Pinker’s progress: the celebrity scientist at the centre of the culture wars

By Alex Blasdel

On a recent afternoon, Steven Pinker, the cognitive psychologist and bestselling author of upbeat books about human progress, was sitting in his summer home on Cape Cod, thinking about Bill Gates. Pinker was gearing up to record a radio series on critical thinking for the BBC, and he wanted the world’s fourth richest man to join him for an episode on the climate emergency. “People tend to approach challenges in one of two ways – as problem-solving or as conflict,” Pinker, who appreciates the force of a tidy dichotomy, said. “You can think of it as Bill versus Greta. And I’m very much in Bill’s camp.”

A few weeks earlier, Gates had been photographed in Manhattan carrying a copy of Pinker’s soon to be published 12th book, Rationality, which inspired the BBC series. “We sent it to his people,” Pinker said. Pinker is an avid promoter of his own work, and for the past 25 years he has had a great deal to promote. Since the 1990s, he has written a string of popular books on language, the mind and human behaviour, but in the past decade, he has become best known for his counterintuitive take on the state of the world. In the shadow of the financial crisis, while other authors were writing books about how society was profoundly broken, Pinker took the opposite tack, arguing that things were, in fact, better than ever.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, published in 2011, he gathered copious amounts of data to show that violence had declined across human history, in large part because of the emergence of markets and states. Understandably, the book struck a chord with people who move markets and run states. Gates called it “the most inspiring book I’ve ever read”, and Mark Zuckerberg included it on a list of what to read at Davos. Then, in 2018, at the height of Donald Trump’s presidency and amid the accelerating climate crisis, Pinker published a follow-up, Enlightenment Now, which expanded his argument. It wasn’t just that life had become less violent; thanks to the application of science and reason since the 18th century, the human condition had dramatically improved in health, wealth and liberty, too. Bill Clinton had Enlightenment Now on his bedside table, and Gates declared it his “new favourite book of all time”.

“Bill’s got a pretty nimble mind, so I think he can riff on anything,” Pinker said, imagining how Gates would fare on the radio show. He was looking out over Cape Cod Bay from the upper deck of his house, which he shares with his wife, the philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. From the bottom deck, a staircase of more than 100 steps runs down to a beach, like one of Pinker’s trademark graphs depicting the decline in some measure of human misery. Pinker sees the world in broadly utilitarian terms. “A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one,” he writes in Enlightenment Now. On this basis, he has ranked Gates, who has spent roughly $50bn on philanthropy, near the top of a moral hierarchy crowned by people such as Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace prize-winning agronomist credited with saving more than a billion lives through his innovations in agriculture.

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Pinker’s positive spin on the world has brought him into the orbit of many powerful people. On his phone, under the heading Politicians, he keeps a list of the two dozen or so heads of state, royalty and other leaders who have asked him for an audience. They include the prime minister of his native Canada, Justin Trudeau (“That was the greatest thrill for a Canadian boy”) and Mauricio Macri, then the president of Argentina (“I got to stand on the Evita balcony”). In 2016, Pinker co-authored an article for the New York Times with Colombia’s then-president, Juan Manuel Santos, two months before Santos won the Nobel Peace prize for helping to end the country’s 50-year-long guerrilla war. He has twice been a guest at Bohemian Grove, which has been described as an off-the-record summer camp for male members of the American establishment. He told me he had met some amazing people there, like Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, the former secretaries of state to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, respectively. He seemed to enjoy both the absurdity of the experience and its purpose – to bring powerful people into contact with one another.

Pinker says he offers these global leaders “an infusion of ideas – or even just enthusiasm for good, old-fashioned liberal democracy”. That means “a mixture of civic norms, guaranteed rights, market freedom, social spending and judicious regulation,” as he put it in Enlightenment Now, all held together by a state strong enough to keep people from each other’s throats. He believes the balance of these elements should be cautiously tweaked and twiddled through experimentation and empirical feedback. In the case of the western world, this roughly translates to the view that things are pretty good, which isn’t to say they couldn’t be better, and although there are threats to face, we shouldn’t burn the system down, because things could certainly be a whole lot worse, and if we can make incremental improvements, then a rising tide will lift all boats. It’s a position that Gates, in a conversation with Pinker and the New York Times, called the “conservative centre”.

In the eyes of his critics, this stance has made Pinker the world’s most prominent defender of the status quo. At a time of rising inequality and ecological catastrophe, his prescription for the world – do basically the same thing we have been doing, just a bit better – can seem perverse. To less optimistic observers, the existence of billionaires such as Gates – he and seven other men own as much wealth as the planet’s poorest 3.5 billion people, according to a recent Oxfam estimate – indicates a profound rot in the current arrangements of civilisation. The writer Pankaj Mishra has called Pinker a member of the “intellectual service class”, which shuffles about justifying the positions and soothing the moral sensitivities of society’s winners. Nicolas Guilhot, a professor of intellectual history at the European University Institute, believes that Pinker is fighting a somewhat desperate rearguard action on behalf of neoliberalism against an encroaching army of detractors across the political spectrum. Pinker’s books, and their support from the likes of Zuckerberg, Clinton and Gates, are a reaction, Guilhot told me, “from people who are aware that they’ve lost a lot of ground”.

Despite his preference for problem-solvers over conflict-mongers, a strong case can be made that Pinker belongs in that second camp. “Sometimes to my own retroactive surprise, I seem to have a taste for controversy,” he recently told Steven Levitt, the economist and author of Freakonomics. A search for Pinker’s byline on the newspaper archive site Nexis returns 191 articles since 1994, with headlines that reflect the breadth of his interests, as well as an inclination to provoke: Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?, Sniffing Out the Gay Gene, Nuclear Power Can Save the World, The Enlightenment Is Working. Over the course of his career, the subjects of his major books have expanded from language to the mind, and from human behaviour to the sweep of history. Each new topic has taken him further from the fields in which he did original research, and each new book has seemed more eager than the last to start a row.

In recent years, Pinker has carved out a niche for himself as a pundit who brings social science to the culture wars. He comes to these conflicts armed with the rhetorical skills of the debate champion and the visual aids of a management consultant. By some metrics, it is a winning strategy. He makes liberal use of graphs and charts in his recent books – there are about 180 in Better Angels and Enlightenment Now – and helped to create Google Books’s ngram viewer, which plots the frequency of words and phrases in the English corpus, among other languages. His own ngram results put him below Richard Dawkins and Noam Chomsky, two of his major intellectual influences, but above Yuval Noah Harari and Jordan Peterson, to whom he has been compared. (Google Trends, which tracks more demotic kinds of interest, in the form of search queries, puts Peterson on top by a significant margin.)

As a young scholar in the 80s, Pinker was distinguished more for his insights into language acquisition and visual cognition than for his willingness to plunge into acrimonious debates over gender, race and progress. His life in the public eye began in the early 90s, when an editor at a scholarly journal told him he wrote stylishly, and suggested he try doing it for a broader audience. Not long afterwards, he spoke to the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who had recently made the leap from academic to mainstream writing. “Within 40 seconds of hanging up with Dan, the phone rang and it was his literary agent, John Brockman, on the line,” Pinker told an interviewer in 2001. The initial outcome was The Language Instinct, a wide-ranging account of the nature of language, published in 1994, which combined easy-to-follow discussions of Chomskian linguistics with evolutionary theory and jokes from Woody Allen. A quarter of a million copies have been sold. When I suggested that he must have been gobsmacked by his sudden transformation from research scientist into public intellectual, Pinker demurred. “I had seen the success of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould, and realised that no one had yet done the same thing for language or cognitive science,” he said. “So I was prepared for it to be popular.”

The section of The Language Instinct that garnered the most attention happened to be its most acerbic one, a chapter chiding rule-bound grammar bores. Its popularity seems to have emboldened the contrarian in Pinker. In 1997, he published How the Mind Works, which he framed as a critique of what he called the “standard social science model”, according to which nurture explained almost everything, and nature almost nothing. The next year, Pinker sold out one of London’s largest lecture halls for a debate about the book’s thesis. “Not every academic who has the chance to speak to large audiences enjoys it in the same way,” says Ravi Mirchandani, who was Pinker’s UK publisher in the 90s, and who also published Richard Dawkins at the time. Before the debate, a journalist asked Pinker about his treatment of academic orthodoxies. “I suppose I do line them up and mow them down,” he replied, while mimicking firing a machine gun.

By the time of The Blank Slate, which came out in 2002, Pinker was positioning his work as an attack on what he considered the three central dogmas of the “intellectual establishment” in academia and the media – that there is no such thing as human nature, that our minds are somehow separate from our bodies, and that people are born good. By contrast, he held that quite a number of traits are universally human, that the mind is an information processing system running on the unique hardware of the brain, and that, whatever good we’re capable of, the basic condition of humanity, to paraphrase Thomas Hobbes, his favourite political philosopher, is a war of each against all.

Those first popular books irked their fair share of reviewers and academics, especially on the left, who feared that Pinker’s debatable scientific interpretations had unsavoury political implications. But the real turning point in his career arrived in 2007, in the form of a simple question: “What are you optimistic about?” The prompt was part of an annual symposium for the website Edge, run by Pinker’s literary agent, Brockman. Pinker’s 678-word answer was that violence had declined across human history, an argument he expanded over the next four years into the 696-page book Better Angels. “A large swathe of our intellectual culture is loth to admit that there could be anything good about civilization, modernity, and western society,” Pinker wrote in the book.

Around the same time that he was researching violence, Pinker was beginning to see himself as having a particular role to play in public life – not just as a talented explainer of science, or even a critic of intellectual orthodoxies, but as someone who could stand athwart the stupidification of public discourse. “I came out of the closet as a defender of reason and objectivity,” Pinker told the Times. The major result of this decloseting was Enlightenment Now, which he described to me as his “theory of everything, or almost everything, or at least a lot”. In the book, he argues that, along with liberalism, the Enlightenment gave rise to three main values – reason, science and humanism – that led to the massive improvements he charts in the human condition. These improvements were not only material but moral, as people began to expand their circle of moral concern to those beyond their own family, tribe, nation or species. It was his wife, he said, who convinced him that these values were “worth singling out and defending”.

Since Enlightenment Now came out, in early 2018, Pinker has been engaged in almost unceasing conflict with what he considers his many intellectual enemies, who include intellectuals (“intellectuals hate progress”), progressives (“intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress”), and universities full of progressive intellectuals (a “suffocating leftwing monoculture”). He has also taken aim at postmodernism (“defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness”), a stretch of the green movement running all the way from Al Gore to the Unabomber (“quasi-religious ideology … laced with misanthropy”), contemporary identity politics (“an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values”), and the many people who “lack the conceptual tools to ascertain whether progress has taken place or not”. In these conflicts, Pinker sometimes presents himself as the lone contrarian in a sea of irrationality. He has written in the past that arguments that are “completely reasonable to me, yet blazingly controversial to everyone else” are “the story of my life”.

This summer, I flew to Provincetown, on Cape Cod’s northern tip, to observe up close the intellectual habits of a man considered by some to be one of the most influential thinkers of our time. I arrived on a warm morning at the start of tourist season, and when Pinker picked me up he had the top down on his Volvo convertible. Provincetown has long been a summer resort, especially for LGBTQ people; it is the sort of liberal idyll – commerce meets individual rights meets cappuccinos – that Pinker extols. Fourth of July celebrations had ended the previous day, and the clothing boutiques and cafes along the main drag were festooned with American flags and pride banners. Men in thongs with tanned pectorals cycled by the waterfront.

Pinker recognises the dangers of being trapped within the comfortable perspective of such a comfortable world. The antidote, he says, is an empirical mindset. In Rationality, he notes that in 2019, following the first shark fatality in Massachusetts in 80 years, towns up and down the Cape invested in expensive shark warning and control measures, even though car crashes kill 15 to 20 people there every year, and “cheap improvements in signage, barriers and traffic law enforcement could save many more lives at a fraction of the cost”. That actuarial approach to human life has caused some to think he is bloodless, which he is not. He loves classic rock, says his favourite genre of movie is the concert film or rock documentary, and has watched The Last Waltz, about the largely Canadian band the Band, at least a dozen times. He is a keen landscape and wildlife photographer. “He just takes an infinite delight in the world as it presents itself,” his mother, Roslyn, told me.

Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Photograph: Boston Globe/Getty Images

Pinker began his training as an experimental psychologist in the mid-70s, and spending time with him is a little like auditing Intro Psych, which he has taught every year at Harvard, and before that MIT, for the past 25 years. No matter the topic of conversation, he will reach for a wider theory or study to explain it: the universality of facial expressions, the roots of physical attractiveness, the moral awe people feel for Noam Chomsky, why zebras have stripes. He likes to divide the world into opposing forces or tendencies: he has written that there are two basic intellectual cultures, two fundamental political outlooks, two types of declinism, two flavours of pessimism, two sides to happiness, two ways to get something you want from other people, two ways to appreciate the world’s progress, and two forms of politicisation subverting reason today.

When we stopped to order sandwiches at a deli in the small town of Truro, he brought up a study from the 80s that identified two species of vegetarian – those who eschew meat for moral reasons, and those who do it for health. Pinker, who ordered a smoked turkey sandwich with muenster cheese, described himself as a “reducetarian” and reckons that, morally speaking, he probably shouldn’t eat meat. (If he could choose his final meal, he told the aspiring jet-setter’s magazine Monocle, it would be a rib steak, beer and bottle of San Pellegrino at the Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger.)

We ate our sandwiches on the upper deck of his house. The conversation bounced from his book sales (higher per capita in the UK than in the US) to people’s irrational fears about nuclear energy (“Chernobyl killed about as many people as coal emissions kill every day”) to Woody Allen (“Can you mention Woody Allen these days? I think you can mention Woody Allen. For one thing, he was almost certainly innocent”). Afterwards, Pinker showed me his study, where a large swathe of fabric the colour of snooker baize hung. When the coronavirus pandemic closed the university, he decamped to the Cape, and delivered his lectures for Intro Psych online. “I put my slides behind me on the green screen so I could point at them like a weatherman,” he said. He has described himself as “a modern lecturer-entertainer, with bullet points, borscht belt humour and audiovisual razzle-dazzle”. On a nearby shelf was a small bag filled with fake cockroaches and a curl of plastic dog poo. “For my lecture on disgust,” he said.

Pinker is not only a scientific showman; he is also a willing guinea pig. By his own admission, he does not shy away from self-revelation. He has an MRI scan of a sagittal section of his brain on his website, and has had his genome sequenced and posted online, along with his medical history (basal cell skin cancer, 1995; Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, 2010; blood type, O+). According to genetic tests published in 2012, he shares significant amounts of DNA with his longtime friend the Harvard law professor and Trump impeachment lawyer Alan Dershowitz, and with the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, with whom he also shares significant parts of his worldview.

Having toured the house, Pinker and I suited up for a bike ride. “I like to go fast,” he told me. He rides a several-thousand-dollar carbon frame, which he bought secondhand on eBay. For many years, he used to check the weight of everything that went on his bike, including his water bottle. “It was truly obsessive compulsive, because we know that, when it comes to speed, aerodynamics are a far bigger factor than weight,” he said. Before the advent of GPS tracking apps, he used to measure his routes out on a map and record his rides in a journal. He still weighs himself every morning.

“We’re a pair of Mamils,” Pinker joked as we cycled out of his garage. “Middle-aged men in Lycra.” I added that we were Weird, too. (The acronym – which stands for western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic – is drawn from the work of Joe Henrich, the chair of evolutionary biology at Harvard, and several of his colleagues. They have criticised behavioural scientists for routinely publishing “broad claims about human psychology and behaviour” based only on samples from Weird societies.)

“Right,” Pinker said, before plunging down his steep drive.

Later that afternoon, Pinker and I arrived at a pair of graveyards flanking the Truro Meeting House, a converted church where he was due to give a talk on Rationality the following week. In one of the burial grounds was a modest obelisk commemorating an 1841 gale in which 57 of the town’s fishers died. Many of the other old graves contained children. Since the 19th century, child mortality has plummeted a hundredfold in the developed world, Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now. Up the road, in another cemetery, he had once taken a photograph of the tombstone of a father and his five-day-old son. The inscription read: “O Death all Eloquent how dost thou prove / What dust we dote on when we creatures love.” “You need these slices of life to reassure you that the data is not off the mark,” Pinker said of the graves.

From a Pinkerian perspective, the story of his own family is the story of modernity’s rising trend lines. He was born in Montreal in 1954 in a community of Jewish refugees. His maternal grandmother lived through the Kishinev pogrom in what is now Moldova, in 1903; his paternal grandmother’s entire family was annihilated in the Holocaust. In Montreal, Pinker’s father lived in what Pinker described as “the most oppressive immigrant poverty”. Eventually, several of the men in the generation above Pinker started flourishing businesses. “I am not the descendant of a long line of rabbis (as an improbably large proportion of Jews claim to be),” Pinker has written, “but of makers or sellers of gloves, neckties, auto parts and women’s garments; I grew up with the belief that God made the Jews as a light unto the nations, and made the gentiles because someone had to buy retail.”

In kindergarten, Pinker’s teacher told his mother that he was “the smartest kid she ever taught,” Roslyn recalled. “I came home and said to my husband, ‘You’ll never believe this.’ That was the first time I had thought anything about it.” As a child, Pinker read the encyclopedia cover to cover. As he grew older, his outlook on the world was shaped by the cold war and the domestic upheavals of the 60s. He has said that the first historical event he can recall is the Cuban missile crisis, in 1962, and that he can still feel the dread he experienced hearing radio tests of the air-raid siren. It was a politically fraught time in Montreal – a militant leftwing nationalist movement was agitating for the rights of Quebec’s oppressed French-speaking minority – and discussions in the Pinker household would often turn on fundamental questions. There were arguments about whether humans were essentially brutish or noble, whether, if left to their own devices, they would devolve into violent anarchy or self-organise into a communalist utopia. Pinker engaged in these debates, but was not exactly a partisan, he told me. “A lot of people would say, ‘I went through my Marx, Rand, Mao, whatever phase,’” he said. “But I was never an ideologue.”

Buses on fire during the Montreal police strike of October 1969.
Buses on fire during the Montreal police strike of October 1969. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

In The Blank Slate, he tells a slightly different story, perhaps for effect. “As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism,” he writes. “I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8am on 7 October 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11.20am, the first bank was robbed. By noon, most of the downtown stores were closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home.”

Pinker concludes: “This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).” But somewhat contrary to this tale of dark human instincts run riot, the Canadian historian Bryan Palmer told me that much of this violence was motivated by the political grievances of the Quebecer minority, and was targeted at Anglo businesses like the limousine service, which was given preferential treatment by the city government. The “sniper” was a security guard from the limousine service who fired a shotgun into a crowd.

In 1976, when the cold war was still hot, Pinker began his graduate studies at Harvard, in the department of psychology. He went on to a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, where in 1982 he became a professor in the department of brain and cognitive sciences. Pinker’s views of the era in which he grew up and trained as a scientist seem to have stuck with him. In Better Angels, he charts a spike in homicide rates in the 60s that lasted for a generation. He told me this was due to the “depravity that was unleashed” in that decade.

“The 60s were a temporary local reversal of the civilising process,” he said, referring to the historical theories of the sociologist Norbert Elias, whose work influenced Better Angels. “If you defy the norms of bourgeois propriety, you’re going to have a lot of macho violence, and in the 1960s it was the bourgeois vision of the nuclear family that we had a lot of contempt for.” Pinker has always searched for universals – the underlying structure shared by all languages, the behaviours practised by all cultures, the traits shared by all minds. In his telling, history, too, revealed basic lessons of human nature. Scoured of its particular economic and political conditions, it had been transformed into a kind of parable.

The day after our bike ride, Pinker and I scampered down a short embankment dotted with poison ivy and put in to the little Pamet River in a tandem kayak. I had forgotten to change for the excursion before leaving my rental, so I was wearing an old pair of Pinker’s shorts. We were not far from the mouth of the river, where Pinker proposed to Goldstein, and where he has said he wants his ashes scattered. A few years ago, a massive storm surge had swept salt water up the stream, killing off much of the fauna that inhabited it. Now, as we paddled through lush alleys of cattail and bulrush, frogs seemed to be popping up all around us. “They’ve come back!” Pinker said, delighted. We stopped at an open bend so he could try to take a photo of a frog to send to his wife. The world here was green and bursting with life. I recalled a throwaway line from Enlightenment Now: “Everything is amazing.”

Everything, of course, is not amazing. Pinker knows this, but many of his critics say he hasn’t grasped quite how much is going wrong. His data shows that many bad things, from global poverty to racism and sexism, have declined, but a recurring theme of the criticisms is that he’s not always careful with the data (“shockingly shoddy,” is how the historians Philip Dwyer and Mark Micale have put it). Pinker has attempted to address some of these criticisms in a 10,000-word defence of Enlightenment Now in the rightwing publication Quillette.

A deeper problem, critics say, is Pinker’s faith in data to reveal the truth. Yes, it would be great to just rely on the data, they argue, but data is interpretive all the way down, shaped by what is collected, how it’s collected and for what purpose. That’s a problem Pinker acknowledges in Enlightenment Now, but never fully reckons with. “When you really dig not only into the facts but into his own sources, it’s fully ideological,” Guilhot, the intellectual historian, told me. Several critics have also argued that it’s cruel to ask people to see themselves as data points along a rising trend line, especially if they happen to be among the many people the trends haven’t lifted up. Others say that progress rarely comes from the cheerleaders of the status quo; it comes from radicals organising against the powers that be. Many point out that, whatever the data may show, the really important question is not how much better the world has become, but how much better it could still be.

Steven Pinker in 1999.
Pinker in 1999. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Pinker’s relative comfort with the status quo has led him into arguments that spill well beyond the covers of his books. He often says he “manages his controversy portfolio carefully”, but controversy seems to have overtaken him in recent years. He has sparked anger by describing “people who gravitate to the alt-right” as “often highly intelligent, highly literate” people; by writing that the Tuskegee study, in which more than a hundred poor African American men were allowed to die of untreated syphilis and related complications, was “a one-time failure to prevent harm to a few dozen people”; and by “drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence”, according to an open letter signed by hundreds of graduate students and more than 180 professors in the field of linguistics. Then there were the pictures that began circulating of him with the financier Jeffrey Epstein at various public events, including after Epstein’s 2008 conviction for sex offences against a minor. It turned out that Pinker had also helped his friend Alan Dershowitz interpret a statute in Epstein’s defence on sex trafficking charges in 2007, the same year Pinker and Dershowitz co-taught Psychology 1002: Morality and Taboo. “He’s sending a signal that men who abuse women are welcome in our field,” Jessica Cantlon, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, told me. (Pinker says he regrets having helped Dershowitz with his defence of Epstein.)

Many critics allege that Pinker’s recent remarks are part of a longer history of comments and behaviour that have come dangerously close to promoting pseudoscientific or abhorrent points of view. To take a single example: the journalist Malcolm Gladwell has called Pinker out for sourcing information from the blogger Steve Sailer, who, in Gladwell’s words, “is perhaps best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people”. Angela Saini, a science journalist and author of Superior: The Return of Race Science, told me that “for many people, Pinker’s willingness to entertain the work of individuals who are on the far right and white supremacists has gone beyond the pale”. When I put these kinds of criticisms to Pinker, he called it the fallacy of “guilt by association” – just because Sailer and others have objectionable views, doesn’t mean their data is bad. Pinker has condemned racism – he told me it was “not just wrong but stupid” – but published Sailer’s work in an edited volume in 2004, and quotes Sailer’s positive review of Better Angels, among many others, on his website.

Pinker cherishes facts over assumptions, but occasionally his assumptions have caused him to rush past the facts. In 2013, Pinker initially defended the philosopher Colin McGinn after McGinn had been accused of sexually harassing a female graduate student, calling McGinn’s actions “no more serious than exchanging sexual banter”. He revised his opinion of the case after being confronted with the evidence. What McGinn did crossed the line, Pinker told me, but he still thought the punishment was disproportionate. (McGinn resigned his position, though it’s unclear under exactly what circumstances.) McGinn later made a failed attempt to start a business ethics consulting firm, and Pinker and Goldstein signed on as advisers. “Rebecca and I were pretty sure that nothing would become of it,” Pinker told me. “It was basically a favour to him, a gesture of friendship with no consequences.”

“Depending on how much of a sense of humour you and your editor have, here’s an answer to the question, ‘Are there downsides to being famous?’” Pinker emailed me after I asked him about Epstein, Sailer, McGinn and others. “Yes. Journalists ask you to explain why you’ve been ‘associated with’ various people, out of the thousands you’ve interacted with over the decades, who’ve done something wrong.” Earlier, he had said of the various criticisms he has faced, “It’s as unpleasant as you’d expect. But I do my humanly best. I process them as part of a set of stress management strategies – not before bed, often on an airplane when I’m already miserable.”

Ultimately, though, Pinker sees this as part of the job of the public intellectual. “This is the business we’ve chosen,” he said, quoting The Godfather Part II. “People are going to attack me, and I’m going to attack back.”

Although the controversies Pinker generates have intensified, it’s not because his basic view of the world has changed. What has changed is the world. The same defence of capitalism and liberal democracy that animates much of Enlightenment Now can be found, in miniature, in The Blank State, though between them stand the financial crisis, the migrant crisis, the forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of social media and authoritarian populism, and numerous increasingly alarming reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. At the same time, over the past decade or so, a greater diversity of people have entered academia and public discourse, and have challenged opinions that were once considered acceptable. “There’s a huge reckoning happening,” Saini said.

It’s hard not to see Pinker’s latest book, Rationality, which walks readers through various cognitive biases, as a response to his critics – particularly those who lacked “the conceptual tools to ascertain whether progress has taken place or not”. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker recommends “cognitive debiasing” programmes as part of a strategy of countering irrationality in the world; Rationality reads like the centrepiece of the curriculum. If only everyone were capable of reasoning properly, Pinker sometimes seems to imply, then our endless political arguments would not occupy so much of public life. Instead of being consumed by conflict, we would be busily problem-solving. “I think the issue that a lot of people have with Pinker is that, for someone who is so exercised about other people’s biases and lack of rationality and logic, he sometimes feels a little reluctant to question his own,” Saini said.

Pinker’s methods sometimes seem cynical, but I never got the sense that he was anything less than sincere. He agrees with his leftwing critics that we are living in a precarious moment, in which hard-fought-for advances in human wellbeing are under threat. He consistently says that the political battle against the Trumpist, authoritarian, conspiratorial right is of primary importance. But the cultural and ideological battle against what he called “woke-ism, Occupy Wall Street leftism, Rage Against the Machine leftism, Extinction Rebellion – these rather cynical and destructive movements” seems to occupy more of his emotional energy. In his view, many factions on the left see the world as a zero-sum battle for supremacy among different racial, ethnic and gender groups. He also believes that the excesses of the left are partly to blame for the dangerous lunacy of the right. “Unlike a lot of academics, I actually have conservative and libertarian friends,” he said. “They sometimes ask me, ‘Why should we trust climate science when anyone with an opposing view would be cancelled?’ I disagree about the climate science, but it’s otherwise a good point.”

To fight back against this, Pinker has joined the boards of more than half a dozen organisations that say they are dedicated to promoting free speech. When I began listing a few to check which ones he belonged to, he interjected: “I’m on the board of all of them!” He went on: “The reason these organisations are so important is that a lot of repression comes from a small number of activists. Even if they’re not a majority view, a radical minority can become a repressive regime.” In Better Angels, he continued, he wrote about this dynamic of the “spiral of silence”, which led to witch-hunts, the Inquisition, the French Revolution, Stalinism and Nazi Germany. He also compared what he sees as the intellectual bankruptcy of woke orthodoxy to the folktale The Emperor’s New Clothes. “It takes a little boy to point it out,” he said.

On my last morning on the Cape, I strolled through Provincetown to the wharf where Pinker and I were taking the ferry to Boston. While I waited for him in the queue for the boat, a man and his boyfriend announced their engagement to a group of friends – then joked they only did it so one would be eligible for the other’s healthcare benefits. The moral circle was expanding, but maybe not as far as it could.

Back in Boston, Pinker showed me around the spacious open-plan apartment he shares with Goldstein, in a converted leather warehouse. On a wall opposite the front door were two large photographs of the couple with the Obamas on the day that Goldstein was presented with the National Humanities medal, in 2015. If anywhere were western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, it was this million-dollar former warehouse with photos of Barack Obama on the wall.

Pinker’s apartment seemed to contain the curated fruits of his career. Gazing down on the room was a nearly lifesize portrait of him, reading a book. On another wall was a caricature of him which first appeared in the New York Review of Books. A small painting of him was lying loose on top of a low bookshelf. “One of the things that happens when you’re famous is that people send portraits to you,” he said, bemused. Next to the portrait was a little pile of new translations of Enlightenment Now – Italian, Japanese, Hungarian. Standing at the centre of the apartment like a statue, in the dead space where his study and the living room converged, was a glass magazine rack, about the height of Pinker himself. Displayed on its zigzagging levels were publications, some more than a decade old, with his or Goldstein’s face staring up from the covers. “What’s on the rack are basically things that we don’t feel we can throw out, but not the things that we tend to read in bed,” he later joked. Success tends to be its own justification, and the evidence that Pinker’s approach to the world works for him was all around us. “Celebrity is bizarre,” I remarked. Pinker grinned. “Yes it is,” he said.

Pinker and I had planned to go up to Harvard to see his office, which he hadn’t entered since the start of the pandemic, nearly a year and a half earlier. Before we left, I asked to see a pair of black caiman-leather cowboy boots he had custom made for him by the legendary bootmaker Lee Miller, part of his signature look at public events. (“He told me he likes cowboy boots because it’s the only way a man can get away with wearing high heels,” Pinker’s friend the biologist Jerry Coyne told me. “He likes mostly reptile boots, I think.”) Pinker showed me the boots, but opted to wear a pair of driving loafers designed by Nicolas Sarkozy’s son Louis, for whom Pinker is a celebrity model.

Earlier, Pinker had picked up a chunk of graffitied concrete, the size of an American football, from the top of one of his shelves. “Part of the Berlin Wall,” he said. His father had brought it back from a business trip he took to Germany in the weeks the wall was coming down. Pinker put the souvenir back in its place, where it lay like a page torn from a book. “Whatever happened to good old liberalism?” Pinker said to me later, exasperated but cheerful. “Who’s going to actually step in and defend the idea that incremental improvements fed by knowledge, fed by expanding equality, fed by liberal democracy, are a good thing? Where are the demonstrations, where are the people pumping their fists for liberal democracy? Who’s going to actually say something good about it?”

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