- The Good: Optimism backed with data! Maybe the world isn’t so terrible…
- The Bad: Could the data be cherry-picked? I have questions.
- The Literary: Give up on that Nietzsche. He’s bad news.
If you were given a choice to be born at any time in history, you should choose now. At least, that’s Steven Pinker’s argument in this optimistic picture of human progress. Seventy-five charts track historical data in fifteen chapters that feature health, wealth, safety, education, and equality, and the favorable trends are all thanks to the enlightenment values of reason, science, and humanism.
I love the data-oriented nature of Pinker’s thesis. It’s difficult to misrepresent the data in graphs, and together, with chapter after chapter of trends that favor progress, I feel really good about what humanity has managed to create, especially in the past century. The obvious subjects are covered, like dramatic reductions in war, poverty, and child death, but also quality-of-life increases, from indoor plumbing to the drastically lower time spent on laundry, and the fact that the world’s IQ is score is increasing about three points every decade.
People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? The media feeds us negative news stories every day, and we fixate on the tragedies and set-backs instead of the strides. We can’t help ourselves because we’re biologically drawn to stories that warn us of impending danger, so Pinker argues we must use the rational parts of our minds to counter this by observing the data. I love this argument, and I want to fully buy in to his optimism, but I have both nit-picky questions about specific graphs and larger existential worries that he glosses over.
With an entire world and centuries of history at his disposal, Pinker does his best to present simplified data, but that often leaves me questioning why the data focuses on the United States only, or only a handful of countries, or only the past fifteen years versus the century or more. Why is that metric measured over another? What is being left out? Just because the poverty rate in the United States has fallen to less than three percent, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still a lot of people who are very poor. And some existential threats are valid, especially those that have consequences past a point of no return. We may not observe the comet heading for earth in time. We can’t stop the one madmen who detonates an atomic bomb. We can’t predict what AI will do when it gains sentience. We can’t reverse global warming.
Every chapter is thoughtful and engaging, and I love that this book feeds conversation. The chapter about politics dividing our nation resonates strongly with me. Both political sides completely ignore science when it benefits their agenda and garners in-group devotion. But in the final chapters on reason, science, and humanism, Pinker spends more time denouncing oppositional movements than building supportive arguments for these enlightenment values, with little to no data, which feels cheap, even if I agree for the most part.
Recommended for everyone. This book is a great example of nonfiction popular science. Let’s look at some data.