Steven Pinker on the Past, Present, and Future of Optimism

The legendary scientist argues that things are getting better, not worse. If only he could get the world to believe him.

Darryn King
Published in
12 min readJan 10, 2019


Illustration: Paul Lacolly

TThe rise of populism. The threat of domestic and international terrorism. The destruction of the environment. In recent years, you’d be forgiven for getting the feeling that the world was on a fast-accelerating slide.

But in two recent books — The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress — cognitive scientist Steven Pinker set out to demonstrate quite the opposite: that life is better now than it has ever been.

Armed with data encompassing everything from the tone of the news to the declining rate of violence worldwide to the potential for death by lightning strike, Pinker also argues that a culture of pessimism has rendered the very notion of progress unfashionable.

For this month’s forward-looking theme, we spoke with Pinker about Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment thinking, distortions of worldview, and reasons for not despairing about the state of the world.

MEDIUM: Steven, we’ll get to the specific themes of ‘Enlightenment Now,’ but first let’s tie in your expertise in linguistics. What are we to make of the fact that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones?

Steven Pinker: I think it reflects the fact that we have greater diversity of negative emotions than positive emotions. There are a lot of ways to be upset and not as many ways to be happy.

Are we generally more galvanized by negative thoughts than those of optimism and hopefulness?

It depends on our assessment of how our actions can affect the world. That is, if you are optimistic in the sense that good things will happen no matter what you do, then there’s no need to do anything. But if you have an attitude of what Hans Rosling called “possibilism” and…