Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Pinker on progress

This post is my third installment of summarizing or passing on bits of Pinker’s new book “Enlightenment Now”. The previous installments dealt with Pinker’s description of the basic ideas of the Enlightenment and with the first chapter in Part II on progress, Chapter 4, “Progressophobia,” dealing with the distain for the idea of progress that pervades intellectual circles. This post continues with Chapters 5 through 19, which present data demonstrating process in all areas of human experience and flourishing. Chapter 5, “Life,” documents aspects of the amazing rise in human life expectancy…
…in the mid-18th century, life expectancy in Europe and the Americas was around 35, where it had been parked for the 225 previous years for which we have data. Starting in the 19th century it began to rise and is now 75-80 in western countries, 70 averaged over the world.
Chapter 6 is on health and the decline in death from diseases as science and medicine discovered their causes. Chapter 7 on sustenance give data on the decreases in famine and hunger made possible by the agricultural revolution. Chapter 8, on Wealth, notes:
…since the industrial revolution was in place in 1820 gross world product increased 100-fold, and 200-fold since 17th century start of the enlightenment. Application of science to improving material life (steam engine, electricity, etc.) By 2008 the world’s population, all 6.7 billion of them, had an average income equivalent to that of Western Europe in 1964. …. Extreme poverty is being eradicated, and the world is becoming middle class.
Chapter 9, on inequality, challenged several of my assumptions, noting the confusion of inequality with poverty:
...when the rich get richer, the poor can get richer, too. inequality itself is not morally objectionable, what is objectionable is poverty
…If a person lives a long, healthy, pleasurable, and stimulating life, then how much money the Joneses earn, how big their house is, and how many cars they drive are morally irrelevant. Frankfurt writes, “From the point of view of morality, it is not important everyone should have the same. What is morally important is that each should have enough.”
Inequality is not the same as poverty, and it is not a fundamental dimension of human flourishing. In comparisons of well-being across countries, it pales in importance next to overall wealth. An increase in inequality is not necessarily bad: as societies escape from universal poverty, they are bound to become more unequal, and the uneven surge may be repeated when a society discovers new sources of wealth. Nor is a decrease in inequality always good: the most effective levelers of economic disparities are epidemics, massive wars, violent revolutions, and state collapse. For all that, the long-term trend in history since the Enlightenment is for everyone’s fortunes to rise. In addition to generating massive amounts of wealth, modern societies have devoted an increasing proportion of that wealth to benefiting the less well-off.
As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative, or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved, often because their members rise into the upper classes. The improvements are enhanced by social spending, and by the falling cost and rising quality of the things people want. In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.
From Chapter 10 “The Environment”:
Despite a half-century of panic, humanity is not on an irrevocable path to ecological suicide. The fear of resource shortages is misconceived. So is the misanthropic environmentalism that sees modern humans as vile despoilers of a pristine planet. An enlightened environmentalism recognizes that humans need to use energy to lift themselves out of the poverty to which entropy and evolution consign them. It seeks the means to do so with the least harm to the planet and the living world. History suggests that this modern, pragmatic, and humanistic environmentalism can work. As the world gets richer and more tech-savvy, it dematerializes, decarbonizes, and densifies, sparing land and species. As people get richer and better educated, they care more about the environment, figure out ways to protect it, and are better able to pay the costs. Many parts of the environment are rebounding, emboldening us to deal with the admittedly severe problems that remain.
First among them is the emission of greenhouse gases and the threat they pose of dangerous climate change. People sometimes ask me whether I think that humanity will rise to the challenge or whether we will sit back and let disaster unfold. For what it’s worth, I think we’ll rise to the challenge, but it’s vital to understand the nature of this optimism. The economist Paul Romer distinguishes between complacent optimism, the feeling of a child waiting for presents on Christmas morning, and conditional optimism, the feeling of a child who wants a treehouse and realizes that if he gets some wood and nails and persuades other kids to help him, he can build one. We cannot be complacently optimistic about climate change, but we can be conditionally optimistic. We have some practicable ways to prevent the harms and we have the means to learn more. Problems are solvable. That does not mean that they will solve themselves, but it does mean that we can solve them if we sustain the benevolent forces of modernity that have allowed us to solve problems so far, including societal prosperity, wisely regulated markets, international governance, and investments in science and technology.
Chapter 11, on Peace, gives data on the decline in the number of major wars between nations.
In fact, war may be just another obstacle an enlightened species learns to overcome, like pestilence, hunger, and poverty. Though conquest may be tempting over the short term, it’s ultimately better to figure out how to get what you want without the costs of destructive conflict and the inherent hazards of living by the sword, namely that if you are a menace to others you have given them an incentive to destroy you first. Over the long run, a world in which all parties refrain from war is better for everyone. Inventions such as trade, democracy, economic development, peacekeeping forces, and international law and norms are tools that help build that world.
Chapter 12 on Safety discusses decreases in the risk of death from almost everything…homicides, crime, car accidents, being pedestrian, flying, etc.
Like other forms of progress, the ascent of safety was led by some heroes, but it was also advanced by a motley of actors who pushed in the same direction inch by inch: grassroots activists, paternalistic legislators, and an unsung cadre of inventors, engineers, policy wonks, and number-crunchers. Though we sometimes chafe at the false alarms and the nanny-state intrusions, we get to enjoy the blessings of technology without the threats to life and limb.
Chapter 12 on Terrorism notes that death rates from terrorism remain unchanged over the past 45 years, despite up and down blips, and that the number of death from terrorism is very small compared with homicides and vehicular and other accidents.
Over the long run, terrorist movements sputter out as their small-scale violence fails to achieve their strategic goals, even as it causes local misery and fear.21 It happened to the anarchist movements at the turn of the20th century (after many bombings and assassinations), it happened to the Marxist and secessionist groups in the second half of the 20th century, and it will almost certainly happen to ISIS in the 21st. We may never drive the already low numbers of terrorist casualties to zero, but we can remember that terror about terrorism is a sign not of how dangerous our society has become, but of how safe.
Chapter 14 on Democracy has some interesting points:
Why has the tide of democratization repeatedly exceeded expectations? The various backslidings, reversals, and black holes for democracy have led to theories which posit onerous prerequisites and an agonizing ordeal of democratization. (This serves as a convenient pretext for dictators to insist that their countries are not ready for it, like the revolutionary leader in Woody Allen’s Bananas who upon taking power announces, “These people are peasants. They are too ignorant to vote.”) The awe is reinforced by a civics-class idealization of democracy in which an informed populace deliberates about the common good and carefully selects leaders who carry out their preference.
By that standard, the number of democracies in the world is zero in the past, zero in the present, and almost certainly zero in the future. Political scientists are repeatedly astonished by the shallowness and incoherence of people’s political beliefs, and by the tenuous connection of their preferences to their votes and to the behavior of their representatives.
….autocrats can learn to use elections to their advantage. The latest fashion in dictatorship has been called the competitive, electoral, kleptocratic, statist, or patronal authoritarian regime.22 (Putin’s Russia is the prototype.)
If neither voters nor elected leaders can be counted on to uphold the ideals of democracy, why should this form of government work so not-badly—the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried, as Churchill famously put it? In his 1945 book The Open Society and Its Enemies, the philosopher Karl Popper argued that democracy should be understood not as the answer to the question “Who should rule?” (namely, “The People”), but as a solution to the problem of how to dismiss bad leadership without bloodshed.
The political scientist John Mueller broadens the idea from a binary Judgment Day to continuous day-to-day feedback. Democracy, he suggests, is essentially based on giving people the freedom to complain: “It comes about when the people effectively agree not to use violence to replace the leadership, and the leadership leaves them free to try to dislodge it by any other means.”
I skip over Chapters 15, 16, and 17 on increases in equal rights, knowledge, and quality of life to a quote from Chapter 18 on happiness, in which Pinker gives data contradicting the common assumption that there is a loneliness epidemic :
Modern life.. has not crushed our minds and bodies, turned us into atomized machines suffering from toxic levels of emptiness and isolation, or set us drifting apart without human contact or emotion. How did this hysterical misconception arise? Partly it came out of the social critic’s standard formula for sowing panic: Here’s an anecdote, therefore it’s a trend, therefore it’s a crisis. But partly it came from genuine changes in how people interact. People see each other less in traditional venues like clubs, churches, unions, fraternal organizations, and dinner parties, and more in informal gatherings and via digital media. They confide in fewer distant cousins but in more co-workers. They are less likely to have a large number of friends but also less likely to want a large number of friends.51 But just because social life looks different today from the way it looked in the 1950s, it does not mean that humans, that quintessentially social species, have become any less social.
Chapter 19 deals with existential threats such as nuclear war, the imagined dangers of artificial intelligence, etc.
…risk assessments fall apart when they deal with highly improbable events in complex systems….The math is of little help in calibrating the risk, because the scattershot data along the tail of the distribution generally misbehave, deviating from a smooth curve and making estimation impossible. All we know is that very bad things can happen.
That takes us back to subjective readouts, which tend to be inflated by the Availability and Negativity biases and by the gravitas market (chapter 4). 8 Those who sow fear about a dreadful prophecy may be seen as serious and responsible, while those who are measured are seen as complacent and naïve. Despair springs eternal. At least since the Hebrew prophets and the Book of Revelation, seers have warned their contemporaries about an imminent doomsday. Forecasts of End Times.
In a subsequent post I will move on to Chapter 20 “The Future of Progress,” and then a final post on the third section of the book, on Reason, Science, and Humanism.

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