Review of “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress”

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The book is thick, in terms of both size and content.

Yes, at almost 500 pages I can see why some other reviewers surrendered and wrote their views on only a few hours of effort. I would add, that a book which presents data and charts is probably not best evaluated by an audiobook edition.

In terms of content, it covers almost every aspect of human life from politics to economics to psychology and philosophy. To an extent, I could see building an entire course just off the table of contents. However, to apply Ward’s rule (you should be able to explain your dissertation in 25 words or less) – Life is good and getting better because of patterns of thought that starts with the Enlightenment. (16 words).

In the last three chapters, Pinker addresses the counter-Enlightenment that seems to be taking hold on both the left and the right. He is relatively balanced, although Trump is the only politician he criticizes by name. Being intellectually honest, he also takes on his colleagues in Academia (although probably easier for a professor with tenure).

I do disagree with him on two points.

First, he blames the media for much of the distortion due to the ”if it bleeds, it leads’ criteria. I argue that the media is less important than politicians who have to paint a cataclysmic picture in order to promote a specific political policy (or policies). In Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory, framing a situation in the loss domain promotes more risk-acceptant behavior especially as there is a status quo bias. Therefore, to get the body politic to accept change, you have to give them the idea that things are bad (loss domain) and getting worse.

Second, I think that progress is a victim of its own success. People have gotten used to seeing improvement as the norm, so when it does not occur or does not occur at the expected rate, then they see it as going backward. A perfect example is when Apple comes up with a new phone which only has moderate changes (e.g., a slightly better camera). Unless it has made great leaps than it is considered a failure.

One final note, I think a lot of the criticism both on Goodreads and in the popular press comes from Pinker attacking many a sacred and fatted cow.



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