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.
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