Steven Pinker Talks Reason and Progress at Rutgers; Calls Out the Radical Left

By Jacob Miller

 Steven Pinker speaks to a crowd of Rutgers students and faculty in Scott Hall 123 about his book  Enlightenment Now  (Credit: Aviv Khavich)

Steven Pinker speaks to a crowd of Rutgers students and faculty in Scott Hall 123 about his book Enlightenment Now (Credit: Aviv Khavich)

On Wednesday the Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science (RuCCS) hosted world renowned psychologist, linguist, and writer Steven Pinker.

The day began with a lecture in Scott Hall at 1:10 PM, where hundreds gathered to hear the Harvard Professor talk about his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Pinker wrote the book in order to dispel the widely held myth that some apocalyptic, doomsday type scenario is on the horizon. He accomplished this with the help of an endless amount of data, which proved that — as exciting as it may seem to think mankind is heading off a cliff — there has actually been an inordinate amount of progress within the past two hundred years. Ever since the ideas spawned by the Enlightenment were implemented, infant mortality, disease, violence, war, and almost all of humanity’s ills have been in steady decline.

As Pinker noted at one point during his talk, the reality of human progress forces us to ask the question: if things are actually getting better, why do so many people think things are getting worse? The answer, according to Pinker, is actually pretty simple. For one thing, news outlets only have an incentive to report exciting news, and exciting or rapidly unfolding news events are usually negative in nature. Positive developments, on the other hand, tend to unfold gradually. As Pinker quipped, you will never hear a journalist say “I’m reporting from this country at peace.” This has terrible consequences for the general population who, as a result of the “availability heuristic” (a mental shortcut to evaluate the world based on information that readily comes to mind), will generalize negative information obtained from the news to the world around them.

Pinker also explained that fringe political ideologies on both the left and right that claim to support the defenestration of existing political institutions can only exist when they construct a narrative that contradicts the notion of progress. After all, if things are fine, who needs a revolution?

After his lecture, Pinker answered some questions from the audience until 2:30 PM. At 3:30 PM, Pinker went to a separate, private Q and A in the Honors College with a select amount of Rutgers students. Julien Musolino, a Cognitive Science Professor at Rutgers, acted as the moderator. Throughout the session Pinker criticized the concept of safe spaces, microaggressions, and trigger-warnings. He also called for more free speech and intellectual diversity on college campuses. The importance of academic freedom hits home for Pinker as he has himself raised alarms for discussing truths that should not be considered controversial in the first place. This includes the superiority of capitalism over communism, gender differences, disparities in crime rates between different races, and the fact that the human mind is a not a “blank slate.”

One student asked Pinker about his thoughts on the “Jordan Peterson phenomenon.” He answered that although he feels the University of Toronto psychology professor has many valuable ideas, Peterson’s talks about “archetypes,” Carl Jung, and Friedrich Nietzsche all come across to him as a bunch of “gobbledygook.”

Pinker concluded his trip to Rutgers with a reception at 5 PM. However, the public intellectual’s ideas about the need for more reason and optimism in an unreasonable and radical world hopefully didn’t leave with him. God only knows (or as Pinker would say “our reason tells us”) that we need more people like Pinker to inject rational debate into the emotional and nihilistic college environment. The alternative is letting the so called “progressives” — who actually can’t stand the idea of progress — win.