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Brief encounter: Steven Pinker

"Knowledge has exponentiated and is available to all"
February 15, 2017
What is the first historical event you can recall?

I noticed my mother referring to “President Kennedy” rather than “President Eisenhower.” That dates the memory to shortly after John F Kennedy’s inauguration in early 1961, when I was six. The first discrete event I recall was the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. We had the radio on over dinner, and there was a test of an air raid siren. I still can feel the dread.

What is the book you most wish you had written?

As I ponder the books I’ve savoured, I don’t feel the covetous wish to have authored any of them. Much of the enjoyment in reading is hearing another person’s voice, learning from that writer’s insights. As soon as I imagine having written the book myself, I feel the pleasure draining away.

One bit of advice you’d give to your younger self?

Professional: master a range of demanding subjects while you have the time and brainpower—more mathematics, economics, languages; less psychology. Personal: if a life situation is unsustainable, better to change it with moderate pain now than with greater pain later.

What is your favourite saying?

From the 1st century BC Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Where do you want to be buried or have your ashes scattered?

The mouth of the Pamet River in Truro, Cape Cod, near our summer home, where I proposed, in a tandem kayak, to my wife Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

If you were given £1m to spend on other people, what would you spend it on and why?

Giving What We Can, a meta-charity inspired by the Effective Altruism movement, which calculates which charitable donations can deliver the greatest human benefit.

Would you rather have composed a great symphony, penned an important book or invented something that saves lives?

Are you kidding? Something that saves lives, no question!

What are the best and worst presents you’ve ever received?

Best: Rebecca treated us to an aerial tour of Cape Cod in a 1930s-style, open-cockpit biplane. Worst: most wedding presents. It’s hard to write a heartfelt thank you note for a pickle-coddler.

What have you changed your mind about?

The improvability of the human condition. In defending the idea of human nature in The Blank Slate, I presented its dark and light sides, but overall it was a tragic vision. My shift is obvious in the title of a subsequent book: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

What is the biggest problem of all?

Climate change won’t be mitigated by personal abstemiousness, undoing the industrial revolution, or intermittent sources like solar and wind. The numbers are fearsome, particularly when you include the justifiable ambition of the rest of the world to get rich. Massive infrastructure changes, including new nuclear technologies, are needed to make the numbers add up.

Are people better today than 100 years ago?

Unquestionably! Rates of death from war, homicide and genocide are far lower, even if they’re still too high. Globally, people are longer-lived, healthier, richer and better educated. Knowledge has exponentiated and is available to all. Technology allows us to experience the world’s delights while staying in touch with our loved ones.

The last thing that brought you to tears?

Malala Yousafzai’s 2013 speech to the United Nations General Assembly. If I had to pick a recent work of art, it would be The Man Who Knew Infinity, the film about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan.

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and writer