“I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there,” said Herb Caen, the good-hearted daily chronicler of the Chronicle in San Francisco for many decades last century.
It’s a great quote, not only because it reflects a deep-rooted human tendency, but it strongly suggests that many of us just might not be wired for properly assessing the present, let alone the future.
It’s also a roundabout way of saying why data is so important. Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard and a popular scientist whose most recent book is a paean to Enlightenment values such as reason, science and humanism. He uses statistics to make the case that health, prosperity, safety, peace and happiness are on the rise both in the U.S. and abroad, notwithstanding most people’s feelings on the matter. And, who knows, he might be right.
“Many people face the news each day with trepidation and dread,” said Pinker at a recent TED talk. “Every day, we read of shootings, inequality, pollution, dictatorship, war and the spread of nuclear weapons. These are some of the reasons that 2016 was called the worst year ever, until 2017 broke that record, and left many people longing for earlier decades, when the world seemed safer, cleaner and more equal. Is this a sensible way to understand the world in the 21st century? As Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out, nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”
Pinker said we can always fool ourselves into seeing a decline if you compare leading headlines of the present with rose-tinted images of the past. But what does the world look like when we measure well-being of the globe over time using a constant yardstick? Some data points:
- In 2016, Americans killed each other at a rate of 5.3 per 100,000; had a 7 percent poverty rate; and emitted 21 million tons of particulate matter and 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide. Thirty years prior, the homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000: the poverty rate was 12 percent and we emitted 35 million tons of particulate matter and 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide.
- What about the wider world? In 2016, there were 12 ongoing wars, 60 autocracies, 10 percent of the world population in extreme poverty and more than 10,000 nuclear weapons; but 30 years ago there were 23 wars, 85 autocracies, 37 percent of the world population living in extreme poverty and more than 60,000 nuclear weapons.
- Even though last year was a terrible year for terrorism in Western Europe with 238 deaths, 1988 was even worse with 440 deaths.
“What’s going on?” asks Pinker. “Was 1988 just a very bad year? Or is it a sign that the world, for all its troubles, gets better over time? Might we even invoke the old-fashioned notion of progress? To do so is to court a certain amount of derision, because I have found that intellectuals hate progress. And intellectuals who call themselves progressive really hate progress. To believe in progress is to be a cheerleader for a vulgar American can-do-ism, with the rah-rah spirit of boardroom ideology, Silicon Valley and the Chamber of Commerce.”
But things like health, prosperity, leisure and happiness can be measured, and if they have improved over time, then there is a case for progress. Globally, life expectancy, child mortality, famine and literacy rates are all pointed in the right direction… we’ve become safer in just about every way. “Do all these gains make us any happier?” asks Pinker. “The answer is yes. In 86 percent of the world’s countries, happiness has increased in recent decades.”
Progress, it turns out, “is the greatest fact of human history.” But how has this fact been covered in the news? “A tabulation of positive and negative emotion words in news stories has shown that during the decades that humanity has gotten heathier, wealthier, wiser, safer and happier, the New York Times has become increasingly morose, and the world’s broadcasts have gotten steadily glummer.”
Many will say that healthy skepticism is, well, healthy, but when it veers into thoughtless pessimism, that can lead to radicalism. “If our institutions are all failing and there’s not hope for reform, a natural response is to seek to smash the machine, drain the swamp, burn the empire to the ground, in the hope that whatever rises from the ashes is better than what we have now,” said Pinker. “The unsolved problems we face today are gargantuan, such as climate change and the risk of nuclear war, but we must see them as problems to be solved,” using the tried and tested Enlightenment values of reason and science, “not apocalypses in waiting.”