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Book review: 'Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress' by Steven Pinker

  • June 2018
  • Topics in science
  • Book or article
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

by Steven Pinker

Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 9780525559023

Book review by Andrea Bandelli, Executive Director, Science Gallery International, Dublin, Ireland

If you need a boost in your confidence that reason, science and humanism are the pillars of our society, look no further than this book.

In a world that seems almost out of control, with increasing social tensions, radicalism, post-truth politics, and disparate media which are substituting journalism with “fake news”, Stephen Pinker brings us back to the voice of reason. This book is not a complain about the poor state of the world, or a call to fight for the role of science: it is a calm, reassuring and uplifting view that makes us stronger in defending ourselves from the noise and distractions that seem to become louder every day.

Is the world really getting worse? Pinker’s answer is a resounding “no”. The main part of the book is dedicated to showing how on several accounts life today has never been better. Drawing on a multitude of sources and sometimes overloading the reader with charts showing upward trends, Pinker argues that we live in a much better world today than ever before. 16 chapters are dedicated to show how when we look at the global picture there is overwhelming evidence that progress and our reliance on the values of enlightenment, brought us improved health, peace, safety, environment, democracy, human rights, equality, and even happiness. The first reaction when reading all this data is a classic “yes, but…” thinking of all the counter examples we know about. CO2 levels have never been higher than now; radicalism and populist movements are threatening democracy; wealth has never been so unequally distributed. And yet, according to Pinker, these are the fallacies of not seeing the forest for the trees. Yes, there is still a lot to do and we’re obviously far away from true universal access to good quality of life. But it’s undeniable that compared to the past, people live longer, better lives; terrorism is actually a much smaller threat that we’re led to think by the media; and our care for the environment is growing as never before.

The effort to document all this evidence is laudable. It is also a good reminder that facts and information alone are not enough to change our attitudes towards contentious issues. Quite often while reading this section I thought of the works of Anthony Giddens and Ulrich Beck on the risk society. Yes, we might live in a better world but we’re led to see it not for how it is but for how dangerous it may become.

Stephen Pinker reminds us that science and reason give us confidence in progress and are our antidotes to the fear of the unknown.

This is the focus of the last part of the book, a much shorter three chapters which deal with science, reason and humanism. With unparalleled grace and clarity, Pinker explains why radicalism and religious fundamentalism are incompatible with the progress that has characterised the past centuries. He shows also convincing arguments as to why fundamentalism is not on the rise, giving us hope for a brighter future.

“Enlightenment Now” is both a useful resource, with all the data about modern progress, and a beautiful essay to ground us in the values that brought us where we are today.


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