Steven Pinker

I’m inspired by the entire enterprise of science, reason, and humanism.

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received seven honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language InstinctHow the Mind Works, and The Blank Slate.

He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and The New Republic. He has been named Humanist of the Year, and included in Prospect’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” “Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”

Why are you participating in the Cultivating Thought series?

I’m strongly in favor of cultivating thought! Slowly but surely, it’s a civilizing, enlightening, and humanizing process. And the more media, the better. Not just books and articles, but tweets, posts, and yes, cups.

Tell us about your two-minute read.

For several years I’ve been fascinated by the most important historical development that no one has heard of: the historical decline of violence. And I believe it is related to the cultivation of thought.

Who inspires you? Who are your favorite authors?

I don’t have a small number of heroes but am inspired by the entire enterprise of science, reason, and humanism. That being said, I enjoy the writing of (among others) Richard Dawkins, John Mueller, Colin McGinn, Brian Greene, and my other half, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

What’s the best book you've read in the past year?

Two that are close to home: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, by my wife Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, and Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, by my colleague Joshua Greene.

A Two-Minute Case for Optimism

by Steven Pinker

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 that 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?

We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.

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 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.