It may have seemed like the world fell apart in 2016. Steven Pinker is here to tell you it didn’t.

By Julia Belluz

At many moments of 2016, it seemed the world was falling apart.

In June, there was the Orlando nightclub shooting, where dozens were killed and injured in the deadliest terror attack in the US since 9/11. That was followed by July’s blood-soaked Bastille Day in Nice, when a terrorist drove a truck over holiday revelers, killing 84 people, including 10 children. Before the month was over, ISIS militants had assassinated a French priest in his church and executed the patrons and staff at a cafe in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

And these were just a few of the terrorist attacks.


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37 COMMENTS

  1. Geez, is she going to ask him the very same question every 4 months?
    Leave the poor guy alone for a bit longer, won’t you? He’s a busy man (think about how long it takes just to comb his hair).

  2. History to some means wars and conquest, of the expansion and fall of empires. To others it means the change of societies, their art, sculpture,and music. But few if any ever concentrate on the change of the ratios between population densities and the available resources. It is tragic. If there ever was any substance in the fable of Armageddon, it will be the relentless growth of world human populations.

    And so it goes with Julia Belluz interviewing Steven Pinker. I can understand the ignorance of Julia Belluz, but the same of Steven Pinker is remarkable. In the interview by Ms. Belluz, she says that:

    “If there’s anyone who can put this moment into context, it’s the
    Harvard psychology professor and polymath Steven Pinker.”

    It becomes quickly obvious that Pinker ignores the worlds most devastating problem: human population growth. Just what is Pinker’s psychology and can he really do math?? Pinker is a “cherry picker” choosing only those things that are newsworthy following the same general path as does the media.

    Judging by his commentary, he would call me a pessimist and that my view of the results of overpopulation will simply be a “self fulfilling” prophesy. What would this self styled brilliant author call the history of Easter Island?? When the population there ran out of resources, they turned to cannibalism. Their civilization crashed due to overpopulation and dwindling resources. I suppose Pinker would say that the people of Easter Island simply were pessimistic ending in their their own destruction due to a “self fulfilling prophesy.”

  3. I have a strong and instinctive aversion to Pinker, a visceral one. But my sense of intellectual pollution is also offended.

    Pinker says that he is not an optimist in the sense of looking at the glass half full.

    Well in my view, that is the only form of optimism that makes any sense. In other words, it is a choice, an attitude.—”No matter how bad things get I can always take a stance, as an individual. Therein lies my optimism.”

    Anything else is cherry-picking. There is no rational basis for optimism. Nietzsche’s affirmation of life was, according to his own admission, based on passion alone. It was an act of will. I will affirm life, say ‘Yes’ to life, in spite of its inevitable abysses and horrors.

    Pinker’s statistics leave me unimpressed and cold. But if they give comfort to others who am I to try to take that away?—Be comforted.

  4. Trump said “I love war, including nuclear war”. He called for nuclear proliferation and massive spending on nukes. He also appointed climate change deniers to his cabinet. As I see it, unless Trump is impeached, resigns in disgrace, or dies, we have very little chance of surviving the next four years. Pinker is looking at stats about tiny catastrophes and is missing the big picture.

    What Trump has said he is going to do is so awful, nearly everyone pretends to themselves he cannot be serious even though they have no reason at all to think that. Wishful thinking dominates.

    [Slightly edited by moderator to bring within Terms of Use]

  5. Steven Pinker: “… Moment-by-moment analyses of Google searches by the data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz show that Islamophobia strongly tracks incidents of terrorism with Muslim perpetrators. So hate crimes will probably depend more on overall crime rates and — in the case of Islamophobic hate crimes — on terrorist attacks than on a general atmosphere created by Trump.

    “More generally, the worldwide, decades-long current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice…”
    Blockquote

    The above is so yesterday! That is, the “racial tolerance” base-line had moved, particularly in the EU countries and the invasion of, mostly Muslim, immigrants fleeing Middle-East war or African futureless poverty. The liberal-tolerance culture has been severely challenged by the invading intransigent culture. As with the post 9/11 US, the political response trend is to restrict civilian liberties, rather than expand the liberal-tolerance culture. This is the current EU trend; though I didn’t do a google trend analysis. And while Trump has been a race-baiting boar to get elected, I agree with Pinker that one person (never a single god) doesn’t create such an atmosphere. But for Pinker, I’d note that this trend is now in its second decade; and Islam/religion is the management issue. Prior to 2001, I would have agreed to his pro-tolerance optimism.

  6. Dan

    There is no rational basis for optimism

    My dad and brother really bring me down with their pessimism. They have both worked for me in the past and trying to get them to think positively about getting the job done, no matter what, was the hardest part of my day. Thinking up reasons as to why it could not be done was how they both approach life as a whole. How many rocks you decide to carry around with you comes down to being rational or irrational in all aspects of life and the perspective in life. The job may be impossible in one way but if you can’t get over then…….

  7. Olgun

    I can totally relate to that familial pessimism. My own mother is the first to respond to every idea with the many ways that it will fail. Of course when a kid grows up in the midst of adults who think and speak like this there are consequences to the relationship. Years ago I explained what this does to people around her. It’s not surprising that people around her cut her out of the conversation when considering anything to do with future plans. This is really a huge problem. Personally, I never mention any idea I have for myself or for anyone else until the planning phase is complete and all that is left is to inform her of what is now underway. Then she gets angry about having been left out but what choice is there? She torpedos every idea right away with expressions of fear and doom and gloom.

    While my brother and I have suffered over this for many years, I have instructed the twenty-somethings to never let her be the first to hear their ideas and plans. They now come to me or another middle generation adult to express hopes and ideas. Like it says in the song All Mixed Up by the band 311
    “And fuck the naysayers causethey don’t mean a thing Cause this is what style we bring”

    As Dan says above, (paraphrasing) we only get one go-around so we can do it with a glass half full or a glass half empty. To some extent, I’m choosing to hold that glass out in front of my face every day and seeing it as half full. I acknowledge that temperament is to some degree inherited, but I’ll never understand why others cave in to grumbling doom and gloom. What kind of family leadership is that? Terrible leadership. It’s teaching failure and helplessness to the younger set. Infuriating to be around these people.

    Hope you’re working through your grieving as well as you can.

  8. Perhaps unsurprisingly I stand with Pinker. Conditional Optimism, based on the broadest of assessments of the first hominid and the latest Dane, with the richest palette of choices for a woman ever and the ability to see how to make it better.again, is the rational call.

    I find this, the discussions here, the most dismal buzzkill, the most defeatist, least imaginative. This place seems no longer the place to build and promote solutions, this at a time when they are most needed. So my New Year’s resolution is to move on (again!).

    I have to spend more time working, in truth and I find I the site currently utterly exhausting, posting or not.

    As before, I’ll poke my nose in from time to time to see if any life, any creative spirit, returns, so no good byes.

    Truly, Happy New Year to you all. We deserve it and can achieve it, if we can only stop being so parochial, so short termist and notice our achievements to date. We may be on the verge of one of the greatest learning opportunities we’ll ever have in our lifetimes.

  9. Bye for now, Phil. We shall look forward to your return. This may be the start of a new religion! But in any case all the best in your work and life in the new year.

  10. Groan, sigh.

    Best to you Phil and thanks for many great ideas. Betterment is one that I have incorporated into my worldview that I must honestly attribute to you. Here’s to the trajectory moving strongly forward even though we are currently discouraged and will be battered from time to time.

  11. Laurie #8

    Agree with everything you say! If I listened to my dad, I would not have had my own business or owned a home. Starting from a position of cup half full gives you the opportunity to imagine complete and decide better whether it can be done or not. If you fail at the first hurdle, in your mind, then how can you go on to to the next possible phase.

    I hardly spoke to my dad throughout my teen years because I knew it would all be negative and he too got angry that we did not approach him until the decision was made and still does. It didn’t help us at all when dealing with the hospital, the change of address or the funeral. For the funeral he would say, “I can’t do it and you have control of all the money, do what you want” but whatever we did was met with negativity. Although we are used to his ways, it still made our work much much harder. He has thought himself into a rut and now worries that no one will go visit him now mum has gone. My middle sister and I are the only ones who can tame the beast, as it were, and let most of the negativity, which is easily translated as insults, wash over us and we are all he has. When my negative brother visits, it usually ends up in a shouting match as two negatives do not make a positive but a bigger negative. So I am with Pinker as well. What you fear will come upon you is a good enough quote I think.

    Thanks for thinking of me but although mum is gone I have no problem with her death, she didn’t have a very good last three months and it was a relief for her I think? The rest of the religious crap is what got me that added to the grief I of course felt.

  12. PETTITION!!!

    Please like this post to show Phil he should be less stressed reading our posts, we appreciate all his posts and this site would be much poorer without him. Thanks in advance.

    Phil: not taking offence is the key 😉

  13. Olgun,

    Thanks but please don’t. I take absolutely no offense at posts. Few ad hominem me. Rather I greatly enjoy the opportunity to test ideas. It is just that I simply despair at those posters who reset as if by magic 48hrs later.

    I am simply exhausted running after those who dis-empower folk who want to act for change. I want this site (which I have loved from the start) to be empowering of coherent and thought through change. I want dis-empowerment neutralised.

    Alan is far better at this than I am. He sticks to facts, which is perfect. I suppose rather more and wax lyrical to a mostly empty house.

    Astonishingly, I have come to greatly appreciate the mods. Their concern with cultivating the vibrancy and productivity of debates, often got me foolishly riled. They have worked for the good of this site far more than I have.

    We never stop learning, Olgun, if we are prepared to. And now a whole shiny new year to work with for we sadder and wiser….

    See y’all.

  14. Olgun 7(Laurie too, others)

    I appreciate all of that, but positive thinking – which is essential in life – is not “optimism” in the sense that I have used this word. (Negative thinking is not pessimism either.) That is optimism in the popular sense only.

    My point was….well that I don’t like Pinker, as I think he has it backwards: affirm life and look towards the future with hope because you have the strength and the determination to do so, because you must be or want to be or choose to be that way: but don’t give me facts and statistics to back up your silly claims and suggest that if we read his book, or study history the right way, or just look at the facts, then we all must be compelled by nothing less than reason to adopt this attitude; it won’t impress me.

    If it impresses and comforts others than so be it. And I could be wrong besides. But my point is that philosophical optimism, real optimism (the idea, the doctrine, that life on earth must get better, that conditions must improve – for all men and women) is absurd and senseless. What does better even mean? And if they get better in this way or in that that is not destined to last; and people will differ about what constitutes what is for the best and what isn’t.

    But if you are talking about maintaining a generally positive attitude in life, and defining optimism in that limited yet vital – and personal – way, then yes, I would encourage that and have.

    Phil, what happened?— Was it anything I said? We just agreed that Islamophobia is a word that is used to silence much needed criticism and I also said recently (and I didn’t want to at first) that there is indeed a “regressive left”…. Ah, you’ll never see this post!

  15. Dan #16
    . . . affirm life and look towards the future with hope because you have the strength and the determination to do so, because you must be or want to be or choose to be that way: but don’t give me facts and statistics to back up your silly claims and suggest that if we read his book, or study history the right way, or just look at the facts, then we all must be compelled by nothing less than reason to adopt this attitude; it won’t impress me.

    Right you are, Dan. I, and I suspect most here, agree with you that one’s personal attitude, moral objectives and emotional engagement are essential in the quest for knowledge and understanding of reality. Phil Rimmer, whose return we await, was the one who alerted me particularly (and quite incidentally) to the role of emotion in one’s acceptance of something as true — it is a personal commitment to a particular view of the world. It is pretty obvious that Alan4discussion, who is the man for facts par excellence in this site, is also morally and emotionally committed to getting the facts and the science right. This is evidenced not only by his liberal use of exclamation marks but also by his dogged and heroically patient defence of facts and science against science-deniers, purveyors of superstition and pseudoscience, and the occasional troll. There is a man who not only knows lots of truth but loves truth. Phil is another whose patience and generosity in these pages has been impressive.

  16. Note: When I wrote this: “but don’t give me facts and statistics to back up your silly claims…” I wasn’t addressing anyone on this site, or anyone in particular. I really should have made that more clear. “Your” is just a literary device – means “these”. Sorry if I sounded overly aggressive.

  17. I am simply exhausted running after those who dis-empower folk who want to act for change. I want this site (which I have loved from the start) to be empowering of coherent and thought through change. I want dis-empowerment neutralised.
    Alan is far better at this than I am. He sticks to facts, which is perfect. I suppose rather more and wax lyrical to a mostly empty house.
    Astonishingly, I have come to greatly appreciate the mods. Their concern with cultivating the vibrancy and productivity of debates, often got me foolishly riled. They have worked for the good of this site far more than I have.

    Blogging indeed burns folks out. Phil’s comments will be missed. In my view the site welcomes skepticism mixed with “science and reason.” No one is obligated to display aspirational orientation toward the evolution of human life on this planet or ascribe to faith in forms of scientism that will improve the quality of life for everyone year on year until it delivers a genetically engineered shining creature that will live forever, ceaselessly discovering more and more needs whose satisfaction will confer more and more perfection on a… what? Carnivore turned cannibal. Always foremost in my mind is the realization that humankind has no destiny in the natural environment except ultimate extinction and no purpose in the physical universe indifferent to the survival of a consummately rapacious, overbreeding species.

  18. Melvin #19
    Dec 31, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    No one is obligated to display aspirational orientation toward the evolution of human life on this planet or ascribe to faith in forms of scientism that will improve the quality of life for everyone year on year

    Scientism is a word beset with problems on a science site, because of its two contradictory definitions.

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/scientism

    Definition of scientism

    1 : methods and attitudes typical of or attributed to the natural scientist

    2 : an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)

    ” faith in forms of scientism that will improve the quality of life” –

    is somewhat of an oxymoron,
    As in the evidenced sciences covered by definition 1 (biology, chemistry physics etc.), “faith”, has nothing to do with scientific methodology which it (1) defines, – although creationists and deniers sometimes try to pretend it does.

    Definition 2 applies to the misuse of science as a badge of “authority”, where there is a lack of firm evidence to provide inputs for scientific methodology, in social sciences and the humanities, because the starting points are opinion and conjecture, rather than detailed objective observation or experimental evidence required by scientific methodology.

    ascribe to faith in forms of scientism that will improve the quality of life for everyone year on year

    Where the improvements to the quality of life, are based on innovations in technology, or medicine, without stating specific instances of claims which lack evidence or are exceptional exaggerations, – definition 2 would also be inappropriate in the majority of cases.

    obligated to display aspirational orientation toward the evolution of human life on this planet

    Would you care to explain what this actually means?

  19. Dan.

    I am frustrated by the inability to sustain a discussion here about political actions before a collapse into facile wailing and teeth gnashing. It is the crassness of political debate sitting at a mostly facebook like-button level that gets me down.

    I can’t find a place for me. I’m probably too aspie to do this effectively. I think I must work through my job and engage more directly in political groups.

    Happy New Year, Dan. Get to work. Promote Bernie. Fix the dispossessed by reforming the DNP so it is focused on fairness and a US GINI reduced by 25%, then when Trump is impeached they will have the saviours to hand they had wished for in the first place.

    Melvin, for the record, half your upticks were mine I reckon. Happy New Year, too.

  20. “Several awful things happened in the world’s democracies in 2016, and the election of a mercurial and ignorant president injects a troubling degree of uncertainty into international relations. But it’s vital to keep cool and identify specific dangers rather than being overcome by a vague apocalyptic gloom.” —Pinker

    Says who? I feel oppressed – now more than ever – by a nebulous sense of doom. I am not overwhelmed by it; but I feel it. Allow me to express my opinion: Pinker is a very arrogant and shallow man. You can see it in his face. Things are better now than ever before, he says. Go visit the lavatory of a men’s penitentiary and try reasoning with some 300 pound bald guys, lifers, with tattoos and swastikas. Hang out there for a while, or visit the Gaza, and then tell us how the world is doing. Go out into the word. You can pontificate from the comfort of your armchair with a pipe in your mouth and call things “regrettable” all you want. The world doesn’t know or care what you think. “Conditional optimism.” Yes, and if those conditions are not met? Then the treehouse won’t be built. Or it will be built and then break, or someone will claim it as their own, or, what is most likely: it’ll be built and its occupants will grow bored with it very quickly.

    Every state of being is subject to disruption at any time.

    No one can dispute the facts. There has been much progress. But even if more individuals in the world today are feeling less pain than ever before (and that is unlikely) and even if that trend continues, it would have no philosophical significance. Is the absence of pain a good thing? Perhaps. Is less injustice better? I would say so. But permanent satisfaction, that is, permanent comfort or justice, would not be at all desirable, as a goal.—In point of fact, that would be Hell. The “best of all possible worlds,” Leibniz famously said. Now we have Pinker to tell us that that same world is improving. But what is the goal? There isn’t one! The very idea of a goal is absurd – unless you’re religious.

    The fundamental nature of existence is unalterable. All pleasure, joy, satisfaction, is fleeting and is quickly replaced with more desire and want. The repose of mere Being is intolerable for most humans except for a short time. And if this were not the case we would surely die out, or cease to exert ourselves.

    And without injustice we would not enjoy justice. Without pain, there can be no pleasure or even comfort, etc.

    That aside, one can embrace life with a full heart and choose hope rather than despair. There is hope to be found even in a camp of extermination, or in the bleakest of lavatories; but that is my hope. Hope for “the world” (an aggregate of individuals that come-to-be and pass away and that are subject to the perpetual flux of uncertainty) is another matter.

  21. Dan

    Our accumulating wealth is never in happiness, fortunately, else we’d stop at some point. It is in choices, our best proxy for freedom.

  22. Happy New Year, Phil!

    Your aphorism says more than my “essay.”

    I wish you all the best.

    If you change your mind and decide to stay connected to this site, don’t hesitate out of the fear of being exposed or labeled as irresolute. One is always free to change one’s mind.

    But if I don’t have the opportunity to talk to you again, let me just say that it’s been a singular pleasure exchanging ideas with you.

  23. There’s probably not a nickel’s worth of difference in the moral and ethical values of those who post comments here; in the core decency reflected in the way we empathize with our fellow human beings and the way we treat them. May 2017 see a renewed commitment to vigorous yet civil debate enriching to all who are welcomed to take part.

  24. Phil, coming to this thread a little late. Sorry to hear you are thinking of leaving. I understand, of course. Would just like to mirror other posters here in saying you’ve contributed a great deal to the site. I personally have gained a lot from both your prestigious knowledge and your approach. I’m pretty far along the ASD spectrum also in me this often results in get fixated on point and can be too keen to be pessimistic or rather I am aware enough of how I function to know I can easily get stuck in a mode of thinking for extended periods often unaware of how uncomfortable and pointless this is. Reading your posts, your style and your way of approaching topics has encouraged me to moderate my negativity and try to be more constructive, not always successfully but making some progress. So very sorry to see you go. Kindest regards for the future, hopefully a hiatus will give you a second wind, if not all the best and thank you.

  25. Melvin.

    There’s probably not a nickel’s worth of difference in the moral and ethical values of those who post comments here

    At heart, I earnestly believe this but making things better is always better. Fatalism is a lazy-assed, self-serving moral failure.

    The big moral problem we face now is not recognising and owning our own problems. The overprotected young are too often picking up trivia and the old become the Moirai.

    Am I going to go all Moirai on this?

    No. I’m going to make folk look up the word in the hope I make it more memorable and perhaps get them to retain the problem better.

    Don’t worry. Work starts for me tomorrow.

  26. “Always foremost in my mind is the realization that humankind has no destiny in the natural environment except ultimate extinction and no purpose in the physical universe indifferent to the survival of a consummately rapacious, overbreeding species.” –Melvin

    “Perfect! Thank you!” —Phil

    Well I don’t agree with that either, necessarily. I actually don’t know for certain that the species Man doesn’t have a purpose; there have been moments when I have doubted this purposelessness as well. (Whatever evidence I may have to support a contrary view is not quite presentable, is not scientific, in the conventional sense.)

    But it may be that in order to form a judgment concerning purpose or the lack thereof, one must appreciate that there is a complex and important issue to consider, to wit, the precise nature of the relationship between the individual and mankind. Individuals, as Dawkins has stated a number of times, have purpose, or create it. But I would go even further, and venture to speculate – in spite of my ignorance of the mechanisms of evolution – that the concept “purpose” can only apply to individuals. The species is secondary, and in the service of the individual. Or to put this somewhat paradoxical idea another way, I will quote three great visionaries: Dante, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Kierkegaard said, and forget about the religious reference; he was expressing a vision: “Christ cares more for the individual than he does for mankind” (the species). “Only the individual is concrete; mankind is an abstraction.”

    Dante said, as he beheld his beloved Beatrice: “God has something in store for Mankind.” In both cases the species is a vehicle, as it were, in the service of the individual.

    Which brings me back to my “evidence”. Beauty. I cannot rid myself of the notion of some kind of purpose – having seen the face of a truly beautiful person. (This happened to me once and only once, almost thirty years ago.) — I won’t call it a divine purpose, as there is no evidence to support the use of that term.

    I don’t believe in a deity, or any supernatural being that legislates, or that is fit to worship. Nor do I regard such a being as a thing-in-itself; I don’t regard it, period; what I mentioned above, my contact with beauty, was something that cannot be described with any word other than “beatitude.” I have the religion of the poets, the artists, the musicians. “I am religious without religion” (Schumann).

    No stupid holy book; nothing other than a memory of being in the presence of Beauty, something impossible for me to describe without using the word Beatitude (and something I will never experience again). No need really to try to describe it; Dante did the describing for me (La Vita Nuova).—And I too felt, at that moment, awe, bliss… And ever since then, I have not, as I said, been able to relinquish altogether the idea of…. beatitude, and of purpose….

    Is this religion? faith? It’s an experience, and a word employed to describe something that cannot be described any other way.

    God, Love, Beauty, Soul.

    Words! Reason! This limit us too.

    Finally, Nietzsche (and other great individualists from the 19th Century) advised us to withdraw ourselves from the mass (the species), or to raise ourselves above the mass, to cultivate our sense of individuality; only then can we grow unimpededly and gain a glimpse, perhaps, of our own destiny.

    Happy New Year, once again!

    Yours,

    Dan (Romantic, eccentric, skeptic, transcendentalist, philosopher, man of reason, science, and contradictions)

  27. Dan
    Watch the film The Man With Two Brains which is about a man who falls in love with a brain in a jar that can communicate with him. Funny in places, even if they are WTF moments and could have benefitted from a few more feet of film being left on the cutting room floor but worth a watch.

  28. Phil

    Good to see you, as it were. My brain is often tone-deaf when it comes to online comments, and emails – just as you have difficulty (as a “mild Aspie”) interpreting facial expressions. I was not aware of any irony, until now.

    Speaking of comments, here are some. Everyone watch this.—Please? This speaks to me. (Pinker, so far, has not.)

    Noam Chomsky: With Trump Election, We Are Now Facing Threats to the Survival of the Human Species

    https://www.democracynow.org/2017/1/2/noam_chomsky_with_trump_election_we

  29. Olgun #33,

    I HATE Steve Martin – as an actor. Terrible actor.

    Watch The Man With One Brain (1971). It’s about a man who falls in love with his own brain which he keeps in a jar. Starring Vincent Price. (Kidding.)

    Happy New Year.

  30. Dan #36

    Don’t shoot the messenger Dan. I still think you are too impressed by who says something rather than what they are saying.

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