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I attended a sort of lecture-duet at Brown University a few days ago, with Stephen Pinker and Paul Krugman giving their respective responses to the prompt question “Is humanity progressing?” This was my first drop-in to an installment of the university’s Janus Forum lecture series. While I get the impression that the two speakers invited to these events often take up starkly opposing views, Pinker and Krugman — while not agreeing, exactly — complemented one anothers’ points in interesting ways.
(This post expands some running side-channel commentary I phone-tapped into a private chatroom throughout the talk, which I hope explains its rather sketchy and illustration-free nature — I felt it worth expanding just the same.)
Pinker’s turn at the podium mainly involved a tour through a slide deck showing one line-chart after another that illustrated improvements in various human affairs — often with an X-axis traversing hundreds of years, and often with a focus on moving away from darkness than towards any particular light. Slavery, torture, child labor: all have stair-stepped downwards in their global prevalence since the 18th century, and have stayed low. International wars between great powers, once ubiquitous, have become a fading memory. All of these facts present an extremely unusual state of sustained peace and increasingly common prosperity when one takes in all of recorded human history.
Pinker ended on an exhortation to not confuse his argument with a call for complacency: all of these advances came as a result of large-scale popular struggle, a project that demands ongoing maintenance and invention from all members of human society, always. He hopes, rather, that even during times of localized setbacks, the people engaged in this hard work can look at the bigger picture — and all the successes that their forebears had already achieved — and resist the temptation to marinate in fatalism.
I found Krugman’s talk a little less clear. His point seemed to be that everything Pinker said about the past was true, but alas we now find ourselves stuck in the present. We — and future generations — face challenges unlike anything overcome by those who came before us, and all of Pinker’s charts did not give give Krugman the confidence that all their positive-bending trends will continue through the current century.
Krugman’s freewheeling presentation noted ways that societal regression has happened in the present, or the near past: a decades-long spike in murders that plagued New York City, a downwards slump of life expectancy in Russia. He paired this with a much more dramatic example from the ancient world, holding up the decline and fall of Rome as proof that a civilization’s wealth, growth, and technological advancement cannot protect it from complete destruction, if things go badly enough.
I did like the simple social thought-experiment framing device that Krugman used to define societal regression, from the subjective point of view of one inside that society. Ask that person: If you could be live in any period of history up through today, what would you choose? Almost any rational and educated resident of the 20th or 21st-so-far centuries, already familiar with the gist of Pinker’s charts, would say “Right now”. (Or as Krugman himself said: “If I could trade places with Louis XIV, I wouldn’t do it! He didn’t have modern medicine. Or decent coffee.”) But when he casts his thoughts forward to imagine posing this question to a citizen of 2050 A.D., Krugman finds himself unable to assume the same response.
Krugman ended his talk on this applause-line: “We can screw this up massively, and there’s a pretty good chance that we will. Thanks.”
During the subsequent moderated mini-panel between the two speakers, they agreed that they didn’t disagree: if Pinker’s ultimate point was “We as a species have been wriggling in the right direction, and we can keep doing it,” Krugman’s was “But things can always go to hell if you let them,” and these positions really do not seem mutually exclusive.
Most of the questions during the Q-and-A period came from undergraduates in attendance, and I noted with interest how many focused on climate-change concerns — a topic that both speakers had lightly touched on, during their talks, but hadn’t put in the center of either argument. Both easily reeled off news and statistics that suggest the long-term ascendence of renewable energy, though Krugman added his already-familiar caveat that populist ignorance can still render it all moot, if allowed.
I felt glad that two students did get a chance to (respectfully!) call out Pinker and his charts from what we might caricature as very American-university viewpoints. One young man took him to task for perceived Eurocentricism of his data, and another young woman asked how his trend-lines showing increasing racial harmony made any sense because have you even seen the internet lately? Pinker accepted these challenges with a patient smile and responded deftly, to the latter point naming further studies that really do seem to indicate a decline in American racism — while also acknowledging that, yes, the internet allows once-isolated racists to find one another and combine into completely novel threats. Krugman, all about completely novel threats, nodded along.
Both speakers surprised me when they rebutted another student’s question regarding the short-term thinking shown by far too many people in power today, a suggestion I certainly find quite accurate. Krugman didn’t, though, taking the trouble to draw a distinction between short-term thinking and ill-informed thinking: mere ignorance, more than lack of will or direction, lies at the center of our troubles today. Pinker agreed with this, adding his observation that both government and college campuses in America tend to assign blame to malevolent people with evil agendas when they should focus instead on society’s failure to stop the spread of destructively ignorant ideas. And that gave me some prompting for personal and quiet reflection.
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