How can we appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.
1: Life is getting better. Way better. Yesterday, we explored the idea that the world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.
“The shocker,” according to Harvard professor Steven Pinker: “Almost no one knows about it,” he writes in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
How can we appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count. “That was the goal of my 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Steven writes, “which presented a hundred graphs and maps showing how violence and the conditions that foster it have declined over the course of history.”
2: “I had thought that a parade of graphs with time on the horizontal axis, body counts or other measures of violence on the vertical, and a line that meandered from the top left to the bottom right,” Steven writes, would persuade people “at least in this sphere of well-being the world has made progress.”
But Steven quickly learned “the very idea that things can get better just doesn’t compute.” There was widespread skepticism about the data and a general unpreparedness for the possibility that the human condition has improved.
“To say that violence has gone down is to be naïve, sentimental, idealistic, romantic, starry-eyed, Whiggish, utopian, a Pollyanna, a Pangloss,” audience members would say.
“No, to look at data showing that violence has gone down and say ‘Violence has gone down’ is to describe a fact. To look at data showing that violence has gone down and say ‘Violence has gone up’ is to be delusional. To ignore data on violence and say ‘Violence has gone up’ is to be a know-nothing,” Steven would respond.
“How can you say that violence has decreased?” someone would say. “Didn’t you read about the school shooting (or terrorist bombing, or artillery shelling, or soccer riot, or barroom stabbing) in the news this morning?”
“A decline is not the same thing as a disappearance. (The statement “x > y” is different from the statement “y = 0.”) Something can decrease a lot without vanishing altogether,” Steven would respond.
“All your fancy statistics about violence going down don’t mean anything if you’re one of the victims,” another person would say.
“True, but they do mean that you’re less likely to be a victim,” Steven would counter.
“So you’re saying that we can all sit back and relax, that violence will just take care of itself,” someone would say.
“Illogical, Captain. If you see that a pile of laundry has gone down, it does not mean the clothes washed themselves; it means someone washed the clothes. If a type of violence has gone down, then some change in the social, cultural, or material milieu has caused it to go down.”
“How can you predict that violence will keep going down? Your theory could be refuted by a war breaking out tomorrow,” someone would say.
“A statement that some measure of violence has gone down is not a ‘theory’ but an observation of a fact,” Steven would reply. “And yes, the fact that a measure has changed over time is not the same as a prediction that it will continue to change in that way at all times forever. As the investment ads are required to say, past performance is no guarantee of future results.”
3: After all the objections were exhausted, Steven would “see people racking their brains to find some way in which the news cannot be as good as the data suggest. In desperation, they turn to semantics: “Isn’t Internet trolling a form of violence? Isn’t strip-mining a form of violence? Isn’t inequality a form of violence? Isn’t pollution a form of violence?
“Isn’t poverty a form of violence? Isn’t divorce a form of violence? Isn’t advertising a form of violence? Isn’t keeping statistics on violence a form of violence?”
Not so fast, Steven would retort: “As wonderful as metaphor is as a rhetorical device, it is a poor way to assess the state of humanity. Moral reasoning requires proportionality. It may be upsetting when someone says mean things on Twitter, but it is not the same as the slave trade or the Holocaust.” And, “war, crime, pollution, poverty, disease, and incivility are evils that may have little in common, and if we want to reduce them, we can’t play word games that make it impossible even to discuss them individually.”
Steven’s real point?
Improving the world requires us to understand cause and effect. “A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact, the morally enlightened one,” he notes. “It holds out hope that we might identify the causes of suffering and thereby know which measures are most likely to reduce it.
Reflection: What surprises me about the data shared above?
Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who believes we live in the “worst of times.”