Beyond Doomscrolling

There’s no question that 2020 has been a tough year. We’re grappling with a global pandemic. A deep recession. Fresh reminders of racial injustice. But today — without minimizing the justifiable pain that 2020 has brought to so many people — we wanted to explore another way of seeing things. We talk with psychologist Steven Pinker about why it’s so hard to see things that are going well in the world.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. When historians write the narrative of life in 2020, they're going to have a lot of ground to cover. One of the topics that might be easy to overlook is doomscrolling.

Speaker 2: Another four million Americans filed for unemployment benefits. Florida recorded record high numbers of Coronavirus cases today.

Speaker 3: Trump supporters clashed with Black Lives Matter protesters at the Washington Monument.

Speaker 4: A case of bubonic [crosstalk 00:00:32]

Shankar Vedantam: Whether or not you've used the term, you've probably engaged in doomscrolling over the last few months. It's the uncontrollable urge to consume terrible story after terrible story.

Speaker 3: [crosstalk 00:00:44] Increasingly urgent questions emerge about how schools will safely open in the fall.

Speaker 4: Swine flu maybe the next pandemic we face.

Shankar Vedantam: This stream of bad news flows ceaselessly through our social media feeds at every hour of the day.

Speaker 4: Nearly seven million households confess addiction [crosstalk 00:00:58]

Speaker 3: Opioid overdoses are on the rise as coronavirus [crosstalk 00:01:00]

Speaker 4: Statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass [crosstalk 00:01:01]

Speaker 3: Statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass ripped from its base at a local park.

Shankar Vedantam: So many of us are unable to turn away from the avalanche of bad news, and it's easy to understand why we are drawn to doomscrolling. We're trying desperately to make sense of a year that has been disruptive and devastating in so many different ways. There are many terrible and difficult problems we face today, and they deserve our attention. But sometimes, we can get so consumed by what is going wrong that it can keep us from seeing what is going right. This has powerful implications. When we can see only one part of the world, we can't imagine our way to new possibilities and insights.

Steven Pinker: If a country is at peace, if there is not a famine, there's no headline. But those are significant events if they apply to more and more regions of the world. The only way to know that that's happening is by looking at data.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, we continue our series exploring counterintuitive and provocative ideas about the state of the world in 2020. Today, why it's so hard to see things that are going well, and how this oversight has profound consequences.

Shankar Vedantam: Steven Pinker is a psychologist at Harvard University. He argues that we tend to overlook the astonishing progress that humanity has made, particularly in our own lifetimes. He is the author of several books, including Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. When I spoke to him recently, I began by asking whether the grim picture painted by many journalists, policy experts and politicians is an accurate view of the world.

Steven Pinker: Well, it's a highly non-random sample of the worst things that have happened in an interval of time. Whenever you do that, since there are bad things that happen somewhere on Earth on any day, it will give you a distorted picture if you interpret that sample as representative. But it rarely is, particularly in the news. The bad news captures our attention. For that matter, any news, anything that unfolds quickly is more likely to be bad than good, because it's easy for something to go wrong very quickly. For something to go right, it tends to creep up a few percentage points a year and perhaps compound. But there's rarely a Thursday in October in which something excellent happens.

Shankar Vedantam: When you say the picture is distorted, I don't think you mean to say that it's wrong at a factual level. There have been school shootings, there are economic setbacks, there is crime. Your point is not that these events didn't happen, but that our focus on them is somehow skewed.

Steven Pinker: Precisely, it is a report of all the worst things that happen on any given day. That's almost what the news is. Now, of course, it's vital that we know about bad things when they happen, but we have to take into account that that's what our news feed gives us, and it is not a representative picture of the world as a whole. A lot of things that go right consists of nothing happening. If a country is at peace, if a city has not had a school shooting, if there is not a famine, there's no headline. But those are significant events if they apply to more and more regions of the world.

Steven Pinker: The only way to know that that's happening is by looking at data, at graphs that count the number of wars, the number of people who starve, the number of people who are poor, the number of people who are sick, as a proportion of the number of people on earth or a number of people in the country, and that's the way you can tell whether the world is changing. As long as bad things haven't gone to zero, which they never will, then the news will always present a biased sample of the state of the world. You're absolutely right, not because they are dishonest, or because it's fake news, it's real news, but it's just not a representative sample.

Shankar Vedantam: Let's look at what that representative sample might look like, and let's look at three basic measures that you discuss in the book: health, wealth, and happiness. Let's start with health and longevity. Researchers have asked people to guess, and this is after taking into account deaths from infant mortality and pandemics and hunger and war, what average life expectancy is around the world? What do people say when they're asked that question, Steve?

Steven Pinker: When they try to imagine an average across the entire planet, including all of the poorest countries, they tend to make guesses in the 50s, mentally compensating for the elderly people in our society and their image of people dying young in other societies. The answer worldwide is more than 71, and the average for developed countries is in the low 80s.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, this is not just about reducing infant mortality, although that's obviously a big part of it. Your odds of living longer are higher today than they were in the past at almost every age. Is that correct?

Steven Pinker: Yes, because one could object that maybe all we're doing is we're rescuing neonates from infant mortality. A cynic might say, "Well, we're not really living longer, we're just saving more babies," which is a good thing, but it's not the same as living longer. In reality, though, we are living longer. That is if you look at how many years you have left to live, if you've made it to 40, if you've made it to 50, if you've made it to 70, all of those have shown an increase. Yes, someone who is 70 today has more years of life ahead of them than someone who was 70, say 50 years ago or 100 years ago.

Shankar Vedantam: We're going to talk a little later in the conversation about differences between groups and nations, and about the issue of inequality. But is it true that the benefits of health and longevity are exclusive to rich countries and to rich people?

Steven Pinker: Yes, just about everything that's good in life, there's more of in wealthy countries than in poor countries. But poor countries have seen huge increases in life expectancy, above and beyond their increases in wealth. Even though gold-plated medical care can extend the life of a 75-year-old, but basic measures like sanitation, clean water, mosquito control can really stretch the lifespans in poor countries.

Shankar Vedantam: What about the question of wealth itself? How does global wealth compare with the past, and how does it compare in rich countries and poor countries?

Steven Pinker: The world is vastly wealthier than it was. Gross world product is probably maybe 200 times what it was in the early 1700s, and extreme poverty, which might be our best measure because it measures the most human suffering, has shown a spectacular decline. Two hundred years ago, perhaps 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty by today's standards, doing as best we can, of course, to equate living conditions then and now. Now it's less than 9%, and in fact, in the last 30 years, there's been a 75% reduction in the proportion of people in the world who live in extreme poverty. This is a massive accomplishment of our species, and one that very few people are aware of.

Shankar Vedantam: When we look at this contrast between the past, as you point out, there have been really dramatic differences in health, in wealth, in longevity. What explains the fact that if I was to read the New York Times front page for the last 100 years, the picture that I would draw from reading the front page of the New York Times is not a picture of progress or achievement or change, but it would be a picture that says bad things have happened, today is probably worse than yesterday, bad things are going to happen in the future as well?

Steven Pinker: It is an irony, and of course, we're not picking on the New York Times. It's just the most famous newspaper and the one that data scientists have analyzed in the greatest depth. But it is true that the emotional tone of stories in the New York Times, and for that matter, press outlets worldwide, has declined over the last 75 years, just as measures of human wellbeing like peace and nutrition and health and longevity have improved. What explains the decline? Part of it is that the journalism has become more efficient and conscientious at reporting events on the other side of the world, so that if there was hunger in Africa in the 1950s, I don't think a whole lot of people really cared.

Steven Pinker: It's a good thing that our circle of sympathy has expanded so that we do consider a human catastrophe elsewhere in the world as worthy of our concern. There's also a change in attitude and mindset. In the early 60s, there was a peak in trust in institutions in governments, in churches, in science, in the press, in international organizations. And people, I think, joined in a sense of collective accomplishment of having improved the world. Since the early 1960s, trust in every institution has fallen, and people assume the stance of social critics and are eager to point to crises, catastrophes, failures, corruption, and so on. The stance of a sophisticated person is to cry what isn't working rather than to celebrate what is working.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologists talk about something called the availability bias. What is this bias, and how is it germane to our conversation about the new, Steve?

Steven Pinker: What we do is we trawl memory for examples, and the more quickly examples come to mind, that is the more available they are to memory, the more frequent we judge an event to be. If we've just read about a shark attack, then we don't go into the water. If there's been a hijacking, we stay out of planes, even though statistically car travel is much more dangerous. We take foolish risks like using our smartphone while driving because there's rarely a headline reporting a gory crash that kills hundreds of people because some idiot drives while texting. Our sense of danger and risk is driven by the images, the anecdotes. That's exactly what of course the news feeds us. In many cases, our sense of danger is out of whack with reality.

Shankar Vedantam: It's striking, of course, that so much of your book is about numbers and statistics because this is, of course, how you can compare the present and the past. But I wonder if this is one of the reasons we fail to see how far we've come. When we look at the challenges we see in the present, school shootings or pandemics or recessions, we hear those stories through the eyes of living, breathing people. We see the faces of people, we hear their names, and these are people who we feel a connection with. They're emotionally compelling. When you make a case of how the present is much better than the past, you're making that case with statistics, and statistics, sadly, are just not as emotionally compelling as people.

Steven Pinker: That is true. They ought to be. Statistics have the great moral value of treating every life as equally valuable, that is, it's not just the people who live in the next block, it's not just people who look like you or speak your language, but all human lives are treated equally. It takes into account all of the happy fulfilled lives that we never hear about precisely because nothing goes wrong. The people who bring up their kids, the kids get an education, they have children in their turn, they're not poor, and there are a lot of those.

Steven Pinker: Since that's what we want people to achieve, we should know how many of them there are so we can ensure that there are more of them. Paradoxically, the way our attention and empathy are captured by human stories makes us vulnerable to bad actors who can game the system. That's what school shootings consist of. These are people who are desperate for fame or notoriety. They're nobodies who want to become somebodies. They know that they can do it, that a guaranteed route to fame is to kill a lot of innocent people in a short period of time, especially people who we can imagine being ourselves.

Steven Pinker: It's also the trick behind terrorism, which kills very few people, but terrorists, too, know how to game the press by calling attention to their cause, by killing a relatively small number of innocent people, but doing so in a public place where we can easily imagine ourselves or our loved ones. Paradoxically, the fact that our emotions are captured by familiar faces, by people like us, by people we can imagine knowing, leaves us open to manipulation.

Shankar Vedantam: Steve points out that when good things happen, they tend to unfold slowly. When bad things happen, they tend to occur suddenly. The news focuses on sudden change, not things that happen routinely, even if those routine changes are a very big deal. When 137,000 people are pulled out of extreme poverty on a daily basis, as has happened on average every day for the last 25 years, it isn't news. Now, as you listen to that statistic, you might be saying, "Hang on. What about the people still in poverty? What about the kids dying in school shootings? What about the gap in infant mortality between black people and white people in the United States?"

Shankar Vedantam: Steve's point is not that you are wrong to be skeptical of claims of progress, but that knee-jerk skepticism has now become so automatic for lots of us that we don't even stop to realize that we are doing it. Another psychological bias at play has to do with our view of the past. We don't realize how much better things are today because we don't realize how bad things were in the past. Why? The accounts we have of the past mostly reflect the worldviews and perceptions of the most privileged members of those societies.

Shankar Vedantam: When we compare our present with the past, we have a skewed sample that makes the past seem more pleasant than it was for most people. Imagine if people from the future could only hear stories of today that were written by the 1%. Even if their lives were much better than most people today, they might say, "Okay, clearly, not very much has changed."

Steven Pinker: It's said that history is written by the victors, but history is also written by those with money and leisure and literacy. Now, more and more people today do have money and leisure and literacy, but in the past those were perquisites of very small elite, and the lifestyles of the rich and famous several 100 years ago we're apt to mistake for the lifestyles of people in general.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, our failure to see how much things have changed from the past is only one aspect of our blindness. We also fail to see how much things can change in the future.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the 1st century BC, a volcano erupted with terrible force. The explosion was so massive it affected the ebb and flow of the Nile River.

Speaker 6: Causing catastrophic failures of the life-giving Nile flood and years of famine.

Shankar Vedantam: Thousands of people died.

Speaker 6: [inaudible 00:17:30] Cleopatra [crosstalk 00:17:31]

Shankar Vedantam: Centuries later, a crop failure in Ireland led to what is now known as the Irish Potato Famine.

Speaker 7: There had been potato failures before 1845 crop failures, but mostly they were for one year. What made the famine unique really was the fact that the potato fell again and again and again, so it was the longevity of [crosstalk 00:17:52]

Shankar Vedantam: In the mid-20th century, famines, some caused by human forces, others not, led to millions of deaths around the globe. For as long as humans have been on the planet, starvation has been with us. It was so common that for many centuries societies believed it was inevitable. Imagining a world that could feed itself felt hopeless. Then in the early 1940s, an Iowa farm boy took the first step to conquering world hunger. His name was Norman Borlaug. (singing) For people who work in agriculture, Norman Borlaug is a rock star. He even has his own rap performed by the 11-year-old son of a plant scientist. (singing)

Shankar Vedantam: The research that would make him famous began in 1944. He was invited to go to Mexico to figure out what to do about the country's failing wheat crops. The wheat was shriveling in the dry, depleted soil, producing tiny amounts of grain and dying from disease. The Mexican people were not getting enough to eat. "I don't know what we can do to help these people," he wrote to his wife, "But we've got to do something." Norman Borlaug was an accomplished plant geneticist with the instincts of a farmer, and so he knew what was wrong with the wheat in Mexico. It was the same thing that challenged farmers everywhere.

Steven Pinker: Basically, nature did not design food crops for our benefit.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologist Steven Pinker.

Steven Pinker: Natural selection favors organisms, including plants that reproduce, and feeding us just isn't their problem. Borlaug took evolution into his own hands by selective breeding.

Shankar Vedantam: In the early days, Borlaug did the work himself. Hunched over in the hot Mexican sun, he used delicate tweezers to pluck tiny pollen-producing stamens off of wheat blossoms. He wanted to keep them from reproducing. Then he fertilized the wheat blossoms with the pollen of a new variety. It produced a novel combination. Of the thousands of strains of wheat he crossed over the next 10 years, only a few resulted in anything usable. Eventually, he found something that worked, a blend of a high-yield strain of wheat and a shorter hardier variety from Japan that was known as a dwarf plant. It was a mishmash that nature would never have created on its own.

Steven Pinker: If you've got a kind of a deus ex machina, a god who's directing evolution, in this case, the god being Borlaug, he could select for the plants that had dwarf stocks and higher yields and needed less water and could be harvested twice during a season.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, of course, we have techniques to do this today that would probably expedite the process to a matter of potentially months or even weeks, but Borlaug didn't. He describes the work as mind-warpingly tedious. Do you have a sense of how difficult that was for him working in Mexico?

Steven Pinker: You grow a lot of wheat, you look over the hundreds of plants in hopes that one mutant will have the same yield in grain but be shorter or need less water or mature earlier. You harvest the seeds, you plant those seeds, hoping that one of those mutations will be still more beneficial from the point of view of the farmer. Repeat generation after generation after generation.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow. These discoveries eventually led to what is sometimes called the Green Revolution, and accounts vary in terms of what the impact of the Green Revolution was. But some people think that through his discoveries, Norman Borlaug may have saved a billion lives. Now, it's possible that this is an exaggeration, but there's no question the number was at least in the tens of millions. That is simply an unfathomably large number.

Steven Pinker: It truly is. He did win the Nobel Peace Prize in, I believe, 1970 for this discovery. He didn't end a war, he didn't sign a treaty, but he did enormously benefit humankind.

Shankar Vedantam: So we're not only feeding more people than we had ever had on the planet, but you point out we're feeding them without turning the entire planet into agricultural land. In other words, we become much more efficient in how we are using farmland compared to 200 years ago.

Steven Pinker: Indeed. Something that is not sufficiently appreciated within the environmental movement is how beneficial it is for nature, if we make human activities denser. That is, if we grow more food on less land, that's more land that can return to natural state, to forests, and of course that has been happening in North America and Europe, where abandoned farmland is being reclaimed by forest. More importantly, it could lead to less forests being cut down in the first place. That is starting to happen in tropical regions, but not nearly as quickly as it should. The peak of deforestation has passed, but there's still an alarming amount of deforestation, and there'll be much less if we didn't need that land to graze cattle and grow crops.

Shankar Vedantam: With the abundance has come affordability. As you say in the US in 1901, an hour's wages could buy three quarts of milk. A century later, the same wages could buy 16 quarts. Food has become much more affordable to many more people because of these discoveries.

Steven Pinker: Indeed, and there are things that we forget, like the campaign slogan, a chicken in every pot. Fortunately, at least in developed countries, poor people can afford chicken and they can afford eggs. Most, anyway. Not all, tragically, but more and more. The Depression era song, One Meat Ball, it told the story of a person who was begging a restaurant to give him one meatball together with his bread. (singing) Now, of course, we have the opposite problem, obesity. Now, obesity is a terrible problem. It is dragging down the increase in longevity that we would otherwise enjoy. But faced with a choice between two problems, starvation or obesity, obesity is a better problem to have. Still a tough one.

Shankar Vedantam: You mentioned a thought experiment that was offered by the former President Barack Obama. If you remember that experiment, tell us what the thought experiment was, and what we can draw from it.

Steven Pinker: Obama said if you had to pick a moment to be born and you didn't know who you would be or where you would be, you would pick now. That is you didn't know whether you'd be black or white, male or female, African or European, then your odds of living a long, healthy and fulfilling life would be greatest now. Obama was wisely asking us to assess how far we've come.

Shankar Vedantam: It's interesting, I mean, if interesting is the word I'm looking for, that millions of people may have directly benefited from Norman Borlaug and his discoveries, and of course, their descendants, who also probably are many millions of people. But of all these people, very few have probably even heard of his name, let alone think that they owe their lives to him. It's an interesting irony, isn't it? That you have these people who have these discoveries that impact so many people, but far from being household names, they've almost been forgotten.

Steven Pinker: Indeed. There's a genre that was popular when I was a child, the heroic biography of the scientist or inventor, that I don't know if it's fallen by the wayside. I don't have a child of the right age, but the sanctification of people like Louis Pasteur, or Banting, who discovered insulin, Jenner who discovered vaccination, there was an appreciation that these were true heroes. Virginia Apgar who devised the scale of infant well-being that allows pediatricians to identify infants at risk. Gertrude Elion who pioneered rational drug design. There are people who, unlike many of our political heroes, deserve credit for saving tens, hundreds of millions of lives, but they are unknown. Or at least unknown outside a circle of historians of science.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering again if this is part of how our minds work. Is it possible our evolutionary history has taught us to think of generosity and compassion as acts of direct interpersonal helpfulness? We don't think about a faceless scientist who's working in some faraway lab as the pinnacle of compassion, even if that person ends up saving many millions of lives.

Steven Pinker: There is some of that, that we do have a hero narrative as someone who defeats evil, an evil enemy. But that's who we tend to lionize and canonize. Although there are also historical and cultural changes.

Speaker 8:

1955, a year of anxiety and triumph. [crosstalk 00:27:50]

Steven Pinker: For example, in the 1950s, when polio struck terror into the hearts of every parent who were afraid that their child might be paralyzed if they go out and swim in a public pool on a hot summer day.

Speaker 8: Leading drug firms shifted into high gear to meet a national demand, which spread to every crossroads despite early controversy.

Steven Pinker: When Jonas Salk announced that his polio vaccine was safe and effective, he did become a national hero. He was offered a ticker tape parade through Manhattan. Church bells and factory whistles sounded, people took the day off, strangers hugged each other. He really was universally beloved. It's less likely to happen now. I mean, we do it with athletes, we do it with politicians within our own faction, with Hollywood celebrities and musical stars. Not so much with scientists and medical pioneers.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you think that might change with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic? I mean, I'm thinking about all the scenes we've seen from around the world, of people cheering for doctors and healthcare workers. Now, admittedly, it's not necessarily cheering for scientists per se. But it's basically acknowledging something that we should have acknowledged all along, which is that they're people who are saving our lives but not doing it in a very public fashion. They're working behind the scenes, largely.

Steven Pinker: Indeed, and I think if it so happened that one lone genius came up with a vaccine or an antiviral, it may well be that she or he would be a secular saint. Anthony Fauci almost approached that role until, because of our rampant politicization and polarization, he became something of a villain to certain factions of the political right, although I think he still enjoys tremendous popularity nationwide. The problem, of course, is that it's less and less common that scientific discoveries are made by a lone genius.

Steven Pinker: Nowadays, and even in the past, but especially nowadays, they tend to be accomplished by teams of collaborators by people standing on the shoulders of giants who came before them. Even in the best of times, the Pasteur or the Banting was an exception, and probably does not exist today. Now, of course, we know from the scientific literature that often a paper will have 100 authors, and that's just one, it can be just one paper.

Shankar Vedantam: Steven Pinker's arguments can be particularly hard to embrace in 2020 when the world feels like it's on fire for lots of different reasons. To some people, his claims may feel out of touch at best, and like gaslighting at worst. When we come back, we get his response to those criticisms, and look at why people on both the political left and the right have found fault with his worldview.

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologist Steve Pinker argues that we tend to focus on what is wrong with the world while paying little attention to the way things have been transformed for the better.

Shankar Vedantam: Our blindness runs in two directions, we fail to see the contrast between the present and the past, and we fail to see how much the present can be transformed in the future. Steve, if I'm a poor person in a rural area of the United States, if my kids have bad schools, if my home has contaminated running water, if the economy in my area is shot, I think it's small comfort for me to know that things were worse for people a century ago. Someone that might listen to your account might say your optimism sounds clueless, or even worse, that it sounds cruel. How would you respond to this?

Steven Pinker: It's a circular argument, saying let's look at the people who are worst off, and oh my goodness, they are not very well off. Well, yes, that's why you ask them. Until we achieve a utopia, which we never will, there always will be suffering. We ought to minimize it, we ought to strive for the least amount of human suffering worldwide, but to focus on the remaining suffering and ignoring the reduction in suffering is doing no favor to the people who still are suffering because it can lull us into fatalism.

Steven Pinker: The poor will always be with you. It's fate. It's God's way. It's the natural state of affairs. Whereas if you know that poverty and hunger and illiteracy and war are not necessary parts of the human condition, they can be reduced, that emboldens you to reduce them further, to drive the numbers down as low as possible. Imagine some cure for some horrible disease, let's say, that a terrible killer like pancreatic cancer was subject to a cure that saved 99% of the people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Steven Pinker: If you were to say, "Well, yes, but for that one person who still has the fatal disease, it's not much comfort," well, that's true. But it's on the other hand, you've picked that person because they are the rare exception, and if you ignore the 99 out of 100 whose lives have been saved, then you're not going to be well equipped to save the remaining one, or to encourage the kinds of activity that have driven suffering so much lower.

Shankar Vedantam: You talk in the book about the difference between progress and utopia, and the idea that progress often produces new problems of its own, and those problems now have to be solved. It's sort of a never ending cycle. But spend a moment just talking about this contrast between the idea of progress and the idea of utopia, and how in some ways it colors the way we think about our lives.

Steven Pinker: One of the surprises that I have encountered in simply digging for data on how life has changed is that when there is an improvement, people have trouble wrapping their minds around it. They imagine that if there's improvement, that means there must be perfection, and if there's still violence, if there's still poverty, that means nothing has changed. It may be a symptom of a tendency of the mind to conceive of things in black and white rather than in shades of gray. Of course, most of us live in the gray zones.

Steven Pinker: If we were neither fantastically rich in the past or grindingly poor in the present, we're among those whose lives have improved. So it really is important to think in numbers and statistics and shades of gray. To the extent that progress has taken place, it is only because we have deployed human ingenuity with the goal of making our lives better. To the extent that we do that, we can every once in a while succeed if we keep the tricks that have worked and if we vow never to try again the things that fail, then we can eke out progress, a bit at a time.

Steven Pinker: That's how progress happens. It's the only way that progress happens, and it's not guaranteed to happen. Our natural state is ignorance and the universe doesn't go out of its way to explain itself to us. As we've mentioned before, solutions themselves create new problems which have to be solved in their turn. It doesn't mean that we simply substitute one problem for another. Obesity really is a better problem to have than mass starvation and famine. But it does mean that our work is never done.

Steven Pinker: Likewise, the Green Revolution did have side effects in terms of pollutants from runoff from synthetic fertilizers, displacement of traditional modes of agriculture, but still given that a billion lives were saved, those are prices temporarily worth accepting, but they don't have to be with us forever. We can now set as the next problem to be solved more sustainable methods of feeding the world, less pollution, less environmental degradation.

Shankar Vedantam: We've been talking about why, for Steven Pinker, our current era is the greatest time in all of human history to be alive. He says that the world as a whole has gotten better over the past several hundred years, that we are more literate, more healthy, less hungry, and less violent than ever before. Thanks to institutions like the United Nations, slavery and human trafficking are largely banned, if not yet eradicated.

Shankar Vedantam: Steven argues that the source of such progress can be traced to a change in thinking about 250 years ago, the era of the Enlightenment. It was a time in Europe when science, logic, and reason replaced faith, dogma and folklore as a proper way to find the truth. Gut feelings and assumptions, like the idea that the Earth was at the center of the universe, were scrutinized and discarded. We entered an era of health, scientific discoveries and human flourishing.

Shankar Vedantam: What's not to like, right? But Steven says these values hide an array of ideas that cut to the core of basic disagreements we find in America today. In fact, whether we realize it or not, he says that Westerners have been arguing over the legacy of the Enlightenment for the past 250 years, and the critiques come from both the left and the right.

Steven Pinker: Well, from the right, there is a long-standing counter enlightenment current, a secular worldview that there are forces of nature, that the brain is itself an evolutionary adaptation goes against the traditional view, in which morality is rooted in religion and the institutions of church in societal customs. The idea that we're on our own, we are our bodies and brains, it's up to us to figure out how to make our lives better, is really a different way of thinking of the human condition.

Steven Pinker: More concretely, the fact that I argue that many of the improvements have come about through institutions that the contemporary American Right detests, like government, like international institutions such as the United Nations, programs of social spending, environmental regulation, I admit that I myself was skeptical of a number of these things until I looked at the graphs and showed that a lot of them work, not perfectly, not all the time.

Steven Pinker: But thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, the air really has gotten cleaner and the water, and we have not suffered a depression as a result. We've gotten richer, we drive more miles. So regulation actually worked. The Right has a problem with the fact that human institutions derived from secular enlightenment principles seem to have been working. The Left has a problem with also the idea that there's anything worth saving in our institutions, particularly the market.

Steven Pinker: That even though the failures of completely planned economies and communist systems are dramatically obvious to anyone who studies history, there's still a certain romanticism for socialism and a hatred of markets. Markets being another brainchild of the Enlightenment, including the idea that commerce is a pacifying force, a civilizing force. If you're doing business with someone, you don't want to kill your customers, you don't want to kill your debtors. If it's cheaper to buy something than to steal it, you're going to be less tempted by plunder.

Steven Pinker: These were ideas that were widely circulated during the Enlightenment, but they often don't sit well with people on the Left today, probably because people both on the hard Left and the hardened libertarian Right, imagine that there's such a thing as unbridled unfettered capitalism, just free market without any social spending, without any regulation, a kind of anarchical capitalism, and that is often considered the ideal of the hard libertarian Right and the boogeyman of the hard socialist Left. One of the things I discovered is it just doesn't exist. Not even in the United States, which is one of the more libertarian countries. But every rich country, all of them, have extensive social safety nets and extensive networks of regulation. But both sides reject that reality.

Shankar Vedantam: You offer an interesting psychological insight. I think this is from a financial writer who said that pessimists sound like they're trying to help you, optimists sound like they're trying to sell you something. [crosstalk 00:41:04] When someone comes to me with a positive story, I call it a feel-good story, implying that it's somehow not real, it's just designed to make me feel better. When someone comes to me with a grim story, I don't call it a feel-bad story, I just call it reality.

Steven Pinker: Exactly. I often have to remind people that I'm ... Including fans. Oh, it's so nice that you're an optimist, to hear the optimist side of the story. It's really not about optimism, and you don't want optimism in the sense of a rosier picture than what reality is. You want accuracy and you want to know what has worked so that we can do more of it. You want to know what hasn't worked so that we won't repeat our blunders. You want to know where the problems are so we can try to solve them. I don't know if that's optimism, but that is an attitude that has paid off in the past, suggesting that there really isn't such a thing as fate, that we really can improve our lots.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm reminded from, as I was reading your book, of something that occurred to me. Many years ago, I was a journalist at The Washington Post in the days after the 9/11 attacks. You probably remember this. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, people put the death toll at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon close to 50,000 lives. Over the following weeks and months, the death toll started to fall, eventually settling just under 3,000 people. But in that intervening period when the death toll was initially presumed to be 50,000 and it started to fall, newsrooms like The Washington Post had real difficulty telling people that the death toll was falling.

Shankar Vedantam: I think the reason it was difficult was that people would have to write a story that used the word only. So you'd have to say, "It wasn't 50,000. It was only 45,000." Or, "It wasn't 45,000, it was only 40,000." To use the word only in a story about a tragedy like this felt disrespectful. It got to the point where journalists covering the story knew that the death toll was falling, but you didn't actually read that story in the news because people felt like if they did it, they would be disrespectful to the people who had died and to the tragedy that had just unfolded.

Shankar Vedantam: I remember writing a story eventually about the psychology of why it was hard to write about good news.I remember the national editor of The Washington Post coming up to me and saying, "I'm really glad you wrote the story, because writing a story about the psychology of why we couldn't write the story was the only way we could actually write the story about the falling death toll.

Steven Pinker: That's fascinating. Indeed, you have put your finger on a force that militates against accuracy in reporting, which is that if you've got skin in the game, good news can be bad news and vice versa. I have to be careful because another complication for this kind of message, I certainly don't want to be joining in the chorus of people who attack the mainstream media, the MSM, because for all of the distortions that are built into the very nature of journalism, it is the mainstream media who are far more likely to correct their own errors, to set up objectivity as a value in itself than a lot of the alternatives, the blogosphere and the Twittersphere and political parties.

Steven Pinker: I'm mindful that pointing out some of the inherent biases in the very nature of journalism is not yet another reason to be cynical about the journalists who are working very hard to present the most accurate picture they can. Just that it is, in fact, to the credit of journalists, that they themselves are mindful of the ways in which news can distort our understanding of the world. I consider it to be a friendly message, an amicus brief, so to speak.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering how an ongoing global pandemic changes your view of things. I mean, your book really, you're saying it's not sort of an optimistic view of the world, but it's certainly it's a positive view of saying there's a lot that has changed for the better, pay attention to it, acknowledge it, be grateful to it. Can you still maintain that attitude in the face of a terrible global pandemic that is costing tens of thousands of lives and many, many, many billions of dollars and lost revenues and unemployment and suffering all around the world?

Steven Pinker: Documenting the facts of human progress is not the same as saying bad things can never happen again. Quite the contrary. Progress is always a somewhat Sisyphean battle against the forces of nature that grind is down, including infectious disease. We are just in the nature of life that natural selection is a competitive process. Our bodies are, from the point of view of a germ, big yummy mounds of chocolate cake. They're there for the eating. In fact, from a virus's point of view, our bodies are bakeries.

Steven Pinker: They have all the machinery necessary to make more. We are sitting ducks to disease organisms. All organisms are sitting ducks. Even bacteria are infected by viruses. It's part of the nature of life, and it will always be a challenge. There will always be setbacks. Certainly, we were left flat-footed. We were not sufficiently prepared. One hopes that we treat the root shock of the COVID pandemic of 2020 the way earlier generations treated massive fires. They set up fire departments, and there was preparedness in terms of sprinkler systems and alarms and exit doors and lighted signs and fire departments.

Steven Pinker: Even if they sat around idle most of the time, the potential was so catastrophic that it was worth maintaining that constant level of preparedness. That's really what we ought to do with the threat of pandemics. They can always happen. We did not anticipate them, we being most of the world, and there ought to be agitation and pressure to not let it get as far as it did in the future.

Shankar Vedantam: Isn't it psychologically interesting, Steve, that giving people what journalists would call an honest account of the world, that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, which is what you feel like when you're reading the news every day, unintentionally produces feelings of despair? Whereas, actually reminding people of the things that have changed in their life for the better gives people a sense of saying, "If this has happened over the last 200 years, well, maybe even more can happen over the next 200."

Steven Pinker: Indeed, and it shouldn't only be over the last 200 years because a lot of these changes are changes over the last 30 or 40 years within the memories of older adults. We're not just talking about the history books, we're not talking about accomplishments that only our great grandchildren will appreciate in retrospect. We are talking about changes that we can enjoy in our lifetimes and the lifetimes for our children.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you worry that the message of your book might produce complacency in the sense of saying someone says, "Well, the truth is we've actually solved 90% of the problem when it comes to things like famine, and we should spend more time patting ourselves on the back rather than looking to solve the other 10% of the problem?"

Steven Pinker: I haven't seen that. Looking at the people who are sometimes lumped with me as the new optimists, they're often the ones who are at the front lines of dealing with the problems that remain. These are the people like Bill Gates and other active philanthropists, economists determined to eliminate extreme poverty to satisfy the Sustainable Development Goals, dreamers and activists and optimists. They're the ones who are most aware of the progress that we have made, and it's often the people who falsely believe that things have gotten worse and worse who tend to be the nihilists, the bomb throwers, the lovers of chaos, the cynics, the ones who just want to blow up the system. Yeah, I don't think that it's a problem. I have not seen anyone say, "Well, our work is done. Everyone's rich, everyone's happy, everyone's healthy."

Shankar Vedantam: Psychologist Steven Pinker is the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Steve, thanks for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Steven Pinker: It's been a pleasure and an honor. Thanks for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Special thanks this week to Thomas Lu. Voice-overs by Diba Mohtasham, Jared M. Gair, and Christina Cala.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung heroes this week are two men of science, Doctors Amos Willis and Barry Mandell. A few weeks ago, I found myself several hours away from my home in Washington, D.C.. I was traveling in North Carolina, when I started to experience severe vision problems. It turned out I was having a retinal detachment, a serious condition that can cause blindness if left untreated. Amos and Barry went out of their way to help me deal with the emergency. They opened their practices for me after hours, they got me into emergency surgery at Virginia Beach General Hospital. They saved my right eye. I'm reading these words today because they acted with great speed, kindness and skill. I'm so grateful to them. For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Shankar Vedantam: Find more information about us at If you liked this episode and like our show, please tell your friends. If they don't know how to subscribe to our podcast, please show them. Next week on the show, we continue our series on counterintuitive ideas for understanding the state of the world in 2020. We look at moral convictions and how viewing politics through a prism of right and wrong shapes our ability to achieve our goals. Thanks for listening, I'm Shankar Vedantam.


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