The world according to Pinker

The world is not as bad as we think it is. That, in a nutshell, is Steven Pinker’s principal argument. And he substantiated it in his Frankfort talk with an impressive amount of data. His main line of argument is as follows: The world is actually improving but we hardly take notice of this, for we are subject to what he calls the Availability Bias and what he calls the Negativity Bias. That is to say, more bad news than good news is available to us and newspapers and other media tend to focus on what is not good instead of what is good. A plane crash is news, all the planes that never crash aren’t.
Life expectancy, infant mortality, prosperity, peace, safety, knowledge, quality of life, education, in all these areas has the world improved since the Enlightenment (and, by implication, through the Enlightenment). To be more specific, people worldwide have now more leisure time than they used to have in the past. The number of hours dedicated to household work (the least popular of all activities) has dramatically decreased since the 1950s. As a result, mothers (and fathers) today spend more time with their children than in the past. Contrary to popular belief, crime rate has also decreased. We are less likely today to become victim of a crime. Even the risk of being hit by lightning has decreased. There are more democracies today and fewer dictatorships, and the death penalty has been abolished at a rate which, if it continues, will mean that it will have disappeared completely within a few decades. Illiteracy has decreased, and the number of poor people worldwide is going down at a rate of several tens of thousands daily! Actually, people are even happier than they were in the past. Happiness is a result of prosperity. People in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries, and the rich in poorer countries are happier than the poor in poorer countries. As a result of increasing prosperity, people are happier now than they ever were in the past.
All this is substantiated by data, and Pinker regales his audience with an endless series of graphs during the talk, in such quick succession that you hardly have a chance to look at them in detail.
Pinker is well aware that you are likely to be accused of “naive optimism” (he does not consider himself an optimist) or “US-can-doism” if you point out how the world is becoming a better place. But he argues that pessimism is worse, as it is likely to trigger fatalism, terrorism, and the call for a “strong man” who alone can fix things.
All this is very well, and Pinker certainly has a point. However, one would have liked to ask some critical questions. To begin with, what about the sources for the data? Are there really any reliable figures which say how many people died of a flash of lightning 200 years ago? Who has gathered all these figures? Even today, is there any international body which could provide reliable figures – worldwide?
Secondly, Pinker has a way of choosing his time periods to suit his argument. He claims, for example, that the death toll in wars has gone down, proving his point with the number of deaths per day of war since the Second World War. That may well be true. But why choose the last 70 years or so and not look at the last century as a whole? Surely this would prove the opposite. The two world wars have claimed more victims than any wars till then.

Similarly, Pinker has a way of choosing the right area. Whenever Latin America is quoted, the figures come from Chile, and in South East Asia his favourites are South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. Surely the picture would change if he focussed on Bolivia or Venezuela or on Cambodia or Bangladesch.

Finally, there is the question of definition. Pinker assumes for most of the Western World, including the US, complete literacy. What does that mean? It is well known that there are lots of functional illiterates in many industrialized countries. The fact that you have had schooling does not mean that you can actually read and write. And surely not everyone attends school in the so-called civilised countries. Similar problems occur when it comes to speaking of dictatorships, of crime, of happiness.
Still, when all is said and done, a stimulating talk, a stimulating thought. Even if one does not subscribe to Pinker’s view that nuclear power stations and genetically modified food mean progress. And even if one does not share his – well – optimism.

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