Monday 18 November 2019

Steven Pinker and the case for optimism

As the rock star psychologist prepares to take to the Abbey stage, he tells Donal Lynch about his ideas - and the most painful moments of his life

Steven Pinker and his wife Rebecca Newberger
Steven Pinker and his wife Rebecca Newberger
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

'Things are better than they've ever been," Steven Pinker tells me, firmly, at the beginning of our conversation to promote his upcoming talk at the Abbey theatre in Dublin. "And to some people that is a radical statement."

Particularly so in an era of economic collapse, terrorism, Trump and Brexit, you might imagine. But across 400 pages of his recently released tome Enlightenment Now, the Canadian evolutionary psychologist and Harvard professor makes the persuasive case for optimism, and, he tells me, the advances of modern societies mean there has been no better time for a human to be alive.

"Newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflow with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world's knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket."

These were not inevitable developments, Pinker wants us to know, but the fruits of the methods and insights that were first popularised in the 18th Century, the period of The Enlightenment.

Of course, few of us pause to take stock of the extraordinary progress that humankind has made in the past couple of hundred years - a mere nanosecond in evolutionary terms. Instead we're more likely to bemoan the state of the world, deplore the capricious nature of humanity, fulminate at the political and financial elites and despair at the empty materialism of consumer society. We spend our lives consuming a steady diet of bad news, and the inevitable perception that everything was better once upon a time, is to be seen everywhere from Trump's "make America Great again" rhetoric, to Germany where Angela Merkel recently warned her countrymen and women of the dangers of Ostalgie (the nostalgic yearning for life under the Communist GDR regime).

For Pinker (64), that's a way of thinking that modern societies can no longer afford. He has been named by TIME as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, and his lectures are credited with helping millions demystify the science behind human language, thought, and action. A TED speaker, he has been twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

"Among other things," he says, "they are under threat from authoritarian populism, religious fundamentalism and radicalism of the left and right. The great successes the world has enjoyed over the past decades and centuries are taken for granted, because many of the ideas responsible for them have become part of the establishment and no one is willing to defend them," he explains. "So anything that is going right is not associated with any movement, any values, and that has left a vacuum that forces of extremism have rushed into."

But surely not everything has improved, I squeak? We read constantly that young people today may never own property and will likely be working into old age to repay debt. And what about the breakdown of family relationships in the modern Western world and what has been referred to by many writers and academics as 'an epidemic of loneliness'?

"Modern life is a trade off," he begins. "We can enjoy the ties of close-knit communities but we also prize the spectacular freedoms that come with modernity. Just 150 years ago, the universal complaint in art and fiction and life was how stifling norms of rural and aristocratic bourgeois society were.

"Most pointedly, women chafed terribly under these constraints, so we may have weaker ties to extended family, but women have the freedom to pursue a career and at the same time there are unprecedented opportunities for using technology like Skype. We must remember that years ago when someone left their family they might never speak to their relatives again." The fault of much of the mistrust of progress, of course, lies with journalism, he argues. Pinker has written that it's part of journalistic culture to equate "serious journalism" with "things that go wrong"; and that things that go right are considered fluffy, lightweight.

He's drawn attention to the toxic coverage of two-bit terrorists and school shooters. "There are movements within journalism that push back against the systematically pessimistic journalism we see in a lot of the mainstream. The Guardian now has a feature on constructive journalism. I think the people best placed to push back against pessimism are journalists themselves." The problem is that the 'good news' we are offered is stuff like, as Pinker puts it, "a puppy befriends an orang-utan". If this is the only positive messaging we receive then, he adds, "we really have reason to be depressed."

There is something of a journalistic flourish to Pinker's way of expressing himself and he is, of course, deeply experienced at making an ostensibly unpopular case in a way that garners attention. He has become part of a group of intellectuals who have gargantuan social media followings and whose fans joust passionately online and off.

Pinker has been crafting persuasive ripostes to doom-mongers for decades now, and doing so with a verbal flair - he's as liable to quote Woody Allen as Noam Chomsky - that has made some dub him a "rock star psychologist". His mane of silver curls, tightly clenched jaw and slightly Bono-esque enthusiasm for spreading good news augment this image of affable radicalness.

"In a former age there was a culture of celebrity around literary critics that is unimaginable now," explains the thinker who will be interviewed in the Abbey by Will Self. "It also used to be that there were only a small number of media outlets, whereas now there is a proliferation. Of course this is a mixed blessing as a lot of nonsense is spoken too. But I do sense there is a tremendous curiosity now about language and mind and cognition and there was a gap in the intellectual landscape where nobody was doing for linguistic and cognitive science what Richard Dawkins was doing for evolutionary biology."

Pinker grew up in Montreal, Quebec, in an era - the 1970s - untouched by talk radio and cable news shows. He was the eldest of three children in a middle-class Jewish family, in which his father was a lawyer and his mother a teacher. While he grew up in a household of "good-natured debate", he has said his parents were "overrated as shapers of (his) values" and that he was more greatly influenced by the culture of the era.

As a young man, he was taken with 1960s radicalism - but a riot in Montreal when he was in his teenage years, cured him of his anarchistic streak.

"Our competing predictions were put to the test one morning in 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike... A rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home." It was, he says, his first taste of how an academic theory could be empirically proven.

He graduated from college in Canada in 1973, during which year he also read a New York Times article about Chomsky, already a towering figure of American academia, which inspired him to move into the field of cognitive science. Pinker earned his Doctorate of Philosophy in experimental psychology at Harvard University in 1979, after which he became an assistant professor at Harvard and then Stanford University.

He married Nancy Etcoff in 1980 and they divorced in 1992; he married Ilavenil Subbiah in 1995 and they, too, split. He has said that the divorces "were definitely the most painful interludes in my life. I sought the advice of friends and the comfort of family. I continued to try to get fulfilment from work. Inevitably it made things easier in both cases that we had no children."

His current wife is novelist Rebecca Newberger (68), whom he first met over coffee in 2001, after she had sent him a postcard about his work. They had what he termed "a literary romance", and the sparks apparently flew over an irregular verb. She'd used the word "stridden" in one of her books and he quoted it in one of his. "It was very much a case of nerd meets nerd. Having someone who is an intellectual equal multiplies the fulfilment," he tells me.

He became a stepfather to Newberger's two adult daughters, Yael (40) and Danielle (33) and says that this was also a transformative experience in his life. He understood that adult children are very often a source of friction in relationships and he made a promise with himself at the start that he would never pressurise her into where she would allocate her affections. It seems to have worked wonderfully for them. "It was a tremendous gift for me. I, of course, skipped the difficult ages of infancy and adolescence, so in a way it was a little unfair that I just arrive to enjoy life with them when they were fully-formed adults."

Despite his mild-mannered bearing, Pinker has been embroiled in his share of controversy. He has garnered intense criticism for his views on women in the workplace, for instance.

In The Blank Slate, one of his most celebrated books, he wrote "Feminism as a movement for political and social equity is important, but feminism as an academic clique committed to eccentric doctrines about human nature is not. Eliminating discrimination against women is important, but believing that women and men are born with indistinguishable minds is not. Freedom of choice is important, but ensuring that women make up exactly 50pc of all professions is not."

Earlier this year The New York Times ran a piece entitled Social Media Is Making Us Dumber. Here's Exhibit A, accompanied by a picture of Pinker. It discussed a video clip which did the rounds late last year in which Pinker's quotes were wildly taken out of context by left and right wing commentators.

Of course The Times article concluded with the sentiment that even this storm would hardly dint Pinker's considerable reputation. "I feel lucky," he says. "When I was younger if you had told me I would have made a contribution to the field of cognitive science, that I would make professorship with tenure and that my work would be read by a wider audience (outside academia) I would have taken it. When I think of all of the different ways that life can go wrong, it would feel ungrateful for me to say I'm anything other than deeply happy."

Steven Pinker will give the 2018 TS Eliot Lecture at the Abbey Theatre on November 4. Tickets €13-€35 on sale now.

Full of sound and fury:  Three of the loudest pot-stirring intellectuals

Jordan Peterson

This Canadian academic is another Harvard professor who is highly adept at fomenting controversy. He moved back to Canada in 1998 to become a professor at the University of Toronto, where he enjoyed a respected but fairly conventional career until 2016.

His big break came when he posted a series of YouTube videos about how he'd refuse to use the preferred pronouns of some of his students and fellow faculty members. Those videos went viral, propelling Dr Peterson to internet stardom. Then his book bestrode the bestseller charts on either side of the Atlantic earlier this year - and his reputation was sealed by a combative Channel 4 interview in which he came off the clear winner.

Sam Harris

A high-profile US neuroscientist, author and philosopher, Harris is a co-founder of a science-based activist group called Project Reason and is a polarising figure on the American Left. He's a fierce critic of religion, but many people feel his attacks on Islam are disproportionately savage. In a TV discussion with him last year, actor Ben Affleck called his depictions of Islam "gross" and "racist". Harris says his approach to Islam is no different to the way he would approach fundamentalist Mormonism, as an example.

Noam Chomsky has denounced Harris as a "religious fanatic who worships the state", but it was generally felt that Harris fought Jordan Peterson to a draw in their recent debate in Vancouver.

Naomi Klein

Klein is a Canadian author, social activist, and filmmaker known for her political analyses and criticism of corporate globalization and of capitalism, particularly in her ground-breaking book No Logo. She recently said that Irish leaders "drank the Kool Aid in terms of attracting foreign investment with a deregulation frenzy".

Pinker has called her one of the "progessophobes" whose discomfort with the idea that everything is in fact getting better is in the essentially reactionary tradition of Romanticism, that is, the idea that human beings were much more truly themselves in the days before vaccination and air travel.

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