Despite the doom and gloom, humanity is still progressing
Given the ongoing pandemic, many people feel that we are living in a world where everything is going from bad to worse. But is that really true? Read More
There is a common societal perception that the world is just getting "worse" with the climate crisis, inequality, war and conflict - and if that were not enough, now a global pandemic, too. Meanwhile, major societal institutions, including the press and mass media, are experiencing a growing credibility crisis in much of the Western world, and people are increasingly turning their backs on politics and the media.
Despite all this, psychologist Steven Pinker feels that humanity is still moving forward along the right path. In his most recent book, he presents data that shows how life has continually improved over the past few centuries. Today, people are living longer, healthier, safer, happier, and more peaceful lives. They are enjoying more prosperity than ever before, and not just in the Western world (see box and video). In an interview, our friends from Orthos Logos magazine asked Steven Pinker why our perception of the world often differs so fundamentally from his findings, and whether Covid-19 could be a gamechanger.
This article was originally published in the April 2020 edition of Orthos Logos online magazine, our cooperation partner from Greece.
If things are getting better, why do so many people believe that things are actually getting worse?
Michael Nevradakis: Reading your book gives one the impression that humanity is on a continuous positive trajectory with people's lives getting better and better. You point to the achievements of the Enlightenment as one of the reasons. Why do you think the Enlightenment still matters so much today?
Steven Pinker: It isn't so much the Enlightenment itself that I was endorsing, but rather the ideals of the Enlightenment, which were introduced piecemeal, concentrated during the 18th century in Europe. These include, firstly, reason: the idea that we should analyze the way the world works, set clear goals and decide how best to achieve them. Secondly, science: the application of reason to the physical world, including attempting to determine which of our ideas are true or false by testing them with data and seeking deep explanations on why things are the way they are. Thirdly, humanism, namely, setting the well-being of men, women, and children as the primary goal, above and beyond the glory of the class, the tribe, the nation, the race, separate from the dictates of an ideology or dogma or religion, keeping one's eyes focus on well-being.
Your research shows that in past centuries, namely from the 18th century to today, life expectancy has risen tremendously, child mortality and poverty have declined, people are more literate, work less, face fewer risks of being killed by accidents, crime or natural disasters, and they are also reported to be happier. If it is true that people's lives are improving across many different metrics, then why have we seen such a tremendous rise in populism and populist ideologies recently? In other words, if things are getting better, why do so many people believe that things are actually getting worse?
Well, most people get their understanding of the world through the media rather than through the long-term trends that I have explored in my books. Journalism by its very nature has to present a negative view of the world, above and beyond the fact that violent and tragic entertainment sells, so there is a commercial bias in journalism to highlight violence and calamity. But just the fact that news covers events on a timescale of days and hours means that it will focus on what happens quickly, and what happens quickly is almost always bad: an epidemic, a shooting, a terrorist attack, a tsunami, a disaster. Whereas things that are good tend to unfold by a few percentage points a year and accumulate over time. There may never be a Thursday in October on which hunger has been defeated or war has declined, and it's only when one looks back and looks at trends over the years that one can appreciate how much progress has taken place.
The use of language is a topic that you've done a lot of work on. How does the media use or manipulate language to further sensationalism and negativity bias?
I'll give you an example. When reporting any positive development, there is a reflex in journalism to add qualifications that try to paint the overall picture as negative, like "Jobless Rate Falls but Many Feel Passed by." That's a headline I collected. Even though unemployment has fallen, since it hasn't fallen to zero, somehow the headline manages to report it as negative news. It will always be true that people will die, people will be unemployed, people will be unhappy until the Messiah comes, no development will be completely perfect, and if every positive development is framed in terms of the fact that it falls short of perfection, people will never appreciate progress that's made.
“There is a commercial bias in journalism to highlight violence and calamity.”
Another example is, "World's Happiest Countries Show Signs of a Happiness Gap." Now we all know that some countries are "happier" than others, Norway and Denmark are particularly happy countries, but of course even in those countries it's not as if 100% of the population walks around with a smile on their faces all the time. If you seek out the people in happy countries who are unhappy, you can turn a positive story into a negative one, and journalists feel compelled to do that, lest they be accused of painting too positive a picture and therefore be unaware of risks and dangers and such.
“If you seek out the people in happy countries who are unhappy, you can turn a positive story into a negative one.”
What is the societal and psychological impact of being bombarded with all this negative news by the media day in and day out?
There are studies that show that exposure to news can increase anxiety and depression and helplessness. I think that there is reason to be concerned that a diet of negativity above and beyond what is necessary simply to be informed about the risks of the world can have a harmful effect on human emotional well-being.
Your research shows that negative reporting has even risen recently. At the same time, we're witnessing a crisis of trust in the government, science and major societal institutions. Are these two linked?
There's been a general decline in trust in institutions of all kinds, although science, paradoxically, remains one of the most trusted professions, far more than politics or journalism. Partly because of an emphasis on scandal, corruption and failure in the media, people are convinced that governments, universities and the civil service agencies have been failures, even though they have had fantastic successes that go almost entirely unnoticed.
Covid-19 gripped almost the entire world in 2020. Measures are being implemented in many countries that would have been unthinkable even a short time ago, such as severe travel restrictions, quarantines and so forth. Many people seem to feel that instead of making progress, we are actually moving backwards. What do you think the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic will be?
It's almost impossible to predict, partly because we don't know how disastrous the pandemic will be and when it will be under control. But the world did recover from the Spanish flu, which was a horrific disaster. There's no reason to think that this is the end of civilization or that empires will collapse. I'd like to think that it will restore a recognition of the indispensability of institutions, expertise, science, and of government, that the measures necessary to combat the virus have to be guided by scientific knowledge and can only be implemented on a large scale by responsible politicians and civil servants. It's easy to say the entire system needs to be destroyed because nothing could be worse than what we have now. But thinking about what the pandemic could bring, we realize that in the absence of government, analysis, distribution, enforcement of public health measures, things could be absolutely calamitous.
“There’s no reason to think that this is the end of civilization or that empires will collapse.”
The failure that we are seeing is that governments have been unequipped to handle the pandemic, partly because they were starved of the funding that would be needed for emergency responses, for monitoring networks and for long-term research. This is what we will need to bring the pandemic under control and to prevent future pandemics from happening.
Predictions of the post-Covid-19 world differ fundamentally: Some are projecting the strengthening of international global cooperation, others argue that we're witnessing the end of globalization with the re-imposition of closed borders and nation-states looking out for their own interests. Some are predicting that this will be the death knell for populism, others arguing that it'll continue to grow and flourish. What direction do you see the world and global cooperation headed in the coming years?
That might be very hard to predict. I suspect that there will be greater cooperation in public health networks, simply because of the realization that the world can only take effective action against future pandemics through the rapid sharing of information about diseases. It's less likely that this will generalize to other areas of global cooperation, such as climate change, cybersecurity, terrorism, dark money, migration. I suspect it will happen slowly, but when there are institutions set up for one purpose, they set an example that can be transferred, though this is by no means guaranteed. In general, when countries cooperate in one way, it tends to increase cooperation in other spheres. Likewise, there are data suggesting that countries that are involved in more international agreements, even if they are postage unions and water resource agreements, are less likely to enter into militarized disputes. That is, once the ice is broken and countries are forced to cooperate in one way, this tends to encourage cooperation in other ways. So, while I would not venture to say that this is highly probable, there are some reasons to expect that it's likely.
In late December 2019, you published an article about what we can expect from the coming decade. This was just before the Covid-19 crisis broke out in earnest. Where do you expect to see humanity and the world at large at the close of this decade 10 years from now?
Much will depend on what we do about the climate, which is, I think, the number one global problem, and if we avoid unlikely but severe risks such as nuclear war or an even worse pandemic. So in forecasting the future, it's always important to lay out a range of possibilities together with the most likely one. I think those are not likely, but they are likely enough that we should prepare ourselves to make sure they don't happen, or at least to minimize the chance of them happening. But what I think is most likely, though not certain, is that positive trends will continue. I think that poverty will continue to decrease globally, I think longevity will continue to increase, I think that peace will continue to increase, I think that there will be gains in the advancement of women and racial minorities, as there have been. All of those long-term trends are unlikely to do a U-turn. What we don't know is what catastrophes might take place, each one of which is unlikely, but we could always be surprised by them, and the coronavirus is a perfect example.
The world is not that bad after all
The good old days were a lot worse than we imagine and, in fact, worse than today. Looked at another way: not everything is as bad as it seems. That is what Steven Pinker set out to prove in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. "2016 was called the worst year ever," he states, "until 2017 claimed that record." His research shows that this common perception doesn't stand up to scrutiny.
In his book, Pinker raises the question of whether the world has actually seen human progress in the recent past. Evidence-wise this isn't too hard to prove: If the factors defining human well-being that are widely agreed upon in the scientific world - namely life, health, sustenance, prosperity, peace, freedom, safety, knowledge, leisure and happiness - have improved over time, "this is progress," Pinker says.
He then presents some impressive statistics: From the 18th century to today, life expectancy has risen from 30 to more than 70 years, child mortality fell from over 30% worldwide to under 6% in the poorest countries. Extreme poverty has dropped from about 90% in 1820 to affecting roughly 10% of the world population today; and more than 90 per cent of the world population under the age of 25 can now read or write. Wars have become less common and less deadly; deaths from homicides, traffic accidents, occupational accidents or natural disasters have steadily gone down, and so have working hours and even the time spent on household tasks.
And if this seems like achievements from long ago of perhaps concerning topics that seem less relevant today, there's more: Pinker shows that in comparison to 30 years ago, we saw a drop in wars, autocracies, poverty and nuclear arms in 2017. Even pollution significantly declined in the US in this period. And the deaths caused by terrorism - the hot topic of that year - had almost been halved.