Harvard professor, author makes the case that the world is getting better

Event Date: 10/30/2018

With today’s headlines about political controversies, terrorism, and global threats such as climate change, many people think the world is scary. And to many, it seems to be getting worse.

But Steven Pinker begs to differ.

The Harvard professor and author of the best-selling “Enlightenment Now” has an optimistic view. During his Purdue 150th Ideas Festival lecture, “What IF the world’s actually getting better?” before a packed Loeb Playhouse on Oct. 30, he made a vigorous argument that it is.

Using “enlightenment ideals” (reason, science, humanism and progress) and a wide array of statistics, Pinker outlined historical trends that he said show that the world is actually getting better. The statistics Pinker used to make his case included:

  • Life expectancy. For most of human history, the average life expectancy around the world was 30. Today, it’s 71. In some parts of the industrial world, it’s 80.
  • Extreme poverty. Two hundred years ago, 90 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. Now, that percentage is less than 10. And there’s been a 75 percent reduction in the last 30 years around the world.
  • Poverty in the United States has fallen from one-third of the population in 1960 to less than 7 percent today.
  • For much of human history, most of the world’s superpowers were at war. Peace was usually an interlude between wars. The last war between great powers was between the U.S. and China in Korea 60 years ago. Five-sixths of the Earth’s surface is free of war.
  • Child mortality. Two-hundred fifty years ago, in the richest nations of the world, one-third of children died before the age of 5. Today, less than 6 percent of children in the poorest countries of the world die before they are 5.
  • Illiteracy is down and IQ scores are up. Ninety percent of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write. Due to a phenomenon called the Flynn Effect, IQ scores have risen by three points every decade for nearly a century.
  • Infectious diseases are no longer a major cause of death in industrial nations.
  • The Gross World Product has improved by a factor of 200 since the early 1700s.
  • Violent crime. In the last 50 years, the homicide rate has fallen by half in the U.S., and it’s gone down by a third in the world during that time.

In addition, Pinker said, the environment has improved over the last 30 years and the number of pollutants has declined. He also said we spend and waste less of our waking hours on house work and we work fewer hours yet are more productive.

“On average, people in richer countries are happier,” he said. “Eighty-six percent of nations have seen a rise in happiness. The U.S. wasn’t one of those nations, but it may have been happy already.

“Improvement of life is a fact of human history. The progress that we’ve enjoyed did not happen all by itself. The ingredients for continued progress are present. Is progress inevitable? Of course not. If progress takes place all the time, no matter what happens, that would be a miracle. Progress takes work.”

So why do so many people tend to be pessimistic about the world? In part, Pinker said, it’s because of the nature of news. “News is about things that happen, not about things that don’t happen,” he said. “You don’t see somebody reporting from a place where there is peace, you see somebody reporting from someplace where there is war.”

And Pinker said “enlightenment” does not go against human nature. “Secular, liberal democracies have turned out to be the happiest places on earth,” he said. “This is not just a myth and it belongs not just to one tribe but all of humanity.”

Ross Klink, a sophomore from Lafayette studying economics, enjoyed the talk. “I thought it was real interesting. I liked all of his data,” he said. “We always hear news about how bad things are so it was refreshing to hear how we have progressed.”

Christine Bray, a senior economics major, also came away impressed. “I thought it was super. It was nice to have a big-picture look at the world,” she said. “It’s easy to get caught up in our lives and our parents’ lives, and not look at what’s going on in the world. It was good to get this view of what is happening.”

Klink, however, said he was disappointed Pinker didn’t take any questions after his talk. “I wanted to ask him about suicide,” he said. “I was surprised that America wasn’t getting happier. But it was a great lecture. I’m glad that I came.”

Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. In addition to Harvard, he has taught at Stanford and MIT. His research, teaching and the 10 books he has written have received several prizes.

The lecture was part of Purdue’s Ideas Festival, the centerpiece of Purdue’s Campaign, which is a series of events that connect world-renowned speakers and Purdue expertise in a conversation on the most critical problems facing the world. One of the festival’s themes is health, longevity and equality of life.

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