Summer Reading: Causes for Optimism

What is progress?  You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable.  In fact it’s one of the easier questions to answer.  Health, safety, literacy, sustenance and stimulation.  All these things can be measured.  If they have increased over time, that is progress.  And here is a shocker:  The world has made spectacular progress in every singly measure of human wellbeing.  Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now

Reading Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker over the summer has been a salutary and timely reminder of why we have cause for long-term optimism even if short-term worries abound.  The book is a passionate defence of modernity and progress based on psychological insights into the roots of human behaviour and countless charts documenting the facts that prove his point.

Some of it relates to ancient biases, that optimism and belief in progress is simplistic and unserious.  As Pinker writes, “intellectuals know they can attain instant gravitas by pointing to an unsolved problem and theorize that it is a symptom of a sick society.”

Others are related to media and the way we consume media in ever shorter cycles.  Pinker writes that “whether or not the world is really getting worse, the news, far from being a ‘first draft of history’ is closer to play by play sports commentary.  News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen.   As long as bad things have not vanished from the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news on, especially with billion s of smartphone turn most of the world’s population in to crime reporters and war correspondents.”  Those same smartphones bring the news to us in an immediate and personal way that magnifies its impact and its urgency.

Even one of our favourite publications, the Financial Times, ranks articles by those that are most popular, meaning that the front page of the online edition is at least in part a reflection not of what the FT’s editors think is the most important news but of which headlines caused most people to click on them.  News stories and editorials are measured in part on the numbers of pageviews and comments, creating a strong incentive for journalists to focus all too often on profit warnings, legal troubles, corporate activism, personal issues of managements and other controversies.  Pinker and others call these the ‘Availability Heuristic’, the ‘Optimism Gap’ and the ‘Negativity Bias’.  They are obvious but insidious, they confront us every day, and they force us to work to acquire facts and knowledge—Enlightenment—in in order to overcome them.

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