Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
Question: Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the way the world is headed?
Pinker: I’m a cautious optimist about the near future. I think that by a lot of measures, things have gotten better. There’s less homicide now. There’s less rape. There’s less war. There’s less civil war. There are more freedoms. We know more. We live richer lives. We can listen to vast amounts of music at the press of a button. We have available a mind boggling library of information from the Internet, from sources like Amazon and other resources made available by the online world. The blogosphere allows for a richness of debate that didn’t exist 10 or 20 years ago. By a lot of indicators, things have gotten better and there’s no reason to think that that won’t trend . . . that trend won’t continue. The blot on the horizon is that there are some things that can happen that may be improbable; but if they do happen will be very, very bad, such as a nuclear device exploded by a terrorist. So the note of caution in my optimism is that although I think it’s . . . the chances are that things will get better, there are some low probability events that if they do occur, they will be very nasty indeed.