by Will Lloyd
Wednesday, 2
June 2021

Will Steven Pinker lose the bet of the century?

There's a lot riding on the psychologist's wager with astronomer Martin Rees
by Will Lloyd

Long Bets calls itself ‘The Arena for Accountable Predictions’. It’s a website that lets soothsayers and prognosticators test themselves by trying to predict the future, gambling for real stakes.

The featured bet that currently leads the website is between the Astronomer Royal Martin Rees and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. Given the events of the last 18 months, this has arguably become the most significant wager of the century so far — even if the stake is a relatively piddling $400.

Rees will win that sum if the following prediction is substantiated:

“A bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event within a six-month period starting no later than Dec 31 2020.”

The bet’s timeframe — 2017 to 2020 — has expired, but it is not yet settled. As Ross Douthat points out, the bet will only be resolved when it is possible to answer this question: Was Covid-19 an escapee from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or did it jump from a bat cave to its first human patient? Wet markets or lab-leak?

A real answer to that question will have profound implications: for much of the media, for the standing of the scientific community, and for the Chinese Communist Party, which would look as if it had not only “done a Chernobyl”, but failed to stop this bioerror’s effects from locking down much of the world. All would face a renewed crisis of legitimacy.

It would also be a blow to Steven Pinker. One of the most prominent intellectuals anywhere, boyish and (somewhat) charming, equipped with unmissable hair, Pinker has spent much of the previous decade patiently outlining all the reasons why the world is getting… better.

Sprawling across a range of topics, from pollution to homicide, war to poverty, Pinker jetted around in the 2010s, armed with slides, graphs, and numbers that, to him at least, proved everything was on the right track. Everything was OK. He was like all those poor Edwardian thinkers who believed world war was imaginable but not at all possible. Pinker’s lovely graphs pointed in one direction: progress. The better angels of our nature were winning out.

When Pinker gave his TED talks, they always reminded me of some eccentric, colourfully dressed professor, explaining the inner workings of his magical chocolate factory to a group of curious school children. Look at the marshmallow fountain my dears! World War Three is impossible! But Pinker had persuasive critics, who accused him of over-interpreting his data.

Martin Rees, on the other hand, has always played on the black keys. ‘Apocalyptic’ undersells the way he thinks about reality. The possibility of existential risk is more important to Rees than how many people are in or out of poverty at any time. Our Final Century? asks the title of one of his books. That’s not a Pinker question.

If a “bioerror” turns out to be responsible for unleashing Covid-19, then it would be wise to pay more attention to those like Martin Rees who treat existential risks seriously, rather than Steven Pinker, who tells a fabulous story about progress, without ever taking a downward glance at reality.

Join the discussion

  • I love pinker and agree with the majority of what he says. But where I part ways with him is his Pollyannish way of looking at certain issues. The environment is doing great according to Pinker!! Come visit me on Canada’s east coast where we have fished out the cod, 95% of the large fish are gone, tuna are teetering, 95% of many birds are gone, little brown bats are extinct, etc. The only species doing well are crows, raccoons, coyotes, and pigeons – anything that can get along OK with lots of humans around. And we are one of the places people visit to “get back to nature”.
    I find him similarly Pollyannish on democracy and the forward march of society in general. I think we are very, very capable of backsliding into tyranny.
    I highly recommend reading Dalrymple’s critiques of Pinker. (I highly recommend reading anything Dalrymple has ever written!!)

  • There’s progress in the accumulation of material knowledge in fields such as medical science, especially, but Pinker is basically a whiggish ideologue who takes this undeniable observation of material progress much too far. He sees progress everywhere, whereas in reality even material/ technological progress is a double-edged sword. & moral/ civilizational ‘progress’ is extremely tenuous/ not in the same category as solid material progress

  • Pinker is right because within a mere 12 months several vaccines were developed; when has that ever happened before? Judge by the progress in medical technology to combat a plague and you have a step-change in progress.
    Did Pinker ever say that progress was a monotonically increasing function? Of course not. So the bad safety practices in Wuhan and the disturbing governmental responses are the one step back that goes with the two steps forward of vaccine development.

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