Conditional Optimism

In an interesting post on his blog, Bruce Schneier comments on Harvard psychology professor Stephen Pinker’s claim that the world is becoming less violent and more moral. Specifically, he tells us:

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker convincingly makes the point that by pretty much every measure you can think of, violence has declined on our planet over the long term. More generally, “the world continues to improve in just about every way.” He’s right, but there are . . .  important caveats.
One, he is talking about the long term. The trend lines are uniformly positive across the centuries and mostly positive across the decades, but go up and down year to year. While this is an important development for our species, most of us care about changes year to year — and we can’t make any predictions about whether this year will be better or worse than last year in any individual measurement.

Pinker’s claim is based on large numbers and long-term predictions and his provocative thesis (especially in light of the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency) is summarized in the following paragraph from the book mentioned by Schneier:

Beware of headlines. And beware of statistics from advocacy organizations whose funding stream depends on stoking fear and outrage — I’ve learned that they can never be taken at face value.
There are reasons to doubt that we’re seeing a big post-Trump rise in hate crimes. Rates of hate crime tend to track rates of overall crime, and there was an uptick of both in 2015, before Trumpism.
Indeed, Trump capitalized on the crime uptick to sow panic about the state of the nation, and progressives foolishly ceded the issue to him. Moment-by-moment analyses of Google searches by the data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz show that Islamophobia strongly tracks incidents of terrorism with Muslim perpetrators. So hate crimes will probably depend more on overall crime rates and — in the case of Islamophobic hate crimes — on terrorist attacks than on a general atmosphere created by Trump.
More generally, the worldwide, decades-long current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice­ — and more importantly for the future, that younger cohorts are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant.
It’s not just that people are increasingly disagreeing with intolerant statements when asked by pollsters, which could be driven by a taboo against explicit racism. Stephens-Davidowitz has shown that Google searches for racist jokes and organizations are sensitive indicators of private racism. They have declined steadily over the past dozen years, and they are more popular in older than younger cohorts.

Regarding Pinker’s claim that racial tolerance is on the rise world-wide, I would add that many believe the movement in this country toward alternative energies has gained enough momentum to withstand the machinations of Donald Trump and Big Oil.  These are good things, indeed. I suggest that we would be wise to listen to Pinker and tone down our collective panic at the thought of Donald Trump just 90 seconds away from nuclear holocaust. Pinker claims he is himself “conditionally optimistic” about the future.

But, at the same time, it is also wise to be cautious and watch the magician’s other hand to see what he is likely to pull out of his hat. It is one thing to predict that morality is improving — what with such things as the reduction of extreme poverty, child mortality, illiteracy, and global inequality together with the spread of democracy — which brings with it (along with widespread apathy in this country) increased political freedom for a great many people previously held in chains. It is quite another thing to turn a blind eye to the fact that our president-elect brings with him luggage filled with racism, hatred, suspicion, and a tendency to act on impulse that does not bode well for the future of this country and indeed the world — short term or long.

On balance, one can find some solace in the words of Pinker and hope that his optimism is well founded and not merely pie-in-the-sky. We need to look back in order to try to anticipate what might happen in the future. And it is good to try to think long-term. But we also know that the future is liable to variables that were not in play in the past — such things as automatic weapons in the hands of growing numbers of frustrated, angry people; indifference disguised as tolerance; and the nuclear codes in the pocket of a rather tempestuous man who refers to those who disagree with him as “enemies.” In a word, we all need to take a deep breath and try to relax, but we also need to maintain our vigil.




4 thoughts on “Conditional Optimism

  1. Hugh, thanks for adding your balancing comments to the optimism. As we have discussed before, things are never as bad as news portrays, as negative news has a higher bounce than positive news.

    The doctor who performs 19 surgeries well is not newsworthy, but if he fails at the 20th one, it is. I shared this with a reporter when he told me they try to balance the coverage – they don’t. “If it bleeds, it leads” is one motto of news. Also, a long-time editor noted the key bias in news is not political; it is toward conflict.

    So, there is room for some optimism, but with a rational view. The Eurasia Group cited that an independent America that retrenches from the world as the greatest current risk. The leader of the survey noted that if America pulls back, it will be like removing the guardrails from global highways. They note one of the greatest contributors to higher risk is the US President-elect.

    I would add that his use of tweeting as a means to tell us what he thinks increases that risk further, as he is largely uninformed and needs advisors as any President would. One of the best compliments to Obama came from Warren Buffett, who said he is the best editor of input he has ever seen. By tweeting, the President-elect is not getting that input first.

    So, we will survive the President-elect, but my expectations are the world will not be a better place because of his actions. I hope he has some success on important matters, but I have low expectations.


  2. Well-said, Hugh, and as Keith said, your blog brings necessary balance to the discussion. We can hope that some of the statistics point to genuine change (I have faith in the younger crowd that they are going to be better on race, sexual orientation and energy use — they are proving to be so.) But Trump’s candidacy and win also released a lot of angry people who are venting hatred and, clearly, have had a role in the increase in hate crimes against Muslims and blacks.

    And, yes, the long-term view is crucial. Over the last 100 years, this is not one of the most violent periods, but the past 100 years includes two world wars, the genocide in Armenia, the genocide in Rwanda, Stalin’s mass killings in the purge years and Mao’s mass killings in the 1960s. Those events will skew any historical reading of statistics and trends.

    It is a violent time. Gun deaths are high in America. The Middle East is aflame in war, and I shudder to think what some of the Trump administration’s goals for Israel (more settlements, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem) will do in terms of spawning even more violence there. Europe is splintering, at times violently. Putin doesn’t mind going to war if it suits his need. And Trump’s tweets about Mexico, China, North Korea, the U.N. do nothing to reassure anyone that his presidency will be less violent.

    Stay vigilant, indeed.

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