What Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now can teach to journalism



Steven Pinker’s latest fatigue, Enlightment Now, has already been tagged like the book everyone has to read - well - now. His big sponsor is a guy named Bill Gates and actually Pinker has a few bullets in his belt.

The book’s central idea is that we tend to forget the forces of progress the world has experienced, because our natural pessimism is reinforced every day by politics, media and viral false-beliefs.

I haven’t read Enlightenment Now yet, but watching this Pinker’s Keynote, I took a few notes useful for journalists and readers*.


Your op-ed is not a sign of the imminent end of the world

Pinker says that the first thing any media org has to do is place news in their historical and statistical context. Do you think that they teach that in Jounalism 101? Maybe they do, but media outlets often forget about that.

  • Op-eds should not use something blew up yesterday as the indication that the world is getting worse.

  • All claims have to be backed up by statistical data and comparisons with past periods. As Professor P. says: «Things may suck now, but in many cases they were worse in the past (Vietnam War was worse than Syrian conflict).

Humans need help to be reasonable

Human beings, says Pinker, are not particularly reasonable.

We’re likely to generalize from anecdotes, stereotypes, conspiracy theories. But people are capable of reason, if they establish certain norms and institutions: free speech, open debate and criticism, logical analysis, fact-checking and empirical testing.

Media can scale sympathy

According to Pinker «humanism, the idea that the ultimate moral purpose is to reduce the suffering and enhance the flourishing of human beings and other creatures». But we often fail, because we have a natural bias.

By default our circle of sympathy is rather puny. We tend to feel the pain of our relatives, friends, allies, friends and cute little fuzzy animals.

But this instinct can be expanded by what he calls “forces of cosmopolitanism”: education, art, mobility and… journalism.

If you read papers, you underestimate progress

Why do people deny progress? Part of the answer, says Pinker, comes from a psychological quirk called “Availability heuristics”: human assess risk based on how easily they recall examples from memory. And we, journalists, are memory makers. So, if we combine the nature of news and cognition, you get the idea that the world is getting more dangerous.

News is about stuff that happens, not about stuff that doesn’t happen. You never see a reporter saying: “Here I am in a country that is not a war”.


The other force to consider is something called “negativity bias”: our idea that bad is stronger than good.

But newspapers and TVs cannot stop reporting the bad news, so what’s the psychologist answer to that?

Of course it is essential to become aware of suffering and injustice when they occur, but also have to be aware on how they can be reduced. There are dangers with thoughtless pessimism.

Do we have to balance more bad news with good news?

The point is to give a picture to the world of what’s going wrong, but still have a clear signal of what actually helps it.

Pessimistic audiences vote wrong leaders

The narrative of pessimism makes people think things are getting worse, and voters can polarize around charismatic (or populistic) leaders.

If the picture of the world is that there are no solutions, the rational response would be just drop your hands and say: well, let’s enjoy life while we can.

Journalism has a future

Institutions like science and journalism have to open up their workings, reinforce their methods of arriving to ways to get to their claims. Using peer reviews, fact-checkings: without these metods fallacies and ignorance will prosper.

Other bullets

Problems are inevitables, but problems are solvable, even if solutions bring new problems. That’s progress.

Humans are always vulnerable to fake news and misinformation and conspiracy theories. But since we do have to trust others, we must know which authority to trust.

Knowledge is hard. You shouldn’t trust anyone, but people should take more serious people with a verified track record. You got to earn the authority.

Intellectuals hate progress.

*Important note: this post was born like a draft, in a no wi-fi zone; literal quotes by Pinker can be verified watching the video.

**Pinker’s photo credit: Rose Lincoln / Harvard University


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Feeds for journalists



This year started with a small project I really like: Feeds for Journalists, by Dave Winer. The idea is that RSS is still a valid technology to get an effective and unbiased flow of news.

As he puts it, after reading a tweet by Mathew Ingram:

If you’re a journalist and you love RSS, please join me in an easy project to improve both. Let’s put together a list of starter feeds for journalists.

Basically, we’re sharing our RSS bookmarks considering only the accountable sources. Since Facebook is pivoting from its initial position regarding news and its News Feed, I think even the timing of Feeds for Journalists is right.

When good ol’ Google Reader was killed by Google, I continued using RSS via Feedly, Inoreader and Electric River (the latter also by Dave). RSS is still the best option for massive news browsers, an indispensabile technology in any newsroom. Give it a try.

Update: Dave made a useful river here.

Bonus: since we spoke about Zuck, Frederic Filloux says Facebook has all the reasons in the world to get rid of journalism.


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The Only Living Boy in New York



There’s always mystery. You both know that. You both know it isn’t perfect. Excitement, trust and struggle, and the unknown privacies that keep us together. Glue of struggle. I raise my glass. The fragile glass we stomped on and shattered and will forever be putting back together, like the puzzles we first worked as children, learning to be patient, searching for what fits.

-The Only Living Boy in New York, written by Allan Loeb.


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A disconnected generation



We are constantly dazzled and blinded by power. We tend to allow and enable our leaders to play by a different set of moral rules and laws. While we distract ourselves with stupid selfies and pictures of our latest dinner, the real world around us spins out of control. Will we go down in history as the generation of connectivity that constantly disconnected itself from reality? I say - to hell with success and authority.

-Platon, Oct 15th 2017, via Instagram.

(I’m reposting it here: it’s an interesting angle from an artist who’s been taking portraits of powerful people for years)


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Standing on the shoulders of tech giants



I’ve been reading a lot of good writing about Facebook, lately. Critics are fair and give us a lot to think about our relationship with the always on social network and the idea of “Building a global community”. As always, even before the Internet, it’s not enough we repeat “technology is neutral”. It is neutral, but we must commit so we get more good than bad, as Kevin Kelly said 7 years ago. But how can you work with something you do not own or comprehend? Because Facebook, as Max Read puts it in the first article you’ll read here, is «like a four-dimensional object: we catch slices of it when it passes through the three-dimensional world we recognize». So we need a four-dimensional approach, and a lot of patience.

Facebook’s actual value system seems less positive than recursive. Facebook is good because it creates community; community is good because it enables Facebook. The values of Facebook are Facebook.

The truth is that while many reporters knew some things that were going on on Facebook, no one knew everything what was going on on Facebook, not even Facebook.

Their amount of concentrated authority resembles the divine right of kings, and is sparking a backlash that is still gathering force.

We need to break up these online monopolies because if a few people make the decisions about how we communicate, shop, learn the news, again, do we control our own society?


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