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Steven Pinker thinks your sense of imminent doom is wrong (nytimes.com)
43 points by edward 7 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 57 comments

> One of the recurring criticisms of your ideas on progress is that our having an awareness of how much better the situation is for the impoverished today compared with the impoverished of the past doesn’t actually make anybody’s life better and, in fact, minimizes contemporary suffering. Is there a moral gap there?

> Pinker: I think that’s a fallacy. It can be true both that there are fewer poor people, fewer oppressed people, fewer victims of violence and that there are still poor people, oppressed people and victims of violence. We want to reduce that suffering as much as possible. The fact that there has been progress helps us identify what drives down poverty and violence and illness. But there’s also a moral component, and that is: What actually dislodges us from fatalism? What gives us the gumption to try to reduce war further? Maybe you can eliminate it, or poverty?

I think the bigger point of recognizing the progress that has been made is giving at least partial credit to the system of values and institutions that got us there. Many people want to burn it all to the ground. They think the natural order of things is progress and prosperity, when in fact the opposite is true.

I agree, but I get the sense that Pinker is desperate to avoid having to tackle the difference between mental (subjective?) suffering, and physical suffering. Whilst I appreciate physical suffering such as hunger is easier to measure, mental suffering somehow seems more important; one can easily imagine being slightly hungrier but much happier if you practise a certain attitude.

The lower down a bit of suffering is on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the easier it is to measure on a societal scale.

Everyone's starving to death? Easy to measure. Everyone's living in an economically precarious situation? A bit more difficult to measure. Everyone's living life with a vague sense of listlessness and ennui? Much more difficult to measure.

Tackling the easily measured physical suffering both takes priority and has the most obvious means of feedback.

Sure, it's the obvious thing to try. I'm challenging Pinker's implicit assertion that because physical suffering has decreased, overall suffering has necessarily decreased.

That's in a large part cultural. I don't know what you can say about it apart from don't consume so much social media and stay away from the news cycle.

For some reason its fashionable to be doom and gloom. You see it pretty much everywhere. People think the world is going to end and everything is corrupt. I can't imagine growing up as a child today doing active shooter drills despite the fact that US schools are one of the safest places to be in the world.

Unfortunately with raising children you have less options since most Americans are confined to public schools in their immediate geography.

There's definitely a lot more that governments could try to alleviate mental suffering. Making psychological healthcare cheaply available, for example. Or teaching cognitive therapies as part of the national curriculum.

I don't think fashionable is the right word since doomers really don't care about what's popular.

For me personally, I just watch society and i think we are on our last chapter as a species.

I think they do care about what’s popular and are so doomy, in part, because it’s fashionable.

It’s easier to destroy than to create beauty. And easy things seem to me to be popular. It’s much easier to shit on an idea than work on something and I think there’s an aspect of selfishness that it just so happens to be easy to be part of a pointless and helpless system than to get out of bed, etc.

Humans have survived this long because of that constant paranoid behaviour. I think we are programmed to love doom and gloom predictions.

But more importantly, it is an excellent tool in the hands of academicians and politicians to demand more of other people's money. It is like when you go to a Car mechanic he will find 100 faults with the car.

> recognizing the progress that has been made is giving at least partial credit to the system of values and institutions that got us there. Many people want to burn it all to the ground.

Yes! An absurdly large proportion of people on the left and right believe that "the system" (capitalism, industry, democracy, power, whathaveyou) is broken and only radical or revolutionary change can make the world better.

But, as a radical centrist, social-capitalist and believer in visionary incrementalism — I totally disagree. I'm super glad to live in this timeline.

> An absurdly large proportion

But this is _because_ the system has failed them. For example, I have a lower quality of life than my father despite going to university and being a senior engineer in some huge companies - just because the cost of housing has increased astronomically and we now have to pay back student loans too.

He had a house, family and car at 25. I'm over 30 and can't afford even a car (mainly due to the lack of parking and high fuel prices make it not worthwhile). And I know lots of people who far worse off than I am, those who have been able to progress mostly inherited property from their family.

When people see that working hard gets them nowhere, and those who inherit wealth and prestige are far better off, they lose faith in the system and support radical change.

I suppose the point is that a revolution is unlikely to improve anyone's prospects of affording a car.

I don't deny that people have real reasons for wanting radical change. But they should know that the overwhelming likelihood is that overthrowing the system is going to lead to a system that is much less just and far more corrupt.

> I don't deny that people have real reasons for wanting radical change. But they should know that the overwhelming likelihood is that overthrowing the system is going to lead to a system that is much less just and far more corrupt.

The problem is that the centrist impulse to avoid breaking anything that "works" has been successfully exploited to prevent effective action to address a large number of real problems. At some point, people sense the bullshit and it starts to be rational to pick revolution to escape the trap. A big thing revolution has going for it is that it's a way to break out of local maxima and eliminate path dependent problems (by backtracking and picking a different path).

Yes, the entropy of revolution could conceivably help society reach a greater maxima. But the statistical likelihood is extremely small. Keep in mind, you aren't starting from scratch in a simulation. You'd have all the baggage from the civil war you triggered and the shocking loss of faith from corrupted revolutionary leadership, etc etc. Plus, this is all in the context of frustration that democratic progress doesn't happen fast enough.

Sensing bullshit doesn't imply that it is rational to start a revolution.

>> The problem is that the centrist impulse to avoid breaking anything that "works" has been successfully exploited to prevent effective action to address a large number of real problems. At some point, people sense the bullshit and it starts to be rational to pick revolution to escape the trap.

> But the statistical likelihood is extremely small.

My point is the "statistical likelihood" could be even smaller under the status quo.

> You'd have all the baggage from the civil war you triggered and the shocking loss of faith from corrupted revolutionary leadership, etc etc.

Also what "revolution" is has a tendency to be redefined downward, but rebutted based on the most hyperbolic versions.

> Sensing bullshit doesn't imply that it is rational to start a revolution.

The second cleverest kind of trap is the kind that convinces you it's best not escape.

I would characterize any revolution as a bet.

You and your fellow revolutionaries take your chances at finding out whether you are actually more competent at running a society than your predecessors. The table stakes are anywhere between a peaceful legislative change and a few million lives.

I think that there's more people out there that think they can execute a competent revolution than there actually are.

You might look into Eric Weinstein and his Embedded Growth Obligation (EGO) hypothesis. Everything in modern society has been set up expecting and relying on exponential growth. Everything from attending college, to law firms, to doctors, to college professors, to social security and pension plans, and exponential growth is impossible to maintain long term. It worked great post WWII up until about the 70's.

Take a law firm, or most any similar hierarchical structure. You have someone at the top making the big bucks, with x junior's under them who all want to be at the top one day earning the big bucks. Once trained and experienced, most eventually move up. Maybe the same law firm, maybe they start their own. They then get x juniors to train under them, who rise up and who then get x juniors, who rise up, etc. At some point, you have more than enough lawyers and can't continue growing exponentially and expect the same level of prestige and compensation. Market saturation. But, we keep on going anyway, because that's how we've been collectively trained and it's ingrained in everything. Truly systemic to the point we are blind to it and wonder what's wrong. We've built a system of many systems all with an N+1 query problem and trying to come up with workarounds instead of fixing the poorly designed query in order to become performant again.

You point out some important issues. I encounter this in academia— if each professor trains 5-10 PhD students, where will they go and be professors?

I just want to point out that these systems you mention are all changeable within the larger democratic/market system without a revolution. It might be hard, but lots of things are hard and still get done.

While this "limits of exponential growth" theory sounds plausible, the obvious rebuttal is "When will/did we reach that limit?".

Was there some point in history when each professor only taught one PhD student, or did each professor teach 2 students and the number of universities doubled every 5 years?

Similarly, for how long have the number of lawyers been exponentially growing? Shakespeare wrote "let's kill all the lawyers" in 1591, and fortunately people didn't take that suggestion seriously, so presumably we've had 400 years of exponential growth.

If there was one lawyer in 1591, and it takes 10 years for a junior to become a senior lawyer and start training the next generation, then there should be 2^40 lawyers right now. (That assumes that each lawyer lives forever, so the actual number won't be over one trillion, but still).

This is essentially the premise of Peter Turchin's Ages of Discord, specifically measured in "The Double Spiral of Well-Being and Elite Overproduction".[1]


Wow, Turchin is an incredible scholar. Thanks for sharing this, my mind is blown.

The most radical change that is needed is a land value tax and when consider that monopolies should pay tax for the privilege of withholding something from society it is only fair. It isn't called the "unearned increment" for no reason.


An equally radical example would be a Wealth Tax, which would have a similar justification if one considers the wealthy to have a disproportionate amount of influence on the government (and the government has a monopoly on sovereignty in its territory). Another way to look at it is that those who benefit the most from a society (measured by their wealth) should pay back to that society in proportion to that benefit.

In fact, many successful countries already have a Wealth Tax, so it isn't such a radical idea[0], but I would argue that the tax rate for such a tax should be equal to the equivalent tax rate that the median citizen pays, as a percentage of their wealth. For example, in the US, the median household pays about $10k in taxes per year, and has a net worth of about $120k. That means that an equivalent Wealth Tax rate would be about 8% per year (with maybe a tax free allowance on the first $10 million).

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_tax#Current_examples

I agree that university costs have gone up, and that costs for housing in some areas have gone up far too much.

The first is mostly an American problem, the second can be solved by living in slightly less desirable areas, where you can have houses for much, much less. Those areas require a car, but those aren't super expensive unless you have to have a Tesla - and the car you can get will be better, safer, more fuel effecient and more comfortable to drive than the car your parents drove.

Your opportunities for entertainment are much, much better, more likely to suit your tastes specifically and far more convinient.

Electronics and communication is so much better that you cannot compare it in any meaningful sense.

So yes, your life is much, much better and the system didn't fail you, except in a few specific cases which we can and should remidy.

When my mum was a little girl she could draw on the inside of the windows in winter because the window panes were only a single layer of glass. Today I have central heating and triple layer panes that barely feel cold in freezing temperatures.

It sounds like you can afford a car, you just don't think it is worth it, which isn't the same thing.

I'm unconvinced you have a lower quality of life than your father if you factor in everything. You're a senior engineer at huge companies, so presumably you're earning something like at least US$150k, plus stock. You're (presumably) living in a Tier 1 city (SF, NYC) or close (Seattle area, Boston), which gives you access to world-class intellect, employment opportunities, arts, music, etc. You apparently do not actually need a car to get around. You have instantly accessible information about any subject you want, at any depth you want from questionably accurate blogs to survey-level Wikipedia to academic papers. You've been able to continue working during a global pandemic, and you could probably work from anywhere in the world. You have access to inexpensive transportation and can be pretty much anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours. You've (presumably) been the beneficiary of a vaccine safely deployed to millions of people for free within a year after discovery of a completely novel virus. There's never been a better time to be a minority in the US' history, and if you're majority, you get to benefit from all kinds of diverse cultures, foods, etc. in your major city that.

I'm guessing your father didn't have his car, house, and family in a Tier 1 city, and there are opportunities for you in affordable locations. Of course, you'd have to have a car in those more affordable locations, which maybe you'd find troublesome. Your location would probably be more of a monoculture. You don't have to research ideas in physical media in a library. You wouldn't have all the medical advances. Etc.

So yes, housing is expensive, but you could make different choices and have your father's lifestyle. In fact, at a senior engineer's income I expect you could do much better if you just limit quality of life to house, car, and family.

I don't see violent revolution likely to improve matters, either. Tier 1 cities have always been expensive and always will be. But you can see a lot of examples where violent revolution makes things worse.

I don't live in the US, things are worse in Europe. I don't even make $100k in Europe but my salary is very good for here - I started on ~$40k in London!

But mainly I just want financial security - to own a home (to avoid the constant worry of suddenly having to move) and have some promise of retirement.

Where in Europe? I'm in the Netherlands. It is a pretty good place to feel stability. It is harder to make big bucks than America but there seems to be a big safety net.

Consider talking to a mortgage broker and looking at houses. I never would have done it if my wife hadn't forced my hand. I ended up being able to afford it. And i was content to rent, but she wouldn't have it.

In the US, I struggled with having the banks accept self-employment income.

The current system is broken no question.

What people overstate is how broken it is. The gold standard was a bad idea but the next step wasn't a moneyless system. It was just a slightly better money system. Whatever follows next will simply continue that trend. My personal bet is negative interest rates on cash and therefore a 0% inflation target. [0]

The alternative to the USD as global reserve currency isn't the yuan, it's a bancor style system [1].

What we might see in the future is the growing importance of IMF special drawing rights [2].

None of these ideas involve adopting a completely foreign system.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tendency_of_the_rate_of_profit... "capitalist production could not be an everlasting form of production since in the end the profit principle itself would suffer a breakdown." has no significance if capitalism can represent negative profit

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bancor

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_drawing_rights

I take a moment of each day to reflect on all the good things that the system of values and institutions of the modern world have given me, as well as the bright and beautiful future it has certainly enabled. There may be few hiccups here and there, but overall the trajectory of humanity is rational, egalitarian, and premised on individual freedom. What can you really complain about?

A more accurate title would be "Stephen Pinker Thinks [the Author's] Sense of Imminent Doom is Wrong".

He is refuting the author's sense that a cluster of crises implies imminent doom, not that there might be other reasons to have a sense of doom.

> It’s not irrational to identify genuine threats to our well-being. It is irrational to interpret a number of crises occurring at the same time as signs that we’re doomed. It’s a statistical phenomenon that when events are randomly sprinkled in time they cluster.

That's kind of his schtick, though, isn't it? To make a narrow argument phrased to imply it demonstrates far wider applicability than it does?

It wasn't Stephen Pinker who wrote the headline, it was the NYT editors. And I guess they've decided that Stephen Pinker thinks you're wrong about X gets more of a reaction than Stephen Pinker thinks I'm wrong about X.

It's probably because he doesn't understand that something that works only once in a lifetime, or even only once in a few generations, can actually be a very desirable trait from evolution/survival point of view. We (and all lifeforms really) are full of such traits, they're a burden 99% of the years and a blessing in that cursed 1% slice.

Not that it's necessarily fun to have those traits (Selfish Gene etc.), but calling them "irrational" is often plain wrong. If you fail to explain something that doesn't mean it's not useful (or "irrational"), it might be your "rationality" that's too limited.

What's the something that works only once in a lifetime in this sentence? Sense of imminent doom?

As an example: anxiety about impending winter was a very desirable evolutionary trait for northern populations. Every year you realized that if you didn't have enough food for winter you and your family might starve.

Obsessing over all the things that could go wrong helped you survive -- planning for things like failed crops, losing livestock, early or late freezes.

The "chill" people without that intense pessimism about the future often did starve and we're not descended from them.

But in modern life, the intensity of anxiety about an uncertain future is misplaced. It's a good trait to have still -- yes -- but it shouldn't be taking over your mind.

The US Civil War was much longer/bloodier than expected by both sides, and as late as 1861 was not seen as inevitable, even after succession began. I can't find a particularly great example of this other than Lincoln's March 4thinaugural address.

A Virginian for example of a more anxious disposition might have packed up and headed west after the succession process began in December of 1860-February 1861 but before the war began in April of 1861.


AKA the “midwit effect”, close antagonistic relationship with “chesterton’s fence”.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

-some Russian guy

It's a balancing effect. Do you live in a abandoned silo in the middle of nowhere eating canned foods? Do you put yourself at ground zero in a pandemic situation with the other constituent effects still in full swing?

Do you live as an ascetic? Do you amass wealth wantonly? How many kids do you have? How do you support them?

There are a lot of different strategies for life, and many of us will change our mind as to which is best over time. What is best for one person might not be best for another, and what is right or best changes in time and space.

I find Steven Pinker a refreshing voice.

Haven't read the article because it's paywalled and I can't be bothered right now, but after reading Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature" and "Enlightenment now", I just don't know where I stand on him.

On the one hand, his books are definitely worth reading, well researched, very informative. On the other hand, he does seem to look at everything through pink glasses. I don't subscribe to the ideas that we will all literally perish within the next X decades, but it's not really idiotic to think that there are many things which can destroy our rare calmness bubble in history, either slowly, like climate change, or rather quickly, like a world war.

I guess what puts me off, especially in "Enlightenment Now" is that he seems to treat these things like they are provably impossible to happen by just looking at the past and all the near misses we've had and how it was all okay in the end. Am I missing something?

I echo your sentiments - That's precisely what I thought after reading those same books. I've speculated that his excessively positive stance might be - in order to cater to an uber-optimistic crowd of humans (high percentage of entrepreneurs in that cohort) similar to but exactly antithetical to any doomsday-prophet - a bloomsday-prophet, if you will.

Nothing wrong with that, though I tend to prefer more balanced and thoughtful opinions that would think of multiple sides (even speculate on some partially-unknown stances)

>That failing could amount to a form of child abuse, the report found, saying “the distress of climate anxiety could be regarded as cruel, inhuman, degrading or torturous.”

So strange to hand the right-wing their next talking point. The way this is phrased, it looks like they're trying to gaslight people legitimately concerned about the future.

I'm not sure I understand your argument. This is the quote:

>“Climate anxiety in children and young people should not be seen as simply caused by ecological disaster; it is also caused by more powerful ‘others’ (adults and governments) failing to act on the threats being faced,” researchers wrote.

>That failing could amount to a form of child abuse, the report found, saying “the distress of climate anxiety could be regarded as cruel, inhuman, degrading or torturous.”

I don't think the marginal value of a talking point is much. Especially if you believe your political enemies are comfortable with lying anyway.

I tried reading Enlightenment Now but I was put off for reasons I don't recall now. But I would very highly recommend Factfulness by Hans Rosling which presents an evidence based case against doomist fatalism.

Skip this book. Pinker is not an historian or an anthropologist and AFAIK his views are not accepted by most in the field. He does produce some "data"--cherry-picked to support his straw-man hypotheses--but spends a lot more time filling in the gaps of his theory with anecdotes and his own idle speculation.

Here is a taste from Ch 2 (p. 88):

  Recall, for example, Eckhardt’s claim that hunter-gatherers had "little to fight about." But organisms that have evolved by natural selection always have something to fight about. Hobbes noted that humans in particular have three reasons for quarrel:
Yes, his response to another book on the same subject written by an actual historian is "natural selection" and Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes might be the most cited luminary in the entire chapter dealing with the paleolithic.

Despite being a psychologist, Pinker seems to constantly fall prey to the availability heuristic, drawing considerable evidence from the last 100 years, and most evidence from the medieval to modern periods. Only cursory attention is given to humans pre-9000 BCE, despite this comprising over 95% of the modern human timeline. One piece of evidence he does bring up is the ~9000 BCE Kennewick Man, where he notes a possible spear wound. Unmentioned is that this man had very modern proportions, owing to a nutritious diet that would have rivaled that of most humans until 100 years ago.

By limiting his scope to the period following the agricultural revolution, he misses that metrics of nutrition, disease, mortality, working hours, and inequality all declined with the rise of centralized states and have only recently recovered to paleolithic levels (not working hours) (for height proxy, see [0], for Y chromosome proxy of equality, see [1]). Pinker's proposed "civilizing" effect of states in reducing human violence is mostly taken from examples of inter-state violence without much consideration for intra-state violence and the power of states to control and extract work from their populations under the threat of violence.

Indeed, his "better angels" message is ultimately authoritarian: our ancestors were savage but we are moral because powerful states give us no other choice. If you believe that you may be able to overlook his many logical leaps.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_height#/media/File:Human...

[1] https://genome.cshlp.org/content/25/4/459

Wow, what's up with the lighting on that photo of him in the article? Very unsettling and seems like a terrible way to frame his positive message.


A feeling that is constantly present will not be wrong at least for a portion of the time. Stopped clocks and all

Not necessarily. If I have a constant sense that there is a giant dragon behind me, I am going to be wrong 100% of the time.

His bias is the same as the deniers, he has publicly stated his position and cannot recede from it for any reason, otherwise he'll look unserious.

His bias is just trying to distract from the fact he was on Epstein's flight logs

To summarize both viewpoints in a single clichéd-but-true-timeless quote:

  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, ... it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. 
  ~Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

I really like Steven Pinker's work. And while I agree that quality of life has immensely improved over the last ten decades with reduced poverty and reduced child mortality and improved health, I just wish he could provide similar data when it comes to the general health of the ecosystem and climate change.

Predatory ecosystem exploitation and climate change (or - as we oldsters love to call it - global warming) are _the_ defining crises of our times. And we're failing to master them.

We're failing so hard that very likely reach 2°C or more by 2050. And that would be fatal for humanity. Not the earth, earth will be fine, give or take a few hundred thousand years. But humanity will be toast if it ever comes to that.

Unfortunately all statistics on our precious ecosystem - in quite a contrast to the statistics about development, health and wealth - are pointing to a dark path.

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