2 min read

The Enlightenment is Working

Data don't lie

Pinker has a new book that should energize optimists

To what do we owe this progress? Does the universe contain a historical dialectic or arc bending toward justice? The answer is less mysterious: The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.

I’ve written how signal and noise diverge around important global issues. In the age of #fakenews, it is difficult to focus on ground truth. But the world is unambiguously improving.

Due to breakthrough advances in science, agriculture, education, markets, the rule of law, and governance, Pinker provides us more data:

  • Over three decades, the homicide rate in America has decreased by ~40%
  • Over three decades, poverty in America has decreased from 11% to 3%
  • Over three decades, the number of wars around the world has decreased from 23 to 12
  • Over three decades, the number of nuclear weapons has decreased from ~60,000 to ~10,000
  • Over three decades, the number of people living in a democracy has increased from 2 billion to 4 billion
  • Over three decades, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty decreased from 37% to 9%
  • Over two centuries, the percentage of people who could read and write has increased from 12% to 85%

With these positive trends, why do we focus on pessimism? Bill Gates — who calls Pinker’s new book his “favorite of all time” — summarizes here:

Pinker also tackles the disconnect between actual progress and the perception of progress — something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. People all over the world are living longer, healthier, and happier lives, so why do so many think things are getting worse? Why do we gloss over positive news stories and fixate on the negative ones? He does a good job explaining why we’re drawn to pessimism and how that instinct influences our approach to the world, although I wish he went more in depth about the psychology (especially since he’s a psychologist by training). The late Hans Rosling explains this more fully in his excellent new book Factfulness, which I plan to review soon.