Saturday, March 10, 2018

Finally some reviews by people who are not Pinker fanboys

After the first onslaught of hyper-ventilating Pinker fanboys praising yet another vacuous Pinker book, slowly but surely people of intellectual heft have been looking at Pinker's "Enlightenment Now" and finding there is no there there. I've already mentioned the New York Times review, which I think is the most effectively anti-Pinker by pointing out his incredibly dismissive take on the horrors of the Tuskegee syphilis study.
(Pinker) is especially piqued by those who observe that science was sometimes used to justify monstrous ends, including racism and eugenics. 
In one particularly tortured passage, Pinker goes so far as to downplay the harm of the notorious Tuskegee syphilis study — which tracked syphilis in 600 African-American men, many of them poor sharecroppers, withholding information and proper treatment from them — on the grounds that the doctors “did not infect the participants, as many believe.” The study, a “one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people” (as he breezily puts it) “may even have been defensible by the standards of the day.” 
Why do this? Why not simply state that the study is a ghastly stain on the history of medicine? Despite the occasional warning that progress is “hard-won” and “perfect order” isn’t “the natural state of affairs,” Pinker’s book is filled with such fulsome apologias, which inadvertently suggest that the gains of the Enlightenment are so delicate that they require the historical gloss he compulsively provides.
There are quite a few others.

If Pinker had simply made these points, Enlightenment Now would have its uses. But he wraps his arguments up in such a thick layer of exaggeration and misinterpretation that the book does more harm than good. It makes use of selective data, dubious history, and, when all else fails, a contempt for “intellectuals” straight out of Breitbart. 
For the sceptical reader the whole strategy of the book looks like this. Take a highly selective, historically contentious and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment. Don't be too scrupulous in surveying the range of positions held by Enlightenment thinkers - just attribute your own views to them all. Find a great many things that happened after the Enlightenment that you really like. Illustrate these with graphs. Repeat. Attribute all these good things your version of the Enlightenment. Conclude that we should emulate this Enlightenment if we want the trend lines to keep heading in the right direction. If challenged at any point, do not mount a counter-argument that appeals to actual history, but choose one of the following labels for your critic: religious reactionary, delusional romantic, relativist, postmodernist, paid up member of the Foucault fan club.
In the end, “Enlightenment Now” is an erudite defense of the status quo and an apology for global capitalism (not surprisingly, the second-wealthiest man in the world as of this writing, Bill Gates, has named Pinker’s new book his “new favorite book of all time”). Though Pinker calls himself a classical liberal, by today’s standards it would be more accurate to call him a conservative (by comparison, the modern Republican Party, though labeling itself as conservative, is politically reactionary). 
The Guardian:
I am broadly sympathetic to his worldview. I agree with him that scientific knowledge is a moral imperative, and that we must use it to enhance human welfare. Like him, I’m enthusiastic about technologies that horrify other people, such as fourth-generation nuclear reactors and artificial meat. So I began reading his new book, Enlightenment Now, with excitement. 
I expected something bracing, original, well sourced and well reasoned. Instead, in the area I know best – environmental issues – the alarm began to sound for me when he characterised “the mainstream environmental movement” as “laced with misanthropy, including an indifference to starvation, an indulgence in ghoulish fantasies of a depopulated planet, and Nazi-like comparisons of human beings to vermin, pathogens and cancer”. 
Yes, I have come across such views, but they are few and far between. When they are expressed on social media, they are rapidly slapped down by other environmentalists. They are about as far from the environmental mainstream as they are from the humanitarian mainstream.

The Globe and Mail:
Enlightenment Now is a lengthy riposte to what Pinker regards, a bit hysterically, as swelling counter-enlightenment sentiment. He writes a lot about the "Two Cultures," following British author C.P. Snow's diagnosis of the radical split between the hard sciences and the humanities. (As a cognitive psychologist, Pinker is himself a sort-of-scientist; one imagines him donning a lab coat to sneak to into Serious Science Parties to which he was otherwise uninvited.) As Pinker puts it, "the disdain for reason, science, humanism and progress has a long pedigree in elite intellectual and artistic culture." Later, he's even cattier: "Intellectuals hate progress. Intellectuals who call themselves 'progressives' really hate progress."

The New Statesman:
To be sure, for Pinker there are no bad Enlightenment ideas. One of the features of the comic-book history of the Enlightenment he presents is that it is innocent of all evil. Accordingly, when despots such as Lenin repeatedly asserted that they engaged in mass killing in order to realise an Enlightenment project – in Lenin’s case, a more far-reaching version of the Jacobin project of re-educating society by the methodical use of terror – they must have been deluded or lying. How could a philosophy of reason possibly be implicated in murderous totalitarianism? Like the faithful who tell you Christianity is “a religion of love” that had nothing to do with the Inquisition, Pinker stipulates that the Enlightenment, by definition, is intrinsically liberal. Modern tyrannies must therefore be products of counter-Enlightenment ideologies – Romanticism, nationalism and the like. Enabling liberals to avoid asking difficult questions about why their values are in retreat, this is a popular view. Assessed in terms of historical evidence, it is also a myth.