Thursday, February 22, 2018

Is the World Improving?

Psychologist Steven Pinker has just published a new book, ENLIGHTENMENT NOW, a follow-up to his 2011 book THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: WHY VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED. In that earlier work, he demonstrated with page after page of hard facts that we're living in the least violent period in recorded history. ENLIGHTENMENT NOW, subtitled "The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress," expands that project to support the claim that human well-being has increased in virtually every measurable way since the dawn of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries. (I have to confess that I bristled a bit at the title itself, since "Enlightenment," like "Renaissance," was a self-designated label meant to dismiss previous eras as centuries of benighted superstition, barbarism, and stagnation.) Contrary to the widespread belief that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket, according to Pinker this is the best time in history to be born, even in third-world nations. The headlines that make many people wonder, "Why is it getting so hot, and what are we doing in this handbasket?" represent, in Pinker's view, a distortion of the facts. (Why a handbasket, by the way? If all of us are in it collectively, wouldn't a bushel basket make more sense? Or a laundry basket? Of course, then we'd lose the alliteration.) Health, education, the spread of representative government, overall quality of life (evaluated by leisure time, household conveniences, access to information and entertainment, etc.), among many other metrics, have measurably improved. Fewer children die in childhood, fewer women die in giving birth, many diseases have been conquered or even eradicated, in the U.S. drug addiction and unwed teen pregnancy have decreased, fewer people worldwide live in extreme poverty, and in the developed world even the poorest possess wealth (in the form of clean running water, electricity, and other modern conveniences) that nobody could have at any price a couple of centuries ago. As for violence, Pinker refers in both books to what he calls "The Long Peace," the period since 1945 in which no major world powers have clashed head-on in war. What about the proxy wars such as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts? Faded away with the Cold War itself. Anarchy and bloody conflicts in third-world countries? While horrible present-day examples can easily be cited, the number of them has also decreased. Pinker also disputes, with supporting figures, the hype about "epidemics" of depression and suicide.

Despite Pinker's convincing array of statistics, readers may still find themselves protesting, "But—but—school shootings!" Why do we often have the impression that the condition of the world is getting worse when it's actually getting better?

For one thing, as we all know, "If it bleeds, it leads." News media report extraordinary, exciting events. Mass murder shocks us BECAUSE we're used to expecting our daily lives to remain peaceful and safe. Yet even the editorial page of our local paper recently noted that, although high-profile episodes of "rampage killings" (as Pinker labels them) seem to have occurred with alarming frequency lately, incidence of gun violence in general in the U.S. is down. We tend to be misled by the "availability heuristic" (things we've heard of or seen more frequently or recently, or that we find disturbing, loom large in our consciousness, appearing more common than they really are) and the "negativity bias" (we recall bad things more readily and vividly than good ones). Then there's the well-known confirmation bias, the inclination to notice facts in support of a predetermined position and ignore those that refute it. As for the actual numbers for mass murder, the stats for 2015 (the latest year for which he had data while writing the book) classify most rampage killings under the category of terrorism. The total number of deaths from "terrorism" in the U.S. in that year was 44, as compared to over 15,000 fatalities from other kinds of homicides and vastly more deaths from accidents (motor vehicle and other).

What does Pinker's thesis that the arc of history bends toward justice (and peace, health, and prosperity) imply for the prospect of encountering alien civilizations? Isaac Asimov believed we're in no danger of invasion from hostile extraterrestrials because any culture advanced enough to develop interstellar travel would have developed beyond violence and war. Pinker would probably agree. I'm still dubious of this position, considering that one of the most technologically advanced nations of the twentieth century perpetrated the Holocaust. Moral advancement may tend to grow in step with scientific development, but I don't see that trend as inevitable. The reason I think an alien invasion is unlikely is that any species capable of interstellar travel would have the intelligence and technological skills to get anything they need in much easier ways that crossing vast expanses of space to take over an already inhabited planet. I trust that any hypothetical aliens we eventually meet will be intelligent enough to realize, as most of the nations on Earth have, that trade and exchange of ideas trump genocidal conquest as methods of getting what they want from other sapient species. Much of science fiction has traditionally offered hope, for instance many of Robert Heinlein's novels. Today, amid the fashion for post-apocalyptic dystopias, we can still find optimistic fiction. S. M. Stirling's Emberverse, which begins with the downfall of civilization in DIES THE FIRE, focuses throughout the series on cooperation in rebuilding society rather than on the initial collapse.

While Pinker doesn't deny that our world is far from a utopian paradise, there's a lot of work yet to be done, and any mass murder rampage is one too many, this is fundamentally an optimistic book. It's a refreshing reminder that we're not necessarily doomed.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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