Enlightenment Now – Steven Pinker

Albert: All the statistics and plots Pinker collects to show how life for humans has gotten better is an impressive effort, but also overwhelming and often uninteresting. Perhaps more troubling was how I felt like he was overreaching on his conclusions at times, with not enough attention dedicated to potential criticisms. For example, he relies a lot on apparent correlations to suffice as “evidence.” I was even more skeptical of some dubious claims, such as the idea that crime can be solved by treating its symptoms.

There are occasionally insightful observations, like his remark on how advocacy groups are dependent on stirring up panic for funding. I especially appreciated his criticisms of prevailing opinions on the issue of wage inequality or the threat of artificial intelligence, since I don’t often get to encounter semi-lucid criticisms on such popular topics. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of these good parts and I found most of the book to be a drag to read. Rating: C+

Kevin: Bill Gates once claimed this is “[his] new favorite book of all time.” To me, this was enough to pique my interest, but now I’m kind of disappointed. The book is divided into three parts: a bit of philosophy (to me, at least), a ton of charts and figures portraying the progress of humanity in various dimensions (e.g., health, wealth, the environment, happiness), and then some more philosophy.

To be honest, I barely remember reading the first part. The second part was like drinking from a fire hose: chapter after chapter of hopeful statistics on how humans are healthier, wealthier, smarter, safer, and overall just better than ever before. It’s great to read in small doses, perhaps, but certainly not for over an hour at a time. The third part was the most interesting to me: it discussed logical biases and fallacies, moral philosophy, the roles of science/politics/media, and other ideas. Unfortunately, I was rather anxious to finish the book at this point, so I rushed. But I think the last part would make a nice book on its own. Rating: B-


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