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. 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.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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Politics & Current Affairs
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Experts are already predicting an 'active' 2020 hurricane season

It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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