Monday, January 04, 2016

A positive tonic: Human Progress Quantified has just posted responses to its 2016 question of the year "What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important?" Over the next period of time I'm going to be posting edited clips from some of these responses, starting today with Steven Pinker's contribution on human progress:
Human intuition is a notoriously poor guide to reality...Fortunately, as the bugs in human cognition have become common knowledge, the workaround—objective data—has become more prevalent...Sports have been revolutionized by Moneyball, policy by Nudge, punditry by, forecasting by tournaments and prediction markets, philanthropy by effective altruism, the healing arts by evidence-based medicine.
The most interesting news is that the quantification of life has been extended to the biggest question of all: Have we made progress... in improving the human condition?...Most people agree that life is better than death, health better than disease, prosperity better than poverty, knowledge better than ignorance, peace better than war, safety better than violence, freedom better than coercion. That gives us a set of yardsticks by which we can measure whether progress has actually occurred. The interesting news is that the answer is mostly "yes."... the rate of homicides and war deaths had plummeted over time...People are living longer and healthier lives, not just in the developed world but globally. A dozen infectious and parasitic diseases are extinct or moribund. Vastly more children are going to school and learning to read. Extreme poverty has fallen worldwide from 85 to 10 percent. Despite local setbacks, the world is more democratic than ever. Women are better educated, marrying later, earning more, and in more positions of power and influence. Racial prejudice and hate crimes have decreased since data were first recorded. The world is even getting smarter: In every country, IQ has been increasing by three points a decade.
"Ecomodernists" such as Stewart Brand, Jesse Ausubel, and Ruth DeFries have shown that many indicators of environmental health have improved over the last half-century, and that there are long-term historical processes, such as the decarbonization of energy, the dematerialization of consumption, and the minimization of farmland that can be further encouraged...for all the ways in which the world today falls short of utopia, the norms and institutions of modernity have put us on a good track. We should work on improving them further, rather than burning them down in the conviction that nothing could be worse than our current decadence and in the vague hope that something better might rise from their ashes...quantified human progress emboldens us to seek more of it...The empowering feature of a graph is that it invites one to identify the forces that are pushing a curve up or down, and then to apply them to push it further in the same direction.

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