Bridging the optimism gap

Enlightenment Now 
The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress 
Steven Pinker 
Allen Lane
556 pages; Rs 699

Most people suffer from a form of cognitive dissonance that behavioural scientists call the “Optimism Gap”. Individuals are usually optimistic about their own future, while being pessimistic about the future of their country, and the world. The optimism gap is pan-global, and it’s been validated in survey after survey across decades.  

This optimism gap is one of the quirks in our thought processes that leads a solid majority of people to assume that the world is going from bad to worse. Other biases, such as the “Availability Bias” (basing opinions on easily available information like news flow, which is often negatively-weighted) and the “Negativity Bias” (it’s easier to imagine disasters in concrete details) also tend to confirm this feeling that things are always getting worse.

Mr Pinker has spent many years pointing out that this is not actually the case. In book after book, he has used a combination of data and carefully crafted logic to argue with great eloquence that the human condition is actually better now than it has ever been. 

In his magnum opus The Better Angels of Our Nature, he focussed on violence and pointed out that violence has decreased considerably within our lifetimes and, indeed, that violence has been decreasing for centuries. This book extends a similar thesis to many different parameters that define the human condition and our quality of life.  

Mr Pinker accesses and interprets data that shows quantifiable improvement in many spheres. He has chapters titled life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights. He also speaks of less quantifiable things like knowledge, quality of life and existential threats. 

He charts measures of progress showing progress in terms of education, healthcare, reduction of poverty, reduction of violence, freedom for individuals, LGBT rights, the spread of democracy, more representation for women, fewer injuries in the workplace, etc.  

The scale and scope of the narrative is vast, ranging across centuries and covering hundreds of millions across many regions. However, the book is anchored in the present. Hence the discussion of terrorism and existential threats (including a possible takeover by Artificial Intelligence). He dismisses these as overblown and possibly inconsequential in the long view. 

One way to encapsulate this Panglossian approach, is to quote his favourite sentence, “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants...”. That’s from Wikipedia and it’s the past tense that he likes. 

It’s important to note that Mr Pinker does not necessarily believe the world is doing well; his point is, things were much, much worse in the past, and in the recent past at that. As he says, even 2017 is measurably better than 2016.  

The broader assertion is that progress came about largely due to the “Enlightenment” — that fuzzily-defined period starting in the 17th century (or perhaps the 18th) when the scientific, rational approach and humanism gradually trumped blind obedience to the tenets of religion(s). This was when humanists realised that a coherent value system could be derived from rational thought without recourse to religious shibboleths. That humanist code could be applied to make the world a better place. Mr Pinker believes that further progress can only come about if we, as a species, continue to pay heed to that dream of the Enlightenment. 

There are many significant counter-examples that call the thesis of progress into question. For example, there are many regions of increasing rights-inequality where minority religion, gender and LGBT rights have been sledge-hammered by fundamentalist bigots; there is the erosion of liberal, democratic values even in the US and Europe; there’s the destructive impact of climate change and environmental pollution; there’s growing economic inequality. Although Mr Pinker discusses these things, he believes progress is never linear. It’s up to the reader to judge whether those counter-examples outweigh the multitude of positive examples he does cite. 

The book also includes an entertaining critique of religion, which Mr Pinker defines as intellectually bankrupt. He cites the usual contradictions, illogic and hypocrisies embedded in all organised faiths. Apart from that, Pinker indulges in the bashing of sundry categories of “progressophobes” (a word he coined and discussed in an entire chapter). That includes journalists, humanities professors (he’s one himself!), public intellectuals (ditto!) on right and left.  He even says some scathing things about ecologists. 

His trenchantly stated opinions will upset a lot of people and entertaining as it may be, his demagogic methods will also cause discomfort to some of those, who may broadly agree with him. He often uses the “straw man” approach, by stating counter-arguments and demolishing them. That has some inherent problems, as any student of logic could explain. 

Any book that attempts such a sweeping thesis must, of necessity, cherry-pick data and examples. But that cherry-picking elides information that seriously challenges the assertions. The rigour is shaky on economics, ecology and environmental sciences. The book is well worth reading nonetheless (Bill Gates and Warren Buffett both say they loved it) and the broad theses seems like an excellent antidote to the global pandemic of pessimism. But the granular details will need to be seasoned with a lot of salt.