Steven Pinker: Can Numbers Show Us That Progress Is Inevitable?

Aug 17, 2018
Originally published on August 17, 2018 10:04 am

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Story Behind The Numbers.

About Steven Pinker's TED Talk

It might seem like the world is getting worse and worse. But psychologist Steven Pinker says that across the board, data suggests we've made a lot of progress. The question is — will it continue?

About Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and the Johnstone Family Professor in the Harvard Department of Psychology. His research covers everything from visual cognition and psycholinguistics to social relations. He is the author of several books, including his most recent: Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz.

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RAZ: So if you've watched the news lately, you might think that the world has never been worse.

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LESTER HOLT: The brutality of ISIS and the ongoing war in Syria have triggered an epic humanitarian crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Children being hosed off, treated after an alleged chemical attack in Douma.

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RAZ: OK. So things seem pretty horrible, right? Well, actually according to this guy...

STEVEN PINKER: Hi. Yes, can you hear me?

RAZ: The world...

PINKER: Mmm hmm.

RAZ: ...Is getting better. Is that right?

PINKER: Mostly, yes.

RAZ: This is Steven Pinker. He's a psychology professor at Harvard and author of the book "Enlightenment Now."

PINKER: Starting with the most precious thing of all - life, life expectancy for most of human history is about 30 years, measured at birth. Now it's 71 years globally and 80 years in the developed parts of the world, with increases in the developing world as well. So the gap is closing. People are much more likely to be literate, to be educated. Their chance of dying in a war or an act of personal violence has decreased in most parts of the world. The work hours have decreased.

So people have more leisure time. They have more disposable income. They can afford more small luxuries like beer and TV and smartphones. So yes. In - by most measures, there has been progress in the sense that the things that make life worth living have increased for more and more people compared to earlier historical periods.

RAZ: All right. Now when some people argue, hey, how can you say there's been progress? Look at all the suffering around the world, et cetera, et cetera. Your main argument is look at the data. The data is clear. Progress is a fact of life.

PINKER: That's a way of putting it. The other way putting it is, yeah, they're suffering now. And there was more suffering in the past. The less the better. There are a lot of trends that indicate that at least certain kinds of suffering are going to continue to decrease if we continue our efforts to reducing them. So it's not just a matter of looking at the data. It's that the data show that, yes, there are obviously problems.

Progress is not magic. Progress is not perfection. Progress is not a miracle. It doesn't mean that everyone is maximally happy. It doesn't mean that everything gets better for everyone everywhere all the time and always. And that would be a miracle. That's not progress. The question is however bad things are now, were they worse in the past?

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RAZ: And those are questions Steven Pinker tackled on the TED stage.

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PINKER: Many people face the news each morning with trepidation and dread. Every day, we read of shootings, inequality, pollution, dictatorship, war and the spread of nuclear weapons. These are some of the reasons that 2016 was called the worst year ever until 2017 claimed that record...

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PINKER: ...And left many people longing for earlier decades when the world seemed safer, cleaner and more equal. But is this a sensible way to understand the human condition in the 21st century? As Franklin Pierce Adams pointed out, nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.

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PINKER: You can always fool yourself into seeing it decline if you compare leading headlines of the present with rose-tinted images of the past. What does the trajectory of the world look like when we measure well-being overtime using a constant yardstick? Let's compare the most recent data on the present with the same measures 30 years ago. Last year, Americans killed each other at a rate of 5.3 per 100,000, had 7 percent of their citizens in poverty and admitted 21 million tons of particulate matter and 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide. But 30 years ago, the homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000, poverty rate was 12 percent, and we emitted 35 million tons of particulate matter and 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide.

What about the world as a whole? Last year, the world had 12 ongoing wars, 60 autocracies, 10 percent of the world population in extreme poverty and more than 10,000 nuclear weapons. But 30 years ago, there were 23 wars, 85 autocracies, 37 percent of the world population in extreme poverty and more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. True, last year was a terrible year for terrorism in Western Europe with 238 deaths. But 1988 was worse with 440 deaths. What's going on? Was 1988 a particularly bad year? Or are these improvements a sign that the world, for all its troubles, gets better overtime?

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RAZ: So I'm assuming that you consider yourself to be an optimist.

PINKER: I don't know if I am by temperament at least.

RAZ: Really?

PINKER: If I am, I certainly hope that hasn't colored the arguments that I make in "Enlightenment Now." And, in fact, I wrote a book called "The Blank Slate"...

RAZ: Sure.

PINKER: ...Which had a somewhat dark view of human nature that said that utopia is impossible and, in fact, dangerous because people are flawed products of evolution. And we're saddled with a number of limitations, and shortcomings, and biases, and illusions and self-serving fallacies. And so that was actually a kind of - I don't want to say it's a dark book. But I don't think anyone would have described it as an optimistic book.

And what led me to make the case for progress is being smacked in the face by surprising data. I was actually stunned to see a graph showing that the rate of homicide in England had fallen by a factor of about 50 since the Middle Ages or another graph showing that the war deaths have been in dramatic decline since the end of World War II. I - or that rape and sexual assault are down, and child abuse was down.

And I came across graphs on other dimensions of human well-being, such as prosperity and longevity and education. And it was graph after graph that really convinced me that there was a story here that needed to be told. It's not that I see the glass as half full or wear rose-tinted glasses. But reality convinced me that progress is a real thing.

RAZ: So if progress is a real thing, can it be measured? And would all those numbers and data and statistics tell a complete story? Well, on the show today, we're going to try and get at the story behind those numbers and how complicated it can be to get the full picture. Well, for Steven Pinker, when it comes to the overall experience of being a human today, the numbers are pretty clear. The world is progressing, and life on average, well, it's the best it's ever been.

So, I mean, is there any middle ground between, you know, somebody who says yes, I accept progress, but we also need to be really careful about being overly - you know, somebody may interpret your work this way - by being overly optimistic, not overly pessimistic either, but we need to be realistic?

PINKER: Yes, we need to be realistic. The book is not a celebration of optimism. The book is a call for realism, arguing that if you are realistic, you can't deny that there has been progress.

RAZ: OK. So as you know, Steven, there's been some criticism of your conclusions by your fellow academics and others. And they say, you know, you're being naive, you're selectively looking at the numbers. So are they misinterpreting what you're arguing?

PINKER: I think so, yeah. And they confuse progress as understanding the world, explaining it, trying out solutions, recognizing problems and solving them as they arise with some kind of miraculous, mystical arc of automatic improvement. And it's a misconception of progress to think of it as some autonomous force.

RAZ: The progress has to be driven by human action?

PINKER: Absolutely because in fact, left to its own devices, the universe is indifferent to us, and things get worse, not better.

RAZ: So progress is not inevitable?

PINKER: Absolutely not.

RAZ: But we have progressed up until this point.

PINKER: Exactly.

RAZ: Well, so here's a question. I mean, if, in fact, all the data shows that the recent history of our species has been a history of steady progress, why do so many people have a different perception and a different view?

PINKER: Partly it's the - the inherent nature of journalism gives us a picture of the world that is systematically distorted because journalism reports - usually - reports events. And it's easier for an event to be a bad thing than a good thing. And so the beneficial developments tend to unfold a few percentage points a year and compound. But there's never a Thursday in October in which they make a headline. As Max Roser put it, the papers could run the headline 138,000 people escaped from extreme poverty yesterday every day for the last 25 years. But they never ran that headline. And as a result, a billion people escaped from extreme poverty and no one knows about it.

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PINKER: We will never have a perfect world. And it would be dangerous to seek one. But there's no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing. This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions. But this one is true, true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true and which one's false, as any of them might be and any could become.

RAZ: It's interesting because I think that climate change is the obvious anomaly here, right? And we're going to talk about this more with Paul Gilding later in the show. But, I mean, there is measurable data that shows that things are getting worse. Like, the data shows that climate change continues to get worse.

PINKER: That's right, yes. This isn't a paradox because, again, progress doesn't mean that by magic, everything always gets better. Progress means to the extent to which we solve problems, they get better and the extent to which we create problems, they get worse. Climate change is related to some of the other measures of progress in that we have achieved some of our affluence by burning carbon and getting energy. And all progress, ultimately, depends on capturing energy. So whether progress will continue depends on how quickly we can transition to sources of energy that don't involve burning carbon.

The case that I'm making for progress is not one of optimism in the sense of having a certain mental attitude. It's one of being aware of certain facts. And likewise, there are facts that are alarming. And we should be aware of those, too. So I don't think that dealing with the threat of climate change is pessimistic. It's being aware of a possibility for a terrible outcome, looking at the options for mitigating the worst risks and working towards implementing them. Is that optimism? Is that pessimism? It's just recognizing problems and trying to solve them.

RAZ: So you really believe in progress. Like, despite everything, you still believe in it.

PINKER: Yeah, I do believe it. That is, I do believe that continuing progress is possible. I think that there are, again, possible - and that means contingent on what we do now - all the more reason to try to inspire people because if we don't do them, then it won't happen.

RAZ: Steven Pinker - he's a professor of psychology at Harvard. His most recent book is "Enlightenment Now: The Case For Reason, Science, Humanism, And Progress." You can see all of his talks at ted.com. On the show today, The Story Behind The Numbers. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.