I Didn’t Like “Enlightenment Now”

They say to never write a negative review of a book until it has received too many positive ones. Which brings us to “Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” by Steven Pinker.

The tl;dr is that he doesn’t actually argue this case, he just presents a bunch of under-reported optimistic curves and, in the face of problems that cannot be swept under the rug, assures us that if only we treat them as problems to be solved and not get depressed about them, all will be well. Hoo-rah!

If you say “Gee, that sounds like Pinker’s book ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’, which was a good book!” I’d agree with you. If this book had been called “Even Better Angels of Our Nature” I’d have no problem with it. But Pinker’s “Case for Reason, etc.” is essentially “these curves happened, they correlate (kind of) with periods when ‘Enlightenment ideals’ were popular, therefore, Enlightenment ideals caused the curves!” That’s bad logic.

The only reason I’m criticizing this book is because I would love to engage a book that actually made the case for these ideals and wrestled with the question of why, while still broadly paid lip service to (the climate deniers don’t say “Science is wrong!” they claim that science is on their side), they seem to have lost traction in terms of driving societal action. Or, perhaps more in the vein of things Pinker likes to do, to discover that “no, history is always an ebb and flow and the tide of Enlightenment continues to roll in.” (I’d be happy to have that case made.)

Pinker wants us to believe that the curves of the book — global poverty, lifespan, wealth, etc. — are strongly predictive of future improvement and, over and over, frames the thought ‘But will that continue?’ as one of pessimism versus optimism. I am temperamentally an optimist, and can rationalize that (“Optimism gives you agency! Pessimism is demotivating!”). But Optimism bias is a cognitive mistake. The Enlightenment Ideal is to put aside optimism and pessimism and engage with the facts. Yes, it’s true that the Malthusians have been wrongly predicting “we’re just about to run out of capacity!” for 200 years, and “doom is unlikely” should be your starting point. But maybe humanity’s time on Earth is like that of an individual — ups and downs, and heartbreakingly limited, potentially with a long period of decline before the end. Hypochondriacs are consistently wrong, but in the end all of them can put “I told you so.” on their gravestone.

Beyond the problems of what the book engages in is what it just plain ignores. “The case for Enlightenment” is essentially a philosophical task and the proper balance of reason and passion have been discussed since (at least) the days of Plato and Aristotle. The word “Romanticism” only occurs twice in the book, in brief dismissals, and which is a worse reason to ignore it: not engaging with its explicitly anti-Enlightenment philosophy or deliberately ignoring it, knowing that many people happily identify themselves as romantics and might be less receptive of your position if it were posed as a choice?

“Enlightenment Now” isn’t a bad book. As “Even Better Angels of Our Nature” it’s fine. But ultimately it’s as shallow as a “pull yourselves up by your bootstraps!” self-help book.