excerpt from an interesting exchange the New York Times published last Sunday between Bill Gates and Pinker. Gates incidentally has already said that Pinker's new book is his "new favorite book of all time". 

I liked this bit from the conversation:
Interviewer: Steven’s new book tells us we’re living longer, with greater wealth, peace and equality, and less racism and sexism. It’s so counterintuitive to the feeling in the air. What’s the value in correcting that? Will it change behavior?...
Pinker: There’s a tendency in journalism and political debates to assume that it’s easy to achieve a perfect society: “Good people would do that.” The fact that we don’t means that evil people must be running the system: “Let’s throw them out and find nobler ones.” This leads to empowering charismatic despots and destroying institutions that have done a lot of good. But we have no right to expect perfection. We should appreciate how much better off we are and try to improve our institutions guided by what works and what doesn’t. I’m sure Bill gets this all the time: “Why throw money at the developing world? They’re just going to have more babies and be just as poor.”
Gates: “It’s always been bad, always will be bad.”
Pinker: It’s just not true.
Interviewer: But can’t overstating problems energize us in terms of solving them?
Gates: There’s a paradox in letting yourself be very, very upset about what remains to be done. What indicator improves even faster than reduction in violence? Our distaste for violence. We’re more upset about it today. If I see someone spanking a kid — I’m stealing from Steven’s book — I might get up and say: “Hey, wait a minute!” Forty years ago, it might have been more like: “Do you want to borrow my belt?” There are parts of the world that are still like 40 years ago. But to read Steven’s book and think it says, “Don’t worry, be happy,” is to misread it. Because seeing the world through the eyes of that poor kid ideally wants to make you give some money, even though there are many fewer such kids than 50 years ago.
Pinker: You can say the same fact two ways. Extreme global poverty has been reduced from 90 percent 200 years ago to 10 percent today. That’s great! Or you can say: More than 700 million people in the world live in extreme poverty today. They’re the same fact, and you have to be able to describe them to yourself both ways.
Aye, that's the trick. A lot of folks have great difficulty with that. Hopefully, his book will help.

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