Steven Pinker, one of the world's 100 most influential people, spreads his message of science-based hope in Bristol

March 29 2019
Despite all the gloom, the world is getting better in so many ways, says leading scientist

STEVEN Pinker has been called one of the 100 most influential people on Earth by Time magazine. He’s up there with Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan – so why haven’t more people heard of him?

Review: Prof Steven Pinker, Bristol Festival of Ideas, University of Bristol Wills Building

STEVEN Pinker has been called one of the 100 most influential people on Earth by Time magazine. He’s up there with Stephen Hawking or Carl Sagan – so why haven’t more people heard of him?

Perhaps because his message is so hard for many of us to accept: the world is getting better and better. More democratic, allowing people greater freedom, spreading wealth, education and better health across the planet – this is the tide of history, says this Harvard professor of cognitive psychology.

Huh? He’s not talking about us, half the nation will reply. We’ve got rising knife crime, more people living on the streets, our schools and health service are in crisis. And what about climate change and the threat of nuclear war – two uniquely modern hazards. Still think things are looking up, Prof?  

Well, yes, actually. Listen to the facts, he says. Over the centuries, almost every measurable index of human progress has been going up, and continues to improve.

Take murder – in the medieval period, about 35 people in every 100,000 would be murdered every year. In the days before there were states or any kind of justice, it was about 500 per 100,000. In Europe today, the risk of homicide is just one per 100,000.

Rape and domestic violence also show sharp declines since we started measuring them.

(Pinker might have pointed out that the UK may now be in the midst of a frightening knife crime epidemic, but the murder rate in London is half what it was in 1990.)

What about the famines we still see on TV? There are far, far fewer than before, says Pinker. In 1970, a third of people in less developed nations were undernourished. Now it’s 15 per cent, less than half that.

Take life expectancy. In the 1770s, the average person worldwide died at about 30. Now it’s 71 – and that includes the poorer parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

What’s brought these changes? For Pinker, it’s the values that blossomed in the Enlightenment from the 17th C on. Freedom, democracy, the value of education, and the increasing kindness we show each other and our children as we become wealthier, better fed, and better able to enjoy our lives.

These facts – based on hundreds of studies, and don’t accuse this Harvard professor of merely voicing his opinions – are rattled off to the backdrop of a rapid slide show, with graphs and bullet points aplenty. Yet Pinker’s mild tone and West Coast aging-rock-star perm soften the onslaught.

Nothing, not even climate change, daunts him. Yes, this is a crisis: we have to reduce carbon emissions to zero. But the stats show that as societies get richer, they clean up their factories and power plants, and this trend is already clear in China. The rate of deforestation is declining. No, it’s not enough, and the anti-fact brigade such as Donald Trump do not help. But for Pinker, progress is always possible, and that’s because he’s looked at how much we have seen throughout history.

Why don’t we all know this story? Because news is about the unusual. If journalists had different priorities, we might be hearing how, yesterday, 137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty. The same thing happened the day before, and every day for the last 30 years. That’s how much prosperity is spreading.

Only once did Pinker lose the sympathy of his audience in the university’s packed Great Hall. He was asked by a member of the audience if we shouldn’t hold ourselves to higher standards of equality. People were shocked to hear Pinker answer: “Inequality is not an issue. Poverty is an issue. How rich the rich are is irrelevant.”

To many Brits, this sounds like a right-wing political point from a wealthy US academic. Pinker sees it as backed by evidence. This one point aside, Pinker’s arguments are overwhelming. Why aren’t we listening?

      Paul Breeden