The United States Is Not an Apocalyptic Wasteland, Explains Steven Pinker
The Harvard cognitive scientist tells us how life is always getting better, despite what Trump has said.
Steven Pinker. Image: Bloomberg
Donald Trump's rise to power was driven in part by an apocalyptic narrative according to which, in a phrase, you are in grave danger. This is consistent with many people's intuitions about the world, given the ongoing threat of global terrorism, the US's slow recovery from the Great Recession, and a sense that the Washington establishment is corrupt and doesn't care about the average citizen's needs. Is Trump's apocalypticism right? Are we living in an exceptionally dangerous period of human history? Are these the desperate times that call for desperate measures?
According to the Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, the answer is a resounding No. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker presents a mountain of evidence showing that violence has been declining for millennia—a trend that has continued through the twentieth century and up to the present. For example, since World War II there have been no major wars between the world's great powers, a phenomenon dubbed the "Long Peace," and Pinker argues that the end of the Cold War inaugurated a "New Peace" that's marked by a worldwide decline of "organized conflicts of all kinds—civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, and terrorist attacks."
But will this trend continue in a post-Trump, post-truth world? Pinker is clear in Better Angles that it might not—for instance, there could be accessible "weapons of total destruction" (WTDs) that precipitate a global catastrophe, or authoritarian demagogues that misuse and abuse their political power. To understand what Trump's victory means for America and, even more, what it means for the future of civilization, I contacted Pinker via email.
Motherboard: Trump has repeatedly painted an apocalyptic picture of contemporary America. He has talked about (black) people getting shot while walking down the street, about terrorists disguising themselves as refugees fleeing the atrocities of Syria, and about Mexico sending its "criminals" and "rapists" across the southern border. Could you briefly explain why this characterization of the contemporary US is factually wrong?
Steven Pinker: Unfortunately, it's all too easy for newsreaders to believe that apocalyptic picture. The news media give lavish coverage to violent incidents, seldom follow up on negative reportage in the past, and rarely put events in statistical or historical perspective. Worse, they allow themselves to be played by violence impresarios, namely terrorists and rampage killers, who correctly anticipate that they can attract the world's attention by killing a number of innocent people at once. This is true not just of tabloids and cable news chasing eyeballs and clicks, but of high-quality outlets who feel that by highlighting what goes wrong, they are discharging their duty as watchdogs, muckrakers, and afflicters of the comfortable.
The facts are as follows. The rate of violent crime is lower now than it was at any time between 1966 and 2009. Immigrants have a lower rate of violent crime than American citizens. Terrorists kill just three-tenths of one percent of all American homicide victims. The rate of death from terrorism in the United States was higher in the early 1970s than it is today. And since 2002, more Americans have been killed by right-wing American terrorists than by Islamic terrorists. It's true that the rate of violent crime went up between 2014 and 2015, most likely a consequence of the retreat of active policing since Ferguson. But it's a small uptick in the context of the massive downward trend since 1992.
"A modern liberal democracy is a precious achievement."
The media and intelligentsia were partly complicit in Trump's depiction of the world as a dystopia headed for even greater disaster. "Charge the cockpit or you die!" cried the pro-Trump intellectual right. "I'd rather see the empire burn to the ground under Trump, opening up at least the possibility of radical change, than cruise on autopilot under Clinton," said the pro-Trump left. When people believe that the world is heading off a cliff, they are receptive to the perennial appeal of demagogues: "What do you have to lose?"
But if the media and intellectuals put events into statistical and historical context, rather than constantly crying "crisis," they would make it clearer what the answer to that question is. Revolutionary regimes from Nazi Germany and Maoist China to contemporary Venezuela show that people have a tremendous amount to lose when a charismatic leader forces a radical personal vision on a society. A modern liberal democracy is a precious achievement. Until the messiah comes, it will always have problems, but it's better to solve problems than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.
In Better Angels, you discuss something called "integrative complexity," which "captures a sense of intellectual balance, nuance, and sophistication." The integrative complexity of a political speech, for example, can be determined by counting the frequency of words like "absolutely," "always," and "definitely"—all favorites of Trump's—where simple, categorical words like these indicate low complexity. In fact, linguistic analyses show that Trump literally speaks at a fourth-grade reading level.
This appears worrisome because you also note that war is historically more likely when political leaders have low integrative complexity scores. Does this make you anxious about Trump getting the US embroiled in new conflicts?
The work was done by the political psychologist Philip Tetlock, and yes, this does make me anxious. Overconfident, good-versus-evil thinking encourages impulsive military action. We're safer with leaders who think through the costs and benefits of different options, including ones that may take time to have their effects, such as sanctions, containment, and other forms of soft power.
Though I'm wary of seeming to be pointing to any bright side—there is no bright side to this election—Trump has suggested that he is averse to foreign interventions (insofar as one can read any intentions at all from his contradictory statements). So he might continue or even extend Obama's policy of "Don't do stupid [stuff]." This was the "rare piece of good news" suggested by Nils Petter Gleditsch, one of the world's foremost peace researchers, in a November 15 blog post.
Trump's presidential campaign was successful in part because of the "alt-right" movement. At the heart of this movement is a rejection of globalism, which has fueled opposition to diversity, multiculturalism, and immigration. Do you think such opposition is in the end a losing cause? Is globalization inevitable?
Yes, globalization is inevitable, for a number of reasons. Many of our severest problems are inherently global, particularly climate, epidemics, migrants, and terrorism. Pretending they don't exist is not tenable, at least not forever, and they can be solved only through international cooperation.
Also, globalization has massive benefits—more affordable goods, larger markets for exports, a huge reduction in global poverty—which also can't be denied indefinitely. While globalization doesn't benefit everyone equally—it has increased unemployment in domestic lower-skilled occupations—most of those job losses would have happened anyway because of automation, and have to be addressed, globalization or no.
Third, with the internet and inexpensive travel, there will be no stopping the flow of people and ideas. This is particularly true among younger people, who partake of a global youth culture, and as we saw in the UK following Brexit, resent their elders' attempts to restrict their opportunities.
In my considered opinion, one of the greatest casualties of this election is science. For example, Trump appointed Myron Ebell, a dogmatic climate denier who holds worrisome views about the safety of agrichemicals, to be the "lead agent in choosing personnel and setting the direction of the federal agencies that address climate change and environmental policy more broadly." Are you worried about the consequences of a Trump presidency for scientific literacy? Why do you think science is so important for people to understand?
I am indeed worried. Science is important because it seeks true explanations of the world. Defying its conclusions is bound to lead to delusions and dangerous choices. Science also offers a model for how to think rationally: that one must acknowledge one's fallibility, submit one's beliefs to empirical tests, and abandon ideas that are shown to be wrong.
The denial of the massive evidence for human-made climate change is atrocious and one of the most dangerous consequences of a Trump presidency. The small consolation is that when it comes to scientific issues, reality won't go away regardless of what you deny. While we may lose four precious years of US federal action, we will be forced to deal with climate change soon enough. And actors other than the US government are already dealing with it: state and local governments, scientists and technologists, businesses that rationally plan for the future, and the governments of other countries.
It's important to realize, though, that the problem is not scientific literacy. Most laypeople who believe in evolution or who acknowledge human-made climate change are just as ignorant of science as those who deny them. The issue is identity. People treat opinions as badges of loyalty to a tribe or coalition. If "good people," people like them, believe X, they will believe X. Some climate activists believe that the worst thing that happened to the movement was Al Gore becoming its implicit spokesperson, branding it as a left-wing movement. Before that, the issue was nowhere near as polarized.
The challenge is to dissociate scientific hypotheses from identity politics and bring people around to the radical notion—the core of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment—that they should believe things only if they are true. How to do this is an unsolved rhetorical challenge, but finding spokespeople who break out of their coalitional stereotypes—such as prominent conservatives who acknowledge human-made climate change—is a start.
You note that the number of autocracies around the world is decreasing while the opposite is true of democracies. Given Trump's authoritarianism—as manifest in frequent campaign statements that he would "totally accept" the election results "if I win"—do you see Trump as a threat to American democracy? Could this be the beginning of fascism in America?
Yes, he is a threat, and yes, it could be the beginning. The question is, what are the chances? No one knows, but I think that after 240 years, American democracy is too robust to be overturned by one man. To convert a democracy into an autocracy requires disabling an enormous, distributed infrastructure: legislators who have to respond to constituents and lobbyists, judges with reputations to uphold, bureaucrats who are responsible for the missions of their departments, and the tens of millions of people who have to carry out their jobs in order that the government and society function.
"As you are forced to deal with other people who are not like yourself, you are automatically driven to universal values like reason, science, and human flourishing."
It's true that a ruthless autocrat can intimidate enough players in enough positions to consolidate absolute rule. But even autocrats can be sent packing when enough of their citizens stop playing along. As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan have shown, this happened many times in the 20th and 21st centuries. But it's unlikely to come to that. I doubt the mercurial Trump has the commitment and concentration it would take to implement a fascist dictatorship, nor that the stroppy American public would easily fall into line.
Given global risks like climate change, biodiversity loss, and nuclear weapons, I have become rather pessimistic about the future. Nonetheless, my work and activism is guided by a kind of "pragmatic optimism" according to which major disasters can be averted if only we try hard enough. Do you feel optimistic about humanity's future, either in the short or long term? Do you think the "moral Flynn effect"—a term you coined to refer to our collective moral progress since WWII, driven by "reason" and rising IQs—will continue?
I would call the belief that activism can merely avert "major disasters" a form of pessimism! The world has done much better than avert major disasters: we've decimated disease, hunger, and extreme poverty; doubled longevity; multiplied global wealth; made literacy and basic education (including for girls) nearly universal; eliminated war from five sixths of the planet; expanded opportunities for leisure and travel; reduced many forms of pollution and deforestation; and much else. (See here, here, and here for data.)
To be sure, some of the challenges facing us are formidable. But like you, I feel pragmatically optimistic. Not in the sense that I can prophesy a good future—only a charlatan would claim to know the future—but in the sense that problems are solvable. Nuclear weapons can be reduced in number, made more secure, and someday eliminated altogether (as Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Shultz, William Perry, and Barack Obama, among others, have advocated). Climate change can be mitigated by an aggressive combination of policy and technology, as Joshua Goldstein and I have argued, following the lead of the ecomodernist movement. Success is by no means guaranteed, but we must not sit back and sulk, resigned to the corrosive belief that humanity is doomed.
As for collective moral progress, I see it as pushed and pulled by two sides of human nature. Dragging us back are atavistic mindsets like zero-sum thinking, authoritarianism, tribalism, dominance, and vengeance, which operate pretty much by default. Pulling us forward are the better angels of our nature like empathy, self-control, and reason, which are energized by the Enlightenment institutions of democracy, science, education, open economies, and a global community.
It's impossible to prophesy which forces will prevail at a given time. But data from the World Values Survey suggest that if the world continues to get richer, better educated, and more connected—all steady trends—it will also tend to get more liberal and cosmopolitan. As you are forced to deal with other people who are not like yourself, you are automatically driven to universal values like reason, science, and human flourishing, and away from parochial ones like "My holy books are true" or "Make American great again."
Thanks to Dr. Martin Glazier, Rebecca Goldstein, and Jason Nemirow for their help and insight regarding this interview. – Phil Torres
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