Munk Debate on Progress

I few days back I watched the Munk debate on human progress with the motion “Humanities best days lie ahead.” The lineup featured the stellar cast of Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley for the motion with Malcolm Gladwell and Allan de Button against the motion. Although I had never heard of Button, I was delighting at the prospect of hearing Pinker and Gladwell duke it out. I practically didn’t care the subject - I would’ve just enjoyed the conversation. But that was with the assumption of civil discussion. As it turns out, the debate was more spirited and far more vitriolic that I had anticipated. The Con side was quickly on the defensive - both because the audience was already strongly in the Pro camp and because it must be maddeningly difficult to face off against Pinker+Ridley. The result is that Gladwell and Button engaged in some seriously petty name-calling and adhominem retorts. My respect for Gladwell has dropped tremendously and Botton, who I was not familiar with, came across terribly and behaved as if whoever spoke louder and with more passion would win the debate. I thought Steven Pinker did a good job of not retaliating with the same ad-hominem nonsense flowing freely from Gladwell+Button. Its a real shame that the debate wasn’t conducted on a higher plane as Gladwell and Button, even though they were horribly outmatached, had a few points that failed to be made convincingly due to their petty demeanor.

The main thrust of Pinker and Ridley’s argument was that technological progress has driven a tremendous drop in human affliction as measured by almost any ruler of social progress - income, equality, democracy, freedom, womend rights….etc. Readers of Better Angels will be familiar with the arguments. Ridley made much of the same arguments and although neither claimed the future would be Utopian and both are clear eyed observers of the unfixable nature of humanity’s character constructed of “crooked timber,” the straw man of a Utopian world was assailed again and again by Gladwell/Button (“They are seeking a New Jerusalem”). It was rather jarring to hear the attacks of the Con position which seemed to boil down to a few badly articulated themes: 1) that increased technology can lead to fragility and catastrophic failures of unprecedented magnitude and 2) that science can’t address human psychological misery. Point 1 is a valid point and could have been fleshed out in greater detail. Several catastrophic scenarios were explored (climate-driven disasters, and nuclear war) but by the time they were, Gladwell’s contempt was on full display and the intellectual articulation he is known for was completely gone. His comments and demeanor towards Pinker was surprising brought up several subjects pertaining to the second theme. Gladwell tried to mock Pinker by saying “I wish I had known the world was better when I was [sad and troubled?] teen”, and he reacted furiously to Pinker’s assertion that climate change is an economic problem. When Pinker tried to rebut with an answer along the lines of how one would address climate change (what source of fuels, what incentives, how much CO2 needs to be drawn down), Gladwell wanted none of it. By simply phrasing the problem as an economic one, Pinker had commited a grave sin. Its remarkable that Gladwell and Botton, widely read authors and champions of idea and many aspects of technological progress would be united in visceral distaste for science and technology, although this is the central argument of the second main objection of the Con side.

Both Gladwell and Button seemed to react physically to the statistics and trendlines of Pinker/Ridley. Why? Its really worth watching this debate since it encapsulates a modern divide that seems to afflict the academy and was actually addressed by Pinker in a semi-recent essay, Science Is Not Your Enemy. This essay, and perhaps other writings including Better Angels, has made Stephen Pinker a lightning rod in the world of ideas where he has come to represent the notion that science has usurped the role of humanities in exploring the major philosophical issues of life, a misplacement that Leon Weisleter, a Pinker foe, believes is a tremendous error with long-term consequences. There are direct echoes of this in Button’s arguments who doesn’t in any way refute Pinker/Ridley but simply seeks to get them to concede that they cannot address human unhappiness. Huh? When Ridley muses aloud if Button isn’t at the wrong debate, Button flames. He wonders what Pinker would tell to Anna Karenina or Hamlet or how he can address physchic misery. It does seem he is at the wrong debate and he goes absolutely apoplectic when Pinker points out that Karenina and Hamlet are fictional but that there are real people who are benefiting from the material transformations of the world. What is somewhat amusing about the exchange is that Pinker and Ridley are some of the last people to put down or devalue the beauty of works of art of the power of the humanities. On a light note, Ridley pointed out that scientists are people to - “If you prick us do we not bleed” - and he invokes the Greek poet Hesiod to point out how pessimism-as-you-age has been around for Millenia. In short, the idea of how we should be in the world is a valid question and one that Button has obviously spent a career exploring but it was misplaced at this debate and it manifested as a contempt for science and scientist while largely ignoring the central motion.

So while the debate itself turned out to be an exposition of Pinker’s and Ridley’s books about the incredible advances of technology and how we consistently overestimate crime and danger, it also highlighted a growing rift in the intellectual community. As far as I can tell, all four of the individuals on the stage are secular and probably athiests and yet there is a dramatic schism in their beliefs about how one should view or be allowed to view certain aspects of the human experience. It seemed to me that the broad historical, fact-filled view of Pinker and Ridley which seemed to illuminate the world and provide comprehension to so many of us observers, was perceived by Gladwell/Button as an act of war.