Ten Ways the World Is Getting Better

Steven Pinker, science, humanism, and progress.

Posted Mar 20, 2018

In his most recent book, Steven Pinker presents data showing that the tone of the news has become progressively more negative over the last 50 years.  Is that because things are actually getting worse?

Headlines: We're on the Eve of Destruction

If you read the news headlines, they certainly do give the impression that the world is going to hell in a runaway subway train.  Here are the headlines from the New York Times on the day I wrote this—March 18, 2018: 1. A purported rise in anti-semitism. 2. Follow ups about the young man who slaughtered 17 high school students in Florida, using an assault weapon anyone can legally purchase at the local mall in most U.S. states, 3. At least 16 migrant refugees, including children, who drowned off a Greek island, 4. Police lying under oath, even when there is contrary video evidence, 5. U.S. President Trump attacking Robert Mueller (who heads a special counsel investigating collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russian government to bias the 2016 election). 6. How offshore oil and gas operators are demanding less regulation, despite inspections revealing potentially lethal safety problems in their sloppy operations. To be evenhanded, I took a glance at the Fox News website as well, and didn’t find the news any more positive on the other side of the wall of alternative facts.

Looking more broadly than a single day’s news, the last century has certainly seen a great number of troubling developments—the world’s population tripling, forests rapidly disappearing, and the gap between the rich and the poor growing larger and larger. All the while, the elected representatives of the world’s most powerful country act not like leaders, but like lackeys for the forces of greed, violence, and scientific ignorance. Well, they do find time to go on TV and offer prayers for anyone whose child was murdered by the assault weapons they help keep in stock at your local mall.  

What’s not to dislike about the depths to which mankind is sinking during these no good, very bad, times?

original drawing by Douglas T. Kenrick, used with permission.  Book in background is Pinker's new book, reviewed here
Source: original drawing by Douglas T. Kenrick, used with permission. Book in background is Pinker's new book, reviewed here

Reality: The Present's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

In his book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress, Steven Pinker argues that the world is not, in fact, getting worse. In fact, Pinker argues, things are getting better and better (if not in every way, at least in many important ways that are often overlooked).  And Pinker reviews reams of data to back up that claim, dazzling the reader with graph after graph showing steady increases in life’s good things, and decreases in the bad things. 

Below I list ten things that have improved dramatically:  

1. The percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has plummeted since 1950.

Over 50 percent of the world’s population was living in poverty in 1950. Today that number is less than 10 percent (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2018a). That still leaves millions of people living in extreme poverty around the world, but there is an increasing percentage living comfortably, and Pinker summarizes other data showing that the percentage who are undernourished has dropped all around the world, even in poorer Third World countries such as Bangladesh, Kenya, and Columbia. 

Original figure based on Roser & Ortiz-Ospina papers (see refs).  This figure is not like any of their graphs, which are separate line graphs presenting many more years than shown here
Since 1950, literacy has been skyrocketing, while extreme poverty has been dropping around the world.
Source: Original figure based on Roser & Ortiz-Ospina papers (see refs). This figure is not like any of their graphs, which are separate line graphs presenting many more years than shown here

2. The percentage of the world’s population who can read has skyrocketed in that same period.

Whereas 36 percent of the world’s population was literate in 1950, by 2010 that had jumped to 83 percent (Roser & Ortiz-Ospina, 2018b). Pinker also reviews data suggesting that more and more people are getting a basic education, and people around the world are spending more and more years in school. One upside of all this is that IQ scores are actually going up, by several points every decade! (Pietschnig & Voracek, 2015).

Figure 1 contrasts the changes in literacy and extreme poverty since 1950. It is sort of a graphic abstract of Pinker’s message: Good things are (generally) becoming more prevalent, bad things are (generally) going the other way.

3. Homicides and deaths in war have been decreasing for centuries.

Between 1300 and 1500, Englishmen were murdered at an annual rate of about 20 per 100,000. Dutchmen were offing one another at a much higher rate—close to 50 per 100,000. And Italians were killing other Italians at an annual rate of 70 per 100,000 (Eiser, 2003). I just looked online, and found the comparable numbers for 2017: 1.0 in England, 0.6 in the Netherlands, and 0.7 in the formerly violent Italy (Office of National Statistics, 2018; Pieters, 2017; Statistica, 2018). So, in the good old days, you were 20 times more likely to be murdered in England, and 100 times more likely to be murdered in Italy. Pinker notes that even in the gun-toting Wild Western U.S. States and Mexico, homicide rates have dropped precipitously, when compared to a century ago. Pinker develops the arguments about violence trends more fully in his earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature.  See "Is the world becoming a nicer place to live?"

4. Motor vehicle deaths are dropping

Despite the new hazards offered by people texting while driving, vehicle deaths have been dropping for decades, and will probably continue to drop as new cars increasingly use artificial intelligence to protect their distracted drivers. Pinker also notes similar trend for deaths in plane crashes and deaths in natural disasters. Although acts of terrorism make big headlines, Pinker presents data demonstrating that deaths from terrorism continue to be a small fraction of those in actual war, and only a tiny fraction of those in car accidents (still all too common, despite the declining trend).

5. Life expectancy has been rising

Life expectancy has risen 20 years over the last half century. This is due to decreasing death rates from most classes of natural and artificial causes (like car accidents and murders). Women dying in childbirth and children dying before age 5 used to be commonplace but both have plummeted to near zero in first world countries, and there is a similar downward trend in 3rd world countries.

6. Clean energy is getting cheaper and cheaper.

In digging around on the internet perusing some of Pinker’s sources, I came across an article by Silvio Marcacci in Forbes. It was titled: “Cheap renewables keep pushing fossil fuels further away from profitability—despite Trump's efforts.” Marcacci notes that the cost of solar energy was $350 per megawatt hour back when Barack Obama took office, and it was $60 when he left.  Because it is now so much more cost effective to use solar energy, that industry has continued to grow. As a consequence, solar energy generation rose 51% during the first year of Trump’s administration, while the use of coal, nuclear energy, and natural gas has been declining, despite the Trump administrations’ efforts to turn us back to the good old days of smokier skies.

7. More and more countries are adopting democratic forms of government.

Despite the recent setbacks for democracy in countries such as Pakistan (and the United States?), Pinker presents a graph in which a team of political scientists rated world governments on a scale from democratic (+10) to autocratic (-10). In 1800, the average world government received a score of -7, today the number is +4 (Marshall, Gurr & Jaggers, 2016). There was some backsliding between 1920 and 1980, but since then the trend is increasingly toward democracy.

8. Racist, sexist, and homophobic attitudes are becoming increasingly rare.

One of Pinker’s graphs plots data from the Pew Research Center on questions about whether it is alright for Blacks and Whites to date one another, whether women should return to their traditional roles in society, and whether schools should have the right to fire teachers who are homosexual. All of these trends indicate tolerance to be generally on the rise. Yes, a quarter of the population still thinks women should return to their traditional domestic roles, but that is only half the number who believed that in 1985. And despite all the press for White Supremicists in the last couple of years, only 10 percent of the population now thinks that Blacks and Whites should not date another.

9. School bullying has decreased.

When I was growing up, in Queens, in a time and place Trump regards as the good old days, I regularly got bullied, and despite my fear of fighting, often ended up in fistfights with other boys. Pinker notes that violent victimization in schools has radically dropped in recent decades.  

10. People are working fewer hours, and nevertheless earning more.

Pinker presents data showing that people in the United States worked 60 hour weeks in the 1800s, but this has steadily dropped to slightly less than 40 hours, on average. At the same time, as real incomes increased since those good old days, and necessities became cheaper, modern Americans spend the majority of their money on luxuries. He also notes that the percentage of the workforce that now retires at age 65 has now doubled. I know some of you academic types are still working long hours and refusing to retire, but it's often because your job brings a lot of intrinsic reward.

The end times are near…or maybe not.

Before getting into the book, I found myself wondering “what about overpopulation, Steve?” Turns out Pinker even has an optimistic spin on that problem. He admits that world population continues to rocket up, but notes that the world’s population growth rate peaked half a century ago, and has been steeply dropping since. Countries with higher education and better health are approaching zero population growth and even negative growth rates. So, if the trend for the rest of the world to become more literate and healthy continues, we might expect to see the population level start falling within the lifetimes of younger people today.  

Progress is our most important product

The bottom line of Pinker’s argument is that there is real progress in this world and that because scientific methods allow us to keep track of what works and what doesn’t, we should expect to see more.  

Pinker is not arguing that all is well with the world, nor is he arguing that we should all quietly accept the status quo, and stop trying to cure the abundant problems that remain. As an evolutionary psychologist, he does not deny that we are possessed of powerful instincts toward tribalism, selfishness, and attention toward potential threats. And as a cognitive psychologist, he is well aware that we have many biases that cloud our ability to see the big picture.  But as a scientist, he is convinced and makes a convincing case, that humans have the capacity to solve problems, to make progress, and to selectively retain the proposed solutions that work, and discard those that fail. Rather than pine for a mythical time when America was greater than it is now (there was no such time if you count all Americans), we should continue to use our ingenuity to keep the wheels of progress moving forward.

I will also note that Prof. Pinker was kind enough to read this blog post, and point out that: "the book isn’t about the future, and doesn’t make promises or prophesies about it. In the chapter “The Future of Progress” I deal with the threats (including authoritarian populism and economic stagnation) and in “Existential Threats” I discuss nuclear war (and discuss climate change in the chapter “The Environment) — none of these chapters promises a bright future, though they do refute dystopian predictions, and suggest that progress is possible if we continue to pursue Enlightenment ideals."

So, although the future isn't at all guaranteed to stay on the upward track, the past trends can give us reason to hope the future will be better still.  And hope itself can motivate positive action.  If you have a friend or relative who is feeling hopeless about the current state of the world, have them read this list, and encourage them to go out and try to make a small change to make the world a better place. 

And if you're feeling generous, buy your friend a copy of Pinker's book (Liz Dunn's research suggests that doing favors for other people will boost your own mood).

Postscript: Another alternative fact falls

In digging through the recent news, I came across one other tidbit of news that some of you might find reassuring: The New York Times is not, in fact, failing, despite alternative facts you may have heard. In the most recent quarter, New York Times total revenue actually jumped 6 percent, coming in at a comfortable $386 million (Ember, 2017). Print sales of newspapers are down, but it turns out the so-called failing New York Times is making more and more money digitally these days. Now if they would only start bringing us more of the good news and less of the bad. 

Related blogs:

Is the world becoming a nicer place to live?

Is there any way to save the world?

What's the world coming to?  Finding wisdom on a Chipotle's bag

Violent vs. Nonviolent revolutions: Which way wins?


Ember, S. (2017). New York Times Co. reports solid digital growth as print slides.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/01/business/media/new-york-times-earnings.html&mtrref=www.google.com

Clark, D. M. T., Loxton, N. J., & Tobin, S. J. (2015). Declining loneliness over time: Evidence from American colleges and high schools. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(1), 78-89.

Marcacci, S. (2018). Cheap Renewables Keep Pushing Fossil Fuels Further Away From Profitability – Despite Trump's Efforts. Forbes. Jan. 23, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/energyinnovation/2018/01/23/cheap-renewables-keep-pushing-fossil-fuels-further-away-from-profitability-despite-trumps-efforts/#5e747af66ce9

Office of National Statistics (2018). Homicide in England and Wales: year ending March 2017. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/homicideinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2017

Marshall, M. G., Gurr, T. D., & Jaggers, K. (2016). Polity IV project. Political regime characteristics and transitions, 1800–2015. Vienna, Virginia: Center for Systemic Peace. http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html

Pieters, J. (2107). Number of murders in Netherlands continues decreasing trend. NLTimes. August 18, 2017.  https://nltimes.nl/2017/08/18/number-murders-netherlands-continues-decreasing-trend

Pietschnig, J., & Voracek, M. (2015). One century of global IQ gains: A formal meta-analysis of the Flynn effect (1909–2013). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(3), 282-306.

Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: A history of violence and humanity. New York: Penguin.

Pinker, S. (2018). Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. New York: Viking.

Roser, M. & Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2018a). Global Extreme Poverty.  OurWorldInData.org. https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty.

Roser, M., & Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2018b) - "Literacy".  OurWorldInData.org. https://ourworldindata.org/literacy.

Statistica (2018). Total number of murders in Italy from August 2011 to July 2016. Statistica statistics portal. https://www.statista.com/statistics/614300/total-number-of-murders-italy/