Monday, February 12, 2018

Steven Pinker's Mental Myopia Is Mind Boggling - Things Are NOT "Getting Better"- The Enlightenment Isn't "Working"

Steven Pinker's WSJ  Review article, 'The Enlightenment Is Working', Feb. 10-11, p. C1, is yet more recycled pabulum to appeal to the hyper Pollyanna or adult child, (i.e. who fancies adult coloring books). In either case, unable to confront harsh reality. In many ways the WSJ piece is a recasting of Pinker's earlier tropes appearing in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  

As one reviewer (Andrew Brown) in The Guardian summarized that earlier Pinker effort:

"The factual errors in The Better Angels of Our Nature destroy Pinker's thesis, rendering it no more than a bedtime story.  The mixture is the same as in his previous bestsellers – a great piece of theatre in which half-truths do battle with straw men while the reader watches in safety, defended by barricades of apparent fact against any danger of actual thought. The whole trick depends on sustaining the illusion that only what's under the lighting exists."

In my book, 'Beyond Atheism, Beyond God', in the Section 'Is Evil Really In Decline', in Chapter Twelve ('The Problem Of Evil', pp. 286-293) I critically examined a number of Pinker's  claims and ended with this take:

"One must conclude then that given the cumulative harrowing facts and statistics, Pinker’s concept of diminishing evil as violence, is more a pipedream than a credible continuing aspect for human affairs. The most generous take for Pinker’s thesis is that he managed to capture a fraction of a cycle of human history within which violence did retreat from earlier epochs. However, he didn’t factor the energy and resource parameters far enough into the future to see that ultimately human civilization, predicated on moral order, requires ample energy for sustenance. "

So, I summed it up as a "pipedream" while Andrew Brown beheld a "great piece of theater in which half truths do battle with straw men."  Is this too harsh? No, indeed, it may be far too generous.  In the WSJ piece as in his earlier effort Pinker depends a lot on selective attention, and selective fact extraction to make his specious case.  The effect is that the casual reader, unaware of the detailed facts and stats, becomes so mesmerized by Pinker's belief in  human perfectibility  that he believes it too. Well, at least enough of it to think humans are way past the worst that can befall the species. Which is utterly insane.

Pinker's  historical blind spots particularly lead him to extol and inflate  "the Enlightenment" to the point he writes this unctuous twaddle:

"The U.S. was founded on the Enlightenment ideal that human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by institutions and result in progress."

Yeppers, we saw how that "ingenuity and benevolence" worked out with the Indian wars of the 19th century, basically decimating an indigenous population and using bogus treaties to seize their tribal lands. With this off his historical radar,  of course, Pinker  feels emboldened to make ever more hyped- up claims of progress.  And woe betide you  if you take issue, e.g.

"Don't listen to gloom mongers.  The world has improved by every measure of human flourishing over the past two centuries. and the progress continues."


"For all their disagreements the left and right agree on one thing: the world is getting worse. ...Such gloominess is decidedly unAmerican."

Then we read of the error made by us "gloom mongers":

"You can always fool yourself into seeing  a decline if you compare rose-tinted images of the past with bleeding headlines of the present."

But I can make the counter case that one can always fool himself into seeing rose-tinted:images in the present compared to the past by cherry picking what one wishes to see.   Thus, if  the casual reader allows himself to be lulled by Pinker's array of false facts it is a sure bet s/he will be wowed by the  sheer frequency with which his tropes for false positivity emerge, i.e. "the annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000 three decades ago but is now only 5.3 per 100,000."

But stats like these can hide a lot. For example,  in 1960 the total U.S. population was just short of 180 million and the number of violent crimes (forcible rape, murder, assault, burglary) was 288,460. Jump now to 2016 with the U.S. population just over 323 million, and the number of violent crimes recorded was 1, 283, 058

It's easy to see the U.S. population hadn't even doubled by 2016 but the violent crime numbers had more than quadrupled. It doesn't take a math specialist or genius to see that translates to an increased rate of violent crime. A comparison of violent crime numbers over decades leading up to the present will show the same increasing trend.

Similar criticisms can be leveled at the other factoids Pinker trots out, e.g.

- Disease is decimated by vaccines, sanitation, antibiotics   and other advances 

- Famine has been staunched by crop rotation, synthetic fertilizers

- Poverty has been slashed by education, market global trade and cheaper food

- Violent crime has been  tamed by replacing the code of vendetta with the rue of law.

- Everyday hazards blunted by safety regulations and engineering

- War is being marginalized by the spread of democracy.

Pinker's disease decimation claim is incredible given we're now seeing the return of whooping cough, mumps,  measles, and other diseases that medical optimists had assumed were "beaten".  The reason? Too many parents opting not to vaccinate their offspring. It appears the benefits of the "Enlightenment" never made it their way. They now have to be educated about things like "herd" immunity.

Right now the H3 N2  ("Type A strain") flu is ravaging the country and CDC estimates are that the hospitalization rate and  final death toll may reach numbers not seen since 2014-2015. The death toll may then soar to 56,000 which is 22,000 more than the Hong Kong Flu killed in 1968.  Fifty years and possibly just as many or more killed from the flu as then.  Where's the progress?  Where's the decimation?  Oh yeah, and by the way the vaccine is now reckoned to be only 17 percent effective.

One would also hope Pinker removes his rose -tinted glasses long enough to read Dr. Sanjay Gupta's prediction of an even deadlier killer flu, e.g.

Pinker's delusional take doesn't even process how many other terrible viral and bacterial diseases have made their emergence in the past three to four decades, including the Zika virus which shrinks the brains of infants rendering them radically retarded, Ebola -  which outbreak several years ago even reached the States, and dengue fever now ravaging the tropics and forecast to strike the U.S. as climate  change ramps up.

Pinker is also evidently ignorant of the fact antibiotic resistance is increasing dramatically owing to their overuse.  This has been responsible for the spread of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) as well as c. diff. (clostridium difficile -  which nearly killed Janice in 2006) and CRE (carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae).  How serous is it? By mid-2015 the most powerful antibiotic used at that point was colistin. But in November of that year, specialists isolated bacteria that carried a single gene that made them resistant to colistin. By April of 2016, the same gene showed up in bacteria in the U.S. According to Jean Patel based at the CDC and quoted in the recent AARP Bulletin (November, 2016, p. 31):

"And now we're beginning to get reports of bacteria that are resistant to virtually every antibiotic we have."

Some medical experts believe that by 2025 - unless radically new research is funded and new drugs approved -  there will no longer be any antibiotic that works, even against salmonella or strep throat.  Progress? You tell me.

Pinker's take on famine and depending on technology to keep feeding a growing human population, is also lax, I'd even say daft. The point is we're rapidly approaching the threshold at which there will simply be too many people to feed given existing resources- water, arable soil, fertilizers etc.. The projections now are for at least 10 billion people by 2050, and an 80 percent probability of 12.3 billion on Earth by 2100. Simply put, there simply aren't the resources to support even the lower addition. At root, the issue is sustainability - especially for water which is needed for crops. NO water, no crops to feed a growing population. The graphic below puts this into perspective;

The interpretation of the graph (upward) is simple. By June, 2030 TWO full Earths - that is the resources therein - will be needed to support the then population. Already we are at 1.5 Earths. Every year Global Footprint Network raises awareness about global ecological overshoot with its Earth Overshoot Day campaign. Earth Overshoot Day is the day on the calendar when humanity has used up the resources that it takes the planet the full year to regenerate. Just like the hands of the  'doomsday clock'  approaching 'midnight' for nuclear cataclysm, Earth Overshoot Day  has moved earlier and earlier each year across metaphorical calendar months. By way of comparison, it has already shifted from early October in 2000 to August n 2015 and will arrive by early May this year -  thanks to the Trump administration's deleterious policies.. This is nothing to cheer about but instead something to fear because it shows our time is running out:for enough food and water.

Contrary to Pinker's pink glasses ideation, human population growth in relation to available resources to sustain it amounts to batting on a losing wicket. It is regression, pure and simple.  If one takes the total output of bio-productivity (determined in terms of food crops generated per hectare, water volume per hectare, etc.) and divides that by the population one obtains the bio-support capacity of the planet.  Right now and projected forwards, that capacity is decreasing not increasing in line with the resource overshoot already mentioned. In order to simply be static -  remaining at the current compromised bio support capacity -  some way would have to be found to avoid the births of those additional 3- 5 billion humans. Either that, or we need to find a second Earth. Good luck on that one.

The claim of poverty being slashed by education etc. is also questionable. According to a report appearing in The Denver Post just 4 years ago, ('4 in 5 Adults Confront Poverty in Their Lifetime') :

"Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in government data, engulfing more than 76% of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge to be published next year in the Oxford University Press."

This has since been tied directly to the opioid crisis now taking nearly 50,000 lives a year. It has also been responsible for the first ever reduction in life expectancy for middle aged whites. See e.g.

According to  Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics:

"I'm not prone to dramatic statements.  But I think we should be really alarmed. The drug overdose problem is a public health problem, and it needs to be addressed. We need to get a handle on it."

Will we? Who knows?

The Oxford-published study cited by the Post predicts that by 2030, based on the current trend of widening income inequality, close to 85% of all working age adults in the U.S. will experience bouts of poverty.  According to Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who calculated the numbers:

"Poverty is no longer an issue of us versus them, it's an issue of 'us'. Only when poverty is thought of as a mainstream event, rather than a fringe experience that just affects blacks and Hispanics, can we really begin to build broader support for programs that lift people in need."

In the rest of the world, of course, the entrenched poverty is growing even more and especially in Africa which features the most rapidly increasing population. Not helped at all by the Trumpies pulling back on making contraceptives more widely available.   As a result, the continent's population is projected to reach 5.8 billion by 2100. That means nearly 1 of every 2 people on Earth will be African. That is assuming the population peaks at 11.6 b.  Where will the resources be to support them? The jobs? The water? The life quality? Fact is, that population growth is unsustainable and means either vast numbers will perish, likely of disease, war or famine - or they will do everything they can to go to places with greater opportunity and resources- like Europe and the United States.

Why hasn't Pinker processed any of this?

His trope about "violent crime being tamed" can also be skewered especially as he cites the "rule of law" for doing so. The same rule of law that now has the U.S. with the highest rate of incarceration on the planet, far more than even Russia, China and North Korea.

"Every day hazards blunted by safety regulations"?  Check out the latest stats on how many kids are bring killed by guns left unsecured.  To see an example to do with what I'm referencing, go to:

Or look up how many 'Muricans are dying from gun deaths, shootings overall. The unholy truth is that most shootings are  NOT ideological, terror-based or random but rather domestic (in people's homes) - either suicides or one spouse (usually male) killing the other after a fiery argument.   Assaying all mass shootings between 2009 and 2015, the Huffington Post found that 70 percent occurred in the home. Of these, 57 percent involved a family member or current or former intimate partner. 81 percent of the victims were women and children.  Firearms currently claim an average of 93 lives per day in the United States - more than half by suicide.  Guns are responsible for more deaths than vehicle crashes or even terrorism.  Why isn't any of this on Pinker's "Enlightenment" charts?  Well, I go back to one of Guardian reviewer Andrew Brown's comments on Pinker's "Better Angels" fairy tale:

"His range is wide. But the factual errors, although they destroy his thesis as a serious piece of history, point up its attractive weakness as a comfort blanket for the smug."

Couldn't have chosen more appropriate words myself.

Now, let's examine his claim of democracy's spread marginalizing war. It appears here he hasn't read Amy Chua's excellent work, "World On Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred And Global Instability

Her work refers to the Neoliberal Order of Globalized capital and how it has already laid waste to numerous nations, often under the guise of some imminent crisis.  One of the most trenchant examples was how Russia was brought to its economic knees using the "shock doctrine" of the Neoliberal capitalist imperialists, documented in excruciating detail in Naomi Klein's book,  'The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism' (2007).    But as Klein notes, the shock doctrine's basis of "disaster capitalism" was to deliberately use assorted confected crises - whether military  or economic- to justify subverting the will of many other nations and their citizens to make the world "safe" for global capital. This then termed "democracy" - but in fact - a degenerate mutation of the same, whereby citizen security is removed and setting the stage for chaos and civil disorder.

Pinker also brags about the decrease in nuclear weapon, i.e.:

"The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60, 780 to 10, 325:

In fact, the remaining number is just over 14,000. But the larger point missed, the greater fact, is that there is no longer the firm control over the assorted nuclear arsenals there once was. This is especially true after the collapse of the former Soviet Union.  Most worrisome are the abandoned missile factories in the Ukraine - with images of missiles actually captured in a recent TIME issue - originally taken by Russian bloggers who got into the unsecured site.  The TIME article examines how thousands of former Russian ICBM parts made their way into North Korean hands  - along with the skills of  a number of the laid off missile engineers. (Nearly 15,000 became unemployed after the collapse of the USSR.)

This and other alarms, like the North Korean ICBM program and Trump's bombastic reactions have caused The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move the "doomsday" clock  alerting us to the proximity of nuclear holocaust-- to two minutes to midnight, This is the closest since 1953. So, despite the quantitative reduction in weapons the threat is as high as it's ever been, No improvement despite Pinker's happy talk.

Pinker's  most glaring failure is in respect of accelerating climate change instead focusing on other emissions, i.e.:  "we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates despite generating more wealth"  failing to process that  these emissions are an accompaniment of the resource conversion to "wealth."

But the  much larger byproduct   the emission of CO2  -   is basically given short  shrift . He does (grudgingly) give a nod of concern to the Trumpies approving thousands of new oil leases for drilling on federal lands etc.  (ibid.) and "the alarming  withdrawal from the Paris climate accord"    

But he assures us  "continued progress is in the interests of the rest of the world, and numerous states, corporations, political actors" etc.   Fine, but those interests don't mean anything will actually be done.  Especially as the most effective and expeditious solution would be the imposition of a significant  carbon tax which Trumpian America (the world's biggest CO2 generator) will surely reject.  Without the planet's biggest carbon scofflaw on board, whatever the other "states" etc. do will mean little or nothing.

It's simply not enough to wave the climate change catastrophe away with a  wave of the hand, or in this case, Pinker's Pollyannish pen.  See e.g.

Left unsaid, is how increasing CO2 is also altering the composition of our oceans to render them less supportive of life.   As recently as 2012 scientists from Columbia University, which led  much of the research,  have found surging levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that forced down the pH of the ocean by overall 0.1 mean unit in the last century. This is 10 times faster than the closest historical comparison from 56 million years ago. It's deadly serious because - like the margins for ushering in a runaway greenhouse effect, the margins of safety for acidic oceans are extremely low. Hence, one can't tell by the small magnitude of numerical pH that the increment change is nothing to fret over.

As noted in earlier blogs: the seas absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, forming carbonic acid. The particular chemical reaction is:

H2O + CO2 -> H2 CO3

The lower the pH level of the seawater ('7' is neutral pH), the more acidic. This is also worrisome because mass extinctions of marine creatures in the past have been linked to instances of increased ocean acidification. Thus,  the current incremental change could also threaten important species. This according to Baerbel Hoenisch, the paleoceanographer at Columbia who was lead author of a  2012  paper that appeared in the journal Science. As he noted:

If industrial carbon emissions continue at the current pace, we may lose organisms we care about — coral reefs, oysters, salmon,”

By one estimate, at the rate of acidification, the only marine life that will still survive by 2050 will be jellyfish.

I found the most annoying aspect of the WSJ piece Pinker's own admission at the end:

"Is progress inevitable? Of course not! Solutions create new problems which must be solved in their turn" etc.

But given this admission, Pinker ought to have tamped down all the "Enlightenment" and positive outcome  cheerleading that permeated the WSJ piece  - not wait to the very end to concede limitations. (Which also ought to have caused him more forbearance in lashing out against "unAmerican gloomsayers.")

Pinker can't have it both ways: either he surrenders the meme of the world constantly improving and the "enlightenment" working or he leaves out the escape clause to provide him some specious cover..

See also:


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