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22 July 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 3:25pm

Steven Pinker interview: How does a liberal optimist handle a pandemic?

The Harvard psychologist on whether progress is over, the problem with police abolition, and the Harper’s open letter.

By George Eaton

In the era before Covid-19, Steven Pinker became something like the high priest of liberal optimism. The Harvard psychologist’s book Enlightenment Now (2018) was revered by those who insisted that the world was relentlessly improving: higher life expectancy, increased wealth, reduced poverty. Pinker cited Barack Obama’s 2016 observation: “If you had to choose a moment in history to be born… you’d choose now.” 

Since then, coronavirus has led to 15 million infections worldwide and more than 600,000 deaths, triggering the worst economic recession since the 1930s. Does Pinker still believe there has never been a better time to be alive? 

“No, we were better off a year ago, we were better off four or five months ago,” he conceded when we spoke recently over Zoom. “Because the pandemic has obviously made life worse.” Pinker, 65, noted “the near-certainty that this will stop or even reverse some of the decline in extreme poverty in developing countries, at least temporarily.” 

Has the crisis, which Pinker’s bête noire John Gray described in the New Statesman as “a turning point in history”, changed his view of progress? “Progress is nothing more or less than the accumulated fruits of humans trying to solve problems, problems are inevitable, new problems can arise, we make progress to the extent that we solve them.” And Pinker is not without hope: “I do tend to think that we will control Covid-19 with probably fewer deaths than previous pandemics such as the Spanish Flu, probably even the HIV/Aids pandemic but that completely depends on our success in finding vaccines and antiviral treatments.”

In 2017, Pinker made a wager with the British astrophysicist Martin Rees, betting against his prediction that “bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event within a six month period starting no later than 31 December 2020”. Is Pinker open to the possibility that he could be proved wrong? “I am going to defer collecting on the bet till we know that the cause [of Covid-19] did not escape from a lab in Wuhan, I don’t want to capitalise on our ignorance,” he replied. “Martin might be right.” 

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Pinker has spent the pandemic at his vacation house in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, with his third wife, the American philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, and has cycled 100-200 miles a week. For the US, it has been one of the most politically convulsive years in its post-war history. I asked Pinker, a teenage anarchist who renounced his political faith after civil unrest in his native Canada in 1969, for his view of Black Lives Matter. 

“It’s absolutely healthy that a light is shined on racial injustice and racial imbalance. It’s also a positive development that American policing practices, which are far too brutal, are now being scrutinised.” 

But Pinker warned: “If the police are indiscriminately crippled, whether it be by defunding them, or simply making them more reluctant to be seen to intervene, then the rates of violent crime will go up, they have in the last couple of months. Far more people are killed at the hands of their fellow civilians than by the police.”

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He added that “even the concept of abolishing the police” was “stark-raving mad” because “it means that we leave people to defend themselves with private armies and mafias and vigilantes and gangs of thugs. It’s also one of the few ways that one could imagine a path to victory for Donald Trump; namely, if the Democrats are thought of as the party that wants to abolish the police, people will vote for the Republicans.” 

Though Pinker confessed to being “chastened” by his 2016 prediction that Hillary Clinton would win the US presidential election, he believes “it’s likely that Joe Biden will win”. He quipped: “I have almost a superstitious fear of taunting the gods.” 

Pinker was one of the signatories of the recent open letter published in Harper’s magazine, which warned that “the free exchange of information and ideas” is “daily becoming more constricted”. How does he respond to the charge that the letter conflates the inalienable right to free speech with the non-existent right to a privileged platform? 

“As a matter of fact, the point of the letter is to defend the powerless,” Pinker replied. “The people who get fired from their jobs, the people who have fellowships that support their career revoked, and the very large number of people who are just intimidated.” He echoed John Stuart Mill’s defence of free expression: “None of us is omniscient, none of us is infallible, our only means of approaching the truth is to voice opinions and evaluate them.” 

One of the closing chapters of Enlightenment Now is on “existential threats”. Having failed to prepare for the pandemic, what risks should the world pay greater attention to now? “Probably cyber sabotage, I think many security experts fear there are vulnerabilities in the global internet, that there may be ways in which a country’s electronic infrastructure could be disabled, with possibly catastrophic implications. And then there’s climate change.” He further warned of “a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, a crisis triggered by China’s actions towards Taiwan, a Russian invasion of the Baltics – scenarios that are unlikely but not astronomically unlikely.” 

Pinker has begun work on a new book entitled Rationality: “what it is, why it’s scarce, why it matters”. His hope is that, just as the horrors of the Second World War spurred the creation of a new multilateral order, so the pandemic may do so. “The equivalent of a fire department for pandemics is something that the world could, and should, implement because the threat of pandemics never goes away, it’s part of being a living organism.”