Wednesday 20 November 2019

Dan O'Brien: Ignore the doom and gloom and look on the bright side

It is easy to be a pessimist, but the world is getting better. A new book makes the case for progress, writes Dan O'Brien

POSITIVE: Author Steven Pinker’s new book deserves to be widely read.
POSITIVE: Author Steven Pinker’s new book deserves to be widely read.
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Newspapers are published on a daily or weekly basis. Imagine if they were published only once every 50 years and that today's paper contained the most significant news since 1968. What stories would be included?

Health issues would feature prominently. But rather than the coverage referring to crises of various kinds, as is usual in the media, the story would be very different. The incredible improvement in health over the past half-century would surely be one of the news items vying for the front page, given how everyone's life has been transformed by it.

Here in Ireland we have gained 10 years of life, with average lifespans expanding from 71 in 1968 to 81 today. And not only do they continue to lengthen, but most of these extra years are spent in good health. This has been brought about in large part by new and improved medicines and treatments. A growing number of illnesses which were a death sentence 50 years ago are now treatable. In many cases they are treated easily, painlessly and quickly.

No loss is greater than the loss of a child. All parents live in fear of it and those who have suffered it carry the acute sense of loss every day for the remainder of their lives. Of all of the many health gains perhaps the most important has been the further decline in infant mortality rates since the 1960s. Now only a tiny minority of parents endure the agony of burying a child.

This most positive of developments is not confined to Ireland and the rest of the rich world. Even if infant mortality rates in poorer countries remain well above ours, there have been much bigger declines over the past half-century in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That reflects, among other things, the extraordinary surge in economic development across most of the poorer parts of the world.

In the late 1960s, per person incomes in China, where one in five people on the planet live, were at or below those of many African countries at the time. Now China is on course to overtake the US as the biggest economy in the world and standards of living have been transformed (the rise of China from isolated hermit state to global superpower would likely lead the foreign pages of our once-in-50-years edition).

Although Africa remains the world's poorest continent, its turnaround since the turn of the 21st Century has been as remarkable as it has been unobserved in much of the western world. For that reason it might not get much prominence in our imaginary Irish newspaper edition, but that continent's gains in health, wealth and education, as captured by the UN's Human Development Index, have been some of the biggest in the world over the past 20 years.

Few people would disagree that improvements in health and development in the most under-developed parts of the world are important. But too often in life the immediate trumps the important. That causes us to miss the wood for the trees. This cognitive failing is the subject of an important new book on the state of the world and how we think about it. Canadian Steven Pinker is regularly included in lists of the world's top public intellectuals. A professor of linguistics at Harvard University, his interests and writings range far beyond that relatively arcane discipline. Two of his recent polymathic bestsellers cover, respectively, human evolution and the long-term decline of violence.

His new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, is partly a follow-on from his tome on how the world has become a more peaceful place. Shallower reaction to that book's thesis, which was backed up by vast quantities of data and evidence, was that it couldn't possibly be right.

Many, if not most, people who hear the suggestion that violence is on the wane instinctively point to the appalling events unfolding right now, from Syria to Burma, or reel off examples of wars, atrocities and genocides in their own lifetimes.

There is, of course, still far too much violence in the world, but when wars and victims of violence are counted over time, it turns out that the probability of dying violently has never been lower, and it continues to fall.

Pinker argues that making these calculations is not some morbid bean-counting exercise, but a vital way of measuring progress. Measurement is necessary for many reasons, including because it is much harder to know which policy responses - from peace-keeping to famine relief - are effective if such things are not measured. It is also important to demonstrate quantifiable progress in order to avoid compassion fatigue - people can give up giving to humanitarian causes if they conclude from a never-ending stream of bad news that nothing changes and donating makes no difference.

If today's edition was the first since 1968, another story vying for prominence would be a peace story. The lifting of the constant threat of a nuclear war ending human life on the planet has been one of the biggest (and best) things to have happened over the past half-century. While relations between democratic Europe and Russia are at their chilliest this weekend since the end of the Cold War almost 30 years ago, nobody believes the current tensions will end with a barrage of multi-megaton missiles killing hundreds of millions of people instantly and then bringing on a nuclear winter.

Here at home, another win for peace over violence would also feature prominently in our 50-year edition. Northern Ireland was never a happy place in its first half-century of existence. By 1968 the first rumblings of the bloody conflict to come were reverberating. More than a quarter of century of killing ensued. But peace eventually replaced conflict, and troubled and all as the North remains, it would be hard to argue that it is not a better, fairer place today than 50 years ago.

Apart from a human bias to pay more attention to dangers than data, Pinker gives the media quite a kicking. He blames journalists (and grave-sounding commentators who are given more prominence in the media if they portend doom) for perpetrating a declinist view of almost everything despite most people on the planet experiencing better living conditions in most of the important things that make life worth living.

Perhaps the most prominent example of how the media causes people to overstate dangers is the all-too-common "if it bleeds, it leads" editorial stance. Islamist terrorist acts and mass shootings in the US are given a massive amount of coverage - there were instances of both last week - but the numbers of people involved are tiny.

We are, quite literally, hundreds of times more likely to die from being struck by a bolt of lightning or slipping in the shower than at the hands of a fanatical terrorist or a deranged shooter. While nobody would deny that Islamist terrorism globally or mass shootings in the US are serious issues, their perpetrators get a vastly disproportionate amount of coverage compared to those who do good. How many people, for example, have heard of septuagenarian physiologist David Nalin, whose oral rehydration therapy is estimated to have saved 50 million lives?

Pinker's book brings together the evidence on poverty, malnutrition, famine, wealth, education, human rights, safety, democracy and happiness levels show that the world is getting better in most things that matter. Not everything is rosy - global warming presents a truly existential threat to humanity as the world's population has doubled in size over the past 50 years and economic output has quintupled. But even that threat, Pinker argues, is being addressed with cooperation - the Paris Accords - and phenomenal technological advances.

Pinker's book should be read widely. It would be a must-read for anyone contributing to a newspaper covering the past 50 years.

Sunday Independent

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