by Will Lloyd
Wednesday, 2
June 2021
Spotted
17:25

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.

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David Slade
David Slade
11 months ago

Pinker’s basic point about the civilising of humanity and the better angels of our nature is still broadly correct, if you doubt this then I would challenge you to pick another time in which you would rather have lived. He always caveated his observations (because it would be wrong to call them theories as they were presentations of hard data), that they were not prophecy and there could always be regressions.

The biggest regression with the pandemic has not been the origins of the virus (unless deliberately unleashed on the world), but the inhumane and panicked way the world has responded. Clearly there has been a regression in the way humans respond to risk – we are, in fact so safe (and Pinker’s observations therefore so accurate), that any risk brings out atavistic behaviours in us and a devaluing of human freedom in a misguided attempt to preserve the safety at the cost of freedom.

I and lots of others think that’s the wrong call to make , but I would be reluctant to say it invalidates Pinker. It could almost be euphemistically summed up as ‘having too much of a good thing’ (this also happens, for instance, with divisive obsessions with equality at a time when society has never been more equal).

This wasn’t a very well written post as I’m currently on a train, but felt I had to defend a man whose writings I’ve always found to accurately describe the world.

Last edited 11 months ago by David Slade
Simon Newman
Simon Newman
11 months ago
Reply to  David Slade

Very good post!

Terry M
Terry M
11 months ago
Reply to  David Slade

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.

J StJohn
J StJohn
11 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

He may be right; but he lost the bet. There’s well over a million dead from a bioerror. Given that, for example, the russkies were prepared to jettison novichok into a civilian environment; you can’t be sure that Pinker will remain right. Man’s capacity for egregious harm is well enough documented man’s self inflicted historical calamities

colinkingswood4
colinkingswood4
11 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

Vaccines that were never needed and are under emergency approval.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
11 months ago
Reply to  David Slade

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

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

““All is for the best in the best of possible worlds.”” as Pangloss maintained through every disaster the world could possibly produce. And he used it tautologically as this is the ‘best possible’, leaving a lot of room for really bad stuff. Leibnezian.
Or maybe he is a Bentham and Mill Utilitarian.

The problem is they are philosophical and not physical, and Physical things never really will fit within the philosophical. Pinker sounds like a fool.

robboschester
robboschester
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Read him or listen carefully. He’s no fool.

J StJohn
J StJohn
11 months ago
Reply to  robboschester

It’s not the fools that are the main concern; it’s the clever, evil ones that worry us.

colinkingswood4
colinkingswood4
11 months ago
Reply to  J StJohn

The fools are the one who are dragging the pandemic hysteria on far beyond what need be.

jvirgin jvirgin
jvirgin jvirgin
11 months ago
Reply to  David Slade

Generally I agree with your points but I would say that Pinker rather tends to overstate his case but Rees is too pessimistic. As an example Pinker makes the point that things generally keep getting better despite the world wars which is technically correct (looking at the hard numbers) because there are so many people in the world and the “world” wars were generally centred in Europe and the Far East but a there was obviously a huge amount of suffering for a lot of people.
Personally I subscribe to Orwell’s observations:
“Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing”
“On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time.”

Last edited 11 months ago by jvirgin jvirgin
Peter Kriens
Peter Kriens
11 months ago

Our societies developed the vaccine because Pinker was right. If we had listened to every doomsayer and fearful woman we’d still be in caves living in subsistence.

The Wuhan flu seems to be becoming around 0.1% deaths/year in most countries that were hit severely. Bad but a lot better than the Spanish flu or the plague. It hardly made a dent in our average life span, it is still better than in 2000.

A million only sounds terrifying if you do not calculate the ratio. Every week more than a million people die, we are just with a lot of people on this globe.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

I take issue with this because so many people have been actively supporting a ludicrous response to the virus. Anyone vaguely curious has figured out the depth of the rot in governments, big tech, corporate media, big pharma and other money grubbing corporations. And instead of the youth calling this out, we have had to put up with a whole lot of wokery fakery rabble rousing.

Terry M
Terry M
11 months ago

Darwin’s theory gave birth to eugenicists. Does that mean discovering evolution was not progress?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Kriens

“Our societies developed the vaccine because Pinker was right. If we had listened to every doomsayer and fearful woman we’d still be in caves living in subsistence.” What a crazy comment. War, the defensive and aggressive elements of it, are the entire base of our civilization. That it forced us to form government, then defensive structures, communities, technology, industry, maintain a class of people who did not have to work dusk to dawn so could think…

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
11 months ago

That’s a silly caricature of Pinker’s views. He is right to emphasise the hopeful signs given humans’ tendency to dwell on the negative.

alexbowditch
alexbowditch
11 months ago

Entirely correct

J StJohn
J StJohn
11 months ago
Reply to  alexbowditch

Before you know it though, 6 million Jews who thought it’d never come to that, and therefore didn’t flee, ended up in a gas chamber. Those that dwelt on the negative survived.

Aron T
Aron T
11 months ago
Reply to  J StJohn

As a grandson of one of those who fled Hitler, I can simply say that is over-simplistic. He fled precisely because of his deep religious faith which led him to see a parallel between Hitler and Pharaoh. Having deep faith (an essentially optimistic view of the world) does not contradict the belief (to quote the Bible) “the will of man’s heart is evil from his youth”

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago

That is true-but that hairstyle does cost him some gravitas unfortunately !

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
11 months ago

If we find out that the Covid-19 disease was unleashed on the world by a leak from the Wuhan research institute, that will be a big black eye for China. That’s for sure.
But why would the results of the bet change anyone’s world view? The Covid-19 epidemic is still raging, but it has never been an existential threat to humanity.
And it looks likely that we will never pin down the cause of the epidemic. We never did find out where the 1918 Spanish flu got its start (though it was not Spain). Haskell County, Kansas, maybe? Who knows.
Even if he loses the bet, I’d say that Steven Pinker’s world view has won this round. We have shrugged off the Covid-19 epidemic in the United States and moved on. Other countries seem to be doing the same. It was brutal, sure, but hardly a threat to the existence of our society.

Saul D
Saul D
11 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

The downstream consequences haven’t played out yet. A little bit like last year, we’re moving into summer, cases are going down, punters are heading back to the beach and it feels like we got past it, albeit with the added relief of a vaccine this year. I truly hope that we have Covid defeated, but nature mutates. We might need a couple of autumns before we raise the all clear. 50:50 there are more surprises on the way.
The scientific, economic and political consequences will also fester. As we breathe again, voices will start to look for someone to blame for the loss of lives and livelihoods. Add inflation from the flood of money into the systems, and attitudes are going to react against current political systems.
And when someone asks the missing questions – What other viruses are they working on in Wuhan? And why did the American establishment attempt to protect the lab? – who knows where that will take things…

Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
11 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

Good points. We don’t yet know how this Covid-19 epidemic will end. And we should certainly take some lessons from it.
But I don’t think this particular epidemic provides any fuel for the fire burning in Martin Rees’s brain. Have you read any of his books? In his 2004 book Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning, he says on page 181 that “We live at what could be a defining moment for the cosmos, not just for our Earth”. He’s worried about us, through maliciousness or error, wiping out what may be the only intelligent life in the universe.
Whether the Covid-19 epidemic started when the coronavirus jumped from an animal to a human, or when it escaped from a lab in Wuhan, is an important question. But either way, the epidemic never came close to threatening mankind. Nor did it portend the possibility of such a disease arising, through intent or by accident, due to advances in biotechnology. It’s a garden-variety plague of the type we have suffered through for ten of thousands of years.

colinkingswood4
colinkingswood4
11 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

We don’t yet know how this Covid-19 epidemic will end.

It can’t objectively be labelled a pandemic at thsis stage, in Europe at least. Numbers are back to baseline and have been for months already.
https://www.euromomo.eu/graphs-and-maps/

Cynthia Neville
Cynthia Neville
11 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

Lucky you. Our Incompetent National Leader has us still in tight lockdown.

J StJohn
J StJohn
11 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

imagine though, that it’s an ebola virus instead. could we be looking at a billion deaths?

Anto Coates
Anto Coates
11 months ago
Reply to  J StJohn

Perhaps if you mean the fictional Motaba virus, which was airborne. The real hemorrhagic Ebola transmits with great difficulty; indeed without superstitious African death rituals like handling and kissing dead bodies, it would rarely get a start.

colinkingswood4
colinkingswood4
11 months ago
Reply to  Carlos Danger

The Covid-19 epidemic is still raging,

no its not, the hysteria is still going strong though

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
11 months ago

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!!)

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
11 months ago
Reply to  Chris Milburn

I second that re Dalrymple-he has been saying very sensible things for some years now

Joff Brown
Joff Brown
11 months ago

Completely ignoring the fact that Pinker himself states in ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ that there is no reason why things can’t start to get worse very quickly.

franklinment
franklinment
11 months ago

“”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?””
I’m disappointed to find Unherd is a part of the cover up. The most important question is: “Was it intentionally released”. If you’re not curious about that question, you’re part of the problem.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago

The last sentence “Steven Pinker, who tells a fabulous story about progress, without ever taking a downward glance at reality”
I know some people like to dramatically set up black and white oppositions for dramatic effect, but this sentence alone shows up this article for one of the most trivial and poorly argued I’ve ever seen on UnHerd. I wonder if Lloyd ever read any of Pinker’s works, which are well argued and supported by copious data? For a shorter read, there is in any case Hans Rosling’s ‘Factfulness’.
In any case, I don’t see how a potential pandemic or asteroid strike has anything to do with Pinker’s argument about better nutrition, longevity, nutrition and education almost across the entire world. Unless we are somehow to argue that this huge progress is an irritating distraction preventing us from working out, if we are at all able, what to do about those global threats. A better educated population including many more people studying science – strength in depth – would seem to be on the face of it an entirely positive development in facing them.

Last edited 11 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
11 months ago

What I find weird about Pinker is not so much that he thinks things are better, but that he’s ideologically wedded to the idea.
It seems to be a type of faith far more all encompassing than any religion I can think of. And not only not able to be supported by physical evidence, like many religious claims, but actually refuted by evidence.
I’d love to figure out what it is he really has faith in.

John Standing
John Standing
11 months ago

Olam ha-ba. Obviously.

Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
11 months ago
Reply to  John Standing

Who? Oh, right.

Terry M
Terry M
11 months ago

“And not only not able to be supported by physical evidence, like many religious claims, but actually refuted by evidence.”
Please provide the evidence that life in 2021 is worse than life in 1820 or 1060, or 20 CE. Pinker is taking the long view; your concerns are mere bagatelles.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
11 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

Point conceded. However, what will the next few decades look like if we reach Peak Fossil Fuels and don’t have a good substitute for them, and/or if the sea levels increase significantly? Quite significant regression is possible, it seems to me.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
11 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

I don’t think you’ve understood the point about ideology. It really doesn’t matter if it is better now. PInker has an ideological faith in Progress which, from the perspective of his kind of secular atheism, is completely unsupportable. There have been many times in history that things have become worse for people and there is no reason to think that in the future that might not happen again.

J StJohn
J StJohn
11 months ago
Reply to  Terry M

How are you defining better v worse? There’s plenty of evidence that pre history, humans had relatively long, relatively happy lives in a relatively bountiful world. We’ve had to invent substandard lifestyles, like farming, requiring harder work, poorer diets, worse health and shorter lives in order to cope with human population pressures. OK things recently have been greatly alleviated by technological progress, although even then , there appear to be more humans in absolute poverty than ever before, it’s only endured for a very short part of our million years as a species and there’s every reason to believe that we might yet inflict upon ourselves almost unimaginable and hideous catastrophes within my chidren’s lifetimes. I’m all for positivity, but spare me the rose tinted spectacles.

Ernest DuBrul
Ernest DuBrul
11 months ago
Reply to  J StJohn

There’s plenty of evidence that pre history, humans had relatively long, relatively happy lives in a relatively bountiful world.

You can’t be serious!

Pete Kreff
Pete Kreff
11 months ago

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.

I’m not sure Steven Pinker has never claimed that bad things simply cannot happen.

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.

Deciding either worldview is correct on the basis of one event is ridiculous.

Alex Camm
Alex Camm
11 months ago

John Grey wrote a very telling criticism of Angels .
I have 40 years experience in the field of child abuse. I was quite amused to see a couple of years after publication the figures rise despite the optimistic presentation given in the book.
Lockdown has produced an other significant rise in child abuse and domestic violence . Whilst the oppressive circumstances will undoubtedly have contributed to this it is also surely indicative of the latent potential for violence within us.
I think he is naive

Ernest DuBrul
Ernest DuBrul
11 months ago

The article focuses on Pinker and the Lab-Leak hypothesis.

But let’s look at the bet itself: “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.”

This is an incredibly sloppy wording for a wager. No respectable bookmaker would post such a bet.

What is “a single event within a six-month period”? Are the casualties assumed to be deaths? One million continuously dying over the course of six months? One million dying in a single event, e.g., a Chernobyl-like meltdown, within a six-month time-frame?

Are the deaths limited to a single location or worldwide?

How are the deaths to be defined as part of the “single event”?

Certainly, Pinker should have taken the bet. There are innumerable “outs”.

Last edited 11 months ago by Ernest DuBrul
Carlos Danger
Carlos Danger
11 months ago
Reply to  Ernest DuBrul

You’re right — the wording of the bet is ambiguous. But the interpretation in this article seems sensible. If the release of the SARS CoV-2 virus was bioterror or bioerror, then Martin Rees wins the bet. If it was natural, Steven Pinker wins the bet.
Myself, I don’t think it matters much either way. Martin Rees sees a very dangerous world full of potential threats to the very existence of humanity. I don’t share that dark vision. But I don’t share Steven Pinker’s vision either.
Regardless of who wins the bet, my worldview won’t change. I don’t see a bioterror or bioerror event happening or not as an important metric.

Jake Jackson
Jake Jackson
11 months ago

Even if the Chinese cooked up the virus and then released it, Rees has already lost the bet. If we relax the time frame, it still won’t matter because neither the media nor any Western government will ever tell the truth, period.

J StJohn
J StJohn
11 months ago
Reply to  Jake Jackson

Rees’s already won it. It was clearly an accidental release. It’s happened before. We did it with smallpox; the chinese did it previously with SARS. more than a million dead.

dbarrydinkins
dbarrydinkins
11 months ago

It has already happened. The covid virus was a bio-weapon. And the vaccines are also bio-weapons. The idea is to reduce population.

J StJohn
J StJohn
11 months ago
Reply to  dbarrydinkins

You do have a point. Scientific study has just shown that those US vets who had been refusing the flu vaccine had a 36% better chance of surviving the covid.

ml holton
ml holton
11 months ago
Colin Haller
Colin Haller
11 months ago

Based upon the premise that Pinker is reliably wrong about anything outside his own, narrow field of expertise, I conclude that Covid MUST be a function of “bioerror.”