Is the World Getting Better or Worse? A Look at the Numbers: Steven Pinker (Transcript)

Steven Pinker

Following is the full transcript of Canadian psychologist Steven Pinker’s TED Talk: Is the World Getting Better or Worse? A Look at the Numbers.


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 — 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.” You can always fool yourself into seeing a decline if you compare bleeding 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 over time 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 53 per hundred thousand, had 7% of their citizens in poverty and emitted 21 million tons of particulate matter and 4 million tons of sulfur dioxide. But 30 years ago, the homicide rate was 85 per hundred thousand, poverty rate was 12% 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% 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% 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 struggles, gets better over time? Might we even invoke the admittedly old-fashioned notion of progress? To do so is to court a certain amount of derision, because I have found that intellectuals hate progress.

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And intellectuals who call themselves progressive really hate progress. Now, it’s not that they hate the fruits of progress, mind you. Most academics and pundits would rather have their surgery with anesthesia than without it. It’s the idea of progress that rankles the chattering class. If you believe that humans can improve their lot, I have been told, that means that you have a blind faith and a quasi-religious belief in the outmoded superstition and the false promise of the myth of the onward march of inexorable progress.

You are a cheerleader for vulgar American can-doism, with the rah-rah spirit of boardroom ideology, Silicon Valley and the Chamber of Commerce. You are a practitioner of Whig history, a naive optimist, a Pollyanna and, of course, a Pangloss, alluding to the Voltaire character who declared, “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Well, Professor Pangloss, as it happens, was a pessimist. A true optimist believes there can be much better worlds than the one we have today. But all of this is irrelevant, because the question of whether progress has taken place is not a matter of faith or having an optimistic temperament or seeing the glass as half full. It’s a testable hypothesis.

For all their differences, people largely agree on what goes into human well-being: life, health, sustenance, prosperity, peace, freedom, safety, knowledge, leisure, happiness. All of these things can be measured. If they have improved over time, that, I submit, is progress. Let’s go to the data, beginning with the most precious thing of all, life.

For most of human history, life expectancy at birth was around 30. Today, worldwide, it is more than 70, and in the developed parts of the world, more than 80. 250 years ago, in the richest countries of the world, a third of the children did not live to see their fifth birthday, before the risk was brought down a hundredfold. Today, that fate befalls less than 6% of children in the poorest countries of the world.

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Famine is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It could bring devastation to any part of the world. Today, famine has been banished to the most remote and war-ravaged regions. 200 years ago, 90% of the world’s population subsisted in extreme poverty. Today, fewer than 10% of people do. For most of human history, the powerful states and empires were pretty much always at war with each other, and peace was a mere interlude between wars.

Today, they are never at war with each other. The last great power war pitted the United States against China 65 years ago. More recently, wars of all kinds have become fewer and less deadly. The annual rate of war has fallen from about 22 per hundred thousand per year in the early ’50s to 12 today.

Democracy has suffered obvious setbacks in Venezuela, in Russia, in Turkey and is threatened by the rise of authoritarian populism in Eastern Europe and the United States. Yet the world has never been more democratic than it has been in the past decade, with two-thirds of the world’s people living in democracies.

Homicide rates plunge whenever anarchy and the code of vendetta are replaced by the rule of law. It happened when feudal Europe was brought under the control of centralized kingdoms, so that today a Western European has 1/35th the chance of being murdered compared to his medieval ancestors. It happened again in colonial New England, in the American Wild West when the sheriffs moved to town, and in Mexico.

Indeed, we’ve become safer in just about every way. Over the last century, we’ve become 96% less likely to be killed in a car crash, 88% less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99% less likely to die in a plane crash, 95% less likely to be killed on the job, 89% less likely to be killed by an act of God, such as a drought, flood, wildfire, storm, volcano, landslide, earthquake or meteor strike, presumably not because God has become less angry with us but because of improvements in the resilience of our infrastructure.

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And what about the quintessential act of God, the projectile hurled by Zeus himself? Yes, we are 97% less likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning. Before the 17th century, no more than 15% of Europeans could read or write Europe and the United States achieved universal literacy by the middle of the 20th century, and the rest of the world is catching up.

Today, more than 90% of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write. In the 19th century, Westerners worked more than 60 hours per week. Today, they work fewer than 40. Thanks to the universal penetration of running water and electricity in the developed world and the widespread adoption of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, dishwashers, stoves and microwaves, the amount of our lives that we forfeit to housework has fallen from 60 hours a week to fewer than 15 hours a week.

Do all of these gains in health, wealth, safety, knowledge and leisure make us any happier? The answer is yes. In 86% of the world’s countries, happiness has increased in recent decades. Well, I hope to have convinced you that progress is not a matter of faith or optimism, but is a fact of human history, indeed the greatest fact in human history.

And how has this fact been covered in the news? A tabulation of positive and negative emotion words in news stories has shown that during the decades in which humanity has gotten healthier, wealthier, wiser, safer and happier, the “New York Times” has become increasingly morose and the world’s broadcasts too have gotten steadily glummer.

Why don’t people appreciate progress? Part of the answer comes from our cognitive psychology. We estimate risk using a mental shortcut called the “availability heuristic.” The easier it is to recall something from memory, the more probable we judge it to be.

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