United Nations — The headlines from around the world are gloomy; millions are starving, children dying in war zones, pandemics, trade wars and terror attacks. But diplomats at the United Nations got a dose of data-driven positivity this week from Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who delivered a history lesson to prove the human condition is actually more peaceful and more prosperous than ever before.
Pinker teaches and writes about language, cognition and society, and his big-picture, historical analysis of the state of the contemporary world was filled with graphs and data showing how far humanity has come in the last 3,000 years or so.The world, Pinker told the gathering of officials from around the globe on Tuesday, is a better place than ever, but our perspective — and the way the news media convey events — needs to change.
“People are getting not just healthier, richer, and safer, but freer,” he said, but “they are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable, and smarter.”Pinker’s most recent book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” presents facts that demonstrate how life around the globe, statistically, is improving. The psychologist measures a range of qualities to define progress; life, health, sustenance, prosperity, peace, freedom, safety, knowledge, leisure, happiness. As those have increased over time on aggregate, Pinker argues, humanity is making progress.His data paint a clear picture, over the course of centuries, of life expectancy increasing, deaths by famine falling, the world’s gross earnings rising and extreme poverty falling. Pinker said the world has become freer, too, with dictatorships and autocracies decreasing in number.The Harvard professor didn’t try to convince anyone that the world is perfect, but rather that world leaders, the media, and the United Nations — as the principal global institution in the post-World War II period — need to be more accurate and less selective in how they convey our “reality.”Plenty of room for improvementAfter saying the world is a healthier, richer, smarter and safer place, Pinker added that, “Seven hundred million people in the world today live in extreme poverty.””My point in presenting the state of the world in these two ways is not to show that I can focus on the space in the glass as well as on the beverage,” he said of the juxtaposition. “It’s to reiterate that progress is not utopia, and that there is room — indeed an imperative — for us to strive to continue that progress.”