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TED2018

Steven Pinker: Is the world getting better or worse? A look at the numbers

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Was 2017 really the "worst year ever," as some would have us believe? In his analysis of recent data on homicide, war, poverty, pollution and more, psychologist Steven Pinker finds that we're doing better now in every one of them when compared with 30 years ago. But progress isn't inevitable, and it doesn't mean everything gets better for everyone all the time, Pinker says. Instead, progress is problem-solving, and we should look at things like climate change and nuclear war as problems to be solved, not apocalypses in waiting. "We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one," he says. "But there's no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing."

- Psychologist
Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts -- the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others. In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest. Full bio

Many people face the news each morning
00:13
with trepidation and dread.
00:16
Every day, we read of shootings,
00:18
inequality, pollution, dictatorship,
00:21
war and the spread of nuclear weapons.
00:25
These are some of the reasons
00:28
that 2016 was called
the "Worst. Year. Ever."
00:30
Until 2017 claimed that record --
00:35
(Laughter)
00:38
and left many people longing
for earlier decades,
00:39
when the world seemed safer,
cleaner and more equal.
00:42
But is this a sensible way
to understand the human condition
00:46
in the 21st century?
00:50
As Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out,
00:52
"Nothing is more responsible
for the good old days
00:54
than a bad memory."
00:57
(Laughter)
00:58
You can always fool yourself
into seeing a decline
01:01
if you compare bleeding
headlines of the present
01:05
with rose-tinted images of the past.
01:07
What does the trajectory
of the world look like
01:10
when we measure well-being over time
using a constant yardstick?
01:13
Let's compare the most recent
data on the present
01:17
with the same measures 30 years ago.
01:20
Last year, Americans killed each other
at a rate of 5.3 per hundred thousand,
01:23
had seven percent
of their citizens in poverty
01:28
and emitted 21 million tons
of particulate matter
01:31
and four million tons of sulfur dioxide.
01:35
But 30 years ago, the homicide rate
was 8.5 per hundred thousand,
01:38
poverty rate was 12 percent
01:42
and we emitted 35 million tons
of particulate matter
01:44
and 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide.
01:47
What about the world as a whole?
01:51
Last year, the world had 12 ongoing wars,
01:53
60 autocracies,
01:56
10 percent of the world population
in extreme poverty
01:59
and more than 10,000 nuclear weapons.
02:02
But 30 years ago, there were 23 wars,
02:05
85 autocracies,
02:08
37 percent of the world population
in extreme poverty
02:10
and more than 60,000 nuclear weapons.
02:13
True, last year was a terrible year
for terrorism in Western Europe,
02:17
with 238 deaths,
02:21
but 1988 was worse with 440 deaths.
02:24
What's going on?
02:28
Was 1988 a particularly bad year?
02:30
Or are these improvements a sign
that the world, for all its struggles,
02:33
gets better over time?
02:37
Might we even invoke the admittedly
old-fashioned notion of progress?
02:39
To do so is to court
a certain amount of derision,
02:45
because I have found
that intellectuals hate progress.
02:49
(Laughter)
02:53
(Applause)
02:54
And intellectuals who call themselves
progressive really hate progress.
02:57
(Laughter)
03:01
Now, it's not that they hate
the fruits of progress, mind you.
03:02
Most academics and pundits
03:05
would rather have their surgery
with anesthesia than without it.
03:08
It's the idea of progress
that rankles the chattering class.
03:13
If you believe that humans
can improve their lot, I have been told,
03:17
that means that you have a blind faith
03:21
and a quasi-religious belief
in the outmoded superstition
03:23
and the false promise
of the myth of the onward march
03:28
of inexorable progress.
03:31
You are a cheerleader
for vulgar American can-doism,
03:34
with the rah-rah spirit
of boardroom ideology,
03:39
Silicon Valley
and the Chamber of Commerce.
03:42
You are a practitioner of Whig history,
03:45
a naive optimist, a Pollyanna
and, of course, a Pangloss,
03:48
alluding to the Voltaire
character who declared,
03:52
"All is for the best
in the best of all possible worlds."
03:55
Well, Professor Pangloss,
as it happens, was a pessimist.
03:58
A true optimist believes
there can be much better worlds
04:01
than the one we have today.
04:04
But all of this is irrelevant,
04:06
because the question
of whether progress has taken place
04:07
is not a matter of faith
04:10
or having an optimistic temperament
or seeing the glass as half full.
04:12
It's a testable hypothesis.
04:16
For all their differences,
04:18
people largely agree
on what goes into human well-being:
04:20
life, health, sustenance, prosperity,
peace, freedom, safety, knowledge,
04:24
leisure, happiness.
04:30
All of these things can be measured.
04:32
If they have improved over time,
that, I submit, is progress.
04:34
Let's go to the data,
04:38
beginning with the most
precious thing of all, life.
04:40
For most of human history,
life expectancy at birth was around 30.
04:43
Today, worldwide, it is more than 70,
04:48
and in the developed parts of the world,
04:51
more than 80.
04:53
250 years ago, in the richest
countries of the world,
04:55
a third of the children
did not live to see their fifth birthday,
04:58
before the risk was brought
down a hundredfold.
05:02
Today, that fate befalls
less than six percent of children
05:05
in the poorest countries of the world.
05:08
Famine is one of the Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse.
05:11
It could bring devastation
to any part of the world.
05:15
Today, famine has been banished
05:18
to the most remote
and war-ravaged regions.
05:20
200 years ago, 90 percent
of the world's population
05:23
subsisted in extreme poverty.
05:26
Today, fewer than 10 percent of people do.
05:29
For most of human history,
05:32
the powerful states and empires
05:34
were pretty much always
at war with each other,
05:36
and peace was a mere
interlude between wars.
05:38
Today, they are never
at war with each other.
05:42
The last great power war
05:44
pitted the United States
against China 65 years ago.
05:46
More recently, wars of all kinds
have become fewer and less deadly.
05:50
The annual rate of war has fallen from
about 22 per hundred thousand per year
05:54
in the early '50s to 1.2 today.
05:59
Democracy has suffered obvious setbacks
06:03
in Venezuela, in Russia, in Turkey
06:05
and is threatened by the rise
of authoritarian populism
06:09
in Eastern Europe and the United States.
06:12
Yet the world has never been
more democratic
06:15
than it has been in the past decade,
06:17
with two-thirds of the world's people
living in democracies.
06:19
Homicide rates plunge whenever anarchy
and the code of vendetta
06:24
are replaced by the rule of law.
06:28
It happened when feudal Europe was brought
under the control of centralized kingdoms,
06:30
so that today a Western European
06:35
has 1/35th the chance of being murdered
06:37
compared to his medieval ancestors.
06:39
It happened again in colonial New England,
06:42
in the American Wild West
when the sheriffs moved to town,
06:44
and in Mexico.
06:48
Indeed, we've become safer
in just about every way.
06:50
Over the last century,
we've become 96 percent less likely
06:54
to be killed in a car crash,
06:58
88 percent less likely
to be mowed down on the sidewalk,
07:00
99 percent less likely
to die in a plane crash,
07:04
95 percent less likely
to be killed on the job,
07:08
89 percent less likely
to be killed by an act of God,
07:11
such as a drought, flood,
wildfire, storm, volcano,
07:15
landslide, earthquake or meteor strike,
07:19
presumably not because God
has become less angry with us
07:22
but because of improvements
in the resilience of our infrastructure.
07:25
And what about
the quintessential act of God,
07:30
the projectile hurled by Zeus himself?
07:33
Yes, we are 97 percent less likely
to be killed by a bolt of lightning.
07:36
Before the 17th century,
07:43
no more than 15 percent of Europeans
could read or write.
07:45
Europe and the United States
achieved universal literacy
07:48
by the middle of the 20th century,
07:51
and the rest of the world is catching up.
07:53
Today, more than 90 percent
of the world's population
07:56
under the age of 25 can read and write.
07:59
In the 19th century, Westerners
worked more than 60 hours per week.
08:03
Today, they work fewer than 40.
08:07
Thanks to the universal penetration
of running water and electricity
08:10
in the developed world
08:14
and the widespread adoption
of washing machines, vacuum cleaners,
08:16
refrigerators, dishwashers,
stoves and microwaves,
08:20
the amount of our lives
that we forfeit to housework
08:24
has fallen from 60 hours a week
08:27
to fewer than 15 hours a week.
08:29
Do all of these gains in health,
wealth, safety, knowledge and leisure
08:32
make us any happier?
08:37
The answer is yes.
08:39
In 86 percent of the world's countries,
08:40
happiness has increased in recent decades.
08:42
Well, I hope to have convinced you
08:45
that progress is not a matter
of faith or optimism,
08:47
but is a fact of human history,
08:51
indeed the greatest fact in human history.
08:53
And how has this fact
been covered in the news?
08:56
(Laughter)
08:59
A tabulation of positive and negative
emotion words in news stories
09:03
has shown that during the decades
in which humanity has gotten healthier,
09:07
wealthier, wiser, safer and happier,
09:11
the "New York Times"
has become increasingly morose
09:13
and the world's broadcasts too
have gotten steadily glummer.
09:18
Why don't people appreciate progress?
09:22
Part of the answer comes
from our cognitive psychology.
09:25
We estimate risk using a mental shortcut
called the "availability heuristic."
09:28
The easier it is to recall
something from memory,
09:33
the more probable we judge it to be.
09:36
The other part of the answer
comes from the nature of journalism,
09:39
captured in this satirical headline
from "The Onion,"
09:42
"CNN Holds Morning Meeting to Decide
09:46
What Viewers Should
Panic About For Rest of Day."
09:48
(Laughter)
09:50
(Applause)
09:52
News is about stuff that happens,
not stuff that doesn't happen.
09:57
You never see a journalist who says,
10:01
"I'm reporting live from a country
that has been at peace for 40 years,"
10:03
or a city that has not
been attacked by terrorists.
10:07
Also, bad things can happen quickly,
10:10
but good things aren't built in a day.
10:13
The papers could have run the headline,
10:15
"137,000 people escaped
from extreme poverty yesterday"
10:17
every day for the last 25 years.
10:22
That's one and a quarter billion people
leaving poverty behind,
10:24
but you never read about it.
10:29
Also, the news capitalizes
on our morbid interest
10:31
in what can go wrong,
10:34
captured in the programming policy,
"If it bleeds, it leads."
10:35
Well, if you combine our cognitive biases
with the nature of news,
10:40
you can see why the world
has been coming to an end
10:43
for a very long time indeed.
10:46
Let me address
some questions about progress
10:50
that no doubt have occurred
to many of you.
10:52
First, isn't it good to be pessimistic
10:56
to safeguard against complacency,
10:59
to rake the muck, to speak truth to power?
11:01
Well, not exactly.
11:04
It's good to be accurate.
11:06
Of course we should be aware
of suffering and danger
11:08
wherever they occur,
11:10
but we should also be aware
of how they can be reduced,
11:12
because there are dangers
to indiscriminate pessimism.
11:15
One of them is fatalism.
11:18
If all our efforts at improving the world
11:20
have been in vain,
11:22
why throw good money after bad?
11:23
The poor will always be with you.
11:25
And since the world will end soon --
11:28
if climate change doesn't kill us all,
11:30
then runaway artificial
intelligence will --
11:32
a natural response is
to enjoy life while we can,
11:34
eat, drink and be merry,
for tomorrow we die.
11:38
The other danger of thoughtless
pessimism is radicalism.
11:42
If our institutions are all failing
and beyond hope for reform,
11:46
a natural response
is to seek to smash the machine,
11:50
drain the swamp,
11:53
burn the empire to the ground,
11:55
on the hope that whatever
rises out of the ashes
11:56
is bound to be better
than what we have now.
12:00
Well, if there is
such a thing as progress,
12:03
what causes it?
12:06
Progress is not some mystical force
or dialectic lifting us ever higher.
12:07
It's not a mysterious arc of history
bending toward justice.
12:12
It's the result of human efforts
governed by an idea,
12:16
an idea that we associate
with the 18th century Enlightenment,
12:19
namely that if we apply reason and science
12:23
that enhance human well-being,
12:28
we can gradually succeed.
12:30
Is progress inevitable? Of course not.
12:32
Progress does not mean
that everything becomes better
12:36
for everyone everywhere all the time.
12:39
That would be a miracle,
and progress is not a miracle
12:42
but problem-solving.
12:45
Problems are inevitable
12:47
and solutions create new problems
which have to be solved in their turn.
12:49
The unsolved problems
facing the world today are gargantuan,
12:53
including the risks of climate change
12:57
and nuclear war,
13:00
but we must see them
as problems to be solved,
13:01
not apocalypses in waiting,
13:04
and aggressively pursue solutions
13:06
like Deep Decarbonization
for climate change
13:09
and Global Zero for nuclear war.
13:12
Finally, does the Enlightenment
go against human nature?
13:15
This is an acute question for me,
13:19
because I'm a prominent advocate
of the existence of human nature,
13:22
with all its shortcomings
and perversities.
13:25
In my book "The Blank Slate,"
13:28
I argued that the human prospect
is more tragic than utopian
13:30
and that we are not stardust,
we are not golden
13:34
and there's no way
we are getting back to the garden.
13:37
(Laughter)
13:39
But my worldview has lightened up
13:42
in the 15 years since
"The Blank Slate" was published.
13:44
My acquaintance with
the statistics of human progress,
13:47
starting with violence
13:50
but now encompassing
every other aspect of our well-being,
13:51
has fortified my belief
13:55
that in understanding
our tribulations and woes,
13:57
human nature is the problem,
14:00
but human nature, channeled
by Enlightenment norms and institutions,
14:02
is also the solution.
14:06
Admittedly, it's not easy
to replicate my own data-driven epiphany
14:09
with humanity at large.
14:14
Some intellectuals have responded
14:16
with fury to my book "Enlightenment Now,"
14:18
saying first how dare he claim
that intellectuals hate progress,
14:21
and second, how dare he claim
that there has been progress.
14:25
(Laughter)
14:28
With others, the idea of progress
just leaves them cold.
14:32
Saving the lives of billions,
14:35
eradicating disease, feeding the hungry,
14:37
teaching kids to read?
14:40
Boring.
14:42
At the same time, the most common response
I have received from readers is gratitude,
14:44
gratitude for changing
their view of the world
14:49
from a numb and helpless fatalism
14:51
to something more constructive,
14:54
even heroic.
14:55
I believe that the ideals
of the Enlightenment
14:57
can be cast a stirring narrative,
14:59
and I hope that people
with greater artistic flare
15:01
and rhetorical power than I
15:04
can tell it better and spread it further.
15:06
It goes something like this.
15:09
We are born into a pitiless universe,
15:12
facing steep odds
against life-enabling order
15:14
and in constant jeopardy of falling apart.
15:18
We were shaped by a process
that is ruthlessly competitive.
15:21
We are made from crooked timber,
15:25
vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness
15:27
and at times astounding stupidity.
15:30
Yet human nature has also
been blessed with resources
15:33
that open a space
for a kind of redemption.
15:36
We are endowed with the power
to combine ideas recursively,
15:39
to have thoughts about our thoughts.
15:42
We have an instinct for language,
15:45
allowing us to share the fruits
of our ingenuity and experience.
15:47
We are deepened
with the capacity for sympathy,
15:51
for pity, imagination,
compassion, commiseration.
15:54
These endowments have found ways
to magnify their own power.
15:59
The scope of language has been augmented
16:03
by the written, printed
and electronic word.
16:05
Our circle of sympathy has been expanded
16:09
by history, journalism
and the narrative arts.
16:11
And our puny rational faculties
have been multiplied
16:15
by the norms and institutions of reason,
16:18
intellectual curiosity, open debate,
16:20
skepticism of authority and dogma
16:24
and the burden of proof to verify ideas
16:26
by confronting them against reality.
16:29
As the spiral of recursive improvement
16:32
gathers momentum,
16:34
we eke out victories
against the forces that grind us down,
16:36
not least the darker parts
of our own nature.
16:40
We penetrate the mysteries
of the cosmos, including life and mind.
16:43
We live longer, suffer less, learn more,
16:48
get smarter and enjoy more small pleasures
16:52
and rich experiences.
16:54
Fewer of us are killed,
assaulted, enslaved, exploited
16:57
or oppressed by the others.
17:01
From a few oases, the territories
with peace and prosperity are growing
17:03
and could someday encompass the globe.
17:08
Much suffering remains
17:11
and tremendous peril,
17:13
but ideas on how to reduce them
have been voiced,
17:15
and an infinite number of others
are yet to be conceived.
17:18
We will never have a perfect world,
17:22
and it would be dangerous to seek one.
17:24
But there's no limit
to the betterments we can attain
17:26
if we continue to apply knowledge
to enhance human flourishing.
17:29
This heroic story
is not just another myth.
17:34
Myths are fictions, but this one is true,
17:37
true to the best of our knowledge,
which is the only truth we can have.
17:41
As we learn more,
17:44
we can show which parts of the story
continue to be true and which ones false,
17:46
as any of them might be
and any could become.
17:50
And this story belongs not to any tribe
17:54
but to all of humanity,
17:56
to any sentient creature
with the power of reason
17:58
and the urge to persist in its being,
18:02
for it requires only the convictions
18:05
that life is better than death,
18:07
health is better than sickness,
18:09
abundance is better than want,
18:11
freedom is better than coercion,
18:13
happiness is better than suffering
18:16
and knowledge is better
than ignorance and superstition.
18:18
Thank you.
18:22
(Applause)
18:23

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About the speaker:

Steven Pinker - Psychologist
Steven Pinker questions the very nature of our thoughts -- the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others. In his best-selling books, he has brought sophisticated language analysis to bear on topics of wide general interest.

Why you should listen

Steven Pinker's books have been like bombs tossed into the eternal nature-versus-nurture debate. Pinker asserts that not only are human minds predisposed to certain kinds of learning, such as language, but that from birth our minds -- the patterns in which our brain cells fire -- predispose us each to think and behave differently.

His deep studies of language have led him to insights into the way that humans form thoughts and engage our world. He argues that humans have evolved to share a faculty for language, the same way a spider evolved to spin a web. We aren't born with “blank slates” to be shaped entirely by our parents and environment, he argues in books including The Language Instinct; How the Mind Works; and The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

Time magazine named Pinker one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2004. His book The Stuff of Thought was previewed at TEDGlobal 2005. His 2012 book The Better Angels of Our Nature looks at our notion of violence.

For the BBC, he picks his Desert Island Discs >>

More profile about the speaker
Steven Pinker | Speaker | TED.com