Steven Pinker has already been proven right on at least one of the points he raises in Enlightenment Now: “Intellectuals hate progress,” he writes in a chapter titled “Progressophobia.” “Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’,” he goes on, “really hate progress.” The many acerbic responses to his book in the pages of high-brow magazines have borne this out in spades.
From The New Stateman and The Nation, to The New York Times, The Evening Standard, ABC Religion and Ethics, and The American Spectator, major publications are rushing to give the disgruntled intelligentsia a platform to gripe about Pinker’s woefully misguided—or loathsomely inconvenient—arguments and views. (Though, to be fair, The New York Times has also published positive reviews.) But it’s not just progressives; conservatives like Ross Douthat and Andrew Sullivan have also rejected Pinker’s paean to human progress.
What is it precisely these intellectuals hate so much? “It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class,” Pinker opines, “the Enlightenment belief that by understanding the world we can improve the human condition” (39). On the one hand, it’s shocking anyone would bother making The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, as the book is subtitled. On the other, “nothing demonstrates the case for Pinker’s book, the non-obviousness of his thesis,” the computer scientist Scott Aaronson posits, “more clearly than the vitriolic reviews the book has been getting in literary venues.”
Indeed, you get the impression early in the book that Pinker must’ve known how uncool the values and principles he’s celebrating have become, which is precisely why he felt so compelled to write it. “I’ve noticed that everything Pinker writes bears the scars of the hostile mistranslation tactic,” Aaronson writes, in one of the alarmingly few honest and thoughtful reviews I’ve come across. “Scarcely does he say anything before he turns around and says, ‘and here’s what I’m not saying’—and then proceeds to ward off five different misreadings so wild they wouldn’t have occurred to me, but then if you read Leon Wieseltier or John Gray or his other critics, there the misreadings are, trotted out triumphantly; it doesn’t even matter how much time Pinker spent trying to prevent them.”
Reading Enlightenment Now is both an exhilarating and a curious experience. Somehow, the many measures of improvement to the human condition seem simultaneously banal—of course, medicine has made us healthier—and beyond belief. How, for instance, can we be living longer lives with all the unnecessary medical treatments our perversely incentivized healthcare providers subject us to? What about all the mystery chemicals we absorb into our bodies through polluted air and water, or through industrially farmed produce?
Yet live longer on average we do—much longer. That alone is incontrovertible proof of progress, for what meaningful improvement can there be if no one survives long enough to enjoy it? And Pinker is just getting started. Still, as Saloni Dattani writes in a revealing essay comparing Pinker’s critics to counter-Enlightenment figures through the ages, “As the bearer of these glad tidings, Pinker has received no thanks from his opponents. On the contrary, they appear to resent being asked to acknowledge this news.”
An Aversion to Reason
While the general notion that life is improving for ever greater numbers of people is counterintuitive in this age of terrorism, summary executions by police of unarmed minorities, civil war in Syria, partisan rancor hamstringing pragmatic policy, populist demagoguery, and mass shootings in schools, the numbers Pinker reports are as stark as President Trump’s incompetence. So you’d expect the intellectuals who are so rankled by the idea of progress to aim their rebuttals at Pinker’s statistics, or the methods used to arrive at them.
But that’s not the type of criticism these writers are equipped to level. Indeed, it’s difficult to find a single point in a single one of these reviews that engages in good faith with Pinker’s arguments as he presents them in the book. This isn’t hyperbole, nor is it a matter of different shades of meaning; the discrepancies between Pinker’s arguments and the straw men his critics so superciliously disembowel are unmistakable to anyone who reads the reviews with the book close at hand. (For reviews that are only mildly unfair but nonetheless legitimate, you can go to Nature or The Atlantic. The aggregate valance of the reviews, as calculated by Literary Hub, has been positive.)
You might say the mark of a comprehensively researched and presciently argued book is that critics desperate to find fault, any fault, with it are forced to pretend that the author never wrote certain of the passages and chapters contained within its pages, or that he wrote them in some way other than the way he did. Conversely, it’s the mark of a sloppy—or dishonest—critical review that all the main points can be fatally refuted via reference to relevant passages from the book in question.
In the spirit of this principle, the editors of the publications referenced above owe their readers an apology for their reviewers’ many blind spots, inaccuracies, and mischaracterizations. Even more, the authors of these pseudo-reviews ought to be held to account for their wantonly unscholarly antics. As Aaronson notes, these reviews can’t even be classified as serious scholarship. We’re left wondering why on earth an intellectual would be so eager to forfeit his or her status as an honest and careful reader of books they’re so publicly discussing, especially since the inaccuracies and mischaracterizations are egregious enough to be perfectly plain to anyone who gets around to doing any cross-referencing.
But when you take into account that these reviewers are attempting to undermine Pinker’s case for reason and science, it’s no wonder they’re so comfortable heaping their scorn on straw men. The debate, in their eyes, isn’t about discovering any truth, as only the most naïve understanding of scholarly pursuits might lead us to presume. The point is rather to persuade as many readers as possible to accept the ideas the reviewer already knows to be true. As Dattani points out:
It is worth noticing that Pinker’s most trenchant critics are eager to flaunt their aversion to the very values Pinker sets out to defend – reason, science, humanism, and progress – and that their critiques display the traits and tics of exactly the kind of counter-Enlightenment thinking he attacks. These counter-Enlightenment trends include Catholic, Romantic, and Postmodern modes of thought which stand – and have always stood – in opposition to the values that Pinker’s book credits with the vast advances humankind has made since the 18th Century.
But none of these critics defends or even avows any of the modes of thought they’re de facto espousing. The self-appointed champions of an alternative to Enlightenment values never bother offering, well, any alternative to reason or science, much less to humanism and progress.
The irony is that Pinker’s most hostile reviewers bitchily bemoan our nation’s base consumerism, its misinformed politics, and its history of violence, even as they’re plying rhetorical tactics straight from the domains of marketing and campaign PR (the modern euphemism for propaganda) in an effort to silence an intellectual rival making a case for a dissenting view—or at the very least to ensure as few people as possible believe that view is worth hearing out.
Reading reviews like John Gray’s, you can’t help experiencing a visceral discomfort at the injustice of the myriad distortions. Aaronson, catching Gray out in one particularly glaring misrepresentation, vividly captures the feeling: “You see, when Pinker says he supports Enlightenment norms of reason and humanism, he really means to say that he supports unbridled capitalism and possibly even eugenics. As I read this sort of critique, the hair stands on my neck, because the basic technique of hostile mistranslation is so familiar to me. It’s the technique that once took a comment in which I pled for shy nerdy males and feminist women to try to understand each other’s suffering, as both navigate a mating market unlike anything in previous human experience—and somehow managed to come away with the take-home message, ‘so this entitled techbro wants to return to a past when society would just grant him a female sex slave.’”
This “hostile mistranslation” provides a good illustration of why reason and humanism tend to go hand-in-hand. Without recourse to reliable methods for assessing the truth or falsity of an accusation, we’d all be vulnerable to whatever verdict is shouted from the highest platform through the biggest loudspeaker. It is this very failure to insist on the primacy of reason and science that has paved the way for fossil fuel companies to convince nearly half of Americans that the damage their products wreak on the climate is entirely fictional, a political weapon wielded by the big-government left. It’s this same failure that paved the way for the election of a conman to the highest office in the land.
Demagoguery to Fight Demagoguery
The most seemingly substantive criticism the critics level against Pinker isn’t that he gets the numbers wrong—though they each have their pet causes they fault him for giving short shrift—but rather that he gets the Enlightenment wrong. Gray penned one of the earliest reviews, and his successors latched on to it as a useful template—or, more accurately, a good list of talking points for their campaign message. Gray writes:
you don’t need to bother about what the Enlightenment was actually like. By any standards, David Hume was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers. It was the sceptical Scottish philosopher who stirred Immanuel Kant – whose well-known essay on Enlightenment Pinker quotes reverently at the start of the book – from what Kant described as his “dogmatic slumber”. Pinker barely mentions Hume, and the omission is not accidental. He tell us that the Enlightenment is defined by a “non-negotiable” commitment to reason. [sic]
Yet in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), Hume wrote: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Hume believed being reasonable meant accepting the limits of reason, and so too, in quite different ways, did later Enlightenment rationalists such as Keynes and Freud. Pinker’s Enlightenment has little in common with the much more interesting intellectual movement that historically existed.
First, some context: David Hume is famous for his argument that you can’t derive moral values from knowledge, no matter how thoroughgoing, of the facts of the world. You can’t get ought from is. In the line Gray and so many of his fellow propagandists quote, Hume is in no way suggesting that reason isn’t worth its salt; he’s merely saying that it should be applied in service of values we already hold. Not only is he not denying the power or importance of reason; he’s implying the existence of values and passions that arise from our shared nature as humans. There’s no missing Pinker’s allusion to Hume when he explains, “It is humanism that identifies what we should try to achieve with our knowledge. It provides the ought that supplements the is” (410).
The larger point is that even if Gray had found a lone philosophe who wrote something counter to what Pinker points to as the main takeaways of the Enlightenment, it still wouldn’t undermine the case he makes in his book. “The era was a cornucopia of ideas,” Pinker avers, “some of them contradictory, but four themes tie them together: reason, science, humanism, and progress” (8). Prior to the Enlightenment, people sought the truth in holy texts, and they adopted the policies enforced through political and religious authority of the sort critics like Gray aspire to harness for themselves. To effectively counter the notion that the Enlightenment was characterized by the elevation of reason above revealed truth and political authority, you’d need more than a quote or two. Hume, after all, wasn’t pronouncing on the proper relationship between reason and the passions based on his analysis of Bible verses. He was expressing a position he arrived at through the application of reason. Cherry-picking philosophers or citing quotes out of context is simply encouraging readers to concentrate on the trees so they miss the forest.
To find the passage that best evidences Gray’s simple dishonesty, though, you need look no further than Pinker’s chapter titled “Reason,” in which he writes:
By now many people have become aware of the research in cognitive psychology on human irrationality, explained in bestsellers like Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational. I’ve alluded to these cognitive infirmities in earlier chapters: the way we estimate probability from available anecdotes, project stereotypes onto individuals, seek confirming and ignore disconfirming evidence, dread harms and losses, and reason from teleology and voodoo resemblance rather than mechanical cause and effect. But as important as these discoveries are, it’s a mistake to see them as refuting some Enlightenment tenet that humans are rational actors, or as licensing the fatalistic conclusion that we might as well give up on reasoned persuasion and fight demagoguery with demagoguery.
To begin with, no Enlightenment thinker ever claimed that humans were consistently rational. Certainly not the über-rational Kant, who wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,” nor Spinoza, Hume, Smith, or the Encyclopédistes, who were cognitive and social psychologists ahead of their time. What they argued was that we ought to be rational, by learning to repress the fallacies and dogmas that so readily seduce us, and that we can be rational, collectively if not individually, by implementing institutions and adhering to norms that constrain our faculties, including free speech, logical analysis, and empirical testing. (353)
Interestingly, heartbreakingly, Pinker’s list of cognitive traps in this passage can serve as a helpful map of the tactics implemented by the anti-Enlightenment campaigners. The instances of violence they cite as supposedly undermining the general trend of pacification is an example of extrapolating from anecdotes, as is the lone quote from Hume about the proper role of reason.
The stereotyping comes in the form of lumping Pinker in with other historical figures who’ve had superficially similar ideas. Suggesting that Pinker is making essentially the same arguments as Herbert Spencer, the father of Social Darwinism, Gray writes,
Pinker is an ardent enthusiast for free-market capitalism, which he believes produced most of the advance in living standards over the past few centuries. Unlike Spencer, he seems ready to accept that some provision should be made for those who have been left behind. Why he makes this concession is unclear. Nothing is said about human kindness, or fairness, in his formula. Indeed, the logic of his dictum points the other way.
Pinker’s position is far more nuanced than Gray is making out here, and the comparison between Pinker’s advocacy for free markets and Spencer’s ideas about evolution is just silly. But Gray not only compares them; he conflates them so he can apply the well-earned ire toward Spencer that’s been building up over the past century and a half to this new bête noire.
Any stereotype stretched to contain both Spencer and Pinker will inevitably be forced into the realm of loftiest, vaguest abstraction, as in the observation that everyone fitting the category believes in both evolution and progress. How many others would answer to this description? Would Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? But where does Pinker really come down on the topic of economics? Is he an apologist for the one percent? “The facts of human progress strike me as having been as unkind to right-wing libertarianism as to right-wing conservatism and left-wing Marxism,” he writes. The passage that follows this line illustrates the futility of trying to fit Pinker into any ideological stereotype:
The totalitarian governments of the 20th Century did not emerge from democratic welfare states sliding down a slippery slope, but were imposed by fanatical ideologues and gangs of thugs. And countries that combine free markets with more taxation, social spending, and regulation than the United States (such as Canada, New Zealand, and Western Europe) turn out to be not grim dystopias but rather pleasant places to live, and they trounce the United States in every measure of human flourishing, including crime, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, and happiness. As we saw, no developed country runs on right-wing libertarian principles, nor has any realistic vision of such a country ever been laid out.
It should not be surprising that the facts of human progress confound the major -isms. The ideologies are more than two centuries old and are based on mile-high visions such as whether humans are tragically flawed or infinitely malleable, and whether society is an organic whole or a collection of individuals. A real society comprises hundreds of millions of social beings, each with a trillion-synapse brain, who pursue their well-being while affecting the well-being of others in complex networks with massive positive and negative externalities, many of them historically unprecedented. It is bound to defy any simple narrative of what will happen under a given set of rules. A more rational approach to politics is to treat societies as ongoing experiments and open-mindedly learn the best practices, whichever part of the spectrum they come from. The empirical picture at present suggests that people flourish most in liberal democracies with a mixture of civic norms, guaranteed rights, market freedom, social spending, and judicious regulation. As Pat Paulsen noted, “If either the right wing or the left wing gained control of the country, it would fly around in circles.” (365)
Falling prey to the human weakness for “seeking confirming and ignoring disconfirming evidence” for cherished beliefs, the anti-Pinker propagandists go in for the simple tactic of disparaging the very idea of keeping score. Gray for instance writes,
To think of the book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. Much of its more than 500 pages consists of figures aiming to show the progress that has been made under the aegis of Enlightenment ideals. Of course, these figures settle nothing. Like Pinker’s celebrated assertion that the world is becoming ever more peaceful – the statistical basis of which has been demolished by Nassim Nicholas Taleb – everything depends on what is included in them and how they are interpreted.
Are the millions incarcerated in the vast American prison system and the millions more who live under parole included in the calculus that says human freedom is increasing? If we are to congratulate ourselves on being less cruel to animals, how much weight should be given to the uncounted numbers that suffer in factory farming and hideous medical experiments – neither of which were practised on any comparable scale in the past?
Sure, people are living longer, but a lot of them are incarcerated or on parole. Sure, we’re being kinder to some animals some of the time, but there’s factory farming and animal testing to consider.
Gray doesn’t bother citing figures, because to him figures are meaningless, like the size of a crowd at a presidential inauguration. They can all be waved aside in the same manner that Taleb “demolished” the statistical underpinnings of any belief in declining violence—except Taleb’s actual argument wasn’t focused on the decline in violence per se but rather on the likelihood that another major war would break out (meaning he too mischaracterized Pinker’s position). It should be noted as well that while Taleb has won notoriety, along with some ridicule, for his alternative statistical methods, he is by no means recognized by anyone as an expert in warfare, mathematical or otherwise. The people who study these things for a living aren’t convinced he’s demolished anything.
But even if we grant Gray’s points against progress as valid—though they obviously require far more analysis—would they tip the balance in favor of a gloomier outlook for modernity? Here are the areas where Pinker presents well-documented and widely accepted evidence of improvement: lifespan, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness. Inequality, the environment, and happiness are more complicated cases. But eradicating diseases like polio and small pox, while finding ways to save billions of people in underdeveloped nations from starving, is nothing to sneeze at—or sneer at. If sizeable portions of the population are imprisoned, they must be doing reasonably well for themselves behind bars. Once again, Aaronson has the best rebuttal to such glib dismissals of progress when he writes about the “colossal incomprehension and ingratitude” show by the Enlightenment’s scholarly beneficiaries: “Save 300 million people from smallpox, and you can expect in return a lecture about your naïve and arrogant scientistic reductionism.”
Loss Aversion and Zero-Sum Games
This charge of scientism, echoed by nearly all the critics, brings us to the cognitive trap of dreading harms and losses more than prizing benefits and gains. By scientism, the critics mean the belief that science is the only way to address any question of import. Indeed, Pinker does advocate for more quantification and hypothesis-testing in the humanities and other domains of academia. Humanities scholar Peter Harrison doesn’t like this idea one bit. In a review for ABC Religion and Ethics, he writes,
As an aside, my own prediction is that future historians, if they haven’t all been replaced by cognitive psychologists, will regard misplaced faith in data, metrics and statistical analysis as the curse of the twenty-first century. Consider, for a start, the “replicability crisis” sweeping the social and medical sciences. And for those in academe, think also of the incessant and increasing demand that we measure and metricize every aspect of intellectual life. It is one of the saving graces of the humanities that it hasn’t fallen for this line, notwithstanding the undoubted insights yielded by some aspects of the digital humanities.
In the final line of his review, Harrison snarls that “if Enlightenment Now is a model of what Pinker’s advice to humanities scholars looks like when put into practice, I’m happy to keep ignoring it.”
Dattani notes a strong similarity between modern charges of scientism and earlier arguments against C.P. Snow’s idea of a “Third Culture” brought by the likes of literary scholars like F.R. Leavis. The first culture, as Snow conceived of it, was the domain of the sciences, while the second was that of the humanities. Snow wanted there to be a place where the two cultures could meet to form a third. But Leavis and the other members of the second culture weren’t having it. Dattani observes that
Snow’s critics, like those who fret about scientism today, were unable or unwilling to think in anything other than zero-sum terms. Snow, on the other hand, recommended a positive-sum synthesis of science and the humanities that would be mutually enriching.
This zero-sum reasoning discounts what science may have to offer because it’s too wrapped up in what the humanities may have to lose. Once again, though, the important point here is that Harrison and Gray, along with nearly all the other propagandists railing against Pinker, are misrepresenting the position laid out in Enlightenment Now. Pinker himself sees the relationship between science and the humanities in purely positive-sum terms.
Snow, of course, never held the lunatic position that power should be transferred to the culture of scientists. On the contrary, he called for a Third Culture, which would combine ideas from science, culture, and history and apply them to enhancing human welfare across the globe. The term was revived in 1991 by the author and literary agent John Brockman, and it is related to the biologist E. O. Wilson’s concept of consilience, the unity of knowledge, which Wilson in turn attributed to (who else?) the thinkers of the Enlightenment. The first step in understanding the promise of science in human affairs is to escape the bunker mentality of the Second Culture, captured, for example, in the tag line of a 2013 article by literary lion Leon Wieselitier: “Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen.” (390)
But is Pinker just paying lip service to a mutually beneficial partnership? His disgust at certain strains of humanities scholarship is hard to miss. But those happen to be the strains most dismissive or antagonistic toward science. His thoughts about the Second Culture in general are more reverential. “No thinking person,” he writes, “should be indifferent to our society’s disinvestment in the humanities.” He goes on,
A society without historical scholarship is like a person without memory: deluded, confused, easily exploited. Philosophy grows out of the recognition that clarity and logic don’t come easily to us and that we’re better off when our thinking is refined and deepened. The arts are one of the things that make life worth living, enriching human experience with beauty and insight. Criticism is itself an art that multiplies the appreciation and enjoyment of great works. Knowledge in these domains is hard won, and needs constant enriching and updating as the times change. (406)
Teleology and Voodoo Resemblance
Harrison writes that “A final remarkable feature of Pinker’s vision is his teleological view of history - the idea that historical events are destined to unfold inexorably in a single direction.” He doesn’t have the definition of teleology quite right here, but the bigger problem is that Pinker explicitly disavows this idea early in his book:
The Enlightenment belief in progress should not be confused with the 19th-century Romantic belief in mystical forces, laws, dialectics, struggles, unfoldings, destinies, ages of man, and evolutionary forces that propel mankind ever upward toward utopia. As Kant’s remark about “increasing knowledge and purging errors” indicates, it was more prosaic, a combination of reason and humanism. If we keep track of how our laws and manners are doing, think up ways to improve them, try them out, and keep the ones that make people better off, we can gradually make the world a better place. Science itself creeps forward through this cycle of theory and experiment, and its ceaseless headway, superimposed on local setbacks and reversals, show how progress is possible. (11)
So the critics asininely accuse Pinker of teleological thinking, but do they engage in it themselves? Teleology, in its strictest sense, means the explanation for how something came to exist lies in the function it currently serves. It can also mean that something is developing toward some predetermined end, the idea Harrison wrongly attributes to Pinker’s understanding of history.
I have to credit the propagandists with mostly avoiding this pitfall. Certain postmodern scholars do tend to intimate, or argue outright, that the evil ends to which science has historically been put are somehow inherent to the program itself, suggesting that science is fundamentally racist, colonialist, sexist, ableist, etc. But you don’t see this level of radicalism in most of the reviews of Enlightenment Now. David Bell, for instance, after playing Gray’s game of hiding the Enlightenment in the forest of diverse philosophical statements by individual Enlightenment figures, writes,
Pinker’s problems with history are compounded even further as he tries to defend the Enlightenment against the many scholarly critics who have pointed, over the centuries, to some of its possible baleful consequences. Did Enlightenment forms of reasoning and scientific inquiry lie behind modern biological racism and eugenics? Behind the insistence that women do not have the mental capacity for full citizenship? Not at all, Pinker assures us. That was just a matter of bad science.
Indeed, it was. But Pinker largely fails to deal with the inconvenient fact that, at the time, it was not so obviously bad science. The defenders of these repellent theories, used to justify manifold forms of oppression, were published in scientific journals and appealed to the same standards of reason and utility upheld by Pinker. “Science” did not by itself inevitably beget these theories, but it did provide a new language and new forms of reasoning to justify inequality and oppression and new ways of thinking about and categorizing natural phenomena that suggested to many an immutable hierarchy of human races, the sexes, and the able and disabled. The later disproving of these theories did not just come about because better science prevailed over worse science. It came about as well because of the moral and political activism that forced scientists to question data and conclusions they had largely taken for granted. Again, progress did not just occur because the ideals of the Enlightenment mysteriously percolated out through society.
Note that Bell here acknowledges that science didn’t bring about the various forms of oppression but merely provided a new language for justifying them. As Pinker pointed out in Better Angels, “Though the United States and other Western nations are often accused of being misogynistic patriarchies, the rest of the world is immensely worse” (413). These injustices are probably as old as humanity, so it’s no wonder it’s taken our species centuries to outgrow them, even when we should know better. Bell also tacitly credits “better” science with having at least some role in disproving oppressive theories when he insists their demise needed help from political activists.
The last line of this passage from Bell is, however, a non sequitur. His main problem with Pinker is that he doesn’t give sufficient credit for societal progress to political thinkers and activists. “Almost entirely absent from the 576 pages of Enlightenment Now ,” he writes, “are the social movements that for centuries fought for equal rights, an end to slavery, improved working conditions, a minimum wage, the right to organize, basic social protections, a cleaner environment, and a host of other progressive causes.” And Bell takes Pinker’s admonition against politicizing debates as another dig at activism. Pinker does write far more about activist movements in his previous book, Better Angels. But Enlightenment Now is about the ideas driving the activism, not the activists themselves. Still, Pinker does discuss the movements Bell claims he’s neglected. In a section defending humanism from critics who claim it’s too similar to utilitarianism, he writes that
this approach to ethics has an impressive track record of improving human welfare. The classical utilitarians—Cesare Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill—laid out arguments against slavery, sadistic punishment, cruelty to animals, the criminalization of homosexuality, and the subordination of women which carried the day. Even abstract rights like freedom of speech and religion were largely defended in terms of benefits and harms, as when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” Universal education, workers’ rights, and environmental protection also were advanced on utilitarian grounds. (417)
Is Bell so sure that “progress did not just occur because the ideals of the Enlightenment mysteriously percolated out through society”? At any rate, that was never Pinker’s argument. What Bell really means is that science alone can’t explain these instances of moral progress. Of course, Pinker never claimed that it could: “Science,” he states explicitly, “is not enough to bring about progress” (410). That’s why he includes humanism on his roster of enlightened values.
So the propagandists aren’t quite guilty of teleology, but what about voodoo resemblance? An uncannily large number of the propagandists couldn’t resist comparing Enlightenment Now to a TED Talk, the implication being that the book is aimed at the cheap seats—despite its daunting length. Never mind that Nobel laureates like Daniel Kahneman have given TED Talks, along with scientists like Jennifer Doudna, a coinventor of the CRISPR Cas9 gene-editing technique. These lectures are not to be taken seriously because they’re directed at a popular audience. Bell even takes this tactic a step further by comparing Pinker to the novelist Dan Brown. You don’t get any more low-brow than that! What’s the basis of this comparison? Bell writes,
Enlightenment Now is not a book that deserves a wide readership, but much like Dan Brown’s new novel, Origin, piles of it loom wherever books are sold. Oddly, Enlightenment Now has several points in common with Origin. They both, for instance, have long, windy passages musing about the relationship of the second law of thermodynamics to the meaning of life. Brown, riffing on the work of Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Jeremy England, proposes that life is “the inevitable result of entropy. Life is not the point of the universe. Life is simply what the universe creates and reproduces in order to dissipate energy.” Pinker, alternately, believes that the “ultimate purpose of life” is “to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy.” The principal male characters in Origin are a wise Harvard professor and a farseeing tech mogul, and the climax is a TED Talk–like lecture in which the mogul reveals the destiny of the human race. But while Origin does little more than provide transient entertainment, Enlightenment Now may well have real influence.
I haven’t read Brown’s novel, but the lines Bell quotes suggest his character’s ideas run perfectly counter to those of Pinker’s. The similarity doesn’t extend beyond the fact that both books feature discussions of entropy, a concept Bell betrays no understanding of. Fittingly, Pinker quotes C.P. Snow taking literary scholars to task for their ignorance of science as evidenced by none other than their obliviousness of the Second Law of Thermodynamics (the one about entropy):
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you ever read a work of Shakespeare? (17)
Reading Bell’s harebrained argument about Dan Brown, I stopped to wonder why he would go to the trouble of making such a case, which can only diminish his stature as an honest scholar. I mean, he must know his case from voodoo resemblance isn’t valid, and yet in his desperation he stoops to using it anyway. (And this post you're currently reading is by no means an exhaustive inventory of the distortions and lies.) Then it occurred to me again that Bell and the other writers of the pseudo-reviews I was reading don’t accept the case for reason and science. To them, persuasion is persuasion, no matter how it’s accomplished. The only thing that’s important is that readers are persuaded in the right direction—toward the ideas and beliefs the reviewers already know to be true and morally correct.
So another point Pinker has proven right on is that “Intellectual culture should strive to counteract our cognitive biases, but all too often it reinforces them” (48). But why is this? Unfortunately, most scholars working today subscribe to one degree or another to the tenets of postmodernism, the conviction that reality is so difficult to understand, while human motives to distort that understanding are so overwhelming, that anything masquerading as a statement of fact is really nothing but an argument for the perpetuation of the status quo. Most of these implicit arguments, the postmodernists believe, are shot through with racist, sexist, ableist, sis-gendered messages.
While any serious scholar must acknowledge there’s a kernel of truth, variable in size, to these suspicions, the proper response is hardly to abjure any effort at objectivity, much less to insist that anyone who disagrees with your own ideas must be harboring some yen for the existing hegemonies and hierarchies. The proper response is to identify the sources of bias and strive to correct for them.
Yet what most scholars who profess a cynical stance toward science do is simply elevate unscientific rhetoric to the level of unassailable moral truth, a move which allows them to carry on their debates, not as any fair weighing of evidence and counterapplication of reason, but rather as something more akin to political discourse, relying on the argumentation style of electoral campaigns or PR initiatives. Scientists meanwhile rightfully recognize many rhetorical tools in the ideologue’s repertoire as logical fallacies, such as the argument from adverse consequences, and the suggestion of guilt by association, both of which are favorite tactics among postmodern scholars. Naturally enough, many readers are taken in.
What the cynics are doing then is little more than giving themselves a blank check to invade the minds of readers, viewers, and students with any type of argument they like, validity be damned, and the more directed at emotions and intuitions the better. It’s difficult to see this trend as anything other than backsliding to the bad old days of appealing to authority and relying on the inerrant sanctity of divine revelation.
However much academics may lament the fake news phenomenon, the ascendance of alternative facts, and the ushering in of the post-truth era, any honest accounting would leave them no choice but to admit they played a part in laying the intellectual foundation for all three. In granting themselves license to ascribe evil motives to anyone standing across an ideological divide, they were simultaneously arming their rivals with all the same invalid rhetorical weapons they were using themselves. Now people with truly loathsome messages can hide in the fun-house hall of mirrors that is our current political environment.
Rather than smearing and demonizing Pinker, the academic propagandists should have taken Enlightenment Now as an opportunity to reflect on what scholarship is, what it could be, what it has to offer humanity, and how it can best be conducted. Alas, many of them are too entrenched in their ideologies, too loyal to their own tribes, too concentrated on guarding the borders of their own tiny sandboxes. Let’s just hope the generation of intellectuals that succeed them will be more open-minded, more enlightened. And there is cause for optimism: Enlightenment Now, despite the fake news campaign against it, has been on the best-seller lists for a couple months now.