Steven Pinker (@sapinker) is a psychology professor at Harvard, one of the world’s leading authorities on language and the mind, and an author of several bestsellers. His latest is Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters.
What We Discuss with Steven Pinker:
- Why, by most metrics, older generations are mistaken when they proclaim: “Things were better back in my day!”
- Alternatives we might consider if Universal Basic Income can’t sustainably solve the problem of housing and feeding a workforce increasingly unemployed by automation.
- Why nostalgia is overrated, and how criticizing the present is very often a way of criticizing your rivals.
- If we’re really living, as Steven says, in “the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,” how does he explain why we still have wars, famines, uprisings, and genocides?
- What sentiment mapping shows us about the power of the media to manipulate us into seeing the world in a heavily negative light even as it’s improving constantly on every measurable level.
- And much more…
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It seems that representatives of every generation between The Flintstones‘ great-grandparents and our own will, at some point, shake their wise old heads at the folly of youth and proclaim that life was better back when they were kids. But if this were true, then the human race and the planet we call home have been on a downward trajectory ever since the beginning. In fact, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker — author of bestsellers like Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and his latest, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters — argues that the opposite is true: there’s never been a better time to be alive. From me, the person writing these words, to you who’s reading them: aren’t we lucky?
On this episode, Steven joins us to discuss why old-timers who count on misremembered nostalgia to tell us how their misspent youth took place in the world’s real heyday are mistaken, options our society has for housing and feeding a workforce increasingly unemployed by automation, how criticizing the present is really just a way of criticizing your rivals, why conflict and mass suffering still exist in hotspots around the world if things are truly so peachy keen, what sentiment mapping tells us about the escalating tendency of media to negatively paint current events as if we’re perpetually experiencing the End Times, why taking the time to appreciate how far we’ve come gives us the perspective we need to build a better future, and much more. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
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Miss the last time we had Navy SEAL leadership authority and Extreme Ownership co-author Jocko Willink on the show? Make sure to check out episode 93: Jocko Willink | Leading on the Line Between Extreme and Reckless!
Thanks, Steven Pinker!
If you enjoyed this session with Steven Pinker, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
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Resources from This Episode:
- Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters by Steven Pinker | Amazon
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker | Amazon
- The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker | Amazon
- Steven Pinker | Website
- Steven Pinker | Twitter
- Steven Pinker | Facebook
- The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894 | Historic UK
- Average Work Week by Country 2021 | World Population Review
- Universal Basic Income (UBI) | Investopedia
- Kai-Fu Lee | Ten Visions for Our Future with AI | Jordan Harbinger
- Self-Driving Cars FAQ: How Far Away Is Far Away? | Motor Trend
- What Is the Great Resignation and What Can We Learn from It? | World Economic Forum
- Mike Rowe | The Way I Heard It | Jordan Harbinger
- Thomas Hobbes | Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Nothing Is More Responsible for the Good Old Days than a Bad Memory | Quote Investigator
- Kim Il Sung | The Dictator’s Playbook, PBS
- Democracy-Dictatorship Index | Wikipedia
- Francoist Spain | Wikipedia
- Generalissimo Francisco Franco Is Still Dead | SNL
- Prague 1968: Lost Images of the Day That Freedom Died | The Guardian
- Remembering 1968: Chicago’s Bloody Democratic Convention | CBS
- What Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now Can Teach to Journalism | Piero Macchioni
- The Number of People in Extreme Poverty Fell by 137,000 Since Yesterday | Development Roast
- Men In Black | Prime Video
- A World That Remembers the Holocaust | IHRA
- How Steven Pinker Became a Target Over His Tweets | The New York Times
- ZDoggMD | Debunking Plandemic COVID-19 Pseudoscience | Jordan Harbinger
- Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant | Quote Investigator
- Has the Decline of Violence Reversed Since The Better Angels of Our Nature was Written? | Steven Pinker
- Our World in Data
- Tank’s Good News
- The Idea of Decline in Western History by Arthur Herman | Amazon
- Conspiracy Theories: A Primer by Joseph E. Uscinski | Amazon
- Are We Getting Smarter?: Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century by James R. Flynn | Amazon
- Are You Smarter Than Your Grandfather? Probably Not. | Smithsonian Magazine
- Why I Believe Climate Change Is Not the End of the World by Michael Shellenberger | Quillette
- Idiocracy | Prime Video
- Yes, Science Is Political | Scientific American
- A Pep Talk from Steven Pinker | Scientific American
593: Steven Pinker | Why Rationality Seems Scarce
[00:00:00] Jordan Harbinger: Special thanks to our sponsor Glenfiddich single malt scotch whisky. You've heard me recently talking about Glenfiddich with the highly recognizable stag icon that we've got right there on the show art. They've got a new body of work that aims to challenge the traditional notions of what it means to be wealthy and to live a life of riches. Glenfiddich believes that beyond the material, a life of wealth and riches is about family, community, values, and fulfilling work. These are the values that led Glenfiddich to become the world's leading single malt, scotch whisky. This week's guest Steven Pinker exemplifies these values and you'll find out why later on in the episode. More from our partners at Glenfiddich coming up later in the show.
[00:00:34] Coming up next on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:00:36] Steven Pinker: Language allows us to share all kinds of new ideas and among them could be ideas of how we reduce war and crime and racism and oppression. It's possible that we can improve a lot, even though we're stuck with human nature. And then in better angels of our nature, I'm sure that it's not just a theoretical possibility, it's happened. Wars come down and rape and child abuse. Just wherever you have the data, you plot them over time, the grafts go down.
[00:01:08] Jordan Harbinger: Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most fascinating people. We have in-depth conversations with people at the top of their game, astronauts and entrepreneurs, spies and psychologists, even the occasional legendary Hollywood director, mafia enforcer, or neuroscientist, and each episode turns our guests' wisdom into practical advice that you can use to build a deeper understanding of how the world works and become a better critical thinker.
[00:01:35] If you're new to this show, or you want to tell your friends about the show, the episode starter packs are a good way to do that. These are collections of favorite episodes organized by popular topics to help new listeners get a taste of everything that we do here on the show. Just visit jordanharbinger.com/start to get started or to help somebody else get started. And of course, I always appreciate it when you do that.
[00:01:56] Today on the show, Steven Pinker, author of many books, including The Better Angels of Our Nature, Enlightenment Now, and Rationality, his newest. Steven Pinker and I have been trying to have this conversation for years now. Glad we finally made it happen. Today, we've got a wide variety on the table, for example, why is now the best time in history to be alive? Not just because of advanced technology, but because things are actually better for almost everyone in nearly every category, and by just about every metric that really matters. It doesn't necessarily feel that way to a lot of us. So I'm looking forward to hearing what y'all think about this conversation as well. We also discussed some big issues today, like Syria, Afghanistan, the weaker genocide, even universal basic income. So this conversation is really all over the place. I think we did a great job of keeping everything through line here. I hope you enjoy this conversation.
[00:02:40] And if you're wondering how I managed to book all these great authors, thinkers, and creators, every single week, it's because of my network. And I'm teaching you how to build yours for free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, subscribe and contribute to that same course. So come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[00:02:58] Now, here's Steven Pinker.
[00:03:02] So if you listen to most, let's say parents, because picking on Boomers is not cool, right? It's not cool to generalize. But if you listen to parents, there'll be quick to tell you that things were better when they were younger than they are today, but this isn't actually true by pretty much any reasonable measure, right?
[00:03:19] Steven Pinker: That is correct. The gray beards, the older generation are always saying that the kids today are no good, but it is — first of all, there are features of human memory that lead us to think that such as we confuse changes in ourselves with changes in the times. When you get older, you're a little bit slower. You don't remember things as well and things in some ways, do you see worse. Also our memory tends to filter out the negativity of our past experiences. So I remember what life was like in the '70s, but I may not remember how bad it was to go through it at the time. When you actually look at more objective indicators of how the world has changed, then we are much better off today than we were decades ago. And by we, I mean the species, the entire planet, extreme poverty has plummeted. Rates of war have gone down. Crime has gone down to the United States until an uptick in the past year. Infant mortality has gone down. Literacy has gone down. So pretty much anything that you measure about human wellbeing has improved.
[00:04:19] And this is to say nothing about the advantages of streaming video on a flat screen TV, as opposed to fiddling with rabbit ears on a little black and white 12 inch set.
[00:04:28] Jordan Harbinger: I mean, technology aside, we seem to be in this — is it a lucky time period or is there some countervailing force that's working against these trends that were so common in history? You mentioned war and crime are down and that's just the beginning and from mortality, is it just technological innovation or is there something else going on?
[00:04:45] Steven Pinker: It's a combination of technological and innovation and other know-how and there are changes in values. There are currents toward a more humanistic value system that would privilege the wellbeing of humans and other living things over things like national glory, the preeminence of the race or the religion following the laws of scripture. Those are all sources of morality in the past that are, they're still alive and well, but there are trends, especially among elites toward a more humanistic mindset, but you're right. There are default. What people tend to forget is that it's not as if we were ever in some Eden from which we deteriorated, rather our natural state of nature is disease and hunger and conflict. And we've gradually applied our ingenuity to make life a little better for ourselves.
[00:05:34] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. When I read history or there's some anecdote in a book, I was reading something yesterday. I can't remember what it was, but basically London had horse manure piling up so high in the streets that people couldn't use the roads to get to work. And then they had something called — I'm going to get the year wrong, but it was like the great stink of 1858, right? Where the river, the Thames smelled so bad and people were dying of Cholera. It's like a thousand people a day or whatever it was that they thought it was the smell that made you sick. So of course, they're like, "Oh, get far away from that. But you know, go ahead and drink it with your meal, and—"
[00:06:10] Steven Pinker: Yeah, the miasma theory of disease that it was—
[00:06:13] Jordan Harbinger: It was the foul smell—
[00:06:13] Steven Pinker: It was the foul smell from the air that made you sick.
[00:06:15] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:06:16] Steven Pinker: It's kind of intuitive, but it's wrong. And you know, the germ theory of disease, which is second nature to every school child today, it had to be discovered and proven.
[00:06:24] Jordan Harbinger: Yes. Exactly. And of course, looking at a lot of things in history — I'm married into a Chinese family, right? So they're like, "You have to drink tea, it's healthy." And I'm like, "I'm pretty sure that 3000 years ago they thought that tea was healthy because it was boiled. And it was the only water that didn't have seven bajilion deadly amoeba of living in it at any given time, because it had been boiled. It's not like there's something healthy and tea leaves," but people still believe all this. And it's kind of funny that we'll look back at something like that and just reverse engineer the fact that a lot of these wives tales are alive on the — what's the opposite of a wives tale, where something's good for you but now we're thinking something's bad? Was it like a superstition, right? Some of that is still very much alive in the form of nostalgia in a way.
[00:07:06] Steven Pinker: Yeah, beer and tea, anything you boil or anything with the alcohol in it that, by lucky coincidence, kill the bacteria and the parasites and the single-cell organisms. And we've inherited them and which is just fine because I like tea. I like beer. And the fact that you're a hundred years ago, maybe even the only sterile sources of liquid is a happy coincidence.
[00:07:26] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I remember my mom telling me years ago, I was like, "Why are pirates always drunk?" Right. Typical little kid question. And she, I think, actually found the answer, which was, "You can't really keep water on a ship, but you can keep rum. And they're like, 'Well, we got to drink something. The only thing we have is this rum and spoiled stuff that turned into fermented stuff that we can now eat and drink.'" So, all right, better access now to education, sanitation — working hours seems like it's kind of the next thing. Are you examining current trends at all or is that kind of too hard to do?
[00:07:57] Steven Pinker: No. I do have a graph in my previous book, Enlightenment Now, showing working hours in the United States and Europe, which have gone way down for more than 60 hours a week to fewer than 40 hours. And that's probably an area in which there could be, there should be more progress, but people work more hours than the economy demands. And it could be that with advances in artificial intelligence, a lot of the boring and repetitive jobs will be automated and taking some of a pressure off human labor.
[00:08:23] In the past, as we've automated, we found new things for people to do so they used to be elevator operators. I still remember elevator operators when I was a kid in the big department stores. You know, guys who just stand all day with a lever, making the elevator stop at every floor. We don't have that many. But we do have your tattoo removal technicians and pet psychiatrists. So there is a certain turnover, but probably, and it might take some legislation to help push it along. Reducing the number of work hours, expanding the number of holidays would certainly be a humane development.
[00:08:56] Jordan Harbinger: I remember learning about the working hours in Europe and when I lived in Germany, it was like, "Well, you work more than anyone in Europe," and it was like 37 hours or something like that, or up to 50. And I thought, "Huh, I'm pretty sure my dad works like 10 hours a day at Ford. And he's gone on Saturdays when I was younger." And then you look at France and it's like, I'm going to get the number wrong, but it's significantly less than you would work if you were here and people don't take the entire month of August off in France are considered kind of, "Oh, workaholic, Mr. Workaholic over here."
[00:09:28] Steven Pinker: Well, that's right. America in this, and a lot of statistics is something of an outlier, as far as affluent Western democracies are concerned, we really are underachievers. Our crime rate is higher. Our school achievement is lower. Our life expectancy is lower. Our happiness is lower. Now, of course, it's better than poor countries in Africa and South Asia, but we're not number one when you compare us to New Zealand and to the Netherlands and Switzerland and Canada, and so on.
[00:09:58] Jordan Harbinger: No huge surprise there, just given the gap. Progress always leave some people behind, which actually kind of has me a little bit worried, right? You mentioned automation later on AI in light of this. I'm wondering what you think of universal basic income, because we're really, once we get to AI and I've talked about this with a few AI experts on the show, like Kai-Fu Lee. One of his greatest concerns is you just can't retrain people fast enough for jobs that are at the rate that they're disappearing because things are automating.
[00:10:25] Steven Pinker: Yeah, I think we don't know. And I know that that is a position. Labor economists themselves are divided whether there will be new occupations, like video game, costume designer that well, we couldn't have conceived of cybersecurity. So that that's an unknown. That is whether the elevator operators will be replaced by pet psychiatrists, so to speak.
[00:10:47] And other is whether the universal basic income is actually the workable solution. There are calculations that the numbers just don't add up. You divide the tax revenue by the number of people and you can't support them if that no one is working, and it's going to be awhile. I mean, the fact that today, despite promises from a long time, we can't get a fully autonomous vehicle where you can open up a magazine and let your car drive you to a location that you tell it to go to.
[00:11:13] It turns out that a lot of AI problems are a lot, lot harder than we thought. The human brain., it's got a lot of limitations, but it does a lot of things better than any robot can do now. So we don't know when the day will arrive when that many occupations will be fully automated. And it could be that there always be some that not only are humans best suited to do it and things like elderly care and childcare and perhaps teaching are examples, maybe even planting trees and reforesting areas. And it may be better to have the government create jobs that the private market won't support, but that are good for the country, good for people. And so people would still be working, but the jobs wouldn't necessarily be those that the marketplace provides.
[00:12:00] Jordan Harbinger: Interesting.
[00:12:00] Steven Pinker: Plus also, I think what we'll have to have is more redistribution. That is a more progressive income tax, whatever the advantages are, the free market system and there are a lot of them. We're just seeing that there's much less pressure at the lower part of the income scale to keep incomes up. There are many opportunities for the wealthy to get still wealthier. And it may make sense to, instead of paying people to do nothing for the governments to top off their salaries for doing something.
[00:12:29] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, I think — well, I won't disagree with that because it's better to get paid for doing something than nothing. But I would imagine you take a lot of flack for the viewpoint that the government should create these jobs. And I don't know if you check Twitter, but I would imagine if you did, your Twitter feed is full of people calling you a communist or socialist for having these types of ideas.
[00:12:45] Steven Pinker: That hasn't been my problem because I kind of, I live in academia.
[00:12:49] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:12:50] Steven Pinker: My workplaces in the People's Republic of Cambridge in Massachusetts. I'm on sabbatical right now in Berkeley.
[00:12:56] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:12:56] Steven Pinker: The kind of people that I hang around that isn't my problem.
[00:12:59] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That makes some sense. Yeah.
[00:13:00] Steven Pinker: I don't look at the Twitter comments too carefully, but if I did, the problem would not be that I'm accused of being a communist.
[00:13:05] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:13:06] Steven Pinker: Although I do have some, I have libertarian friends and I'm probably by their standards, I might be a socialist by the standards of academia.
[00:13:15] I'm on the far right.
[00:13:16] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, Pinker the pinko, I guess, right? Wouldn't that be — they call you behind your back.
[00:13:20] Steven Pinker: Maybe the fever swamps of "Make America Great Again," but in the kind of circles that I hang out and if anything, I have the opposite problem.
[00:13:27] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. That may make sense. But it sounds like what you're saying. And its base is not really that controversial, right? Don't protect jobs, protect the interests of people in instead.
[00:13:37] Steven Pinker: Absolutely. That's perfectly put, protect people, not jobs, yeah. I think the honest answer is we don't know what's going to work. That actually, as it happens, we've had a huge experiment in universal, basic income in the past year and a half with the, you know, kind of the COVID relief payments. That's probably not sustainable indefinitely.
[00:13:54] Jordan Harbinger: Sure.
[00:13:55] Steven Pinker: But it was an interesting experiment. And probably too soon to tell there is a mismatch at the moment that you and I are speaking between a lot of available jobs, a lot of people, unemployed people who don't want to take those jobs, whether this is their geographic region, their skill level, or people's just changing willingness to do things that they're no longer willing to do. But markets will adjust and there's probably a lot of learning ahead of us as to what we need to do to have a humane economy in the face of all of this automation.
[00:14:26] Jordan Harbinger: Agree. I think we also need to take the stigma away from blue collar jobs and actual — I'll say actual work because I'm trained as a lawyer so I can get away with that. Because actually work is like a plumber, right? I was talking with Kai-Fu Lee about AI and he goes, we're not going to automate plumbing anytime soon.
[00:14:42] Steven Pinker: That is right — electricians.
[00:14:44] Jordan Harbinger: Right. And if you've built a house anytime in the last few years, which I have, you can't get a roofer or a contractor because they're going, "I'll hire anyone." And they can't, they can't hire people to stand on a roof in the hot sun for three hours because nobody, everybody wants to push paper. Like I did on Wall Street and get paid and you know, go out at night.
[00:15:02] Steven Pinker: Right.
[00:15:02] Jordan Harbinger: They don't want to get sunburned.
[00:15:04] Steven Pinker: Well, also things like, you know, swinging a hammer is a really complex computational problem.
[00:15:09] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:15:09] Steven Pinker: And it much more complex than, you know, turning a steering wheel like that and then pressing one of two pedals. That's just three things you got to do to control a car. And we do not have robots that can do it. Not yet anyway. Something like sneeking a wire through a wall is much more demanding and driving a car and we don't have self-driving cars yet.
[00:15:29] Jordan Harbinger: Right, yeah, it's interesting to see because I think when people, like you said on the right or not even the extreme are saying like, "This is ridiculous. Don't protect these jobs." A lot of it has to do with cultural stigma. Like my dad grew up mechanical engineer, before that was working blue collar jobs to pay his way through school. My mom was a public school teacher and even they were like, "You got to get a good academic degree because otherwise, you're going to trade time for money and do these." And now they're like, "Why don't people do the trades?" And I'm like, "Because every parent told us that we shouldn't do that. That's why."
[00:15:59] Steven Pinker: Right. Yeah.
[00:16:00] Jordan Harbinger: You know, it's a bunch of dumb kids like me spend 200 grand on college and then get out and go, "I don't know how to do anything." No offense, of course.
[00:16:09] Steven Pinker: "What am I going to do with my degree in French literature?"
[00:16:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. We should've thought ahead. And also we're not getting rid of — look, we're getting rid of elevator operators. That's fine. I don't know how many elevator operators are going, "Well, that was such a fulfilling line of work that I was in for that time being," right? I mean, it's not that they weren't happy or anything, but very few people are going to say that was fulfilling and stimulating and we can keep those types of careers and those types of jobs open caring for elders and things like that, as opposed to automating those and we can automate building roads, or whatever.
[00:16:40] Nostalgia is overrated. I think you wrote something along the lines of, "Criticizing the present is very often a way of criticizing your rivals." I thought that was insightful.
[00:16:49] Steven Pinker: I can't take credit for it. Thomas Cobb said it first.
[00:16:51] Jordan Harbinger: Okay. Fair enough.
[00:16:52] Steven Pinker: More than 400 years ago.
[00:16:54] Jordan Harbinger: Well, he doesn't — yeah.
[00:16:55] Steven Pinker: He was a keen observer of human nature, but yes, men compete with the living, not with the dead.
[00:17:00] Jordan Harbinger: That makes sense, right? It's easy to complain about how the leadership landed us here. Afghanistan is a great example. You know, a lot of people want to forget about the long line of crappy decisions and leadership that led us to a very predictable disaster. What was the quote? "Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory." Am I close?
[00:17:17] Steven Pinker: Yes. Franklin Pierce Adams. Yes.
[00:17:20] Jordan Harbinger: So what about big issues today? Like Syria, Afghanistan, Uighur people in China, like surely these are outliers, but we also can't really dismiss these massive conflicts and genocides as blips or aberrations in the data as far as things getting better around the world, right?
[00:17:35] Steven Pinker: Oh, absolutely not. No, no, absolutely not. And of course, we've selected those examples because they are the cases in which oppression or genocide or war still occur. The thing is that if you were to go back 30 years, For every one of those, there'd be another three, all over Africa and Latin America and Southeast Asia. So we can be glad that the list that you just gave is short, shorter than it would have been 30 or 40 years ago, but still be very concerned for the people who are suffering in the midst of those crises.
[00:18:05] And I think that when be able to say, well, isn't it callous to say that things are better than they use, I would argue that's other way around knowing that the rate of wars, genocides, and autocracies can come down kind of emboldens us, gives us the gumption to try to reduce the ones that are still around. It's not utopian, it's not romantic. It's not hopeless. It's not seeing the glass as half full. Just as a matter of having a sunny personality, it's looking at the past and saying, "Well, gee, if the wars could be in the past, they could be ended now."
[00:18:36] And indeed, it's not, you know, even though I'm going to have a pretty dark view of human nature, no one could call me a romantic when it comes to what makes people tick. But I actually don't think it's at all romantic to think that the world could put it into a war, this war between nations. Civil wars would be a lot harder because it doesn't take much to have militia get their hands on some weapons and call themselves the people's front for the liberation of whatever. But in terms of two countries facing each other in a Naval battle or in a tank battle or bombing each other's cities, it's quite possible that that'll go the way of a slave auctions and throwing virgins into volcanoes.
[00:19:11] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:19:11] Steven Pinker: It hasn't happened yet, but it's moving in that direction.
[00:19:13] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah, even suppose when I think about it, 41 years old, I look back at the Cold War and when I read, again when I read history about it, because I was too young during the time to understand, I mean, we have Kim Il-sung in North Korea. That place hasn't improved a ton, but the reason it's so well-known now is because it's a completely ridiculous outlier and there isn't another place like it.
[00:19:32] Steven Pinker: Well, also in that era, South Korea was a military dictatorship—
[00:19:35] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:19:35] Steven Pinker: Now, it's a democracy
[00:19:36] Jordan Harbinger: I think Taiwan was also too, or was that earlier?
[00:19:38] Steven Pinker: No, you're right. Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Philippines were military and right-wing dictatorships as was most of Latin America to say nothing of Spain and Portugal, which when I was a college student were literally fascist dictatorships.
[00:19:53] Jordan Harbinger: Oh, yeah, Franco, right?
[00:19:54] Steven Pinker: Yeah, exactly. Franco and Salazar, not fascist in the sense of, you know, somewhere to the right of me, but really fascist. I mean, they call themselves fascists.
[00:20:02] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:20:03] Steven Pinker: That was in Western Europe.
[00:20:05] Jordan Harbinger: It's crazy. When I look at Spain, I remember looking at a book a couple of months ago and it said something like, "The Franco regime, the fascist Franco regime lasted until 1977," or something like that, or 82. And I was like, that's a typo. That must be 1962 or 1950. And I looked in various—
[00:20:21] Steven Pinker: No, no, that was not a typo.
[00:20:23] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:20:23] Steven Pinker: When the series Saturday Night Live originate, a running joke was a General Franco is still dead. He had just, just died, which marked the transition from fascism to democracy in Spain. And so it's within the memory of Saturday Night Live. That was a recurring laugh line in a weekend update.
[00:20:41] Jordan Harbinger: That is so crazy to think about. Like imagine announcing the death of Hitler in 1975 and going, "Wait a minute. No, no, no, like that can't be it."
[00:20:51] Steven Pinker: Well, Franco was an ally of Hitler, so yes, that's just talking about Western Europe, which was not nearly as bad as Eastern Europe. You do a line through present day Germany and everything to the east was a totalitarian communist dictatorship. It was barely different from North Korea today.
[00:21:06] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I lived in the former East Germany when I was in high school. It was West Germany at that point again. But my host parents, I was an exchange student, they were in the army and they were rolling tanks into outside Prague for the, I can't remember what that was, the Prague Spring? Prague Summer?
[00:21:21] Steven Pinker: Yes, that's right, 1968.
[00:21:23] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:21:23] Steven Pinker: It's called the Rape of Czechoslovakia, was the way they use magazines referred to it at the time.
[00:21:27] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:21:27] Steven Pinker: That was 1968.
[00:21:29] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:21:29] Steven Pinker: It was before you were born. It wasn't before I was born. And I remember it very well. It occurred around the same time as the famous Democratic Convention, the Chicago police riot recently immortalized in the trial of the Chicago Seven. But yeah, which by there's also a reminder that domestic violence, political violence in the United States, as much as everyone thinks that it has reached new heights today. It was much worse in the late '60s and early '70s when there were bombings every week. There were urban riots in which the police could shoot 10 or 15 people in a night.
[00:22:00] Jordan Harbinger: Wow.
[00:22:01] Steven Pinker: Again, the best explanation for the good old days is a bad memory.
[00:22:04] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:22:05] Steven Pinker: As bad as things are now, they were worse then, and despite the reputation for, you know, peace and love and flowers and hippies, the reality was that the murder rates were going through the roof. Rates of rape and assault, political violence, including bombings, police shootings, all of them were worst then.
[00:22:22] Jordan Harbinger: It's good to hear that, but also depressing because we look at how many we see now and wait, so that was happening all the time. I don't know how I feel about that.
[00:22:31] Steven Pinker: No, no, it's happening less now than it did then. That's really the way to think about it. Now, of course it's happening too much now, but less than then.
[00:22:38] Jordan Harbinger: And thank goodness for that. Of course, when I open social media, it's hard for me to believe that we're in a good place as a civilization, but that's me falling into the trap of thinking that things are bad or worse than they were before. So I guess the question becomes, has the media gotten more negative or is that also an illusion of memory?
[00:22:56] Steven Pinker: Yeah. And it's something I deal with the Enlightenment Now, because if I'm just saying, well, look at the way, the New York Times sensationalizes this story this morning, someone could say, "Well, you're doing the same thing. You're just cherry picking an anecdote." So actually I have a graph showing the results of an algorithm that did sentiment mapping in stories in the New York times and in a sample of world media, going back to the '40s. And it's really true. The media have gotten more negative. The tone of news coverage has gotten more native. And there's some built-in biases in journalism that I think have been exaggerated.
[00:23:30] Part of it is just that as with violent movies and violent dramas and war movies and murder, mysteries. Negativity, negative emotions engage us. We are very, warbly interested in what can go wrong and that affects the selection of news items. But also it's in the very nature of news. If you're presenting things that happened, you know, since yesterday or since an hour ago, in the case of media today, bad things can happen quickly. A building can collapse, a riot can break out. Someone can shoot up a school, but good things tend to build up gradually, a few percentage points a year, which then compound.
[00:24:08] And so if there's a reduction in global poverty, it's not like it happened on last Thursday and so there could be a headline but if the news followed the trends, they could have had the headline 137,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday every day for the last 30 years, but they never ran that headline. And so a billion people escaped from extreme poverty and no one knows about it because it didn't happen suddenly enough to count as news.
[00:24:33] Jordan Harbinger: So that's how we can view the news cycle, right? We have to look at our negativity bias and our natural inclination towards — is it alarmism? It's really the lion rustling in the bushes, right?
[00:24:45] Steven Pinker: Negative emotions are more powerful than positive emotions. That's an old finding in psychology.
[00:24:50] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:24:50] Steven Pinker: Things that happened suddenly are more often bad things than good things. I mean, this is kind of a theme of my last book Enlightenment Now. I also go into the psychology in more detail in my new book Rationality, which is among other things about how our sense of risk and probability and prevalence are driven by images and anecdotes and narratives and not by data. And so it can be — surprisingly, you think, well, what could be more boring than looking at your data and graphs? Actually, it can be kind of your cheering—
[00:25:20] Jordan Harbinger: Encouraging.
[00:25:20] Steven Pinker: Uplifting.
[00:25:21] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:25:21] Steven Pinker: Encouraging, yeah.
[00:25:22] Jordan Harbinger: It is. And I find that to be well, that's one of the main reasons I wanted to make this conversation happen, other than it's been so long, right? Because this should change our behavior and our beliefs because there's something — I wish I didn't have to bring out this really dumb example. But in the movie, Men in Black, right? Will Smith is running around. He's got this tiny little gun and he's blowing things up with it. And Tommy Lee Jones say, "Calm down. What are you doing?" And Will Smith is like, "There's a level four alien running around New York." And Tommy Lee Jones says like, "Calm down. There's always a level four alien running around New York. And the reason that people don't panic and burn everything down is because they don't know about it." And I look around now and I go, "Ah, so many people are burning things down because they think there's a level four alien running around New York when really we got rid of most of the bad aliens and the ones we have now are smaller and smaller and smaller. And everybody was really just acting like we have this crazy invasion going on when really we should be kind of looking at the bright side instead and behaving accordingly.
[00:26:21] Steven Pinker: Yeah, we should have a view of the world it's accurate. It's not like we should have a rose colored glasses or see the glass is half full. We should be aware of problems and we should also be aware of progress. And the thing is that the conventional journalism is a non-random sample of the worst things that happened in the last day. So it's not as if journalism gives you an accurate view of the world. It gives you an overly negative view of the world and you don't want an overly positive view of the world either. You want an accurate view of the world problems and solutions.
[00:26:51] Jordan Harbinger: You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Steven Pinker. We'll be right back.
[00:26:56] Special thanks to Intuit, the company, powering products like TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, and Credit Karma.
[00:27:02] This episode is sponsored in part by Purple Mattress. There are lots of gimmicks that promise a great night's sleep. It doesn't matter what kind of toppers there are, or how heavy a blanket might be. That's kind of lipstick on the pig if you're sleeping on a crappy mattress. That's why I recommend you try out a Purple Mattress. Only Purple Mattresses have the gel flex grid. It's a super stretchy, ultra squishy — that's a technical term — material that adapts and flexes around pressure points and doesn't retain heat. I sleep pretty hot, so that's always nice. Also it bounces back as you move and shift. So you don't have that sort of, I'm stuck in a little hole I made for myself that you get with a lot of memory foam. We love our Purple Harmony Pillow, which — well, Jen does because she steals all the pillows that we have — but that also has the gel flex grid, which is amazingly supportive while cushioning the head, no matter how you sleep — or so I've heard Jen. Try Purple Mattress risk-free with free shipping and returns.
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[00:29:38] Now back to Steven Pinker.
[00:29:41] I've read a particularly terrible story in the New York Times about a guy who just kind of snapped and killed this entire family that he didn't even know. And my wife was like, "This is terrible. We have to figure out a way to secure our house." And I was like, "Yes." And then two minutes later, I was like, "Wait a minute. Our house is as secure as any other house, anywhere else." What are we going to do? This is essentially more random than a lightning striking — this is like lightning striking you while you're getting eaten by a shark, right? It's never going to, it's so rare that planning for it is completely irrational even if the stakes are high. And writing books like Enlightenment Now or Better Angels, Rationality are inherently encouraging. And it's almost contrarian because of our propensity to focus on the negative. Why do we need an accurate view of the world? Why is this important?
[00:30:27] Steven Pinker: Well, it's for the same reason that it's better to see things than to wear a blindfold or hallucinate, namely, the more you know about the world, the better equipped you are to act on it, to solve problems when they arise to figure out what works and what doesn't to protect the institutions and the laws and the practices that have made life better. Get rid of the ones that have made life worse. The more you know about the world, the better equipped you are to act on it.
[00:30:53] Jordan Harbinger: Don't get me wrong. I agree with the idea that we should keep our eye on a positive view of the future, because I think it also encourages us to solve the problems that we do have instead of — I see a lot of this online, I throw our hands up in the air. It's hopeless. Everything is screwed. There's no point. We're all going to blow up in a heaping fireball because of, well, anything climate change or extremism or pollution, just about anything can be thrown up in the air and discarded. And that's obviously not how we got to where we are now. We didn't get to where we are now by having people go, "Screw it. There's no way we're going to solve any of these problems," right?
[00:31:29] Steven Pinker: Exactly, right. And I think that is the value of appreciating the progress that we've made so that we know that problems are not an excuse to leave difficulties to our grandchildren, to enjoy ourselves while we can, to burn everything to the ground in the hope that whatever rises out of the ashes is bound to be better. It's a way of understanding what can be done. And it's empowering in terms of what we do in the future. And this includes some of our toughest problems now, including climate change. If we decide that it can't be solved, then it won't be solved. If we decided that it can be solved to won't necessarily be solved, but it certainly won't be solved if we don't even try to find a solution.
[00:32:08] Jordan Harbinger: How did you get interested in this topic? And, you know, my gut sort of says, "Well, Jewish parents, probably not super optimistic. Maybe, raised to feel extremely lucky," because you know, all jokes aside, a lot of our Jewish relatives didn't make it very well in the 20th century, especially in the middle.
[00:32:25] Steven Pinker: Yeah, indeed. I mean, I was raised to appreciate how lucky I was. My parents were born in Canada, fortunately, but my grandparents were born in Europe. They all immigrated to Canada and for which I retroactively thank them, but I had relatives who perished in the Holocaust. My father lived through the great depression as a child. He was briefly homeless. My grandmother had two cloth diapers that she would have to wash and dry in turn. My father was dirt poor, and many of my friends were children of Holocaust survivors. Others were children of refugees from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.
[00:33:01] So you think of the great depression, you think of World War II, you think of the Holocaust. Here, I was lucky to grow up in middle-class suburb. My parents' generation couldn't understand why we were so rebellious, what we were complaining about, about the unjust racist system. They said, "You want unjust raise the system, look at the Germany and Poland when we grew up."
[00:33:20] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah.
[00:33:21] Steven Pinker: I did have an appreciation, at least from my parents generation, of the relative good fortune that I had in being brought up in a liberal democracy. For me personally, it was a kind of Securitas journey. I'm a cognitive psychologist. I'm interested in how the mind works, what makes us tick. I'm interested in human nature. I'm interested in what, how evolution prepared the brain to allow us to do what we do to learn language, to see, to move our limbs, to form alliances and friendships and romances.
[00:33:52] And the existence of human nature is controversial. It's historically been associated with the political right because you can't change human nature. So we need a strong police, we need strong military, we need strong moral code. The left more or less is more sympathetic to view the world blank slate, just change the culture, change the programming, change the teaching, change the parenting, and you can bring up kids with any traits you want.
[00:34:19] I tend to lean more toward the existence of human nature, although I'm not a political conservative, and that's because there's scope for — one of the things that nature did give us, one of the parts of human nature is an open-ended ability to come up with new ideas and share them via language. That's one of the things that language, which is the thing that I study the most, allows us to do. Every sentence that you and I have uttered in this podcast, even though I've been on talking about these themes before, but I can guarantee you that if you looked at the transcript, none of the sentences would have been repeated verbatim. My memory isn't that good. So language allows us to share all kinds of new ideas and among them could be ideas of how we reduce war and crime and racism and oppression.
[00:35:03] Now, there was no guarantee that it will, but you know, the argument that I need is if on average, we keep the things that work, try out new ideas, criticize bad ideas, then it's possible that we can improve our law, even though we're stuck with human nature. And then in Better Angels of Our Nature, a term of course that I stole from Abraham Lincoln but it fits the idea of perfect, I showed that it's not just a theoretical possibility, it's happened. War has come down, and rape and child abuse. You just, whenever you have the data, you plot them over time and the graphs go down. And then Enlightenment Now I broaden that to other measures of human well-being such as poverty and illiteracy and work hours and happiness.
[00:35:45] It's partly fending off the accusation that a belief in human nature is depressing and fatalistic and reactionary. And there's nothing we can do to improve a lot. It's kind of pushing back against that idea that led me into the idea of human progress.
[00:36:01] Jordan Harbinger: It's funny. You should mention, you're not a political conservative, because I looked at something. I can't remember what it was now, but you got lumped in for just a minute with the sort of alt-right for saying, "Look, a lot of these people are educated and well read. This is not just sort of like Tiki torch-wielding neckbeards, which was the image that a lot of people on the left wanted to create. And they felt empowered by things that are not discussable in public. And I think you're almost like in a can't win scenario, because even though you're basing your opinions on data and science, people are constantly trying to paint you, especially for whatever reason, with a brush of one side or the other. Have you found that to be true?
[00:36:36] Steven Pinker: Yeah, it is a increasing danger in an era of political polarization and academia, which you think ought to be the arena in which you could deconstruct this and just analyze each issue with the best tools available is in danger of becoming something of a political mono-culture to be kind of captured by a left-wing tribe. And under the case of — I've got as far as from the alt-right is who you could possibly imagine, not only in Enlightenment Now, do I present the case for liberal cosmopolitan humanism against nationalist populist, reactionary thinking, but I'm on record as the second biggest contributor to Hillary Clinton among Harvard Faculty.
[00:37:17] But yes, there is that danger that just analyzing things subjectively in the case of the alt-right, I can tell you that it's true, that not all of them are Tiki torch-wielding skinheads, because at least one of my former students at Harvard University gravitated to the alt-right to my horror. But he was one of the smartest students I ever had. And the point of that discussion that ended up on YouTube and selectively edited is that if you have an atmosphere in which as we increasingly do in academia, in which there some things you just can't say, well, there are going to be people who aren't part of the tribe. We're going to say, "Well, geez, what are they afraid of?"
[00:37:53] If you get punished for saying something that must mean we should take a look at it because if it was so preposterous, no one would bother suppressing it in the first place. Maybe there's something to it. I think that academia has become something of an incubator of the alt-right by having such an atmosphere of repression that people think that there are truths that are being suppressed.
[00:38:14] Jordan Harbinger: That terrifies me a little bit, right? Because I did a bit of a debunk of this fake documentary called plan demic, which was something like an anti-vaxxer magnum opus. And I went through the first half of it and I just deconstructed a lot of the so-called experts and things like that. And one of the primary comments on there was, "If it's not true, why isn't it allowed on YouTube?" And that's hard to argue with in a lot of ways. I mean, it's hard to argue effectively. Obviously, there are reasons for not disseminating misinformation and disinformation, but it's very hard to convince somebody that they're not allowed to watch something because it's not true when usually they're going to assume the opposite is the case.
[00:38:53] Steven Pinker: Yeah. There has to be, there's no easy answer to what you do about material that is both false and harmful. Because as you say, simply censoring it can make it all the more appealing. On the other hand, you don't want ideas that are demonstrably dangerous to proliferate, but in general, it's probably better to flood the zone with reputations than to suppress the original claim.
[00:39:20] Jordan Harbinger: I definitely agree with that. I'm sort of an anti-censorship type when it comes to that. What's the common phrase? It's, "You sanitize these bad ideas by shining a light on them, not by hiding them away."
[00:39:30] Steven Pinker: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And I think it was maybe it was a Justice Louis Brandeis, who said that, perhaps.
[00:39:35] Jordan Harbinger: Wow, you're good at remembering who said what. I'll tell you I'm terrible at that.
[00:39:39] Steven Pinker: Assuming I didn't just make that up, but that's my best guess.
[00:39:43] Jordan Harbinger: It seems a bit unusual in many ways, just as far as humans are concerned, right? To have an optimistic view of human progress. Am I mis-characterizing your work? Because to me, it seems very optimistic.
[00:39:54] Steven Pinker: I'd like to say that it isn't optimism in the sense of having just a certain frame of mind. It's being aware of facts that most people aren't aware of. You ask people as to has global poverty increased or decreased, people say it's increased. They're wrong. Not that they're pessimistics, not that they're seeing the glass as half empty, they're wrong. And so what people often characterize as optimism in my books just consists of data that no one is aware of. Very few people have seen the graph showing the estimated battle deaths since 1945. Yes, what would the curve look like? I think it would be all over the map if you ask people to guess, but we do have that graph and I reprinted that graph and it's a striking graph because it shows that the rate of death in warfare has crept downward, not in a straight line. There have been ups and downs.
[00:40:41] Most recently, the Syrian Civil War was something of an uptick, but it was reversed and the overall trend is unmistakably downward and people just don't know it. So it's not optimistic to say, "Here's the fact that you just were never aware of. And the reason you never aware of it is because newspapers tend not to print graphs. They tend to print stories.
[00:41:00] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:41:00] Steven Pinker: And if there is a war, then you will see the footage. If someone has counted all the places that don't have wars, all the zeros that go into that faction, then there's no place to find it in the papers.
[00:41:13] Now, increasingly, people have become more interested in data. There's an excellent website called Our World in Data where you can look up data on pretty much anything that you're curious about when people say, "Well, what can I do to have a sunnier outlook on the world?" Part of the answer is there are news feeds for positive news, and those are some of those are excellent, but just being aware of trends as opposed to headlines is a way of getting a better appreciation. And as it happens, it gives you a more positive appreciation although it's not designed to do that. That's just the way the facts are going. It shouldn't be that surprising.
[00:41:49] I mean, there's nothing magical about human progress. It's not as if there's some mystical force that's carrying us upward. There is no such force. It's just that, you know, our iPhones get more features and our TVs get better and our cars get more fuel efficient and have better sound systems. And when there's that same kind of human ingenuity is applied to reducing violence against women or reducing war deaths. It doesn't always succeed, but sometimes it does.
[00:42:16] Jordan Harbinger: It seems like we tend to think of Western society is always on the brink of collapse, but people have been saying that for centuries, right? I kept thinking — because I remember having this thought sometime in college and going, "Man, everything is just going to hell in a handbag right as I'm becoming an adult." And the more I researched it and of course, later on found your stuff because I kept telling people like, "Aren't you concerned that everything's going into the toilet?" And it's like, "You got to read this book," right? We're safer than we've ever been.
[00:42:42] Steven Pinker: The world has been coming to an end for a long time indeed. And there's a very good book by Arthur Herman called The Idea of Decline in Western Civilization. We chose that starting probably with the romantic movement in the mid 19th century, there has been a whole parade of people saying, "We're on the verge of collapse. Our society is decadent and corrupt." And by the way, and these are the all-stars of the academic curriculum. You major in the liberal arts, and you're going to read Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and W.E.B. Du Bois, and one sourpuss after another. And they were convinced, you know, back in the 19th and early 20th century, everything was on the verge of collapse.
[00:43:23] Jordan Harbinger: You touched on this a little bit earlier but — all right, so safety and quality of life is on the rise. Why does it seem like rationality is in decline? There's no correlation there. Or is that the same type of illusion? Is that observation even accurate?
[00:43:36] Steven Pinker: Yeah. It's not clear that it's in declined. And in fact, I sometimes think that there's greater inequality of rationality. There is a lot of idiocy out there, conspiracy theories and fake news and quack cures, paranormal woo-woo. On the other hand, biomedical science is astonishing in what it is accomplishing. Electronics, nanotechnology, any application of rationality to domains of human activity that were formerly just ruled by hundreds and experts in intuitions, like evidence driven, policing, moneyball in sports looking at data instead of folklore, evidence-based medicine, feedback-informed psychotherapy. There are a lot of areas in which we really are getting smarter.
[00:44:21] And there are some things like conspiracy theories where — we've always had conspiracy theories. One attempt to quantify them over time by Joseph Uscinski. He seemed to suggest that the level of conspiracy theorizing hadn't changed in almost a hundred years in which he looked at evidence for it. This only went up to about 2010. So if it all went south in the last 10 years, then they aren't in his data set, but at least up till then — you know, there was the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There were the Illuminati. There was the trilateral commission in the 1970s. We're always vulnerable to conspiracy theorizing.
[00:44:55] We're certainly vulnerable to paranormal. That's kind of what religion is all about and superstition and fake news, one of the miracles in the Bible, but fake news about paranormal phenomena. It was probably the default in human affairs that unless you have a well-established scientific and journalistic infrastructure, archival records and government agencies keeping data and scientists trying to prove or disprove hypotheses and editors trying to filter out fake news. That's just what we naturally backslide to. It's good that we do have this beachhead of rationality, but the natural condition of humans, at least in the public sphere and ideas that we share, is an awful lot of nonsense.
[00:45:42] Jordan Harbinger: There's a lot to unpack here, I suppose. Do you think we're getting smarter as a society? Is that a question that's possible to answer?
[00:45:50] Steven Pinker: Let's see. There is one sense in which we have been namely the so-called Flynn effect named after the philosopher, James Flynn, where IQ scores have increased for about a century. I've starting to level off in the countries where it's been going on the longest, such as Northern Western Europe. It's still taking place in poor countries of the world and probably still in the United States. So there's a funny sense in which we're literally getting smarter in terms of measured IQ. And again, as I mentioned in certain domains, we've been getting smarter in technology, in biomedicine, in the best of journalistic practices, in evidence-based policy, we're getting smarter, but there's still an awful lot of stupidity out there.
[00:46:32] Jordan Harbinger: This is The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Steven Pinker. We'll be right back.
[00:46:37] This episode is sponsored in part by Intuit, the company powering products like TurboTax, QuickBooks, Mint, and Credit Karma. Intuit works for what you work for and whether that's a small business or just you as an individual, Intuit's innovative products, make managing your finances and setting yourself or your business up for success simple. Mint's budgeting tools and recommendations to help you save for whatever, like gifts for this holiday season or for the landscaping we're planning on doing next year. Like TurboTax online during tax season, Intuit connects me with live experts based on my individual needs, making it easy and with a new baby on the way. These proactive experts can assist me in navigating my new life changes as it applies to my tax returns. QuickBooks helps you manage your business all in one place from tracking everyday expenses to being ready for tax time. You can also send invoices, receive payments, run payroll, and track future cashflow right inside QuickBooks. Discover how Intuit's innovative products can help you see what's possible at intuit.com.
[00:47:30] This episode is also sponsored by Glenfiddich. Glenfiddich breaks from the single malt scotch whisky norm, and helps redefine what it means to be rich. It's so easy to get bogged down in how much money you got and what you're earning. The currency of the new rich — that's you, if you're listening to this — is getting more time and enjoyment out of what we've already got. Now today's guest Steven Pinker, we're talking about why it's the best time to be alive, right? We're safer right now. We've got the best healthcare we've ever had, depending on what country you're living in. It's really a great time to be out there, but there's more opportunity than anywhere else at any time in history according to pretty much all the data that we have. And a lot of people it's really easy for us to get nostalgic for a past that never was or get bogged down by what's challenging us now. I mean, we have real challenges here. We're in a pandemic, a lot of negativity on the rise when we're more divided than ever, but it's still the best time to take opportunity and live a great rich life. And I hope that this show is helping you do that.
[00:48:23] Jen Harbinger: Skillfully crafted, enjoy responsibly. Glenfiddich 2021 imported by William Grant and Sons Inc. New York, New York.
[00:48:30] Jordan Harbinger: This episode is also sponsored in part by Egnyte. Ransomware attacks are happening more and more frequently, and I did an episode on this episode 542, to show why all of us are so vulnerable to ransomware attacks. There's almost no way for a cyberattack to target just one victim without endangering countless others. And it can come for any company in any industry. Egnyte is the first ever file system with sophisticated ransomware detection and recovery tools fully baked in. Your team can create and share documents in Microsoft 365, Google Docs, Slack, Salesforce, DocuSign, plus countless other app integrations while keeping your company's data safe. I signed up, I was easily able to get started in a minute because it's basically turnkey. You don't need on-site hardware, software, anything like that. Egnyte gives companies with limited IT and security staff, the power of much larger teams. Ransomware detection and mitigation running in the background, so your team can work without disruption.
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[00:49:34] Jordan Harbinger: Now, for the rest of my conversation with Steven Pinker.
[00:49:38] Yeah, I wonder because certainly we're getting knowledge and science is moving forward, et cetera. Do you think we're acting more intelligently? I mean, thankfully we have system's checks balances, whatever to make up for the bad thinking of individuals like science. But those almost seem to be breaking down a little bit. Like authoritarian regimes love to dismantle those because they don't want those checks and balances.
[00:50:00] Steven Pinker: That's exactly right. And authoritarian regimes thrive on disinformation and propaganda. And getting people so confused about what reality is that they may as well accept what the government tells them. That is they try to disable the mechanisms of independent fact checking. If everyone's saying whatever they want, then the people with guns who say things are the ones that everyone has to listen to.
[00:50:24] Jordan Harbinger: So progress isn't necessarily inevitable though, right? I mean, what about something like the dark ages or is that just a total anomaly?
[00:50:32] Steven Pinker: No, no, no, no progress is not inevitable. In fact, progress is precious and it only comes about when you have the results of an enlightenment. That's why I called my previous book Enlightenment Now, calling for the ideals of the enlightenment to be cherished and savored and safeguarded and extended. Our natural condition is for there not to be progress. Actually progress is kind of a, a weird, unusual state of affairs and we've got to nurture it for it to continue. I mean, it depends on science. It depends on knowledge. It depends on humanism. That is on our setting as our goal, the wellbeing of people.
[00:51:06] If we fall back into tribalism and nationalism, then progress may not continue. And there have been reversals. All of the graphs that I present, very few of them are just, as I say, a monotonic line with no wiggles. There are always local reversals. In the case of a war, for example, there was bulges corresponding to the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Syrian Civil War.
[00:51:34] I think it could get worse in the case of crime, violent crime. The country had a freak out from the '60s to the '90s, where there was a big spike in violent crime. We just lived through and we're still living through a reversal of the decline of crime in the last year and a half or so. The reasons to think it will be temporary, that it will be a blip and not a permanent reversal, but it has reversed in the last year and a half.
[00:51:57] Jordan Harbinger: What about some of the imminent threats to our progress here, such as climate change, AI joining us here at some point? It seems like we can't just rely on human thinking at some point.
[00:52:07] Steven Pinker: Well, we do have to rely on human thinking. What else are we going to rely?
[00:52:11] Jordan Harbinger: Right.
[00:52:11] Steven Pinker: Aliens aren't going to save us. God's not going to save us. In Enlightenment Now, I have a discussion of fears of a runaway AI, which I think are misplaced. We could worry about AI, what we're going to do with the jobs that get automated by AI. What are all the truck drivers going to do and forklift operators? But I don't think we have to worry about, an AI turning us into raw materials as collateral damage, which is a kind of science-fiction scenario that some people do worry about.
[00:52:37] Climate change, we do have to worry about. It is it's a serious threat. It's one that we have not solved. We're not, right now, on track for solving it. I think we could solve it, but only if we discover a lot of things that we have not yet discovered and try to implement them. Scalable, unlimited, clean energy, ways of making steel and fertilizer and cement without CO2 emissions, ways of flying planes without net CO2 emissions. All of these are unsolved. I don't think they are unsolvable, but we haven't yet solved them.
[00:53:10] Jordan Harbinger: Back in the day, you know, hundreds of years ago, or maybe even more recently, smarter people, maybe succeeded more in a Darwinian sense and had more children, that were also smart and had resources and succeeded, society is changing. I don't know too many folks that would argue now that it's the smart people and the most educated, the most resourced, having the most. And this might be a ridiculous notion, but do you think this could reverse the collective intelligence of certain societies? And I'm waiting for the emails implying that that was a Nazi thing to say, but I should be able to ask this question, right?
[00:53:43] Steven Pinker: You are correct in noting that this is one of the taboo topics. And it's called dysgenics, the opposite of eugenics. That is the fear that as the less intelligent have more offspring, the being of the intelligence of the population over many generations will go down. Well, I'll leave it by saying that in theory it could happen, but I think I'll leave it at that.
[00:54:05] Jordan Harbinger: Yeah. I also don't mean to imply that people who have more kids and are lower on the socioeconomic scale are all dumb or genetically inferior. What I mean is—
[00:54:14] Steven Pinker: Oh no. There's a big difference between poverty and lack of intelligence.
[00:54:19] Jordan Harbinger: Right. Good. I wanted to put that on the record for the people that are like warming up their keyboard fingers right now for the—
[00:54:25] Steven Pinker: More like pitchforks and torches.
[00:54:27] Jordan Harbinger: Yes, yes that, but on Twitter.
[00:54:31] Steven Pinker: Or whatever, Twitter—yeah.
[00:54:32] Jordan Harbinger: On that same token when we politicize issues, we get dumber and less intellectually honest, I guess is probably a more accurate way to phrase this, right? When I see the stuff out there about climate change or vaccine misinformation, or just about any politicized topic, it's like we can't communicate anymore. It doesn't work because we tend to disagree with somebody and then be like, "Well, you're evil and an idiot," instead of having any sort of rational discourse with these people.
[00:54:59] Steven Pinker: Yeah. It's not clear how much worse it's gotten because it was always something that was true of people that the—
[00:55:06] Steven Pinker: Back in the '70s, they were — in fact back in the '50s, there were experiments showing that you show a video of a football game between Harvard and Yale. And you ask people to count the number of dirty tricks and infractions and penalties. And the Harvard students see loss of infractions by the Yale team and vice versa. And that also happens with now with violent demonstrations. If you say it's in front of an abortion clinic, then the left sees a lot of violence, and if you say it's in front of a demonstration for admitting gay people in the military, now the right sees a lot of violence from the left. That's kind of remained, but yeah, politics makes people stupid in the literal sense that we flub logic problems.
[00:55:46] If the content goes against our beliefs — you know, there are experiments, if racism has been eliminated, then formative action is no longer necessary. So this is a syllogism. I want you to — it is a logic test. I want you just to answer based on literally implies what, what is a sound inference, not what's true or false. So I give you the syllogism, "If racism has declined affirmative, action is not necessary. Racism is decline. Therefore, affirmative action is not necessary." Is that a valid inference? And liberals will say no and conservatives will say yes.
[00:56:20] In that case, conservatives are actually correct. It is a valid inference. It may not be a sounded for instance as the premise may not be true, but in terms of its shear logic, yes, P leads to Q, but you flip the content to say — say it's about gun control and now it's the right-wingers who are the dunce caps and the left-wingers who are the Einsteins. And so on with statistical problems as well, depending on the content, people will misread the statistics to go in their preferred direction. It's often the most, the savviest who are most likely to be seduced by the answer that they want to be correct based on their political inclinations. So yeah, politics does make it literally, quite literally make us stupid. In that, we're more poorly equipped for statistical and logical reasoning.
[00:57:05] Jordan Harbinger: So if people today are basing their beliefs on tribal affiliation, as opposed to reason or logic or even science, and in fact that belief in science at all might even be seen as one form of tribal loyalty by members of other tribes, how do we get people to form beliefs based on reason and logic and rational thinking as opposed to a group thing and tribal affiliate? I mean, is it even possible to do this or they're just contrary to all human nature, period?
[00:57:30] Steven Pinker: I mean, human nature pushes against it, but that doesn't mean that resistance is futile. Human nature makes us believe in magic and human sacrifice and ghosts and spirits, but we can unlearn them. Part of it is schooling. That is the tools of rationality, I think, should be taught. They're prerequisite to everything else. So just in the same way that we teach arithmetic and reading, because you don't know how to read and you can't learn anything else. If you don't know how to think probabilistically to not confuse causation and correlation, you're going to be confused in everything you do. And so I think that should be part of the educational system.
[00:58:03] I think it should be part of our norms in terms of what counts as acceptable discourse but in political debates and academic debates and newspaper op-eds, they should be less of a ethic that you got to win at all costs and more dollars your uncertainty, listen to contrary evidence, don't base your argument on anecdotes, don't confuse causation and correlation. It should be just sort of part of the norms of just everyday sensible conversation.
[00:58:31] The same way that no one, people don't tell ethnic jokes or homosexual jokes, the way they did when I was a kid. It just kind of mortified and we wouldn't be a member of polite society if you still did that. We should try to make a conversation more rational, but also we should make an effort to de-politicize science and policy and other debates. And I've had this given a hard time too. People say the national academy of sciences where their official pronouncements just sound like we are right out of a left wing post-modernist English department. It's just the verbiage that you expect from the political left. And I point out, you're just branding science as a left-wing enterprise and people on the right are going to say, "Well, why should we trust anything coming out of science? It's just another political faction." That I think they should be an effort to make science, give it less of a left-wing brand if we want it to be taken seriously by the right.
[00:59:27] Jordan Harbinger: Making science political is actually one of the biggest problems that I'm seeing right now in communication online. I'll speak more about that after the show for people who are interested, but this seems extremely dangerous because now we can't — science used to be like the one thing where everybody went, "Well the experiments have been run and here we are, and hydrogen and oxygen make water." And now you have people being like, "Rerun the experiments. I don't believe it." And we just kind of can't regress that far safely.
[00:59:54] Steven Pinker: I hope not. And I got to say that my fellow scientists are not helping things.
[00:59:58] Jordan Harbinger: Speaking of science and society getting smarter or not, I wonder if you think we have too much brain power and talent wrapped up in, for example, the financial sector, the legal sector. When I worked in the legal sector, there were so many, very, very, very smart people. And I thought, "Wow. And all we're doing is like managing really big spreadsheets. And you know, it's financial law. We're making, we're trying to get financial info half a second, faster than the competition. We're suing companies. There's people that are patent trolling. It's just an inefficient waste of human capital, in my opinion. And I would love to see more top minds solving real problems, frankly, instead of creating imaginary financial entities to shuffle financial instruments around.
[01:00:40] Steven Pinker: Oh, tell me about it. I'm part of the machine, the factory that turns out to the, supposedly, intellectual elite and they get snapped up by the finance ban. I hear I'm referring, of course, to Harvard undergraduates. We crank them out. They don't even know diddly squat about business and finance as a result of the courses they teach, but they get snapped up by Goldman Sachs and McKinsey and how much good can their brainpower contributes to the society. That it truly is debatable. I agree with you that there is a misallocation of intellectual capital in both the financial and the legal sectors. And it's desperately needed in a lot of other sectors like green energy, like Alzheimer's research, like vaccines, but anyway, we're the same wavelength there.
[01:01:21] Jordan Harbinger: In closing here, how do we deal on a very practical level with folks that just seem absolutely impermeable to some of these enlightenment ideas, fact fullness, intellectual honesty, because it seems important that people understand the progress we're making so that we get less of these just-want-to-watch-the-world-burn types of folks, radical extremists, catastrophist? Is that a word? It should be a word.
[01:01:43] Yeah, it is a word.
[01:01:44] Jordan Harbinger: It is a word. Great, good. Perfect. How do we deal with those folks?
[01:01:47] Steven Pinker: Yeah, I think, you know, there's no turnkey solution, no algorithm. There's some that we probably can't deal with. We can try to create fewer of them in terms of ideas that people get exposed to in the school so that they're not replenished as the older ones die. There are always people at the fridges who are like dyed in the wool, committed to the conspiracy theories of the need for chaos. That, you know, maybe on the fence and they can be picked off one at a time. The people who are in the midst of the movements, sometimes when there are influencers who change their mind, if they do, or if you can find people who are considered to be heroes within a particular movement. And recruit them to spread the message, then people will go with what their leaders tell them. You know, I think it would have been great if the left have allowed Donald Trump to claim credit for vaccines, for Operation Warp Speed. He's a blowhard and he's bragging and let him have it to get all of his followers vaccinated.
[01:02:43] Jordan Harbinger: Yes. 100 percent. Yeah, 100 percent, because you'd have a lot of people who trust science, they would just get vaccinated and they would sort of say, "Wow, Trump didn't do anything. He might've funded it," but grumble, grumble, grumble, and they would've gotten. But then we wouldn't necessarily have this massively politicized reaction to the vaccine.
[01:03:01] Steven Pinker: Yeah. At least we should be aware of politicization as a major driver of science, acceptance or denial. And again, my fellow scientists have been very, very slow at realizing it. One person said it's like the way that, you know, American tourists sometimes deal with foreigners in another country. They just speak to them very slowly and then distinctly hoping that somehow it'll get through. I mean, that's just not going to work. we got to be clever and we've got to stop making the problem worse by branding ourselves as part of political faction and to try insofar as it's possible to recruit spokespeople for a diversity of political stances who are still scientifically literate and willing to spend the messages.
[01:03:43] Jordan Harbinger: Steven Pinker, thank you so much for coming on the show. This has been a wonderful, as I hoped it would be. And I really appreciate your time.
[01:03:50] Steven Pinker: My pleasure. Thanks for having me on, Jordan.
[01:03:53] Jordan Harbinger: If you're looking for another episode of The Jordan Harbinger Show to sink your teeth into with Navy SEAL and veteran Jocko Willink like you've never heard him before.
[01:04:01] Jocko Willink: Leadership is the most important on the battlefield. Every characteristic that you can have for leader can be taken to an extreme, even the most important characteristic that I talk about all the time, which is humility. You've got to be humble as a leader. You've got to always look, "Okay, how can I improve? I need to listen to other people." Well, as a leader, you can actually be too humble where you don't stand up when somebody is telling you to do something that you don't think is right, but you're like, "Hey, I'm humble. So I'm going to do it anyways." Well, if you don't think it's right, you actually shouldn't do it. Every positive characteristic can be taken to the extreme that it becomes a negative. And that is why as a leader, you have to be balanced.
[01:04:37] Jordan Harbinger: Be humble or get humbled is a term that I love. Can you tell us what this means?
[01:04:42] Jocko Willink: The nature of the world is if you're not humble, you are going to get humbled. So that's a good attitude to have, and it's a good attitude to always think, you know, I need to stay humble, but — this is the dichotomy — this doesn't mean that you're completely passive. And there are times as humble as you should be, there are times when you need to stand up and say no.
[01:05:07] You know, Leif and I joke about it, sometimes the most we get to sleep was when we were in the field. There's a funny picture of myself and Dave Burke on a rooftop. Probably, it looks like it's about 11 o'clock in the morning and we're both asleep. We're both sitting there—
[01:05:19] At 110 degrees?
[01:05:20] Jocko Willink: Yeah, it's 110 degrees and we're both asleep. And he clearly, this was the first time we had to rest in 24 or 48 hours. And you learn to sleep anywhere on concrete, in floors, in stairwells and whatever else.
[01:05:33] Jordan Harbinger: For more with Jocko, including why we should stop being the easy button for those we manage and lead and the concept of leadership capital, how to build it when to use it, and when not to use it, check out episode 93 right here on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[01:05:49] Glad I was finally able to make that happen. Him and I have been going back and forth for years, trying to make this conversation work. As mentioned on the show, we are tilted towards processing negative information, the negativity bias. We've talked about it on the show many times. So we do notice it more and remember it more, but this also leads us to process risk poorly. We err on the side of caution, kind of goes back to the old line and the bushes evolutionary theory, right? If our ancestors heard something rustle in the bushes and got scared, it didn't matter if it was a bird or a lion because they reacted with fear. But if they didn't react at all, well, they got eaten, right? So this has evolved in us, but it does cause us to process risk in an inefficient way.
[01:06:25] Of course, this is also aided and abetted by the availability heuristic. So the news focuses on negative events, mostly because of negativity bias, which is a self-reinforcing cycle, right? a vicious cycle. So we end up thinking that the world is much worse than it is because of these types of bias. And of course, declinism, looking at the past and thinking, "Wasn't it so great?" and looking at the future and thinking, "Oh, it's going to be so awful," right? These are all human cognitive biases that come into play here that causes to view our world in a way that frankly just isn't accurate.
[01:06:54] I was glad that was Steven, and we talked about this a little more offline, if he had any thoughts on the quality of our communication these days, right? It certainly does seem like that is worse than it was in the past. In the past. It seems like things were more civil. Now, online discussion is horrifying even if we sort of know what to look for in terms of Russian bots and trolls and the regular folks we were talking to every day, now can be pretty horrible online.
[01:07:16] I think Mike Tyson said that online communication is made worse by people who would never have the guts to say something like that to your face, or if they did, would get punched in the face. You know, now we just have. Letting out their anger with innocent strangers online in part due to anonymity. Clint Watts, who was on this show, who studies Russian and Chinese influence operations online. He has a policy of not engaging with anonymous accounts at all. If it's a fake name or a non-real name or the account doesn't have background info, he will just block and ignore. Not a bad policy for those of us that have trouble dealing with folks online, especially trolls.
[01:07:51] You know, I feel like me not using Facebook anymore, limiting a lot of online contact in certain places, it helped me learn more about how to stay sane using social media. And frankly, it's helped me integrate this stuff into my life in a healthy way. I interact with all of you on LinkedIn, my Instagram DMs, but I don't use the feed. I don't scroll through Instagram. I don't scroll through Facebook. I use it as an inbox and that's literally it.
[01:08:14] We're just at the beginning of this curve. And as a parent, I think about this all the time. I used to hear that TV would make families never talk again. And the telephone would make families never talk again. The ancient Greeks actually thought books were going to be toxic because people wouldn't have to memorize information. Imagine thinking that reading is going to be the undoing of civilization. So social media does have its ups and downs. I think we're early in the curve when it comes to this. So I haven't given up on it completely, but man, does it seem like our communication has taken a nosedive?
[01:08:42] And that's one of the reasons that I love podcasts, right? We can have deep, intelligent conversations that are longer than a few tweets long or a back and forth where people are trying to prove themselves on social media. So I hope you enjoyed the show. I enjoyed talking with Steven. Of course, links to all his stuff and all his books, especially will be in the show notes. Please use our website links if you buy books from any guest on the show. It does help support us. Worksheets for the episode are in the show notes. Transcripts are in the show notes, and there's a video of this interview going up on our YouTube channel at jordanharbinger.com/youtube. Speaking of Instagram and social media, I'm at @JordanHarbinger on Twitter and Instagram, or you can hit me on LinkedIn.
[01:09:18] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people online and off and dig the well before you get thirsty in our Six-Minute Networking course. The course is free. I don't sell anything, at least not yet. Just go to jordanharbinger.com/course and realize most of the guests you hear on the show, subscribe and contribute to the course. Come join us, you'll be in smart company where you belong.
[01:09:35] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. My team is Jen Harbinger, Jase Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Millie Ocampo, Ian Baird, Josh Ballard, and Gabriel Mizrahi. Remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know someone who just thinks that the past must have been better than the present, they suffer from those cognitive biases, that unhealthy nostalgia, share this episode with them. They may not agree, but maybe it'll get them halfway there. Hopefully, you find something great. In every episode of this show. Please share the show with those you care about. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
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