Book Notes: “Enlightenment Now”

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking, 2018

This book will piss you off. It’ll piss you off if you’re a person of faith. It’ll piss you off if you are on the right of the political spectrum and it’ll piss you off if you’re on the left. It’ll piss you off if you think nuclear power and genetically modified crops are abominations. It’ll piss you off if you consider yourself a Marxist, and it’ll piss you off if you have Nietzschean proclivities. You should still read it.

Enlightenment Now makes the case that the Enlightenment has been a good thing. “But!,” you may protest, “What about all the pollution? What about global warming? What about all the racism and misogyny? What about the excesses of capitalism and science? What about the violence? What about terrorism? The world is shit!” Yes, that. The book makes the case that our understanding of these and other important issues is affected by cognitive biases that make things appear worse than they really are. Of course, you can’t make this argument if you don’t have data to back it up, and the book delivers data in abundance.

This is not to say the tone is celebratory. The ideals of the Enlightenment – the same ideals that led to a world in which I can type these words into a pocket-sized Internet-connected supercomputer, for you to read them, and for both of us to enjoy the health and prosperity that give us the wherewithal to have this interaction – are under attack. Various forces threaten to undermine progress: tribalism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, and more. The book serves as an urgent call to resist and counteract these forces that threaten to pull us back to the bad old days.

If you find yourself nodding in agreement, or mildly curious, you should read the book. But if merely reading these notes upsets you, then you need to read it. It’ll piss you off, but ultimately that may be a good thing.

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