Finding Wisdom, and Optimism, in the Most Unlikely Places
What's the world coming to? A leading thinker gives away the answer.
Posted Dec 14, 2014
It’s enough to make you throw up your hands and surrender. The world seems to be, as they say, going to Hell in a handbasket. But then my wife brought home her lunch from Chipotle Mexican Grill, and pointed out that Steven Pinker was quoted at length right there on the burrito bag (see Exhibit A, below). That alone was enough to cheer me up. It suggests, for one, that America is not hopelessly lost to anti-intellectuals—Pinker’s quote is part of Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought author series. Pinker is one of my favorite authors and an eloquent defender of considering human thought and behavior in light of evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience.
And Pinker’s message on the Chipotle bag was itself a positively uplifting one, about how the modern world is actually getting better in many ways. I’ll pass it on here, in case you aren’t keeping up on your Chipotle’s bags:
"It's easy to get discouraged by the ceaseless news of violence, poverty, and disease. But the news presents a distorted view of the world. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. You never see a TV crew reporting that a country isn’t at war, or that a city hasn’t had a mass shooting that day, or that millions of 80-year-olds are alive and well. The only way to appreciate the state of the world is to count. How many incidents of violence, or starvation, or disease are there as a proportion of the number of people in the world? And the only way to know whether things are getting better or worse is to compare those numbers at different times: over the centuries and decades, do the trend lines go up or down?
"As it happens, the numbers tell a surprisingly happy story. Violent crime has fallen by half since 1992, and fiftyfold since the Middle Ages. Over the past 60 years the number of wars and the number of people killed in wars have plummeted. Worldwide, fewer babies die, more children go to school, more people live in democracies, more can afford simple luxuries, fewer get sick, and more live to old age. 'Better' does not mean 'perfect.' Too many people still live in misery and die prematurely, and new challenges, such as climate change, confront us. But measuring the progress we’ve made in the past emboldens us to strive for more in the future. Problems that look hopeless may not be; human ingenuity can chip away at them. We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.”
As if it weren’t gratifying enough to see such a positive message coming from a prominent member of my field, Pinker’s optimistic case is based on solid scientific data. Although the space on a Chipotle bag does not permit elaboration or a reference list, Pinker reviews the data thoroughly in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. (I summarized some of his findings in a previous post, "Is the World Becoming a Nicer Place to Live?")
Giving Psychology Away
George Miller concluded his 1969 presidential address to the American Psychological Association with these words:
"I can imagine nothing we could do that would be more relevant to human welfare, and nothing that could pose a greater challenge to the next generation of psychologists, than to discover how best to give psychology away."
By “giving psychology away,” Miller meant sharing our scientific findings with the general public. If you are an academic psychologist at a university, you are expected to publish (or perish). But most of the rewards for academic researchers come from publishing our findings in prominent scientific journals, where they will be read by our fellow research scientists. In that context, we will be delighted if a paper is cited more than 50 or 100 times. But Miller argued that we have a responsibility as citizens to share those findings—which often have direct and indirect implications for public policy and for personal decision-making—with a much broader audience. Unfortunately, not all top-notch researchers are well-practiced or well-equipped to share their most important results with the public, and the style of writing one finds in a typical scientific journal would have a narcotic effect on most non-psychologists. (Even I often read a journal article when I am having a hard time falling asleep—and I'm snoring in no time.)
More than perhaps any psychologist living today, Pinker has reached out to the general public, penning a series of engaging and thought-provoking books about evolutionary psychology and the psychology of language. His books have become best-sellers at Main Street bookstores and on amazon.com. I was about to suggest that we create a “George Miller Award” to give Pinker for his dedicated efforts to give psychology away. But it turns out there already is one—the George A. Miller Prize in cognitive neuroscience. That award has been given to a number of prominent cognitive scientists over the years, including David Hubel, Roger Shepard, Daniel Kahneman, and, in 2010...Steven Pinker.
I was particularly delighted to discover that Pinker has most recently combined his love of writing and his expertise on the psychology of language to produce a volume on writing style, The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. He opens the book by describing his love of writing manuals like Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style, with its cleverly worded advice, such as Strunk’s “Rule Seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”
Pinker goes on to observe:
I like to read style manuals for another reason, the one that sends botanists to the garden and chemists to the kitchen: it’s a practical application of our science. I am a psycholinguist and a cognitive scientist, and what is style, after all, but the effective use of words to engage the human mind?
Pinker's love of linguistic style has helped him become a world-class writer. I find his books so entertaining and informative I have given several of them as gifts to my friends and relatives. In the reference list below, I nominate a few you might want to "give away" to book lovers on your holiday list.
- Douglas Kenrick is author of The Rational Animal: How evolution made us smarter than we think and Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity are revolutionizing our view of human nature.
- Miller, G. A. (1969). Psychology as a means of promoting human welfare. American Psychologist, 24(12), 1063-1075.
- Pinker, S. (2003). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. NY: Penguin.
- Pinker, S. (1995). The language instinct. 1994. NY: Morrow.
- Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.
- Pinker, S. (2014). The sense of style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century. NY: Viking.