Steven Pinker’s dangerous optimism

How to defend the status quo by giving humanity props it doesn’t deserve

Are we high on humanity? Despite the pessimism over the return of right-wing populism, religious fundamentalism, gun violence, and stagnating prosperity in the West, two recent events can give us hope that some degree of optimism about the destiny of our species is not entirely unwarranted. For starters, we recently accomplished the singular feat of sending a car to space, orbiting permanently (and pointlessly) around the globe in order to remind us of the supreme narcissism of its previous, earthly owner Elon Musk. The other, is the publication of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, a quasi-sequel to his bestselling The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both books follow the same basic plot line: humanity has never had it so good. By every measurable standard of progress, we are leaps and bounds better than any generation before us. Stop complaining.

If optimism is a religion, the Canadian-born Pinker is its high priest. The religious analogy is not unfounded: Pinker defends his thesis with a zeal that is uncommon outside of theistic circles, admonishing his critics and presenting absurd arguments even in topics where he has little or no academic authority. In a recent article in Popular Science, he argues that we should not fear AI being smarter than humans any more than we had to fear airplanes being faster than eagles because “someday they will swoop out of the sky and seize our cattle”. For someone defending the use of reason, an argument like that almost begs ridicule. Sadly, his perennial defense of human progress comes with an unfortunate by-product: it becomes a thinly disguised support of the economic and political status quo. If this makes you uneasy, just remember how much wealthier and healthier you are compared to your great-great-great-grandfather.

End of story, so it goes. Continue reading

The war against Iran: a game theoretical perspective

If Israel goes solo, expect the US to get dragged in anyway
For Iran, escalation might actually work

For Iran, escalation might actually work

With the world still slugging through the second act of the Great Recession, few scenarios cause more chills to run down the spines of Washington policymakers than a potential war with Iran. Although it is difficult to envision Iran emerging victorious from such a conflict, the outcome would be all but pyrrhic for the US: oil prices (potentially reaching $200 per barrel) would grind the economy to a halt, and the only hole bigger than the ones made by the USAF’s bunker-busting bombs, would be the budget hole caused by another hot war in the Middle East, one which in the worst case scenario would be bigger, longer and bloodier than those being waged in Iraq or Afghanistan. But perhaps what scares the pants off the Obama administration is the war’s total unpredictability: it only takes one surprise attack by Israel to launch a series of events which could lead into an unmitigated disaster. Many people have wondered whether such a scenario could be “contained”; that is, leave Israel and Iran slugging it out among themselves. Certainly that would limit the diplomatic fallout, and leave the US to worry on more important domestic matters during a crucial election year.

But as I will show in this post, such a scenario appears unrealistic. Once the first bomb falls, the US will be sucked in it, just like a limited tactical nuclear strike during the Cold War would have inevitably escalated into all out exchange. My analysis will be capped by a simple game theoretical model which will make the outcome clearer for those of you who are more numerically inclined. Continue reading