Even with all the bad news going on — the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, economic worries, whatever — Steven Pinker remains optimistic that the human species is making progress.
Pinker, a well-known experimental psychologist and author, will make the argument for progress — “what it is, whether it has occurred, when it has occurred, what causes it and what are the current threats to it,” he said — in a lecture set for Tuesday night at Kingsbury Hall on the University of Utah campus.
Pinker, a professor at Harvard, said in a phone interview that his talk — part of the Natural History Museum of Utah’s lecture series — will look at human progress through the lens of current events. “You could think of it as ‘Putin, pandemic and progress,’” he said.
One reason that human progress may not be more self-evident, according to Pinker, is the way people are inundated with bad news.
“Journalism by its very nature conceals progress,” Pinker said, “because it presents sudden events rather than gradual trends.”
In human cognition, he said, one of the main biases is the “availability bias.” “We judge frequency, prevalence, probability [and] risk by retrieving examples from memory. The more easily we can think of something, the more likely we think it to be,” he said, adding that “the press is an availability machine. It consists of the worst things happening on Earth at any given time.”
Journalists, he said, “should be attentive to various biases and problems in their practices, in the hope of reforming them.”
Pinker supports a free press, though. “It’s absolutely essential for us to understand the world as events unfold,” he said. “But I do think that there should be more of a focus on data journalism, and less on particular events. … The reporting of a bad event should not be meant to make people think that such events have been increasing, if in fact they are an exception.”
In his most recent book — ”Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters” — Pinker makes the argument that being rational and open-minded are traits that more people should practice.
For example, he said he would like to see media literacy taught in our education system to emphasize principles of rationality — like understanding that correlation doesn’t mean causation, or learning how to tell fake news from accurate information.
“We need a commitment to all the devices that make us collectively smarter than any of us individually, since none of us is infinitely wise,” he said. “We need free speech. We need fact-checking. We need editing. We need peer review. We need testing of ideas with data and studies.”
He also argues that people who belong to particular political and social groups — which seem irretrievably fragmented from each other — need to listen to each other.
“There ought to be more openness to evidence that both sides should be prepared to acknowledge their own fallibility, too,” Pinker said. “We’re all biased and, in particular, we’re biased to favor ideas that make our own set — our tribe, our own coalition — look moral and wise, and make the other side look evil and foolish. But we should be prepared to change our minds when the facts change.”
Pinker’s lecture is set for Tuesday, 7 p.m., at Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle (200 South), Salt Lake City, on the University of Utah campus. Tickets — at $25.50 (including service fee) for the public, and $10 for U. of U. students — are available through the Natural History Museum’s website, nhmu.utah.edu.
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