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Steven Pinker - Psychologist

Stephen Sackur speaks to the psychologist and writer, Steven Pinker. His new book, Enlightenment Now, is a paean to human progress. How convincing are his reasons to be cheerful?


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Now on BBC News Stephen Sackur

is here with HARDtalk.

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Welcome to HARDtalk.

I'm Stephen Sackur.

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This HARDtalk programme,

like so many others in the churn

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of 24/7 news tends to focus

on people and places facing

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problems and challenges.

More often than not we hold

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the powerful to account for things

that went wrong, not right.

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Are we missing the bigger picture

about the world we live in?

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My guest psychologist and writer

Steven Pinker

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Thinks so.

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His new book, Enlightenment Now,

is a paean to human progress

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driven by reason and science.

How convincing are his

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reasons to be cheerful?

THEME MUSIC PLAYS.

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Steven Pinker welcome to HARDtalk.

Thank you. This idea of the

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enlightenment is very dear to your

heart. Can you briefly, if you will,

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catch for me what you mean by

enlightenment enlightenment the.

The

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first of the intellectual movement

of the second half of the 18th

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century that put a premium of reason

as opposed to authority, tradition,

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doctors, on science, on the attempt

to explain the world by testing

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hypotheses and on humanism, the

individual humans as the ultimate

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good as opposed to the triumph of a

nation and faith.

Is it your

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proposition that it captures

universal values?

European and

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American. Although every idea has to

come from somewhere, so it is

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European in that sense, but it is

based on reason and universal human

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interests. Everyone wants a long

life, to be healthy, almost everyone

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wants knowledge and education.

People would prefer to live in

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safety rather than danger, all

things being equal.

Science and

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reason have underpinned so much of

human thought and scientific and

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technological developments in recent

centuries but is it you're feeling

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that this enlightenment is under

threat?

It absolutely is and has

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been since it was formulated. The

counter Enlightenment of the 90s

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century Roseberry quickly. -- 19th

century rose very quickly. The idea

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that the individual is merely a cell

in the super organism, consisting of

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race and groups. And also

authoritarian populism with Trump in

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the US, and populous movement in

Eastern Europe.

You are suggesting

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that Donald Trump in the US, as far

as you are concerned, and utterly

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illogical and counter-productive

political movement.

Indeed. Talking

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about the intellectual roots of

trumpeter sounds like an oxymoron

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but he was advised by people like

Stephen Bannon and Steve Miller and

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Michael Anton who consider

themselves intellectuals and are

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influenced by a counter

enlightenment tradition and you can

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see some of the themes of Trumpism

Trumpism wet the soul is embodied in

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a strong leader. These are things

that run through Trumpism.

It seems

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to me his politics is driven by

emotions, by an appeal to a person's

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cup in sticks rather than their

rational brain. -- instincts. The

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skill of Donald Trump is that,

unlike many of his political rivals,

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he found and continues to find a way

to connect with a significant part

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of the American population.

Indeed

and emotional impulses such as

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tribalism, authoritarianism, besting

power in a charismatic leader,

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reasoning by an act don't rather

than by fax and data -- anecdote,

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the story of the American who is

mowed down by an illegal immigrant

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breaking traffic law, is an appeal

to our not so rational side...

If

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Trump is an aberration, he is not a

bleep, he is part of a long line of

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politicians that you would say the

last few centuries have been a

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triumph of science and reason, many

would say that last few centuries

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have absolutely shown is that the

human species is often driven by gut

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instinct and emotion and by feelings

that are not anything to do with

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science or reason.

Indeed. One of

the misconceptions about

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enlightenment thinkers is that we

assume we are all rational. Like Mr

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Spock from Star Trek. But David

Hume, Spinoza, there were avid

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students of human nature and they

proposed norms and institutions that

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would work around for our Dhaka

impulses so those impulses are over

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with us. -- dark.

You are saying

that we need to understand that as

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human beings have never had it so

good and that in terms of statistics

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on world hunger, on poverty, on loss

of life to warfare, that things are

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rather wonderful on our planet today

and that is not the way many people

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in both the developed and developing

world actually sit and experience of

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the world?

That is right. As long as

tragedy and problems have not been

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reduced to zero, there will always

be enough of them to feel the news

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and since we are driven by anecdotes

and narratives rather than data,

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unless we see the data, we can miss

the fantastic progress. Not

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uniformly...

We cannot dismiss half

of all Syrians, 12 million people,

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being displaced on their homes, many

hundreds of thousands killed. We

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cannot dismiss that as an

unimportant bleep in the data.

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Absolutely not but because of our

rising moral standards, we care more

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about people than out ancestors did

so things can look worse than...

How

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can you measure compassion?

I do not

have data on compassion but, if you

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look at the way events are described

and categorise, people forget that

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there were greater number of

displacement during the partition of

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India, the Korean War had far more

casualties than the war in Syria.

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This is not to minimise the horrific

suffering of the people in Syria but

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the imperative to recognise the

people in earlier eras and to

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realise that not stuck with the

amount of suffering. Just as earlier

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generations reduced the number so do

we. The realisation that these are

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not utopian aspirations, that

displaced people and walls and

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refugees can be reduced.

Come back

to the point that most people on

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this earth do not think the way that

you do, partly because they are not

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trained in the way that you have,

but you are driven by bigger data,

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meta data and you crunch the numbers

and you take a very high overview of

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the way the world works. Most folks

do not do that. They relate to their

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own experience and their own

perception. How much value is there

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only telling us we should be more

cheerful and positive and optimistic

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when it does not match reality for

most of us?

That is why we have

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education, persuasion, discourse,

debate. In order to counter our

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intuitions and impulses which are

often misleading. A lot about

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intuitions are systematically

biased. Something that can be

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amplified...

But you have abayas

also. We all do. You are the product

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of your nurture just as high. When

people today expressed doubt about

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expertise and they sometimes say,

you know what, you can prove almost

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anything with statistics, they have

a point, don't they?

You cannot

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prove everything with statistics,

not if you are honest ...

But you

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make choices about the data you put

into your numbercrunching computers,

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you decide what particular facet of

the human condition to profile, it

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is all subjective.

Then you

challenge me and observers get to

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hear the various sides and see who

has the most persuasive case. The

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fact that science has progressed

shows that, despite human

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disagreement and the fact that we

are blinded by our buyer says, over

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the long run, with free speech, open

debate, the ability to challenge

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people and the onus to provide data

to support your ideas, over the

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longer run, we can approach and

understanding of truth.

No question

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that everybody would agree that the

data on global hunger and poverty

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suggests that most people in the

world, in that material sense,

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things are better at today for most

people but, if you take the most

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advanced society, the US, your radio

progress and runs into real trouble

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because the generations the middle

class has seen the living standards

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stagnate and in some years declined.

When you look at the polls,

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Americans and said, the years that

they have felt the country is on the

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wrong track. Your theory of the

eternal march to progress has been

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thwarted.

Forget about the eternal

march to progress. Problems are

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inevitable. We sold them as they

arise. On average we make progress.

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The US is a peculiar case because

although people think of it as the

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prototypical advanced democracy, it

is a laggard among Western

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democracies...

You cannot have an

outlay of which is the most

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important economy in the world. It

sets a standard and it is in many

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ways a country the rest of the world

looks to stop if the message from

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the United States is that the

values, the science, the humanism

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can take you so but then things

start to go wrong, that is a message

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important to the entire world.

It is

an unfortunate message and in many

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ways it is a backward country

compared to it's West Stand peers.

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It has high incidences of crime,

lower lifespans, more abortions,

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high drug use. Any measure of social

pathology. It is ahead of most

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countries of the world. But behind

other...

White?

The US is an

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ambivalent enlightenment country

because its constitution was perhaps

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the most famous product of the

Enlightenment. Jefferson, Adams,

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were men of the Enlightenment but in

many ways the country itself has

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been divided. There is an

enlightenment country but also a

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more traditional culture of honour,

more heavily represented in the

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south than the West, the ethics that

instead you have this interest

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institutions, that meet out justice

and secure social welfare, it is up

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to the individual defending himself

and his family by the justifiable

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use of violence if necessary and a

lot of American politics has always

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struggle between the culture of

honour and the culture of the

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Enlightenment. And so it is a

peculiar example of a Western

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democracy.

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The time when those values, weather

it be from Russia, China all

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elsewhere, are being challenged in a

concerted and important and

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considerable way.

They are being

challenged, that's why I would not

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allude to an inexorable march of

progress. The end of history was a

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brilliant bit of marketing.

It's now

a millstone that hangs around

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Francis Fukuyama's neck.

In defence

of Fukuyama, the number of

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democracies has increased since the

end of democracy was published.

In

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the last 12 years more countries

have seen a regression in diplomatic

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values.

It's one of the more

pessimistic measures of democracy.

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It's also an activist organisation

and they are always biased towards

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our crime crisis. Other indicators

of democracies. There's certainly

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been a deceleration. But freedom

house has somewhat an alarmist

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picture and when you think about it,

in our youth we both had 31

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democracies in the early 1970s, half

of Europe was behind the Iron

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Curtain. There was barely a

democracy in Latin America. Taiwan

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and the Philippines, Indonesia,

Greece was a military dictatorship,

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Spain and Portugal were under the

control of fascism. It's true that

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there has been a push bike in

countries like Russia, Turkey and

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Venezuela. But still the overall

trend continuing through the end of

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history has been towards

democratisation.

In your world view,

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is religion nothing more than an

aberration when it enters the realm

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of public policy and governance?

It

is certainly... Theistic belief,

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belief in a God who can work

miracles, that's something that

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should be kept out of politics, yes.

In the United States we have the

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separation of church and state, and

I think this is an excellent

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principle, yes, we should not base

policy on miracles.

Do you think you

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have too rosy a view of human

nature?

I'm well-equipped to deny

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that charge. Probably the strongest

case is that human nature is saddled

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with flaws such as dominance,

egocentrism, revenge, magical

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thinking and so on. I'm the last

person that can be accused of having

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too rosy a view of human nature. I

think human nature is a complex

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system and together with our

policies, there are, and I stole the

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phrase from Abraham Lincoln, but

better angels of our nature, sides

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of human nature such as reason,

empathy, self-control, moral norms

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that are in constant tension with

our darker sides and it's up to our

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institutions and our norms to

empower our better angels, the parts

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of human nature that over the long

run can read to institutions that

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tame our inner demons.

Your academic

discipline is psychology rather than

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history for example. I want to quote

to you something that perhaps puts

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an historical sense of perspective

onto your thinking about the

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Enlightenment, it comes from a

commentator in the UK responding to

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your book, Jenni Russell, she says

every civilisation has believed in

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its in vulnerability until it falls,

from the Greeks, the Romans, the

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Mongols, the Ming Dynasty, it

couldn't recognise the threats to it

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before it is too late and your blind

spot is believing the appeal of

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liberal democracies and the light

and values that underpin them are so

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powerful that they need only to be

spelt out to be accepted.

-- in

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light and. No. I would identify the

blind spot among people who confuse

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the existence of progress with some

forced inevitability or

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indestructibility ash Enlightenment.

People are so unused to even

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conceiving of progress that they

can't distinguish a factual claim

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like things are better than they

were several decades ago, or several

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centuries ago, with these mystical

notions of vulnerability or

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inexorable march is. They're not the

same thing. You can acknowledge we

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live longer without saying that we

live in a utopia all we are going to

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live forever.

What about science,

you are a scientist they sought, but

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if one looks your claims for

technology and science and the

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degree to which they continue to

deliver us to a better place, one

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can quite quickly counter with

obviously climate change being a

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massive global problem which science

for the moment seems incapable of

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coming up with a clear solution, one

could look at the degradation of our

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environments, particularly the

oceans and microplastics right now.

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One could say your faith in science

looks misplaced.

All of the facts

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you mention of course our scientific

discoveries, and so without

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science...

Their discoveries of the

harm science is doing.

That's what

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technology has done. The way to deal

with them is to understand what

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caused them and what camera burst

them.

That's where you have to marry

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human ingenuity in science and human

motivation and science -- what can

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reverse them. We don't have the

motivation to undertake the massive

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cooperative effort to solve these

problems.

We do, not enough, but we

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do. The Paris climate accord and

certainly shows the world, again

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with one conspicuous exception, can

come to an agreement.

The exception

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is pretty darned important.

Although

remember that the pushing back on

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our president, and we can't withdraw

from the accord for another three

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years anyway, by which time it is

possible President Trump will be a

0:21:390:21:44

lame duck and his successor will

reinstate the American

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participation, but individual

states, individual corporations, the

0:21:490:21:51

rest of the world and the rest of

the world of course can push back

0:21:510:21:55

against the United States when it

violates the Paris Agreement by

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putting tariffs on American goods

based on their carbon emissions. So

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the act of one president

unnecessarily undo the progress,

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although they might.

When you talk

like that I'm just reminded that the

0:22:080:22:13

historian Mall Ferguson said at

times he is reminded of Doctor

0:22:130:22:18

Pangalos when he listens to use.

Doctor Pangalos, that's a mistake,

0:22:180:22:22

Pangalos is a pessimist, he said we

live in one, the best of all

0:22:220:22:29

possible worlds. -- listens to you.

You're much more optimistic than

0:22:290:22:35

Doctor Pangalos?

Pangalos was a a

defender of the belief that God was

0:22:350:22:41

incapable of making the world any

better than the way we find it

0:22:410:22:44

today. Just go back to climate

change, we are not on track to

0:22:440:22:48

solving the problem of climate

change, there's no doubt. I'm not an

0:22:480:22:52

optimist in the sense that

everything will all workout.

We're

0:22:520:22:56

almost out of time but in essence

you always are. Here's my invitation

0:22:560:23:01

to you at the end of this programme,

some people today look at where we

0:23:010:23:06

are with climate change, for

example, or indeed with nuclear

0:23:060:23:10

proliferation, and in particular the

nuclear stand-off right now with

0:23:100:23:14

Donald Trump's United States

administration and North Korea, and

0:23:140:23:17

they think to themselves, we've

probably never been closer to seeing

0:23:170:23:22

existential threats to humanity come

to reality, but your worldview would

0:23:220:23:26

suggest we have it within us always

to avert those accidental threats?

I

0:23:260:23:34

think there is an imperative to see

our way through to avoiding the ex-

0:23:340:23:38

essential threats, to treating these

as problems to be solved, not to

0:23:380:23:43

declare that we're doomed so we may

as well enjoy life while we can, but

0:23:430:23:47

to put the pressure where it has to

be placed for the changes of

0:23:470:23:51

policies, changes of administration,

so we mitigate the severest threats.

0:23:510:23:57

And your life, your experience

suggests to you that there is every

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good reason to continue to believe

that human beings will get to where

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they need to be?

Not that there is

every reason but there is a reason,

0:24:070:24:11

not that it's inevitable, who knows

what the probabilities are, but it

0:24:110:24:14

is possible and therefore there is

the imperative to take the steps

0:24:140:24:17

that have the greatest chance of

solving the problems.

We have to end

0:24:170:24:22

there but Steven Pinker, thank you

very much for joining me on

0:24:220:24:25

HARDtalk.

Thanks for having me.

Thank you very much.

0:24:250:24:29

The HARDtalk programme, like so many others in the churn of 24/7 news tends to focus on people and places facing problems and challenges. More often than not we hold the powerful to account for things that went wrong, not right. Are we missing the bigger picture about the world we live in?

Stephen Sackur speaks to the psychologist and writer Steven Pinker. His new book, Enlightenment Now, is a paean to human progress driven by reason and science. How convincing are his reasons to be cheerful?