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  • I'm very pleased today to be talking to

  • Dr. Steven Pinker from Harvard University

  • He's the Johnstone family professor in the Department of Psychology there and has taught additionally at Stanford and MIT

  • He's an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition psycho linguistics and social relations

  • Dr. Pinker grew up in Montreal and earned his BA from McGill and his PhD from Harvard

  • He's won numerous prizes for his research his teaching and his nine books

  • Including the language instinct how the mind works

  • The blank slate the better angels of our nature and the sense of style

  • he's an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist a

  • humanist of the year a

  • recipient of nine honorary doctorates and one of foreign policies world taught

  • 100 public intellectuals and times

  • 100 most influential people in the world today

  • He's chair of the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary

  • And writes frequently for the New York Times The Guardian and other publications

  • Enlightenment now, the case for reason science humanism and progress, was his tenth and best-selling book

  • published in February 2018

  • and It's very nice, by the way

  • to have the opportunity to speak with you again, and thanks very much for making the time

  • Thank You Jordan

  • PETERSON: So, can I ask you it's been about a year since we talked last I guess I'd like to ask you

  • First of all, personally, what's this year been like for you? You've become a much more controversial figure

  • I would say than

  • would really be predicted but

  • you've always seemed to me to be a

  • solid reliable

  • interesting

  • mainstream scientists not someone who would attract a tremendous amount of critical

  • Attention and yet you've become well oddly enough

  • associated with the intellectual dark web what ever that happens to be and so much of what you're doing is

  • controversial and so, what's that being like and what's your life be like over the last while

  • Yeah, you wouldn't think that a defensive reason science humanism and progress would be

  • incendiary and I'm hardly a flame thrower and.. and as you note

  • I have put forward some pretty controversial ideas in the past such as that.. uh.. men and women aren't indistinguishable

  • and that we all Harbor some unsavory motives like

  • Revenge and dominance but saying the world has gotten better turns out to be a radical

  • inflammatory hypothesis there... uh...

  • there are there's first of all just sheer incredulity because the you of the world that you get from

  • Journalism is so different from the view of the world when you get from data because journalism reports everything that goes wrong

  • It doesn't report things that go right, and so if they're more things that go right every year. There's just no way of

  • Learning about it if you know the world from the papers and so there's just sheer disbelief. I'm talking about there are

  • intellectual factions that are committed to the idea that the world has never been worse than it is now and

  • data on human progress undermines

  • Some of their their foundational beliefs and then so that does attract

  • some some opposition people think of it as a defense of

  • neoliberal capitalism or a defense of the opposite, secular humanism

  • Traditional liberalism and so does get some people exorcised

  • Basically anyone if you're a social critic if your reputation comes on saying what's going wrong about the current society.

  • then

  • You're kind of committed to the idea that things have gotten gotten worse and the idea that things are

  • Not as bad as they used to be not as bad as they could be is an insult to that

  • those core beliefs

  • Yeah, well, it's it's a surprising thing because well and so so let's let's talk about that a little bit

  • I mean, here's some of the things I know,

  • I think I know and

  • Maybe you could describe some of the things, you know

  • And like I started learning that the world

  • had been improving when I worked for a UN committee about five years ago now and started looking at the

  • data on

  • Ecology and sustainable economic development and that's like there's some bad ecological news

  • I think that what we're doing to the oceans is

  • Fundamentally unforgivable and and foolish beyond belief, but there's some ecological news. That's of

  • Surprising positivity like there is a paper published in Nature not so long ago

  • Stating for example that an area twice the size of the US has greened in the last

  • 15 years think it was last 15 or 20 years that actually happened to be as a consequence of increased carbon dioxide because

  • Plants can keep their pores closed if there's more carbon dioxide and so they can live in more

  • semi-arid areas and

  • There's more forests in the northern hemisphere than there were a hundred years ago and more forests in India and China

  • Than there were 30 years ago. And then this has gone along with it massively improved stan... standard of living

  • The child mortality rate in Africa is now the same as it was in Europe in 1952, which is a

  • statistic that I just regard is

  • absolutely miraculous, the

  • African economies are growing, sub-saharan African economies seem to be growing faster at the moment if the stats are reliable then

  • economies anywhere else in the world

  • Partly because the Africans are getting connected electronically and have access to reasonable information into something

  • Approximating let's say stable currency

  • alternatives, um...

  • There... there's people are the rate of poverty is diminishing at an amazing rate

  • Right, we have poverty

  • Considering it at a dollar ninety a day between 2000 and 2012 and I've read criticisms of that saying well

  • that was an arbitrary number, but if you look at

  • $3.80 a day

  • You see the same

  • Decline if you look at $7.60 a day

  • You see the same decline not as precipitous and even the UN not known I would say for its optimistic

  • Prognostications estimates that at this rate by the year 2030 there won't be anyone in the world

  • Who's living below the current poverty level? So...

  • so there are some positive statistics so

  • What... what... what... what would you like to add to that?

  • Oh yes, and those are all of those those numbers are reported in graphs in enlightenment now, but also what else?

  • Illiteracy is declining

  • rates of uh... of uh...

  • Violent crime including violence against women and children are declining, child labor is declining

  • Death and warfare is declining how people have more leisure time. They have more access to

  • small luxuries like ear and

  • Reporting on plane fare, so it's funny that that all of these

  • Examples of human progress which one would think indicate the attempt to make the world a better place? It's not just do-gooding

  • It's not romantic. It's not utopian. We really can improve the world if we set our minds to do it should-should around so much anger

  • Partly because they people are so unused to thinking that things have gotten better, but they confuse it with

  • Certain kinds of magical thinking such as...

  • that things.. that this must mean that there is a force in the universe that that

  • Carries us ever upward that just makes progress happen by itself, which is the exact opposite to reality the universe

  • Not only doesn't care about us. But as a number of features that are constantly pushing back at us like like like entropy like

  • like pathogens

  • Entropies a bad one

  • Entry entropy is is the is the root of all human suffering

  • So here this doesn't care about us

  • I've read to other things that are peculiar that are so interesting and well, okay, so first of all, um,

  • It's pretty hard on the Marxists. I would say because

  • Even though there is inequality and inequality is a problem

  • first of all, it doesn't look like

  • Inequality can be placed at the feet of capitalism. It seems to me to be a far more intractable problem than that

  • second it's clear that the poor are getting richer despite the fact of inequality and third and this is hard on the

  • environmentalists I think is that it turns out that if you

  • Get people's income up to about five thousand dollars a year in terms of gross domestic product

  • They actually start to care about the environment

  • Which I suppose is because they're not worried about dying

  • Instantly that day or that week and so we seem to be in this perverse

  • situation for a pessimist where

  • We could make people

  • wealthy and

  • in in a positive manner and

  • We could make the world a better place simultaneously and that does seem to be very hard on

  • ideologue whose

  • ideology is predicated on a

  • Fundamental pessimism where you get the other people like the biologists do this sometimes and say well, yeah, we're purchasing all this short-term

  • prosperity

  • you know for these billions of people but at the cost of some medium to long term

  • eventual precipitous, you know

  • apocalyptic collapse and it's very difficult to formulate an argument against that kind of idea because

  • Well, you never know when some yeah, I think this is one of the thing tell him takes you to task for doesn't he?

  • Yes, I even though I actually have pretty extensive

  • coverage of the tail risks both in the better angels of our nature and in enlightenment now

  • and and indeed we do we cannot take

  • incremental improvement as itself an indication that the

  • Risk of catastrophe is at an acceptable level it may not be uh...

  • It's very hard to estimate what the risk of it

  • catastrophe is but there are certainly some that we that we ought to take very seriously

  • You're on the other hand the fact that you mentioned

  • uh...

  • Are often resisted by people in the green movement

  • I'm just going to lean down and pick up my earbud which rolled across the floor

  • Ah, but if anything it should give hope and succor to the environmental movement because it shows that

  • it is not true that we have to choose between

  • Economic growth which people do not want to give up and protecting the environment

  • That we can have both and indeed. There are some ways in which they go together the

  • nations that have done the most to clean up their

  • environment in the last ten years are the wealthiest nations because they can afford it if you're dirt-poor as you mentioned the your first

  • Priority is putting food on the table and a roof over your head and the you know

  • The fate of the white rhinoceros is pretty pretty low on your list of priorities

  • And you might be willing to put up with some smog in order to have electricity

  • It's really awful to do (without) electricity. And I know having visited cities like Mumbai which are horribly polluted

  • And and they are awful, but it would be much worse to not have any electricity

  • Well on the other hand when you get more prosperous, then you willing to spring for the cleaner energy

  • and you can afford the clean your energy and as you mentioned your

  • values tend to climb a hierarchy and more

  • long term

  • Future concerns loom larger in your value system so it's an odd

  • Assumption that both the hard right and the hard green have in common

  • Which is that if we want to protect the environment we have to sacrifice

  • Prosperity go back to a simpler more peasant

  • Style of life the hard greens say well that we've got to give up modernity give up capitalism

  • go back to what are you living off the land the

  • Hard right says well, I don't want to do that. No one wants to do that

  • So to hell with the environment if the reality is that if both policy and technology are deployed intelligence

  • they ought to be then we can afford to protect the environment without going backwards and foregoing all of the

  • benefits of modernity, right

  • I was I was shocked when I started to learn about this the fact that there was so much good both

  • economic and ecological news

  • with the economic news, perhaps being somewhat better than the

  • Ecological news and it doesn't mean that we can sit back and relax in the environment will clean itself up

  • all by itself

  • Quite the contrary we know why the environment got better

  • combination of policy like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act in the United States in 1970 and

  • Technology, like catalytic converters and scrubbers and and clean energy so it doesn't happen by itself

  • The fact that it happened is one of the great

  • Fallacies in people's understanding of progress if they equate the existence of progress with progress happening

  • all by itself as a as if it was some force of the universe, which is

  • Contrary to reality the other you mentioned that the existence of human progress is

  • a blow to

  • doctrinaire Marxist which is certainly true because he has seen the spectacular economic growth of India and China when they liberalized their

  • economies and the

  • disasters of say North Korea with a beautiful

  • Control group South Korea same geography same resources. Same culture. Same language same history

  • What differentiates them is their political system and South Korea is a much better place to live. It's not only freer, but it is also

  • enormously more prosperous

  • Do debates level XI check on the 19th of April and I've been preparing for that, you know

  • And I thought what I might do to begin with this list

  • There's a graph that I think human progress dot org put out

  • It might be Matt Ridley's graphed or maybe hands. Is it hands Rosling?

  • Rosalyn it maybe it's Martin Merriam to be is the proprietor if you're right

  • But it's what they call the most miraculous most important graph in the world and shows this

  • unbelievable

  • Acceleration if you prosperity basically kicking in exponentially around 1895

  • and yes a little bit earlier, but this is a combination of data sources including the

  • Late historical constant angle Madison who began a Madison project trying to retrospect respectively estimate

  • GDP per capita in eras where they did not collect those data at a time, but using historical data. Yes

  • It is astonishing and I've got to say when I first saw that curve when I was working on better angels of our nature

  • I was stunned. I mean this is the original hockey stick. Yes

  • Till the Industrial Revolution and then then it shoots up exponentially wait

  • so, you know, I look at that and I think well look I mean

  • What's the issue here

  • We still have inequality but you can't put it at the feet of capitalism because it seems to be a much more fundamental

  • Mechanism will ease poverty. Certainly. Yes. Yes

  • well, and even inequality, I mean that there seems to be this proclivity towards the unequal distribution of

  • phenomena, not just

  • monetary phenomena, but I mean if you look at virtually every

  • domain of human

  • Endeavor that's associated with creativity you get a preeto distribution of productivity, you know

  • I mean a small number of masked ball players

  • Shoot the my vast majority of the hoops and a small number of record

  • recording artists record the

  • majority of the hits a small number of planets have most of the mass and like there is this I

  • Mean, I'm not trying to make a case that inequality

  • Isn't a problem

  • I'm trying to make a case that it's a way

  • Deeper problem than the Marxists presume and then you have the other problem that well the poor keep getting richer

  • I mean half the world is middle class now and obesity is a bigger problem than starvation. And so

  • When I'm talking I can't I'm really having a hard time

  • Trying to understand what the Marxists have left as a doctrine. It's like yeah

  • Problem you guys were identifying seems to not exist anymore

  • yes, so part of it is that their foil is a kind of