Monday, March 12, 2018

Baltimore, enlightenment and optimism

“To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” (Bertrand Russell)
To anyone following the news the world seems to be a miserable place with Baltimore having a special place in misery.
Mayor Catherine Pugh begs to differ. Her view is optimistic and she sees Baltimore as “a city on the rise”.  She could have taken a hefty slice from the way how Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker sees the world. His book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress is currently making the rounds through the international media world for all its optimism.
Steven Pinker collage in The Nation
“Everything is amazing! And none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.” (Pinker)
Based on enlightenment, data and science the Canadian-American cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author sees progress everywhere, even if it doesn't look like it. He points to global health, global hunger and a number of standard metrics to make his point. Even when it comes to global warming, the international downer du jour he sees reason for hope when he looks at past universal challenges such as the ozone hole, acid rain or polluted cities. In all of those areas, he says, mankind has made much quicker progress than initially thought possible. Pinker explains the bleak outlook so many have, and that is so prevalent in our culture as an error, the product of cognitive biases based on the limited ability of the brain to digest large amounts of data. In that error, people are, therefore, forming judgement based on what is the most recent news or nearby experience, not data. In the case of Baltimore, such rush judgement is based on an incessant stream of calamities circulated on the evening news and in social media, what Mayor Pugh calls the false narrative.But does a deep dive into data help the Baltimore narrative? We will get back to that.
Psychology without philosophy: Pinker book

Reviews of Pinker's book are not uniformly positive. The business magazine The Economist truly loves the book and the New York Times gave it a good review, too. But under the headline "The Powerpoint Philosophe" Princeton professor Bell, the reviewer for The Nation has this to day:
“There really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” he writes. Almost entirely absent from the 576 pages of Enlightenment Now are the social movements that for centuries fought for equal rights, an end to slavery, improved working conditions, a minimum wage, the right to organize, basic social protections, a cleaner environment, and a host of other progressive causes. The arc bending toward justice is no mystery: It bends because people force it to bend. (The Nation)
So far Baltimore's WYPR Midday talk show host Tom Hall has not yet been able to bring Pinker into his studio one on Charles Street, but it would be interesting to apply Pinker's thinking here and see if one could become an optimist in and about Baltimore as well. Pinker points out that people are more likely to acknowledge a problem when they think it’s solvable than when they are frozen by fear is definitely a great starting strategy for approaching our hometown. But counting?
 “How can we soundly appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.” (Pinker)
Pinker's argument is not philosophical. His argument that the human brain likes to extrapolate immediate and limited experience, or for lack of experience, the immediate surrogates of experience, the newspaper, the Facebook feed,  the gossip of co-workers or the evening news, is the explanation of a psychologist. Furthermore, Pinker explains, the human brain doesn't like to leave data unconnected but instead likes to create a narrative arc in which everything happens for a reason. Naturally, those two tendencies combined easily lead to a bleak view of things where everything seems to go to hell in a hand basket, whether it is locally or globally. Sometimes they even lead to conspiracy theories.  The use of psychology to explain society has frequently led astray
Enlightenment and the French revolution: Painting the Marseillaise
(Gustave Dore)

Pinker thinks that defeatism is irrational and that an enlightened soul needs to do no more than check the facts on a broader scale to cheer up. The German weekly DER SPIEGEL carries for the last year or so a column titled: "Everything used to be worse". In each column the magazine offers ample statistical evidence that things are on an upward trajectory and that there was never a better time in the past, no matter what statistic the author uses, whether life expectancy, car crashes, polluted waters or education.  Pinker fills his book with such statistics as well and it isn't a surprise that the SPIEGEL journalist of the "everything used to be worse" column was the one who interviewed Pinker for his magazine and liked the book as well

When it comes to Baltimore, quantitative data hardly provide a straight path for optimism. The decline in population, the rise in murders, the staggering number of vacant buildings, the high tax rate, the poor school graduation rates, the incarceration rates,the deaths from drug overdose, the vast gulf in life expectancy rates, those statistics are precisely what depresses Baltimoreans way beyond the evening news. The bleak facts are the problem, not so much the "narrative". But there is always comfort in the trend. "We are going in the right direction" the Mayor says, and indeed, if teh direction is right progress must follow. A widely held belief assumes that from a certain point in the valley it can only go up.
Smiling in the face of disasters: NYT Illustration
(Gabriel Alcala)

One has to reach a bit to find the "good" numbers: Reduction in teen pregnancy,  for example. A decrease in urban flight. An increasing tax base, an increase in neighborhoods showing a good diversity index, an increase in recycling participation, recently, indeed, a reduction in crime.

But more than any deep dig in numbers, the question which the SPIEGEL journalist asks, in which decade would have life in Baltimore  been better is actually a good indicator of teh general direction the city moves. No matter that black communities haven't made all that much progress in 50 years, would anyone really want to go back to a time when Morgan students had to stage sit ins at a lunch counter on Howard Street because "Negroes" weren't allowed? No matter how pretty the Christmas displays at the Stewarts department store were, would we want to go back to a time when blacks couldn't use the changing rooms in that same store? No matter that lead paint is still a problem in many Baltimore homes and rental units, would anyone want to go back to a time when each car spewed unfiltered leaded exhaust and the air was barely breathable? No matter that HarborPoint  looks like an enclave for the wealthy, does anyone want the Allied Signal plant back which leached hundreds of pounds of chromium into the harbor on a daily base?

The times when Baltimore's stoops were scrubbed weekly by women who stayed home to cook and when abandoned rowhouses were a rarity may be seen by some as the "good old days", but certainly the younger generation wouldn't want to live a single week in those times when cleanliness trumped gender parity, the summer heat was stifling with no AC in sight, and the knowledge horizon went often no further than the neighborhood barbershop. Even those many streetcars that everybody is no nostalgic about, were in reality pretty rickety, slow,  and rumbled on tracks even more worn and poorly maintained than Metro. Young people were expected to fight one war after the other, drafted to the Civil War, World Wars One and Two, the Korean War and Vietnam.

Pinker may be naive about the permanence of enlightenment and reason, or even about the believe that rational decision making will continue to pave a path towards progress, but he is probably right that in general, most people have it better today than previous generations before them. Including the residents of Baltimore. That is not to say that Baltimore doesn't have a long way to go before anybody can rest and say, "well done". In fact the Baltimore deficiencies makes this city an almost perfect place to devise solutions for them.

As The Nation book reviewer points out, intellectuals, journalists (and I would add social activists) have as "one of their prime responsibilities[..] to identify problems, abuses, and threats, to help the public and policy-makers understand them, and to search for solutions". Right. Therefore blaming the media for the bad news makes little sense. Articles in this space will continue to be critical.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Guardian review of Pinker book
The Nation review of the book

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