“By many measures of human flourishing the state of humanity has been improving,” renowned cognitive scientist Steven Pinker says, a view often in contrast to the highlights of the 24-hour news cycle and the recent “counter-enlightenment” movement of Donald Trump.
“Fewer of us are dying of disease, fewer of us are dying of hunger, more of us are living in democracies, were more affluent, better educated … these are trends that you can’t easily appreciate from the news because they never happen all at once,” he says.
Canadian-American thinker Steven Pinker is the author of Bill Gates’s new favourite book — Enlightenment Now — in which he maintains that historically speaking the world is significantly better than ever before.
But he says the media’s narrow focus on negative anomalies can result in “systematically distorted” views of the world.
Speaking to the ABC’s The World program, Mr Pinker gave his views on Donald Trump, distorted perceptions and the simple arithmetic that proves the world is better than ever before.
Donald Trump’s ‘counter-enlightenment’
“Trumpism is of course part of a larger phenomenon of authoritarian populism. This is a backlash against the values responsible for the progress that we’ve enjoyed. It’s a kind of counter-enlightenment ideology that Trumpism promotes. Namely, instead of universal human wellbeing, it focusses on the glory of the nation, it assumes that nations are in zero-sum competition against each other as opposed to cooperating globally. It ignores the institutions of democracy which were specifically implemented to avoid a charismatic authoritarian leader from wielding power, but subjects him or her to the restraints of a governed system with checks and balances, which Donald Trump seems to think is rather a nuisance to his own ability to voice the greatness of the people directly. So in many ways all of the enlightenment forces we have enjoyed, are being pushed back by Trump. But this is a tension that has been in play for a couple of hundred years. No sooner did the enlightenment happen that a counter-enlightenment grew up to oppose it, and every once in a while it does make reappearances.”
News media can ‘systematically distort’ perceptions
“If your impression of the world is driven by journalism, then as long as various evils haven’t gone to zero there’ll always be enough of them to fill the news. And if journalism isn’t accompanied by a bit of historical context, that is not just what’s bad now but how bad it was in the past, and statistical context, namely how many wars? How many terrorist attacks? What is the rate of homicide? Then our intuitions, since they’re driven by images and narratives and anecdotes, can be systematically distorted by the news unless it’s presented in historical and statistical context.
‘Simple arithmetic’: The world is getting better
“It’s just a simple matter of arithmetic. You can’t look at how much there is right now and say that it is increasing or decreasing until you compare it with how much took place in the past. When you look at how much took place in the past you realise how much worse things were in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. We don’t appreciate it now when we concentrate on the remaining horrors, but there were horrific wars such as the Iran-Iraq war, the Soviets in Afghanistan, the war in Vietnam, the partition of India, the Bangladesh war of independence, the Korean War, which killed far more people than even the brutal wars of today. And if we only focus on the present, we ought to be aware of the suffering that continues to exist, but we can’t take that as evidence that things have gotten worse unless we remember what happened in the past.”
Don’t equate inequality with poverty
“Globally, inequality is decreasing. That is, if you don’t look within a wealthy country like Britain or the United States, but look across the globe either comparing countries or comparing people worldwide. As best as we can tell, inequality is decreasing because so many poor countries are getting richer faster than rich countries are getting richer. Now within the wealthy countries of the anglosphere, inequality is increasing. And although inequality brings with it a number of serious problems such as disproportionate political power to the wealthy. But inequality itself is not a problem. What we have to focus on is the wellbeing of those at the bottom end of the scale, the poor and the lower middle class. And those have not actually been decreasing once you take into account government transfers and benefits. Now this is a reason we shouldn’t take for granted, the important role of government transfers and benefits. It’s one of the reasons why the non-English speaking wealthy democracies tend to have greater equality than the English speaking ones. But we shouldn’t confuse inequality with poverty.”