As I have moved into retirement, I have deliberately tried to reduce my former attention to current events and the news. When teaching political science, I felt a professional obligation to keep up with what was going on in the world, America, Kansas, and Lawrence. I needed to read the Lawrence Journal-World (as vexing as that usually was) and the NYT (as time-consuming as that always has been). I had to watch the News-hour and 60 Minutes as often as possible, and FOX News at least occasionally. I thought that in retirement, I could step back from attending to current events. I thought by stepping back, I would be less anxious about politics and finally smell the roses.
That is not quite how it has turned out. Turning from current events to historical trends initially left me feeling whipsawed by some disturbing large political trends and some comforting long-term progress. But Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now has reduced my obsession with the declines that upset me and suggested a path by which these problems can be reduced if not eliminated. Before sharing with you the scent of roses, let me first acknowledge some of our continuing big political problems.
Our polarization. Democrats and Republicans are increasingly at odds with each other. A recent survey revealed that 42% of American citizens agree that those who belong to the opposition party are evil – that they are in league with the devil. 20% of Democrats think the country would be better off if a lot of Republicans died. And, returning the disfavor, 16% of Republicans think the country would be better if a lot of Democrats died And it’s a political science cliché that citizens of opposite parties are much less polarized than the leaders of the Democratic and Republican Parties
Our stalemate. Our partisan conflicts have become so extreme that we cannot address basic public needs. At the global level, partisan views have prompted America to withdraw from the Paris Accords seeking to reduce global warming and climate change, even if our inaction endangers human life. At the national level, Republicans and Democrats cannot find reasonable compromises on gun violence, health care, immigration, or the national budget. As has been the case for many years, the Kansas State legislature has adjourned without much bipartisan agreement on funding a wide variety of public services and how to levy needed taxes.
Our democracy. There is widespread discussion and fear that American democracy is threatened from both the top and the bottom. From the top, political leaders have adopted more authoritarian approaches – imposing their own goals in ways that disregard the fundamental roles of legislatures in setting policy. Rather than regard their critics as “the loyal opposition,” they label the opposition as “enemies of the people.” They limit (or at least threatening to limit) long standing political and civil liberties [e.g., proposing to expand libel laws to punish those portrayed as providing “fake news,” and allowing more intrusive “stop and frisk” actions by the police). From the bottom, citizens often think they have the rights that are clearly unrealistic (such as that to free college education) while avoiding their tax-paying responsibilities. Citizens have become remarkably receptive to the sort of rhetoric that undermines pluralist democracy, acquiring political attitudes that impoverish our civic culture, and supporting the rhetoric of leaders that call for limiting the equal rights of racial minorities, women, gays, and immigrants.
Citizens often regard politics as a sport, much like NFL football. It’s bloody combat between our “team – the good guys” – vs. “the other team – the bad guys.” Politics is a battle between Republics and Democrats, whites and minorities, citizens and immigrants, taxpayers and the “moochers” who get too many governmental programs for which they pay little in taxes), and so forth. Just like the Chiefs must clobber the Patriots, so the Republicans must destroy the Democrats, whites must keep minorities in their rightful place (at the bottom of the social standings), and long-standing citizens (the Yankees) must wall off the border to keep immigrants from even playing in the game. Seeing politics as such sport misses the more important function of politics: solving common problems and searching for solutions that improve the well-being of everyone involved.
Citizens are receptive to – and often obsessed with – allegations against their perceived opponents, the other team. Republicans have believed that Obama was born outside the US. And Democrats now return such treatment by claiming that Trump conspired with the Russians to undermine our elections. Never-mind that there was no evidence to support the story of Obama’s foreign birth, or that there is now inadequate evidence to support the claim of collusion between Trump and the Russians. Our hatred of the other team makes us believe allegations of corruption and conspiracy.
Perhaps I have failed to stop obsessing about politics during my retirement, but at least I have been able to step back and do some reading on broader matters that provide reasons for cheer or at least a more expanded understanding of the world.
Take, for instance, my reading Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Road. Even though I had spent five years teaching Western Civilization – or perhaps because I had spent so much time teaching this course, formerly required of all KU undergraduates – I had very distorted views about world civilization. I thought that Athens (the home of Plato and Aristotle) was the cradle of civilization, but Frankopan points out that the real cradle of civilization was in places like today’s Bagdad. I thought that Christianity arose in Israel and then spread west to Rome, then to Western Europe, and eventually to the US. But I have now learned that Christianity first spread east into Asia where its impact was felt in such things as the birth of Islam. That rather than being an alternative to Christianity, Islam is better understood as superseding (or absorbing) Christianity, in much the same way that Christianity superseded and partially absorbed Judaism.
Perhaps a better example of reading that has broaden my thinking and given me reasons for optimism is Pinker’s The New Enlightenment. The core of this book is a series of chapters about the extensive progress we have made in the recent past on just about every dimension of human well-being imaginable. And by “we” I mean not just Americans but people throughout the world. Pinker provides incontestable empirical and quantitative evidence of exponential improvements that have been made in the recent past.
First, consider airplane safety. The Wright Brothers really did risk life and limb trying to fly, but now we obsess about the dangers of being airline passengers, even though we are far more likely to die on the highways than up in the air. Despite huge declines in airplane crashes, many of us continue to obsess over media’s endless coverage of the Boeing 737-Max8 crashes.
Or consider our great obsession with fighting a war on terrorism. Pinker points out that since 9/11, there have been very few deaths in America due to terrorist activities, especially in comparison to death by homicides or accidents. Terrorism is a tactic of the weak. Terrorists have little capacity to cause widespread death and destruction but they do succeed in terrorizing us – and provoking us to overreact in ways that are far more costly to the victims of terrorism than to the terrorists.
Or consider war. Historically, the great powers of the world have been fairly regularly engaged in enduring and deadly struggles, often over matters of national honor or small territorial gains. But the great destruction of WWI and WWII appear to be the culmination of such wars. Since the Korean War (in which the US and China fought each other) the Great Powers have always stepped back from even limited war for fear of “mutual assured destruction.”
And how about authoritarian and autocratic governments? Such leaders as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Victor Orban, Turkey’s Recap Tayyip Erdogan, and America’s Donald Trump have been widely cited as having authoritarian tendencies that threaten the demise of democracy. To counter our fears about such demagogues, Pinker provides convincing data about the worldwide trends favoring democracy over autocracy.
We all fear the next recession and/or depression. But Pinker’s data suggest that such an event will barely register in the long-term trends that show remarkable and accelerating gains in economic prosperity throughout the world.
But isn’t economic growth just more prosperity for the rich? Isn’t the world becoming more unequal economically? Well, yes, during the past 40 years, there are disturbing increases in economic equality in the US and elsewhere, but we have yet to revert back to earlier levels of inequality such as those in the roaring 20s. And perhaps more heartening are the huge worldwide declines in poverty.
Can we really deny that life is getting better? Data on life expectancy show that life is surely getting longer. Not only are we living longer, but most of us are increasingly able to spend the last few decades of life in retirement. And even if you are not yet retired, you have more leisure time than ever (though the data show that men must put in more time taking care of kids and performing household chores to let their wives have equal opportunities to rest and play).
Pinker also provides a lot of data showing rising literacy, schooling, and other measures of advances in human intelligence. The most striking, however, are the increases in IQ – over 25% worldwide – observed in the past century. The most plausible explanation for such gains is not just better nutrition and health, but the fact that schools are increasingly teaching the cognitive and analytical skills that make people brighter. It turns out that IQ is not just something that is inherited; it is something that is being developed in schools that teach analytic methods, the ability to reason, and scientific skills.
As Pinker points out, such improvements are not only incredible, they are unknown or at least unrecognized by almost everyone. Most of us grumble that the “world is going to hell in a hand-basket” largely because of both internal and external biases. Psychologically, the need to survive in the course of human evolution has prompted us to focus on the things that endanger us much more than the things that comfort us. Sociologically, we focus on the bad things in life because that’s what we read about in the news or watch on TV. The continuous but relatively slow progress we make in health care and leading longer and happier lives don’t make the headlines in the same way that epidemics like Ebola or AIDS do.
Another reason we are unaware of the great progress we have made is because that progress is not emphasized or even acknowledged in school, especially in our universities. College professors tend to focus on shortcomings rather than accomplishments. For example, social scientists may recognize our overall economic gains, but they stress the problems accompanying economic growth or they focus on those who have lagged behind as growth has occurred. If you are a political scientist, a sociologist, or an economist, you want to be recognized for your “gravitas,” that you are a deep thinker who explores what lies beneath the surface indicators of general improvement.
Professors and their students also want to express alternative points of view. Many people in the academy identify with the oppressed or the marginalized. The voices of minorities, women, gays, and immigrants must be heard and validated. By giving extensive opportunities for the oppressed to express their complaints, university classrooms give less attention to what is common in our political aspirations, to what has survived the scrutiny of reason and science.
So, what am I saying? Should we just overlook the sort of problems that I mentioned earlier and instead focus on the progress we have made? Can we simply trust that progress will continue?
No! We need to recognize the problems that exist. We do have polarization. We do have political stalemate. American democracy is in decline and is currently jeopardized. We are experiencing the kind of climate change that endangers future generations. There are those among us who have been oppressed and marginalized. We need to be open to evidence of these problems and we must try as best we can to address them. We should solve them when we can, and minimize them when that is all that can be done. And how should we go about that?
While we need churches and governments, some savior – such as a religious theocracy or a socialist state – will not rescue us. While we need economic markets, the “hidden hand” or “magic of the market” will not rescue us. There is no great plan to be had or some “ultimate knowledge” that will save us.
We need authorities who are experts in their work and who can bring order to self-interested, misguided, and aggressive people, but we do not need authoritarian institutions or leaders. Indeed, we must question all authorities who claim to speak for the people, for the church, or for the University. No authority has a monopoly on truth. We must expose authorities who have turned authoritarian by telling lies on behalf of their personal or partisan goals. We must demand reasons for the programs that leaders propose.
Authorities provide reasons for what they propose and do. Such reasons can be assessed by others, and when the provided reasons are deemed inadequate, the proposals of authorities can be rejected. Authoritarians – whether they be found in government, in business, in church, or in school – do not provide much in the way of good reasons. Instead, they spin falsehoods or make dubious claims. They justify their beliefs and actions based on nothing more than their intuitions and their rhetoric.
Collective human activity beyond the proposals and reasons of authorities is required to address our problems. Humans as members of political communities must rally behind science, which is the most advanced form of reason available to us in our collective search for overcoming our problems and achieving progress.
But we must be clear about what comprises scientific knowledge. Many of the scientific studies that are reported in the newspapers, on the internet, or on TV have yet to become scientific knowledge, and many of those studies never will. The endless studies of what will cure particular ailments or contribute to attaining our goals are too poorly designed, narrow, or otherwise limited to qualify as scientifically valid. Scientific knowledge is not attained by the work of a single individual – no matter if he or she is regarded as a genesis – or by a small team of researchers – no matter how august these collaborators are.
Science is a collective enterprise. To produce scientific knowledge, whole disciplines comprised of various kinds of experts (encompassing scientists, field researchers, topical theorists, and broad-visioned philosophers) must engage in continuous criticisms and refinements of scientific studies, collaborate with each other, replicate each other’s work, and provide mega-analyses of a huge body of related studies. Consensus among scholars in a field is needed to provide scientific knowledge – even if that knowledge is open to future challenges, refinements, and perhaps revolutionary revisions.
The consensus among ecologists about the impact of human-produced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases on global warming and climate change illustrates real scientific knowledge. As an example of scientific consensus, Pinker points out that “exactly four of 69,409 authors of peer-reviewed articles in the scientific literature rejected the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming, and the peer-reviewed literature contains no convincing evidence rejecting the hypothesis.” The studies on the latest cure for cancer provided by scientists in a pharmaceutical company may lead to scientific knowledge, but they do not constitute such knowledge until extensive work is done that provides a disciplinary consensus on behalf of it. It has been advances in scientific knowledge that are the root cause of all those measures of progress that Pinker provides. Science is the accumulation of knowledge and understanding available to all humans. It is our “commonwealth,” the most important form of “collective wealth” available to us.
Political leaders become authorities when they can back up their proposed solutions by scientific knowledge, or at least provide the most rational and scientific evidence that is available. Political leaders become authoritarians when they claim that scientific evidence is nothing but falsehoods and lies. Ordinary people also become authoritarians when they buy into the unsubstantiated claims of authoritarian leaders. Ordinary people only become citizens (in the higher honorific sense) when they pay attention to science and demand that we as a community of people seek and apply scientific knowledge to solving our never-ending – but perhaps always manageable – problems.