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Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Best Of Times

Not too long ago, I overheard a guy saying something along the lines of, "This is the worst time in American history."

He didn't offer any evidence to back that up, but I knew he had absolutely no historical perspective -- or perhaps he'd never heard of The Civil War or The Great Depression. Even in my own lifetime, I remember how America was simultaneously divided by the Vietnam War and the civil rights era and the emergence of women's rights, not to mention a president forced out of office for engaging in criminal and unconstitutional acts. My guess is that the guy who made that "worst time" statement spent far too many hours each day watching cable news fear-mongering and reading divisive, agenda-driven, and/or conspiratorial websites full of information that fed his pessimism bias.

What that guy needed to read instead was this piece by Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack, in which they explain that, if you simply crunch the numbers and analyze the evidence objectively, there's no need for pessimism today:

The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable -- homicide, rape, battering, child abuse -- have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states -- by far the most destructive of all conflicts -- are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.

We have been told of impending doom before: a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, a line of dominoes in Southeast Asia, revanchism in a reunified Germany, a rising sun in Japan, cities overrun by teenage superpredators, a coming anarchy that would fracture the major nation-states, and weekly 9/11-scale attacks that would pose an existential threat to civilization.

Why is the world always “more dangerous than it has ever been”-- even as a greater and greater majority of humanity lives in peace and dies of old age?

Too much of our impression of the world comes from a misleading formula of journalistic narration. Reporters give lavish coverage to gun bursts, explosions, and viral videos, oblivious to how representative they are and apparently innocent of the fact that many were contrived as journalist bait. Then come sound bites from “experts” with vested interests in maximizing the impression of mayhem: generals, politicians, security officials, moral activists. The talking heads on cable news filibuster about the event, desperately hoping to avoid dead air. Newspaper columnists instruct their readers on what emotions to feel.

There is a better way to understand the world. Commentators can brush up their history -- not by rummaging through Bartlett’s for a quote from Clausewitz, but by recounting the events of the recent past that put the events of the present in an intelligible context. And they could consult the analyses of quantitative datasets on violence that are now just a few clicks away.
Read the full piece by Pinker and Mack here.