24 January 2015

Slate Magazine: “The world is not falling apart”

How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

The world is not falling apart. The kinds of violence to which most people are vulnerable—homicide, rape, battering, child abuse—have been in steady decline in most of the world. Autocracy is giving way to democracy. Wars between states—by far the most destructive of all conflicts—are all but obsolete. The increase in the number and deadliness of civil wars since 2010 is circumscribed, puny in comparison with the decline that preceded it, and unlikely to escalate.

Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack

Whenever there’s a new shooting or terrorist attack, I end up having a similar talk about it with my mother, with the same conclusion: the world is not getting worse, we’re just seeing more and more of what’s happening elsewhere – and the media regularly focuses on the bad. It’s especially striking for us, after living for dozens of years inside the Communist block, where little of the turmoil of the outside world trickled in. And in this study there’s finally statistical confirmation. Though, as with all trends, it’s not always safe to assume it will continue unchanged forever…

Homicide Rates US England and World

I think a similar phenomenon applies to the public perception of climate change: people look at the news, the quick changes of weather, ignoring the bigger picture, the decades-old trend towards a hotter planet.

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