To the great displeasure of his wife, Steven Pinker arrives at the airports as late as possible. “I have a pathological fear of being ahead,” says the psychologist. But, at 68, he hasn’t given up on his ability to change this irrational habit. “I’m recalibrating.”
This is Pinker’s message to all of us: being more rational in our decisions would make us happier. We can recalibrate, because reports of our irrationality have been grossly exaggerated. Behavioral economics – whose conclusions about biased decisions have won several Nobel Prizes – needs a fix. “I disagree with the most pessimistic conclusion that humans are inherently irrational.”
In his book Rationality, Pinker argues that although people struggle with abstract reasoning, we make logical decisions when dilemmas are based on everyday terms. After all, “we are obviously rational in the sense of the world we have built. We invented vaccines, we went to the moon.
Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, considers himself a champion of Enlightenment values. For his many admirers, including Bill Gates, he is an oracle of optimism. His books, including The best angels of our nature and Lights now, compiling data showing that humans live longer and better, even when the headlines suggest otherwise. “Journalism is a non-random sample of the worst things happening on earth at any given time. When you look at the world through the lens of data rather than events, it seems much more positive.
But Pinker’s outlook is challenged on two fronts. The first is the endurance of irrationality. People aren’t pursuing their best interests, whether it’s playing the lottery or opposing a carbon tax. Conspiracy theories are now penetrating governments. Has Pinker ever persuaded a QAnon believer to see the light? “Oh, I didn’t. No. [But] there are always people on the fence who could be persuaded. There are babies being born all the time. They weren’t born believing that there is a pedophilia cabal in the “deep state”, so the persuasion must be directed against them.”
The other challenge comes from threats to human well-being. “Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a crisis, plague, epidemic, or existential threat,” Pinker wrote in enlightenment now (2018). But the world suffered from a scourge and now faces existential threats. After Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we are – we don’t know how close – to nuclear war, not to mention climate tipping points.
Have the past two years changed Pinker’s outlook? “I certainly recalibrated my subjective probability of the attractiveness of conquest for political leaders. I thought that was the way of human sacrifices and slave auctions,” he says, in a soft, curious tone.
“Putin’s invasion of Ukraine changed the data. So far, in terms of battle deaths per year, it’s not on track to reverse the progress made since the 80s. But it could if it gets out of hand. (Russia’s use of a tactical nuclear weapon “cannot” in itself reverse the tide, although it would be “really awful.”)
Pinker argues that history always leans toward reason. “Putin is really anachronistic. It pushes against a huge current. . . The forces that curtailed the war are still active, even if they weren’t strong enough to deter Putin. The international response may deter other despots. “I suspect the invasion will not lead to a return to the era of warring civilization.”
Raised in a Jewish community in Montreal, Pinker was an atheist at the age of thirteen. He made a name for himself in linguistics before embarking on questions of human progress. His work rubbed shoulders with that of linguist Noam Chomsky, whose far-left views on politics sometimes seem impervious to reason. “Forget it. For all his genius, very early in his life, he bought into a demonological theory of history,” Pinker laughs. “That’s the last thing he’ll give up.”
How to reason with Putin? Pinker points to the risk of escalation: the rational response, he argues, is not to escalate directly, but to change the rules of the game. This is how the West seems to perceive Putin’s nuclear threats. “Even if Putin were to use a tactical nuclear weapon, the most likely response would not be in kind, but plans to destroy Russia’s Baltic Fleet, to try to rack up even more sanctions, to isolate Russia even more – the hope would be that China and India would be [distance themselves from Moscow].”
A conflict between great powers would explode the Pinker vision of progress. World War III is “unlikely” but not “astronomically unlikely”, he says. “It’s a possibility we have to be prepared for.”
In other respects, darkness has already arrived. Pinker once cited the Varieties of Democracy Index as proof of democratic resilience. But the latest edition grimly concludes: “The level of democracy enjoyed by the average citizen of the world in 2021 has fallen to 1989 levels. The last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated. About 70% of the world’s population lives in dictatorships. Maybe progress isn’t linear? Or maybe it’s only guaranteed in the long run, by which time we might all be dead?
“We are clearly going in the wrong direction. [on democracy]admits Pinker. “History is never cyclical, but it can be chaotic. There is no guarantee that we will not return to a world like that of the 1970s when there were only 32 democracies. I doubt it, but you can’t rule it out.
He argues that democracy has intrinsic advantages. Democracies “are open to reactions from the world. . . A lighter version of [Francis] Fukuyama may be right. In contrast, autocracies fail to correct: “You may be seeing that in China now, with zero-Covid policies. This kind of attitude could weaken Chinese leadership in the long run.
A criticism of Pinker is that his work breeds complacency. If we believe things are always getting better, we will cut out some of the mechanisms by which they got better – protests and politics. “It’s quite the opposite,” he says: if you don’t believe that things are improving, you risk falling into fatalism.
Is he politically active? “Especially during the Trump years, I definitely opened my checkbook. My wife Rebecca [Newberger Goldstein, a philosopher and novelist] and I now call this our attempts at ineffectual altruism, as we backed one failing candidate after another. In 2016, I think I was the second most generous Democratic Party donor among Harvard professors.
American politics would benefit from more scientists and fewer lawyers, because lawyers “just want to win the argument,” he says. But I point out that some of the least trustworthy politicians are doctors, like Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Öz. “Doctors are not scientists! Physicians are the professional descendants of medieval barber surgeons. There are a surprising number of doctors who don’t think scientifically. (Pinker is a campaign donor to Bill Foster, the only physicist with a Ph.D. in Congress.)
Pinker argues that humans have a “mythological mindset” when it comes to things outside of personal experience: we are happy to believe things for which there is no evidence. It is therefore often rational to flatter the irrationality of the other: Republican politicians must pretend not to believe in the result of the 2020 elections. “That’s why we have institutions: like science, responsible journalism, liberal democracy, a judicial system.” Thus, the problem of rationality is in fact a political problem of defending institutions and reducing partisanship.
As we speak, people arrive at a nearby table. Their loud voices sometimes drown out Pinker’s defense of the Enlightenment. It’s a metaphor for something.
Pinker rightly identifies the media tendency towards pessimism. But another failing of the media is to treat a small group of thinkers – including himself – as authorities on almost everything. Does he sometimes feel uncomfortable? “I have to remember not to be wrong in every controversy, and not to be a guru, a prophet or an oracle – to formulate my own opinions with the appropriate degree of uncertainty,” he says. A low point appeared on the BBC Question time programme, where he found himself perplexed by questions about British politics.
On the spot
The most irrational habit? Cycling – I put myself in mortal danger.
Will brain-computer interfaces ever be standard? For the treatment of conditions that harm people, possibly. For the betterment of normal people, I highly doubt it. The brain is too complicated.
Has the “cancel culture” reached its peak? The tide could turn. I don’t think he has toured yet.
Are you vegetarian? I should be, but I’m not. I am reductive.
How much did your last haircut cost? $50? More than a hair salon, less than a politician.
Meanwhile, the world of technology has spawned hyper-rationality. Effective altruism asks how humans can do the most good, including giving most of their salary to charity. Its offshoot, long-termism, argues that we should maximize the welfare of the unborn. What does Pinker think? “They jumped the shark. I was a strong advocate of effective altruism when it came to, “Should you give your charity dollar for malaria bed nets or to drill wells?” Regarding ‘Let’s prioritize how to prevent the AI from turning us into paperclips, or maximize the chances that we can download our connectome [the synaptic wiring diagram of the cortex] to the cloud and create trillions of consciousnesses,” I think that’s not so rational.
Pinker’s worries are climate change and nuclear war. He is pro-nuclear now and pro-nuclear disarmament [one day]. In Rationality, he points out that the worst nuclear accident, Chernobyl, killed about as many people as die every day from coal emissions. Meanwhile, as recently as 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev jointly suggested disarmament. Geopolitics has changed, but countries could reduce the risks of nuclear war, for example by agreeing to “no first strike” policies.
“If we are complacent about climate change and the stability of nuclear weapons, terrible things could happen,” Pinker said. “Our only choice is to treat them as rationally as possible.” I leave him, thinking he’s more impartial and less reassuring than I imagined. I am also afraid that he will be late again.