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Steven Pinker’s ‘Progressophobia’

While Steven Pinker is right in asserting that things are much better for humanity today than they were in the past, any assumption that such progress will continue into the future may be based more on hope than on eval uation (“Progressophobia,” May/ June 2018). Serious problems in the past have often spawned solutions, but for too many contemporary problems, solutions may be difficult or even impractical.

The wise and intelligent use of science has brought humanity to its present decent state, but failure of our intelligentsia and our leadership to understand basic science could be disastrous.

The lack of understanding of the basic principles of science among the educated and our leadership is evident in the popularity of “alternative” medicine and “organic” foods, the opposition to GMO food, and the un-sound “precautionary principle” that leads to the distrust of anything with a chemical name. The precautionary principle prohibits any chemical that has been found to be toxic (at any level of dosage) from being used in any food product or household item. This disregards the essential scientific principle that “only the dose makes the poison.” Today scientific methods can detect the most minuscule presence of a chemical, far below any toxic dosage, but laws in California based on the precautionary principle prohibit too many important and safe foods and compounds from use, with consequent social and economic damage.

And then there are environmental threats such as global warming and dwindling energy supplies, wars based on religion and nationalism, and the threat of a major nuclear war, with reckless and glory-seeking individuals with a hand on the button.

Major problems have been solved in the past, as Pinker points out. But do today’s problems have a working resolution, and, even if they do, does hu- manity have the scientific wisdom and willingness to achieve a solution?

I don’t want to contest Steven Pinker’s statistics nor minimize their significance. The piece is brilliantly reasoned and presented. But I don’t think he sees the whole picture. An old joke came to mind. In the early 1920s after Lenin had consolidated his power, he sent government spokesmen around the country to give pep talks on the progress and prospects of the new workers’ paradise. After the talk in one remote village, an old peasant raised his hand. “Comrade,” he forlornly asked, “if everything is so good, why is everything so bad?”

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The God Engine How Belief develops From the Spectral to the Spectrum: Radiation in the Crosshairs I’ve Got Algorithm. Who Could Ask for Anything More?