Date April 3, 2019
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Is humanity progressing? Pinker, Krugman debate the question

In a Janus Forum event hosted at Brown by the Political Theory Project, economist Paul Krugman and psychologist Steven Pinker debated whether humanity is headed for progress or a setback.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In a Tuesday, April 2, discussion on the Brown University campus, experimental psychologist Steven Pinker and economist Paul Krugman debated whether resisting falsehood, authoritarianism and fatalism could save the world from a step back from recent progress.

In a forum titled “Is humanity progressing?” hosted by the University’s Political Theory Project, the two discussed pivotal moments of progress and regression in history, the potentially fatal effects of climate change, the trajectory of the world economy and more.

Ostensibly, there was just one question of the hour: Are we progressing as a species? But both thinkers quickly agreed that the question was twofold: Has humanity progressed? And if so, will that progress continue?

According to Pinker, the answer to the first question is an unequivocal yes.

“The problems of yesterday were in almost every case worse,” Pinker said in an opening presentation, quoting the American columnist Franklin Pierce Adams for emphasis: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”

The Harvard University psychologist, who recently released the book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” used international data to show the myriad ways in which the human race is demonstrably better off than it was millennia, centuries and in some cases even decades ago.

Life expectancy has increased everywhere, his data showed, as has sustenance, prosperity and literacy. Time spent doing housework has dramatically decreased, thanks to electricity, running water and modern appliances; worldwide happiness has increased since the 1990s, when we began measuring it. Perhaps the most counterintuitive to anyone who spends time on social media, he said? We’ve been getting smarter: IQ scores have increased all over the world by about three points per decade over the last century.

“A question people often raise, perhaps not quite so bluntly, is: ‘Even if there has been progress, aren’t we better off denying it to prevent complacency?’” Pinker said. “No… because even if there are dangers in complacency, there are also dangers in thoughtless pessimism… And if you’re convinced that we’re doomed, that if climate change doesn’t do us in then artificial intelligence will, then the rational response is, well, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

Krugman, a longtime New York Times columnist, Nobel Prize winner and distinguished professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, agreed with Pinker’s fundamental argument that humans have made tremendous progress in almost every way. But he wasn’t as sure whether the trend was guaranteed to continue.

“‘Will we continue to progress?” Krugman asked. “...that’s where I get worried.”

Krugman pointed to episodes of regression throughout history — a marked decrease in world trade between the two world wars, for example, an economic slump in Germany following the collapse of the Nazi regime, and a dramatic spike in New York City murders between the mid-1960s and the mid-1990s. His prime example was an era of strife, violence and poverty in ancient Rome following a nearly 200-year period of unprecedented economic growth under a succession of five emperors. After the Roman Empire fell, society didn’t manage to progress anywhere near that civilization’s peak until the dawn of European agriculture about 1,400 years later.

“[Almost] all of the setbacks in progress have turned out to be temporary… but this is a case of retrogression on a grand scale,” Krugman said. “So here we are now. The progress we have achieved is a lot bigger than the progress that Rome achieved under the emperors, [but] in duration, it’s not that much longer… Really, we’re talking about a couple of centuries of progress. Do we know that progress is going to continue? The answer, of course, is that we don’t.”

In positing that humanity may be in for another regression in the near future, Krugman pointed to immediate threats such as climate change, the rise of fascism and increasing economic inequality.

“We can screw this up massively,” he said, “and there’s a chance that we already did.”

The event was part of the Political Theory Project’s Janus Forum Lecture Series, which takes its name from the Roman god with two faces and “strives to find two leading researchers who have both made tangible contributions regarding a topic of pressing social concern, but whom also harbor substantial disagreement in their methods, theoretical approaches, empirical findings, policy inferences or ideological backgrounds.”

Yet in a conversation following the opening presentations, Pinker admitted that he largely agreed with Krugman’s thesis.

“The idea of progress does not mean nothing can ever go wrong again,” Pinker said. “That wouldn’t be progress; that would be a miracle. And that’s just not the way the universe works.”

But Pinker seemed more willing to believe that the United States’ current era of division and “authoritarian populism,” as he called it, could be temporary, citing increasing urbanization, rising education rates and a marked political change in the younger American population as indicators of continued progress.

“There are always authors saying, ‘Well, things have been good so far, but just you wait, we’re on the edge of the precipice,’” he said. “And it is true, it could happen. But there are... forces that suggest Trumpism is not a permanent feature.”

When a Brown student in the audience asked how he and others could prevent humanity’s regression, Pinker and Krugman both advised that people stay politically active and prevent complacency.

“It involves… not falling into traps of illusions and fallacies,” Pinker said. “It involves the allocation of brainpower.”

Krugman’s answer was even more concise: “Vote. Organize. Demonstrate. Write letters.”