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Steven Pinker Discusses 'Enlightenment Now'

In a time when White House controversies, scandals, and talk of an impending constitutional crisis dominate the news, it might be easy to conclude things are not moving in the right direction.

But in his new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” Harvard psychologist Steve Pinker is pushing back on that perspective and argues things are not as bad as they seem.

“There is progress that you can find if you look at global data,” Pinker explained to Jim Braude on Greater Boston.

“If you look at the percentage of kids that are going to school, if you look at the percentage of girls that are going to school, if you look at rates of homicide, if you look at rates of death in warfare, if you look at rates of extreme poverty — all of them are going in the right direction.”

Pinker says the inspiration behind his book came from his desire to have “a rubric to cover values of reason and science and humanism and ultimately progress.” But that progress, Pinker said, is not always easy for the average person to see.

“There’s always a discrepancy on almost anything you ask between people’s opinion of their own lives and their opinions of the country and the world,” Pinker said, describing a concept he called “the optimism gap.”

This theory of thinking, Pinker said, also translates to the ballot box. “People often vote based on their theory of which way the country is going, because when you think about it — I mean, I know this kind of violates the principles of democracy — but your vote really isn’t going to turn the election," he said. "Your vote is not going to affect your own personal security."

Pinker also suggests our news culture is partly to blame for this perspective because reporting on progress is not inherently newsworthy. “A country that isn’t having a famine, a country that isn’t having a war, a city that isn’t shot up by terrorists — it’s just not news.”

Asked about President Donald Trump and his ability to undo some of the progress noted in his book, Pinker said it's too soon to tell.

“Whether one man can actually change the course of history, we’ll find out,” he said.

For more of Steven Pinker’s interview about “Enlightenment Now,” click on the link above.

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