Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Now for the Good News

One might say that we are hard-wired to worry. Our survival instinct makes us alert to the darker side. We need to anticipate potential danger—the better to protect ourselves.

But, bad news is also compelling because it is more dramatic. We are drawn to dramatic events because they engage our imagination. If they do so, there is probably a reason beyond the entertainment value.

And yet, Steven Pinker (with his co-author Andrew Mack) notes, when we focus on the bad news we often miss the good news. Preparing for the worst might be useful. Ignoring the best is not necessarily helpful.

He observes that when we consume the news, we are more likely to be drawn to catastrophic and disastrous events. No one is going to watch the news when it merely explains how great the day has been.

On the other side, Pinker should have mentioned that the media often report good news. Whether it is a military victory, an economic expansion, the election results, celebrity gossip or weddings… the news does not limit itself to calamities.

Being a cognitive psychologist Pinker knows that cognitive therapists treat depression by teaching their patients to balance the bad with the good, to counterbalance pessimism with a dose of optimism.

Being a public intellectual Pinker wants us to overcome some of our depression by seeing the good in our lives and by not obsessing overly about the bad.

Writing with Andrew Mack, Pinker has entitled his latest article: “The World Is Not Falling Apart.” It is worth noting that he has been here before. He authored a book entitled: The Better Angels of Our Nature.

After listing the horrors that are happening in today’s world, Pinker offers a simple comparison:

It’s hard to believe we are in greater danger today than we were during the two world wars, or during other perils such as the periodic nuclear confrontations during the Cold War, the numerous conflicts in Africa and Asia that each claimed millions of lives, or the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq that threatened to choke the flow of oil through the Persian Gulf and cripple the world’s economy.

Of course, we are not living through the Hundred Years War or the Bubonic Plague or even World War II. Whether or not you want to take solace from the observation, it is true enough that in many ways things have gotten better. Life expectancy, for example, has improved dramatically over time.

In my views, much of the credit belongs to the Industrial Revolution and modern science.

As it happens, Pinker does not, in this article, give credit to either of those. He could surely have argued that while science and industry have enhanced our ability to destroy each other they have also improved our quality of life.

He argues that we are so enthralled by dramatic events that we fail to look at the facts:

Some categories of violence, like rampage shootings and terrorist attacks, are riveting dramas but (outside war zones) kill relatively small numbers of people. Every day ordinary homicides claim one and a half times as many Americans as the number who died in the Sandy Hook massacre. And as the political scientist John Mueller points out, in most years bee stings, deer collisions, ignition of nightwear, and other mundane accidents kill more Americans than terrorist attacks.

According to Pinker the truth lies in the numbers, not in the drama.

He asks us to consider the homicide numbers, especially in comparison to the tally of those who die in war:

Worldwide, about five to 10 times as many people die in police-blotter homicides as die in wars. And in most of the world, the rate of homicide has been sinking. The Great American Crime Decline of the 1990s, which flattened out at the start of the new century, resumed in 2006, and, defying the conventional wisdom that hard times lead to violence, proceeded right through the recession of 2008 and up to the present.

Next, it will come as a surprise to some, but violence against women has declined:

The intense media coverage of famous athletes who have assaulted their wives or girlfriends, and of episodes of rape on college campuses, have suggested to many pundits that we are undergoing a surge of violence against women. But the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ victimization surveys (which circumvent the problem of underreporting to the police) show the opposite: Rates of rape or sexual assault and of violence against intimate partners have been sinking for decades, and are now a quarter or less of their peaks in the past. Far too many of these horrendous crimes still take place, but we should be encouraged by the fact that a heightened concern about violence against women is not futile moralizing but has brought about measurable progress—and that continuing this concern can lead to greater progress still.

Some credit must go to new laws, but we should not underestimate the fact that the media allows us to expose bad behavior all over the world, and thus to shame people into good behavior:

Many countries have implemented laws and public awareness campaigns to reduce rape, forced marriage, genital mutilation, honor killings, domestic violence, and wartime atrocities. Though some of these measures are toothless, and the effectiveness of others has yet to be established, there are grounds for optimism over the long term. Global shaming campaigns, even when they start out as purely aspirational, have led in the past to dramatic reductions of practices such as slavery, dueling, whaling, foot binding, piracy, privateering, chemical warfare, apartheid, and atmospheric nuclear testing.

It is far more difficult to get away with depravity when the whole world is watching. For those who believe that we must rid the world of shame, we underscore that shaming offers an impetus to good behavior, one that does not exist when bad behavior is punished criminally.

Violence against children has also declined:

Kids are undoubtedly safer than they were in the past. In a review of the literature on violence against children in the United States published earlier this year, the sociologist David Finkelhor and his colleagues reported, “Of 50 trends in exposure examined, there were 27 significant declines and no significant increases between 2003 and 2011. Declines were particularly large for assault victimization, bullying, and sexual victimization.”

He continues to point out that the world contains more liberal democracy and less genocide. He should also have mentioned that the rise of capitalism has contributed mightily to human well-being. Most of those who were lured by the siren song of socialism have abandoned it.

Many of us will be imagining that Islamic cultures are working hard to increase world’s horrors. For now, Pinker suggests, these are relatively contained. One appreciates his optimism and his perspective, but the dangers will not remain contained without someone doing the containing.

Of course, if ISIS or some other group of Muslim terrorists gets hold of a nuclear weapon the statistics Pinker cites will change radically.

Strangely, Pinker does not mention the apocalyptic visions of global warmists. Surely, his argument applies to that piece of catastrophic thinking also.

It remains to explain why things might actually be getting better. In part, democracy deserves some credit. But, the media and the social media, with their power to shame cultures around the world have certainly contributed.

If we all recognize that the news tends to purvey violent and dramatic events, we are obliged to look at the brighter side and recognize the media’s power to shame deviant cultural practices.

Pinker could not have recognized everything in a short article, but he should have mentioned the fact that, along with the Industrial Revolution and science, capitalism has provided a better and more comfortable lifestyle for hundreds of millions of people over the last few decades.

Capitalism deserves much of the credit for the benefits that have accrued to the human species. The enhanced economic good fortune of so many people has surely influenced the crime and war statistics for the better.


Sam L. said...

Bad news gets bigger and better hype.
See: "If it bleeds, it leads."

Yeah, yeah, cynical old me.

Webutante said...

Wonderful, wise post, Stuart. As a former newspaper reporter, I know for sure, if it bleeds,it ledes. And Mondays and the holidays are manufactured news days when there's nothing to write about.

Larry Sheldon said...

Pinker nails it again.

I have been a Stephen Pinker fan for a long time.

Ares Olympus said...

If Steven Pinker says don't worry be happy, he's got a statistically valid point.

I'm sure Paul Krugman agrees things will keep getting better if we just let all the experts do their good work in our name.

And Al Gore promise we'll have lots more jobs once we convert our economy to a renewable one.

And Obama's right, 5 or 12 million new citizens paying taxes will help strengthen our economy.

It's all good, if we'd just trust that the big players are on our side.