Steven Pinker’s 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, argued that declines in all kinds of violence, including war, reflect moral progress. I reviewed it enthusiastically (and not just because it cited my own book). But, unarguably, Pinker’s thesis has had a bad few years.
Hardly was his ink dry when violent conflict engulfed the Arab world. Russia has resurrected, zombie-like, a kind of big power military aggression we had thought gone forever. And whereas expanding democratization was a key explanatory pillar for Pinker’s thesis, democracy too has had setbacks, in countries from Venezuela to Thailand, with Egypt’s revolution producing a regime even worse than before,* while China’s authoritarianism looks better (in some eyes) than America’s democratic paralysis.
Well. As I’ve often argued, human affairs are complex, and their path is never linear. We’ve had some years going in the wrong direction; but it’s way too soon to read the last rites for far longer and larger trends in the right direction.
Comes now John Gray in The Guardian** with an essay boldly headed, “Pinker is Wrong About Violence and War.” The subhead asserts, “[t]he stats are misleading . . . and the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and just plain wrong.” (My daughter Elizabeth challenged me to respond.)
I was expecting to find, in this lengthy essay, some substantive grappling with Pinker’s arguments and his exhaustive analysis of data, in the light of latterly developments. Not so. Indeed, the essay’s verbosity is inversely proportional to its substance. As Texans say, all hat and no cattle; revealing less about Pinker than about Gray’s pretentious cynicism masquerading as intellectual depth.
Gray does perfunctorily argue that data here “involves complex questions of cause and effect,” citing some ambiguities whose disregard, he says, renders Pinker’s statistics “morally dubious if not meaningless.” But what Gray completely disregards (did he read the book?) is the vast depth in which Pinker examined just such issues (for example, what counts as “war” and how you count casualties), always probing for the reasons and explanations behind the data, to arrive at true understanding.
Rather than get into such nitty-gritty, Gray offers a string of non sequiturs. For instance, unable to rebut Pinker’s analysis of actual history, he invokes counter-factual history – what might have happened, but did not (e.g., Nazis winning WWII). And, after enumerating a few recent violent episodes (yes, it’s no revelation they still occur), Gray says, “Whether they accept the fact or not, advanced societies have become terrains of violent conflict. Rather than war declining, the difference between peace and war has been fatally blurred.”
Fatally! This hyperbolic twaddle is belied by Pinker’s comprehensive exegesis of just how different modern advanced societies are, from earlier ones, in terms of the violence ordinary people encounter in everyday life. Thus Pinker addresses not just war, but every other class of violence – something Gray totally ignores.
Part of Pinker’s explanation for the improvement is the influence of Enlightenment values (just one example: Beccaria’s battle against pervasive torture). But Gray makes the customary shallow and cynical attack on the very idea of Enlightenment values. He cites a few backward views held by Locke, Bentham, and Kant. Which proves what, exactly? And Gray alleges (without specifying) “links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism,” dismissing any denial as “childish simplicity.” Call me childish, but I don’t consider Hitler, Stalin and Mao avatars of Voltairean humanism.
But, again, none of this nonsense represents any serious effort to engage with the analysis Pinker laid out in such depth. And it’s all just a lead-up to Gray’s main point, which is to simply ridicule the whole project of elucidating these matters through statistical evaluation – which he likens to a 16th century magician’s use of a “scrying glass” to access occult messages, or spinning Tibetan prayer wheels. He sees Pinkerites as similarly trying to assuage some existential angst by fetishizing data, reading into it meaning that isn’t there. “Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt,” Gray writes, “it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers.”
There you have it. “The sorcery of numbers.” The postmodernist mentality at its worst: there’s no such thing as truth. Don’t even try to understand reality by examining evidence for what’s actually happening. Instead, place reliance on – what? – John Gray’s deeper wisdom, uncontaminated by data? Magicians and sorcery indeed!
True, statistics can be misused, but surely that doesn’t tell us to eschew their use. Pinker recognized that his book challenged conventional wisdom and would be met with a wall of cynicism like Gray’s. Thus he knew he had to build a powerful battering ram of facts and data – accompanied by thoroughgoing and persuasive interpretive analysis – to break through that wall. Pinker’s success is evidenced by Gray’s bemoaning that “the book has established something akin to a contemporary orthodoxy.” If so, that orthodoxy is in no danger of overthrow from such a disgracefully foolish effort as John Gray’s.
* Though there’s been good news in Sri Lanka, and now Nigeria, where voters transcended traditional divisions to oust the ruling party.