The first impetus was coming across data sets showing that the state of humanity has been improving. It’s a conclusion one can’t appreciate from the news — because journalism covers the disasters, crises, dangers and injustices that remain. And until the Messiah comes, there will always be enough of them to fill Page One.
Improvements, in contrast, are gradual, and often consist of things that don’t happen — an absence of war, or famine or crime in much of the world. One can spot them only by looking at data, which tally both the occurrences and the non-occurrences. When I came across data showing plunges in extreme poverty, illiteracy, war, violent crime, racism, sexism, homophobia, domestic violence, disease, lethal accidents and just about every other scourge, I thought these improvements deserved to be better known.
...denying progress can make us fatalistic: If all our efforts at improving the human condition have failed, why throw good money after bad? More generally, people are so jaded by the narrative of decline that they can’t think coherently about progress; the concept just doesn’t compute. I’m regularly confronted with an example of something that has gone wrong, like the opioid epidemic or a rampage shooting, as a refutation of progress — as if progress meant that everything gets better for everyone everywhere always. That wouldn’t be progress; that would be magic. Progress consists of solving problems, and problems are inevitable. So of course things can get worse for some people sometimes.
We live longer: Life expectancy at birth worldwide is now 71 years, and in the developed world, 80 years; through most of human existence it was around 30. Global extreme poverty has declined to 9.6 percent of the world population; 200 years ago, it was at 90 percent. In just the last 30 years, extreme poverty has declined by 75 percent — a stupendous achievement that is almost entirely unappreciated. Equally unappreciated is the fact that 90 percent of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write, including girls. In most of the history of Europe, no more than 15 percent could read and write, mostly men.
...liberals, ... in joining the chorus of decline have unilaterally disarmed in the fight for judicious regulation and social spending. Take pollution. Since the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, air pollution (aside from carbon dioxide) has fallen by 60 percent, even as Americans have become more populous and richer and have driven more miles. But because many liberals today can’t bring themselves to acknowledge progress, they have cleared the field for opponents of regulation like Scott Pruitt to claim that the regulations have done no good and have only cramped our lives and dragged down the economy. Rather than saying “Environmental regulation has improved the environment while allowing the economy to grow,” they have said, ineffectually, “If you oppose regulation, you’re a bad person.”
The same is true with poverty. Ronald Reagan famously wisecracked, “Some years ago, the federal government declared war on poverty, and poverty won.” Few liberals would disagree. But Reagan was mistaken. If you factor in government social spending, such as the earned-income tax credit, rates of poverty have declined significantly. But here again liberals hand their opponents a weapon: the conclusion that all social programs are ineffective.
If I were an editor, I’d impose a rule that before a pundit writes about any putative change or trend, he or she must compare the present to the past. Commentators should be more data-oriented, especially now that data are so much more widely available. Also, I’d put the kibosh on a pernicious journalistic habit: reporting a small reversal in a trend (because it’s “news”) while ignoring the far more numerous year-by-year improvements (because they’re not news). This is journalistic malpractice, because it gives readers an impression that is opposite to reality.
Like many cognitive psychologists, I think that curriculums that aim at de-biasing and statistical literacy should begin early, including an explicit awareness of the fallacies we’re vulnerable to. It should be part of our conventional wisdom never to trust our intuitions about risk and danger, and to try to circumvent them by seeking data and reasoning about them probabilistically.
Some psychologists despair that it’s naïve to hope that we can overcome our illusions and biases. But history shows that we can outgrow our collective irrationality. We don’t explain disease by miasmas or evil spirits — most people with a sinus infection take antibiotics rather than calling in an exorcist. We don’t engage in human sacrifice to bribe gods for better weather or victory on the battlefield. Not even the most know-nothing politician today would appeal to astrology. So upgrading our intellectual culture can in fact allow us to outgrow our irrationality and delusions.