fbpx Skip to Content

Episode 6 features Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker.

The Covid Tonic, Episode 6 Transcript

By Steven Pinker & Marian L. Tupy @SAPinker

The full video interview between Marian L. Tupy and Steven Pinker can be found here. The transcript is below.

Marian Tupy: Thank you so much for joining me for this interview. Since you wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, you’ve become one of the world's most prominent promoters and defenders of the idea of human progress, and I'm sure that some critics of your work and mine will feel validated by COVID and what's been happening over the last three months or so. So let's start talking about progress. What does progress mean to you, and do you still feel like a rational optimist, or have you changed your mind?

Steven Pinker: I don't even think of the case that I have made or the case that you've been making as optimism so much as “factfulness” to use the pleasant term introduced by Hans Rosling, namely, that there are just many facts about changes in the human condition over history that most people are unaware of. Most people just have no idea that extreme poverty has declined from 90% to 9%. They have no idea that there's been a reduction in the number of wars and deaths in wars. They have no idea that the majority of people are literate. So I don't consider it optimistic to point this out. I just consider people's worldview to be incomplete if they don't know it, and many people don't know it.

But it certainly doesn't mean that bad things can never happen. Quite the contrary. An appreciation of progress comes from first understanding our default condition, how we came into the world, which is poor and ignorant and vulnerable to forces of nature, ranging from the second law of thermodynamics — that things tend to toward disorder — to the facts of evolution, that we are big enticing hunks of protein and calories and replicating machinery for little organisms that can profit at our expense. That's about the universe that we were born into. What progress consists out is using the special tool that evolved in our species, namely, intelligence and sociality, to try to solve these problems, and every once in a while, we do figure out how to solve them. When we're smart, we remember the solutions, and we discard the failures.

And so we make progress a bit at a time by fighting back against these forces that are always there. They're always there. As long as there will be life, there will be pathogens and parasites because evolution is a competitive process, and we're kind of sitting ducks, except for our ability to defeat our natural enemies by the application of reason.

MT: Now in your book, you are explicit that you don't deny that there are problems in the world today. We don't live in the best of all worlds, and you devoted a significant portion of Enlightenment Now to discussing potential problems ahead. Why do you think that many of the critics of the position that you hold and that I hold continue to ascribe this Panglossian position to you and ignore the warnings that have been included in your writings?

SP: There is in our cultural history a notion of progress as a force that magically lifts us upward. This was explicit in some theories in the 19th century – in the Hegelian dialectic, in Herbert Spencer's theory of evolution – where there almost was a mystical force that propelled people, and I think that is still part of people's understanding of progress. Now, this is mystical. It's wooly. The universe contains no such force. Quite the contrary, because of entropy and evolution, the universe either doesn't care about us or at least appears to be actively grinding us down. But it is a mistaken background assumption about what progress can consist of. So there's that. There's also a kind of political motivation, that if people are opposed to all aspects of the system that actually is responsible for the gifts of progress — science and technology and trade and liberal democracy and international organizations and other institutions — then people see themselves as outside of them. It's almost their worst nightmare if things getting get better because it would vindicate the idea that, as flawed as our arrangements are, they're a lot better than the alternative.

MT: There's always the possibility that people who criticize your work don't actually read it.

SP: Well, I happen to know that that sometimes happens, and I’m sure you do as well. But yes, there are different motives, and in particular, there are certain ideologies that are committed to a narrative of decline. There's the kind of a romantic greenism that we used to live in harmony with nature until the Industrial Revolution, and science and technology despoiled a pristine environment and alienated us from nature, so things have gotten worse and worse and worse. There’s the reactionary nationalism that America used to be great, but then it was corrupted by liberal elites. There are various nostalgic movements that see the present as a decline, that there used to be a heroic Golden Age and that we've become decadent and soft and consumerist and pacifist and effeminate and unlike the great old days of manly men and heroes, a kind of Nietzschean narrative which is surprisingly popular among many intellectuals. So there are a number of motives to deny progress, and of course, there are problems that are real. There are problems that are inevitable, and we haven't solved all of them. The pandemic is an example. We ought to have been better prepared.

MT: We'll get to the pandemic in a second, but would it be fair to summarize your view of progress as essentially a historical one? You compare today to the past and say, “Ok, here, we've had improvements, and here maybe not so much.” So you compare today to yesterday. You don't compare it with some sort of a utopian future nobody has ever seen but a lot of people have imagined. I think that there is another strain of criticism of your work and mind and that is that we shouldn’t even acknowledge progress that's happened because the reality of life today falls short of this imagined utopia.

SP: I think that's exactly right, and I think it's a mistaken way to understand the current condition and our aspirations because a utopia can be dangerous in that there are certain aspects of the human condition that make a utopia impossible. For instance, we're all different. We're not clones. We have biological differences because of the process of genetic recombination. We are culturally different. Anything that makes some people happy is going to make other people unhappy, so a society that's perfect for some people is not going to be so perfect for others. The great challenge of governance is how do you settle into an entente, an agreement, a contract that makes the fewest people unhappy, that has a procedure where most people are happy but in a way that respects the minorities and the oddballs.

Also, there are certain inherent trade-offs. You can't have everything of everything. If you have freedom, that will include the freedom of people to screw up their own lives. If you have everyone leading the healthiest possible life, you need a totalitarian government to force them to do what they don't want to do. There are trade-offs between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome because people differ. Some people are smarter than others or harder working or more conscientious and healthier or even luckier. If you want a fair set of rules, then some people will end up better off than others. If you want everyone to end up the same, then you’ve got to have an unfair set of rules that penalizes those who are more fortunate in various regards. Now, this is not to say that any particular point along the trade-off is the correct one, but just that the trade-off exists and that any point that you choose is going to involve some sacrifice.

There are many other trade-offs in any justice system since we're not gods but fallible humans. If we want to make sure that all of the guilty are convicted, that means some innocent people are going to be convicted. Conversely, if we want to make sure that no innocent person is ever convicted, then some evil people will walk. That’s just in the nature of being a fallible, less than omniscient person. So striving for a utopia where everything is perfect can actually be quite dangerous because it does invite totalitarian impulse.

MT: In many of your talks, you have pointed out that the line of progress is not a steady increase. It's a jagged line, so there are setbacks, such as the one that we are living through now. But that doesn't mean that when humanity encounters problems that we go all the way back to some sort of a primitive state. We don't, for example, right now throw virgins into volcanoes in order in order to please gods to take the plague away. We rely on scientists. Could you talk a little bit more about a cumulative knowledge or accumulation of knowledge and about the cognitive evolution of our species? Clearly, we are not the primitives who worship fire and that sort of thing. Why does that happen? How did we get to the place where the vast majority of humanity, even in very poor, developing countries, look to scientists rather than gods?

SP: It is interesting, and I don't think there have been enough historians who have said that this is a problem. What claims of progress are reversible, and which ones seem more or less permanent? I know nothing is permanent, but it is true that the rate of violent crime, for example, can go up or down. We're now living in a relatively low level by American standards, which is higher than the rest of the industrialized West. Wars showed a large increase in civil wars in the 1960s and 70s and 80s until the end of the Cold War, which started to damp them down, although there was something of an increase in the first part of this decade after the Arab Spring.

So there are some things that can show fluctuations. There others that, although not completely permanent, seem harder to turn back, like chattel slavery. We have gone in a period of several hundred years from slavery being legal everywhere on earth to being illegal everywhere on earth, though human trafficking survives, but human trafficking has always coexisted with legal slavery. But you don't see a move toward countries reopening slave markets. It looks like it's a done deal. On human sacrifice, you mentioned throwing virgins into volcanoes. Now, it's not as if history says that they can never recur because the Bible is filled with warnings about kind of danger of backsliding, including Abraham almost sacrificing Isaac on divine orders. The Hebrews had put human sacrifice behind them because of all the warnings saying, “don't do this.” The temptation was still there, but it did disappear, and again, it is not something where you see periodic clamoring to reintroduce it. Torture, executions, debtors’ prisons.

Now, whether our society comes to its senses and says, “Oh, that was a bad idea. Let's not do that again,” or what the mechanism remains unclear, but I would love to have more clarity on it. I need to ask whether there are some practices now that that might follow that trajectory. and one of the most interesting would be interstate war — Country A declaring war on Country B — the armies of tanks meeting in a battlefield, artillery pulverizing each other’s cities, big naval battles, that seems to be on its way out. Civil wars persist, but there are very few interstate wars. So since it's such a stupid thing to do anyway and the motives for doing it are becoming obsolete in a world that depends more on information and trade and less on land and resources, it may be a natural development, but we don't know. It is too soon to tell, but it would not be unprecedented if a barbaric human custom fell by the wayside.

MT: This massive progress that we have seen in the last 250 years, but more importantly since the end of the Second World War, and declining global poverty, especially in the last 40 or 50 years, has that created a false sense of security? Have we become too complacent? Presumably, our ancestors wouldn't be surprised if a terrible thing happened to the extent that we are.

SP: Yes, certainly among the punditry, the commentariat, complacency doesn't seem to be a problem. There are constant prophecies of doom, but we probably have recently misallocated a lot of our priorities. After 9/11, for example, the United States overnight set up an entirely new cabinet-level department, the Department of Homeland Security, put massive amounts of money into measures that changed everyday life, like constant ID-checking and barriers around federal buildings against a threat that kills very few people outside of actual war zones like Iraq or Syria, whereas pandemic preparedness is something that we know has the potential to kill lots of people because we saw it happen during the Spanish flu, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Just knowing biology and knowing arithmetic, we know that it's always a potential problem, but we didn't have in place the kind of early-warning systems, ability to ramp up production of antivirals and vaccines, the civil organization for intelligent quarantining and tracing and testing. So it isn't so much a matter of complacency, it’s that we are probably worried about the wrong things.

Another example probably is our military, which is a fantastically extensive infrastructure to save us again something that almost certainly is not going to happen, like a massive Russian invasion of Central and Western Europe. But pandemics are something we should be prepared for. Going back to our initial topic of conversation, namely, what drives progress, often it is disasters happening that lead people to take protective measures after the fact. In the United States in the 30s and 40s, there were some pretty horrific fires in movie theaters and nightclubs that would kill one hundred and fifty people at a time and dozens of firefighters, and there was a sense of crisis. There's a presidential report called America Burning, and as a result, there were expansions of fire departments and sprinkler systems and fire alarms and illuminated signs and one-way, spring-loaded exit doors, all of which had a huge effect. Fewer people died from fires. In fact, fire departments are putting themselves out of business because they're so successful at preventing fires from happening in the first place. Most fire departments respond to a fire once every two years. The rest of the time they chop down a door if someone has a heart attack. They feed their dalmatians, but we don't begrudge their idleness. It's good that we have the fire department sitting around, and we probably ought to have something similar for pandemics given the huge damage that's done economically and in terms of loss of life.

MT: Where would one look for that kind of wisdom? We have established that the pandemic is not really a black swan event. In other words, based on what we have seen with the bird flu and SARS, we should have known that it was coming. But whether you look at America or other countries, the elites, be they scientists or politicians or businessmen (with the exception of Bill Gates), didn't take this seriously. What sort of wiring do you think that we have in mind or alternatively, a set of incentives in politics and economics that prevents us from being wiser and evaluating the chances of different horrible things happening?

SP: It's a great question. I don't think we really know the answer. One place that I would look is cross-national comparisons. Within the United States, someone had the idea that the 50 states should be laboratories. No one's smart enough to know what's going to work beforehand, but if you have some diversity of policy and you have an assessment in evidence afterward as to what works and what doesn't, you can keep what works and discard what doesn't even if you're not brilliant enough to have figured it out from scratch. And that should be done cross-nationally as well. Even knowing, of course, that no two nations start out with the same demographics, the same geography, and so on, still, there are statistical ways of controlling for it, and by looking at what countries have succeeded and which ones haven't, ideally we would draw lessons from the more successful cases without a priori favoring one model versus another.

We both know that Sweden has adopted a very different response to the pandemic than many countries. I don't know about you, but I have an open mind. I'm curious to see what happens. Will there be fewer deaths per capita and less damage to the economy than in the United States? And so on for other measures for crime or unemployment or welfare and so on. You and I are both immigrants to the United States. Both of us love this country, but the United States underperforms in almost any measure that you can quantify and both of us like to quantify things. And when it comes to crime and obesity and teenage pregnancy and drug addiction, in measure after measure, the United States is not bad, but it's certainly not at the head of the pack, not at the level you'd expect for our GDP per capita. So we're probably doing a lot of things wrong — not disastrously wrong — but if we look to New Zealand for this or Portugal for that or Norway for something else just to see who's stumbled upon the solutions that mitigate problems, I think we'd be better off.

MT: I've seen comments in newspapers and online such as “the virus is what the planet needed in order to heal itself” and so on, which makes me wonder if some people are enjoying the imminent sense of apocalypse or welcoming it for some reason. Where does that kind of thinking come from, and what do you think is the evolutionary role of pessimism or even apocalypse in furthering our species?

SP: Yes, there is a strain of this misanthropy in a lot of social criticism. It's been noted that there are factions of the green movement that are misanthropic and would love for the human population to collapse. They use terminology that's almost Nazi in talking about humans as parasites, as pathogens, as vermin, and they look forward with a kind of relish to massive death and contraction of human civilization. There is, going back to the biblical prophets certainly, almost a schadenfreude about the prophecies of punishment for our ways. Some of it may be the pessimism bias, that we are naturally alert to threats because there are just so many more of them and they can do so much more. Some of it might be more social competition. When people prophesize doom, they also tend to be part of the opposition to the people who are whose ideas are currently predominant in society, so relishing the coming disaster is a way of competing with your professional rivals, saying that the way you're running things is going to lead us to doom and we're all going to be sucked into oblivion but at least I'll be able to say I told you.

MT: Can I stop you for a second and just explore this a little more? Is it an attempt to gain higher ground in terms of debating with your peers?

SP: I think there is some of that, and this is something that has been pointed out before by Thomas Hobbes, who said that at all times there is a reverence for antiquity, for men contend with the living, not with the dead. Putting down the present is a way of putting down your rivals, so I think there's that. One of my current obsessions is trying to figure out why across a variety of sectors of society, there is an indifference to the best, most factual truth, and you see it in conspiracy theories, in fake news, in alternative facts, where it seems to be that we have two kinds of descriptions of reality. We have the world of truth and falsity and fact versus fiction, which we apply of course to our everyday lives — Is our refrigerator full? Does the car have gas in it? — then there's the world of narrative and mythology and good stories, which we are perfectly comfortable with in our fiction. We often have national origin myths that we don't want to probe too deeply, and I think that for a lot of people, a good story, especially one with the correct moral implications, is a higher good than factual accuracy. And when you have people believing these preposterous conspiracy theories in fake news, you wonder how deeply they believe it or whether they're just operating in a space where a good story is more important than actual truth, but this is something I'm going to be writing about.

MT: I was actually going to ask you whether saying things rather than believing in them is also a way in which I can relate to my social group. By mouthing certain things that my friends and my colleagues expect me to say, I am basically signaling to them that I'm part of the group. You can rely on me. You don't have to probe me too deeply. Would that be also something?

SP: Yes, and this is a lesson from the research program of Dan Kahan at Yale University. A lot of the issues that divide us, that people think of as factual issues — issues like evolution and opposition to vaccines and anthropogenic climate change — are really not matters of factual knowledge because most people are out to lunch about everything. There's a lot of knowledge out there, and most of us don't have it. We're not climate scientists. We're not evolutionary biologists. We're not immunologists. We trust — sometimes legitimately, sometimes illegitimately — certain institutions and certain authorities. Some of them really do have a better claim to truth than others, but all of us have to trust people who know more about things than we do. And many of the beliefs that we are likely to stigmatize as pseudo-scientific really consist of people putting their faith in one set of authorities over another and saying things that will enhance their status within the group, especially as champions of that group in competition with other groups.

MT: Okay, I will have to let you go soon, so last question. I'm sure that like most of us, you are concerned about the rise of authoritarianism and protectionism. Is there anything about the importance of liberal democracy and open economy that you would like to convey to our audience, especially perhaps to young people who may be at home and who by nature of their youth have very few or very limited life experiences? They haven't really lived through a difficult time like this one, so what would you tell them about the institutions that underpin our society and their importance?

SP: Yeah, I think it's critical not just to point out problems in our current society and time. There always will be problems. But rather, given that we're not gods, we're not infallible, we're not omniscient, we’ll have a utopia, what can we reasonably expect? How much better or worse is what we have now than other things that actually have existed on planet earth as opposed to in our imaginations where anything is possible? In what ways is the current situation in our country better or worse than in other countries and at other times, and it is sobering to remind ourselves of the problems that other societies have faced, including the societies of communist Eastern Europe in which you grew up and which I certainly read about although I have a great fortune of not growing up in them, but I knew about them. When I grew up there were jokes about lining up for tomatoes in Moscow, so I was certainly aware of it.

Even in my lifetime, things like the double-digit inflation with double-digit unemployment at the same time, lines around the block and all-day waits for gasoline, fears of shortages of heating oil and heating gas, shortages of meat and coffee and sugar even in the United States, to say nothing of what life was like during the Great Depression and during the World Wars. So compare different social systems, especially when we have an experimental group and a control group, like East and West Germany, North and South Korea, Chile and Venezuela, where we can see what the effects are living under different systems and comparisons across history, especially quantitative ones, not just snapshots or vignettes or anecdotes. How much better did people live? What did they die of? How many babies survived their first year? What did a typical person eat? All of these I think are absolutely essential just in a calibrating our sense of where we are, where we can go, what works and what doesn't work.

MT: Does every wise person have to be a historian?

SP: Every wise person should know some history, and the people who know history should tell and should make it accessible.

MT: Thank you very much, Steven Pinker. I much appreciated your time.

SP: My pleasure, Marian.


Tiny Brain Implants Hold Big Promise for Immobilized Patients


Scientists Create Picture of What Fuels the Human Heart


Lots of Overnight Tragedies, No Overnight Miracles


Divorce Is Down, Despite COVID-19


Breakthrough Skin Test Accurately Detects Early Signs of Parkinson’s


The Torch of Progress, Ep. 15: Michael Strong