Does Steven Pinker's gospel of data hide dark gaps?

Almost every reader will learn from the vast erudition (and biblical proportions) of Steven Pinker's 'Enlightenment Now'. But it's data-lit gospel of progress hides darker biases.

Steven Pinker by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.
Steven Pinker. Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.

1. Have you heard the good news? Life has never been better—only our ignorance and biases hide the happy truth. A new data-glorying gospel of secular salvation charts the unsung facts (while camouflaging disfiguring details).


2. We all can benefit from the vast erudition (and biblical proportions) of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, which preaches “organized rationalism’s” doctrines (like “quantitative thinking” to counter our cognitive biases).

3. I’m using religious terms to stress Pinker’s aim of moral conversion. By not maximizing flourishing the typical “human moral sense isn’t particularly moral.” Quantification adds “moral value” by counting all lives as equal. But Pinker counts inequality as “morally irrelevant”—“each should have enough” is the goal.

4. Oddly, this science-wielding morality puts shaky economics above solid evolution. Evolution is entirely relative-fitness driven, but Pinker preaches an economic rationality that brands “zero-sum” or “lump fallacy” thinking as vices. But, ignoring life’s precisely zero-sum, current-lump dividing aspects fails the maximize-flourishing test.

5. Consider global wealth creation: Last year’s top 1% got 82% of gains, the bottom 50% (3.7 billion people) gained nothing (42 people are richer than those 3.7 billion combined). More flourishing isn’t hard to conceive: A 1.5% billionaire tax = educating 256 million currently unschooled kids.

6. Pinker sings the orthodox markets-know-best hymns—“voluntary transactions” self-organize to harness greed for the greater good. He’s partly right; markets are the most powerful social forces on Earth, they mindlessly “direct” trillions of transactions to enact our collective “macro morality.”

7. But voluntary-transaction parables mask bedeviling details—both sides of transactions gain by externalizing costs, and self-organization often isn’t benign (scientists know evolution’s invisible hand often delivers disaster—see Darwin’s Wedge).

8. The moralizing mantra that markets have “lifted billions out of poverty” ignores the elephant (chart) in the room—>that uplift is a byproduct. What would capitalists do if robots undercut workers? Stop lifting.

9. The deglamorized globalization “deal” is workers gain only if bosses increase profits—you can educate your kids only if your sweatshop toil gets globalizers bigger yachts (—>a weird each-having-enough ethos).

10. This paint-by-numbers ethics encodes top-of-the-pile priorities. But even empathy-challenged elites have good reason to prioritize bottom-up perspectives (see social pyramid physics).

11. Pinker’s pejoratives reveal his own tribal tendencies. “Bad guy” characterizations often betray tribally asymmetric forms of the “fundamental attribution error”: Our tribal brains treat our side’s missteps differently than a rival tribe’s, typically rationalizing and excusing the former but essentializing the latter. Note Pinker’s essentializing sentences: “Intellectuals hate progress.” Progressives “really hate progress.”

12. Conversely his Enlightenment heroes are essentially always on the right side of history. Meanwhile, historians note Pinker’s “engines of progress… almost all… predated the Enlightenment.”

13. Again, Pinker’s vast smartness can enlighten any reader. But numbers can numb us into macro-moral misjudgements. And in crafting a secular creation story for his econo-rationalist tribe (more “comfort history” than “balanced account”) his snark isn’t rhetorically smart.

14. Lovers of the gifts of the Enlightenment and of markets need smarter countermeasures for their weaknesses. Camouflaging that what’s "rational for individuals is increasingly irrational for society" endangers all enlightened progress (+see needism).

15.Let’s redirect “organized rationalism” toward more inclusive, sustainable, and fairer (each-having-enough) flourishing.

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