I’m a big fan of Steven Pinker’s writing (I know that this isn’t fashionable with the social justice warriors, but there it is) and so was really happy to read his 10 000 word response to some of the criticisms of his latest book, Enlightenment Now. While reviews of the book were overwhelmingly positive many bloggers and online commentators really took a dislike to Pinker’s arguments, sometimes seemingly because of who else liked the book (e.g. Bill Gates). In many cases, where Pinker uses data and links to sources to support his claims, his critics generally go for straw man arguments and ad hominem attacks.
Pinker’s response is a long read but it’s also a really good example of how to respond to a critique of your academic work. He doesn’t take it personally and simply does what he is good at, which is marshalling the available evidence to support his arguments. If you like Steven Pinker (and science and rationality in general) you may enjoy this post.
Here is the link: https://quillette.com/2019/01/14/enlightenment-wars-some-reflections-on-enlightenment-now-one-year-later/.
This weekend I came across an interesting TED talk by Steven Pinker, where he identifies a decreasing trend in violence, which is somewhat surprising when you think about how violent the world is. He supports the idea with some examples which seem reasonable, although some of the comments highlight that the evidence seems to have been purposively selected to make the point.
After watching the video I found this EDGE essay, also by Steven Pinker, on the declining levels of violence in society as a trend over time. Pinker is not just talking about the magnitude of death as a percentage of the total population but also the general prevalence of cruelty (and the social acceptance of cruelty) in society. He suggests that recent examples of abuse and torture are evidence of how high our standards have risen, rather than how low our behaviour has sunk.
The last thing I read on the topic was this alternative perspective from Christian Davenport on the idea that violence is decreasing. Davenport suggests that the form of violence is simply changing, especially where government is concerned. He argues that the threat of violence is still present, but that it is simply more subtle and implicit.
While I agree that it’s a difficult argument to make considering the lack of real evidence the further back in time we go. The bible is an example of a historical record that, while useful, is definitely limited. However, while I do think that Pinker is probably guilty of cherry picking some of his data to support the conclusion, I do think that he makes a valid point. Maybe it’s just because I want to believe that, as a species, we’re not completely stuffing things up for our children.
Update: Here’s another link to an article in The Guardian, discussing Pinker’s latest book “The better angels of our nature”