3 Talks That Could Change Your Outlook on Life in 1 Hour

Take a lift with Pinker, Rowling, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Posted May 13, 2018

Ray Bradbury’s classic novel Fahrenheit 451 was written in the early 1950s, when most households did not yet have television sets.  Bradbury envisioned a dystopian future in which everyone was addicted to giant wall-sized screens that broadcast interactive tele-novellas, a predecessor to virtual reality.  In Bradbury’s future world, no one owned books, and very few people thought very deeply about anything.  It is now more than 60 years since Fahrenheit 451 was published, and video addiction is rampant.  We don’t even need to go home to watch television anymore, we can immediately access our favorite shows on little devices that we carry in our pockets -- into doctor’s waiting rooms, onto busses, trains, and planes, and even into public restrooms. 

There is certainly a lot to be worried about in the modern video-addicted world, but it’s not quite the same as Bradbury envisioned.  Books have not gone extinct; in fact, young people now read more than ever (e.g., Perrin, 2016).  Besides reading print books, which are still the most popular format, an increasing number of people are reading e-books, and listening to audiobooks.

Words are beautiful, capable of transporting you to other worlds, and opening your mind to new ideas.  But video images, when used properly, can actually magnify the impact of those words. Perhaps the best evidence against Bradbury’s dystopian vision is the TED talk, in which you can hear the eloquent words of a great writer while getting an up-close view of the author's emotional expressions and personal style.  And if the talk is by a scientist, you can watch the data unfold one understandable bit at a time, alongside a live explanation of what those data mean. 

Here are three examples in which a video lecture communicates more than just the transcripted text:

Photos taken from Wikipedia commons, all listed as public domain.  See references for more information.
Source: Photos taken from Wikipedia commons, all listed as public domain. See references for more information.

Steven Pinker: Is the World Getting Better or Worse: A Look at the Numbers. 

I have seen Steven Pinker give short talks about three of his books now.  Almost two decades ago, I saw him give a fascinating summary of his upcoming book The Blank Slate.  A few years later, I watched him give a talk about his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker has an amazing ability to summarize a whole book – one that includes complex scientific arguments, and reams of supportive data --- in less than a half hour, and in plain English!

In his most recent TED talk, Steven Pinker does a masterful job of summarizing the central messages of his most recent book: Enlightenment Now.  I loved the book’s optimistic message, and I recently talked about it here (10 ways the world is getting better). 

I found Pinker’s 20 minute summary of Enlightment Now awe-inspiring in several ways.  First, he managed to painlessly present a massive amount of data supporting the book’s central message (with a set of shockingly positive graphs illustrating the various ways the human world has become less violent, more democratic, healthier, and happier over the last couple of hundred years).  Second, he was able to cover several hypotheses about why it seems like the good old days were better than today, even though the reverse is actually the case (selective news reporting, and selective forgetting of negative as opposed to positive events, for instance).  Third, Pinker considers various counterarguments along the way.  In short, his talk is great science, and it is directly relevant to the world’s most important issues.  Finally, Pinker manages to entertain while he educates.  He notes that 2016 was called the “worst year ever… until 2017 claimed that record.”  He also observes that reactions to his book have convinced him that “intellectuals hate progress,” and that “intellectuals who call themselves progressive really hate progress.”  Pinker is not a reactionary, his book actually is about progress, and he offers suggestions about how to deal with the remaining problems in the world, which he admits are daunting – the threat of global warming and nuclear warfare.  He sides with those who would radically cut carbon emissions, and aim to reduce the total number of nuclear weapons in the world to zero. 

If you are, like me and other readers of the New York Times, prone to pessimism about the current state of the world, this talk might inspire you to lift your head up, and maybe even go out and do something to contribute to the next round of scientific and social progress.  

Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieThe danger of a single story

We all have stereotypes.  As Gordon Allport observed many years ago, stereotypes are a natural outgrowth of our tendency to categorize and simplify complex information.  College professors differ in many ways, for example, but there are enough commonalities that I have more than once had a total stranger ask me if I was a college professor (probably the combination of glasses, chinos, a bad haircut, and the tendency to use words like “ubiquitous” gave me away).  But although Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie acknowledges that there may be a grain of truth to some of our generalizations, her talk will surely break down some of your stereotypes.  When she came from Nigeria to the United States to study, Adichie’s college roommate complimented her for speaking for English so well, and asked to hear some of her tribal music.  The roommate was no doubt disappointed when Adichie took out her tape of Mariah Carey, and explained that the official language of Nigeria is in fact English.  Even worse for many people’s stereotypes of Africans as barely literate tribal peoples living in huts, Adichie had grown up on a university campus, with a father who was a professor, and a mother who was a university administrator. 

Adichie is anything but self-righteous about people using stereotypes.  Adichie talks about a young boy who worked in her house and came from a poor village.  She describes how startled she was when she went to his village to visit his family.  Despite the fact that his family did not have a lot of money, their life was not miserable and downtrodden at all.  As she notes: “All I had heard about them was how poor they were … poverty was my single story for them.”  Later she visited Mexico, and was ashamed to realize that Mexicans did not fit the one story she had heard endlessly repeated on the news.  Mexicans, of course, differ immensely from one another, and include people across a broad spectrum of socioeconomic and educational status.  Like Nigerians and Americans, she realized that Mexicans could not be reduced to a single story.  As she notes, a single story creates a stereotype, which may have elements of truth for some of the people in the group, but which is necessarily incomplete.  Besides, that, Adichie notes that a single story robs people of dignity, by emphasizing how a group of people are different from our group, when in fact, "they" are in most ways similar to “us,” wherever we happen to hail from.  That's one of the uplifting lessons from evolutionary and cross-cultural psychology - there are some universals to human nature, and they're not all bad!

J.K. Rowling: The fringe benefits of failure.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter novels, is probably the richest author in history, with a net worth of over $1 billion.  But it wasn’t always that way.   In this talk, she describes being a divorced single mother, about as poor as one could be in England without being homeless.  Seven years after graduating college, with a degree in classic literature, she felt herself to have failed on an epic scale.  She tells the audience (the 2008 graduating class of Harvard) that poverty “is romanticized only by fools.”  But she nevertheless encourages these highly educated kids to take some chances, and not to live in fear of failure.  She also tells touching stories about the refugees she met when she was working for Amnesty International, who had suffered through kidnappings, rapes, and the murder of their close relatives.  She encourages listeners to vote, to protest, and to use their influence to make the world a better place.  She observes: “We do not need magic to transform our world.”  Incidentally, Rowling puts her money where her mouth is.  Unlike some wealthy people who move from countries like Great Britain to avoid paying taxes on all their riches, she happily gives back to society.  And besides paying her taxes uncomplainingly, she has given millions and millions of dollars away, so much so that she fell off Fortune magazine’s list of the world’s wealthiest people.  Now, there’s a real-life hero. 

Related blogs

Ten ways the world is getting better: Steven Pinker, science, humanism, and progress.

Is the world becoming a nicer place to live? Racism and violence going away?

Is there any way to save the world?

References

Adichie, C. N. (2009). The danger of a single story.

Bradbury, R. (1953).  Fahrenheit 451.  New York: Ballantine.

Perrin, A. (2016). Book reading 2016.  Pew Research Center: internet and technology.  September 1, 2016. 

Pinker, S. (2003). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin.

Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes.  New York: Penguin.

Pinker, S. (2018a). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. New York: Viking.

Pinker, S. (2018b). Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers.

Rowling, J.K. (2008). The fringe benefits of failure.

Photo credits

Steven Pinker.  From Wikipedia. Listed as public domain.  By Rebecca Goldstein

J.K. Rowling.  From Wikipedia.  Listed as public domain. By Daniel Ogren.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  From Wikipedia. Listed as public domain.