September 17, 2019

Steven Pinker receives 2019 Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy

Steven Pinker, Harvard University experimental psychology professor and author, is the recipient of the 2019 Nora and Ted Sterling Prize in Support of Controversy for his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

“Though as a mild-mannered Canadian I don’t think of myself as particularly inflammatory, controversy has followed me throughout my career, from irregular verbs to human progress,” says Pinker.

Pinker’s Enlightenment Now argues that by analyzing 15 different measures of human wellbeing, life has improved since the Enlightenment due to its values of reason, science and humanism—counter to news headlines of disaster and downturn.

Written in 2018, the book received significant praise and generated controversy. Reviewers lauded it for its exhaustive research and data-driven analysis of human progress. Critics said that Pinker mischaracterized the Enlightenment, that he cherry-picked his data and minimized current human suffering and inequality.

Pinker has countered these criticisms, saying that each one gets things backwards, and that much of the current feelings of fatalism are perpetuated by a news media industry that plays to psychological biases rather than reporting on systematic trends.

“People who explore ideas outside the conventional wisdom are often slandered, silenced, or worse,” says Pinker. “Yet history tells us that ideas that are unexceptionable today were denounced in their time.

“Recognition of controversial thinkers can be a counterweight to the indignities they face, and ultimately a contributor to intellectual and moral progress. I’m honored by this prize, and hope to live up to its ideals.”

Pinker will receive the Sterling Prize at an award ceremony on Tuesday, October 29 at SFU’s newly expanded Surrey campus. Following the ceremony, Pinker will give a presentation on controversy and issues of free inquiry and free speech in universities. The lecture will be open to the public and free with registration.


The Sterling Prize was first awarded in 1993 and remains committed to recognizing work that provokes and contributes to the understanding of controversy, while presenting new ways of looking at the world and challenging complacency. The Prize recognizes work across disciplines and departments and is awarded annually by the Sterling Prize committee. Normally, it is awarded to a member of Simon Fraser University, but it can be awarded to someone unconnected to SFU if the candidate’s contribution has been of exceptional merit.