The government shutdown. A volatile stock market. Climate change.
It's so easy to get discouraged by the latest headlines, argues Steven Pinker, that we lose sight of the bigger picture: life today is actually improving.
"To appreciate the world, we've got to look at numbers and trends."
Pinker, a cognitive psychologist from Harvard, says in his book "Enlightenment Now" that we're living at the greatest moment of progress in history, thanks to reason, science, and humanism. But today, he says, these ideals are under-appreciated, and we ignore them at our peril.
So he set out to provide a vigorous moral defense of the values of the Enlightenment by examining the evidence for their effectiveness. Across a range of categories from happiness and health to peace and safety, Pinker examines the data and reassures readers that this is a pretty great time to be alive. As we kick off the new year, he's hopeful that our embrace of science and reason will lead to an even more prosperous future. But political and cultural hurdles must still be overcome before the heroic story of human progress can continue to unfold.
Pinker spoke with our Editor-in-Chief Kira Peikoff in advance of the book's paperback release, which hits stores next Tuesday. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
One anecdote you describe in the book was particularly striking: how the public reacted when the polio vaccine was announced. People took the day off work to celebrate, they smiled at each other in the streets, they offered to throw parades. Today, it's hard to imagine such prevalent enthusiasm for a new advance. How can we bring back a culture of respect and gratitude for science?
That's such a good question. And I wish I knew the answer. My contribution is just to remind people of how much progress we've made. It's easy to ignore if your view of the world comes from headlines, but there are some built-in biases in journalism that we have to counteract. Most things that happen all of a sudden are bad things: wars break out, terrorists attack, rampage shootings occur, whereas a lot of the things that make us better off creep up by stealth. But we have to become better aware of them.
It's unlikely that we're going to have replications of the great Salk event, which happened on a particular day, but I think we have to take lessons from cognitive science, from the work of people like Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, showing how misled we can be by images and narratives and that to appreciate the world, we've got to look at numbers and trends.
The cover of "Enlightenment Now," which comes out in paperback next week.
You mention that the President's Bioethics Council under Bush was appointed to deal with "the looming threat of biomedical advances." Do you think that professional bioethicists are more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to creating truly enlightened science policy?
I do. I think that there are some problems in the culture of bioethics. And of course, I would not argue against that the concept of bioethics. Obviously, we have to do biomedical research and applications conscientiously and ethically. But the field called Bioethics tends to specialize in exotic thought experiments that tend to imagine the worst possible things that can happen, and often mire research in red tape that results in a net decrease in human welfare, whereas the goal of bioethics should be to enhance human welfare.
In an op-ed that I published in the Boston Globe a few years ago, I said, deliberately provocatively, that the main moral imperative of bioethics is to get out of the way since there's so much suffering that humans endure from degenerative diseases, from cancer, from heart disease and stroke. The potential for increasing happiness and well-being from biomedical research is just stupendous. So before we start to drag out Brave New World for the umpteenth time, or compare every advance in genetics to the Nazis, we should remember the costs of people dying prematurely from postponing advances in biomedical research.
Later in the book, you mention how much more efficient the production of food has become due to high-tech agriculture. But so many people today are leery of advances in the food industry, like GMOs. And we will have to feed 10 billion people in 2050. Are you concerned about how we will meet that challenge?
Yes, I think anyone has to be, and all the more reason we should be clear about what is simultaneously best for humans and for the planet, which is to grow as much food on this planet as possible. That ideal of density -- the less farmland the better -- runs up against the ideal of the organic farming and natural farming, which use lots of land. So genetically modified organisms and precision agriculture of the kind that is sometimes associated with Israel -- putting every last drop of water to use, delivering it when it's needed, using the minimum amount of fertilizer -- all of these technologically driven developments are going to be necessary to meet that need.
"The potential for increasing happiness and well-being from biomedical research is just stupendous."
You also mention "sustainability" as this big buzz word that you say is based on a flawed assumption that we will run out of resources rather than pivot to ingenious alternatives. What's the most important thing we can do as a culture to encourage innovation?
It has to be an ideal. We have restore it as what we need to encourage, to glorify in order to meet the needs of humanity. Governments have to play a role because lots of innovation is just too risky with benefits that are too widely diffuse for private companies and individuals to pursue. International cooperation has to play a role. And also, we need to change our environmental philosophy from a reflexive rejection of technology to an acknowledgement that it will be technology that is our best hope for staving off environmental problems.
And yet innovation and technology today are so often viewed fearfully by the public -- just look at AI and gene editing. If we need science and technology to solve our biggest challenges, how do we overcome this disconnect?
Part of it is simply making the argument that is challenging the ideology and untested assumptions behind traditional Greenism. Also, on the part of the promoters of technology themselves, it's crucial to make it not just clear, but to make it a reality that technology is going to be deployed to enhance human welfare.
That of course means an acknowledgement of the possible harms and limitations of technology. The fact that the first widely used genetically modified crop was soybeans that were resistant to herbicides, to Roundup -- that was at the very least a public relations disaster for genetically modified organisms. As opposed to say, highlighting crops that require less insecticide, less chemical fertilizers, less water level. The poster children for technology should really be cases that quite obviously benefit humanity.
"One of the surprises from 'Enlightenment Now' was how much moral progress depends on economic progress."
Finally, what is one emerging innovation that you're excited about for 2019?
I would say 4th generation nuclear power. Small modular reactors. Because everything depends on energy. For poor countries to get rich, they are going to have to consume far more energy than they do now and if they do it via fossil fuels, especially coal, that could spell disaster. Zero-carbon energy will allow poor countries to get richer -- and rich countries to stay rich without catastrophic environmental damage.
One of the surprises from "Enlightenment Now" was how much moral progress depends on economic progress. Rich countries not only allow the citizens to have cool gadgets, but all kinds of good things happen when a country gets rich, like Norway, Netherlands, Switzerland. Countries that are richer on average are more democratic, are less likely that to fight wars, are more feminist, are more environmentally conscientious, are smarter -- that is, they have a greater increase in IQ. So anything that makes a country get richer, and that's going to include a bunch of energy, is going to make humanity better off.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."
If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.
Co-founder Steve Fambro opens the Sol's white doors that fly upwards like wings and I get inside for a test drive. Two dozen square solar panels, each the size of a large square coaster, on the roof, front, and tail power the car. The white interior is spartan; monitors have replaced mirrors and the dashboard. An engineer sits in the driver's seat, hits the pedal, and the low-drag two-seater zooms from 0 to 60 in 3.5 seconds.
It feels like sitting in a race car because the two-seater is so low to the ground but the car is built to go no faster than 100 or 110 mph. The finished car will weigh less than 1,800 pounds, about half of the smallest Tesla. The average car, by comparison, weighs more than double that. "We've built it primarily for energy efficiency," Steve Fambro says, explaining why the Sol has only three wheels. It's technically an "auto-cycle," a hybrid between a motorcycle and a car, but Aptera's designers are also working to design a four-seater.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up.
Transportation is currently the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Developing an efficient solar car that does not burden the grid has been the dream of innovators for decades. Every other year, dozens of innovators race their self-built solar cars 2,000 miles through the Australian desert.
More effective solar panels are finally making the dream mass-compatible, but just like other innovative car ideas, Aptera's vision has been plagued with money problems. Anthony and Fambro were part of the original crew that founded Aptera in 2006 and worked on the first prototype around the same time Tesla built its first roadster, but Aptera went bankrupt in 2011. Anthony and Fambro left a year before the bankruptcy and went on to start other companies. Among other projects, Fambro developed the first USDA organic vertical farm in the United Arab Emirates, and Anthony built a lithium battery company, before the two decided to buy Aptera back. Without a billionaire such as Elon Musk bankrolling the risky process of establishing a whole new car production system from scratch, the huge production costs are almost insurmountable.
But Aptera's founders believe they have found solutions for the entire production process as well as the car design. Most parts of the Sol's body can be made by 3D printers and assembled like a Lego kit. If this makes you think of a toy car, Anthony assures potential buyers that the car aced stress tests and claims it's safer than any vehicle on the market, "because the interior is shaped like an egg and if there is an impact, the pressure gets distributed equally." However, Aptera has yet to release crash test safety data so outside experts cannot evaluate their claims.
Instead of building a huge production facility, Anthony and Fambro envision "micro-factories," each less than 10,000 square feet, where a small crew can assemble cars on demand wherever the orders are highest, be it in California, Canada, or China.
If a part of the Sol breaks, Aptera promises to send replacement parts to any corner of the world within 24 hours, with instructions. So a mechanic in a rural corner in Arkansas or China who never worked on a solar car before simply needs to download the instructions and replace the broken part. At least that's the idea. "The material does not rust nor fatigue," Fambro promises. "You can pass the car onto your grandchildren. When more efficient solar panels hit the market, we simply replace them."
More than 11,000 potential buyers have already signed up; the cheapest model costs around $26,000 USD and Aptera expects the first cars to ship by the end of the year.
Two other solar carmakers are vying for the pole position in the race to be the first to market: The German startup Sono has also announced it will also produce its first solar car by the end of this year. The price tag for the basic model is also around $26,000, but its concept is very different. From the outside, the Sion looks like a conservative minivan for a family; only a closer look reveals that the dark exterior is made of solar panels. Sono, too, nearly went bankrupt a few years ago and was saved through a crowdfunding campaign by enthusiastic fans.
Meanwhile, Norwegian company Lightyear wants to produce a sleek solar-powered luxury sedan by the end of the year, but its price of around $180,000 makes it unaffordable for most buyers.
There has never been a lack of grand visions for the future of the automobile, but until these solar cars actually hit the streets, nobody knows how the promises will hold up. How often will the cars need to be repaired? What happens when snow and ice cover the solar panels? Also, you can't park the car in a garage if you need the sun to charge it.
Critics, including students at the Solar Car team at the University of Michigan, say that mounting solar panels on a moving vehicle will never yield the most efficient results compared to static panels. Also, they are quick to point out that no company has managed to overcome the production hurdles yet. Others in the field also wonder how well the solar panels will actually work.
"It's important to realize that the solar mileage claims by these companies are likely the theoretical best case scenario but in the real world, solar range will be significantly less when you factor in shading, parking in garages, and geographies with lower solar irradiance," says Evan Stumpges, the team coordinator for the American Solar Challenge, a competition in which enthusiasts build and race solar-powered cars. "The encouraging thing is that I have seen videos of real working prototypes for each of these vehicles which is a key accomplishment. That said, I believe the biggest hurdle these companies have yet to face is successfully ramping up to volume production and understanding what their profitability point will be for selling the vehicles once production has stabilized."
Professor Daniel M. Kammen, the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the world's foremost experts on renewable energy, believes that the technical challenges have been solved, and that solar cars have real advantages over electric vehicles.
"This is the right time to be bullish. Cutting out the charging is a natural solution for long rides," he says. "These vehicles are essentially solar panels and batteries on wheels. These are now record low-cost and can be built from sustainable materials." Apart from Aptera's no-charge technology, he appreciates the move toward no-conflict materials. "Not only is the time ripe but the youth movement is pushing toward conflict-free material and reducing resource waste....A low-cost solar fleet could be really interesting in relieving burden on the grid, or you could easily imagine a city buying a bunch of them and connecting them with mass transit." While he has followed all three new solar companies with interest, he has already ordered an Aptera car for himself, "because it's American and it looks the most different."
After taking a spin in the Sol, it is startling to switch back into a regular four-seater. Rolling out of Aptera's parking lot onto the freeway next to all the oversized gas guzzlers that need to stop every couple of hundreds of miles to fill up, one can't help but think: We've just taken a trip into the future.