Human intuition is a notoriously poor guide to reality. A half-century of psychological research has shown that when people try to assess risks or predict the future, their heads are turned by stereotypes, memorable events, vivid scenarios, and moralistic narratives.
Fortunately, as the bugs in human cognition have become common knowledge, the workaround—objective data—has become more prevalent, and in many spheres of life, observers are replacing gut feelings with quantitative analysis. Sports have been revolutionized by Moneyball, policy by Nudge, punditry by 538.com, forecasting by tournaments and prediction markets, philanthropy by effective altruism, the healing arts by evidence-based medicine.
This is interesting news, and it’s scientific news because the diagnosis comes from cognitive science and the cure from data science. But the most interesting news is that the quantification of life has been extended to the biggest question of all: Have we made progress? Have the collective strivings of the human race against entropy and the nastier edges of evolution succeeded in improving the human condition?
Enlightenment thinkers thought this was possible, of course, and in Victorian times progress became a major theme of Anglo-American thought. But since then, Romantic and counter-Enlightenment pessimism have taken over large swaths of intellectual life, stoked by historical disasters such as the World Wars, and by post-1960s concerns with anthropogenic problems such as pollution and inequality. Today it’s common to read about a "faith" in progress (often a "naïve" faith), which is set against a nostalgia for a better past, an assessment of present decline, and a dread for a dystopia to come.
But the cognitive and data revolutions warn us not to base our assessment of anything on subjective impressions or cherry-picked incidents. As long as bad things haven’t vanished altogether, there will always be enough to fill the news, and people will intuit that the world is falling apart. The only way to circumvent this illusion is to plot the incidence of good and bad things over time. Most people agree that life is better than death, health better than disease, prosperity better than poverty, knowledge better than ignorance, peace better than war, safety better than violence, freedom better than coercion. That gives us a set of yardsticks by which we can measure whether progress has actually occurred.
The interesting news is that the answer is mostly "yes." I had the first inkling of this answer when quantitative historians and political scientists responded to my answer to the 2007 Edge question ("What Are You Optimistic About?") with datasets showing that the rate of homicides and war deaths had plummeted over time. Since then I have learned that progress has been tracked by the other yardsticks. Economic historians and development scholars (including Gregory Clark, Angus Deaton, Charles Kenny, and Steven Radelet) have plotted the growth of prosperity in their data-rich books, and the case has been made even more vividly in websites with innovative graphics such as Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, Max Roser’s Our World in Data, and Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress.
Among the other upward swoops are these. People are living longer and healthier lives, not just in the developed world but globally. A dozen infectious and parasitic diseases are extinct or moribund. Vastly more children are going to school and learning to read. Extreme poverty has fallen worldwide from 85 to 10 percent. Despite local setbacks, the world is more democratic than ever. Women are better educated, marrying later, earning more, and in more positions of power and influence. Racial prejudice and hate crimes have decreased since data were first recorded. The world is even getting smarter: In every country, IQ has been increasing by three points a decade.
Of course, quantified progress consists of a set of empirical findings; it is not a sign of some mystical ascent or utopian trajectory or divine grace. And so we should expect to find some spheres of life that have remained the same, gotten worse, or are altogether unquantifiable (such as the endless number of apocalypses that may be conjured in the imagination). Greenhouse gases accumulate, fresh water diminishes, species go extinct, nuclear arsenals remain.
Yet even here, quantification can change our understanding. "Ecomodernists" such as Stewart Brand, Jesse Ausubel, and Ruth DeFries have shown that many indicators of environmental health have improved over the last half-century, and that there are long-term historical processes, such as the decarbonization of energy, the dematerialization of consumption, and the minimization of farmland that can be further encouraged. Tabulators of nuclear weapons have pointed out that no such weapon has been used since Nagasaki, testing has fallen effectively to zero, proliferation has expanded the club only to nine countries (rather than thirty or more, as was predicted in the 1960s), sixteen countries have given up their programs (Iran should soon be the seventeenth), and the number of weapons (and hence the number of opportunities for thefts and accidents, and the number of obstacles to the eventual goal of zero) has been reduced by five sixths.
What makes all this important? Foremost, quantified progress is a feedback signal for adjusting what we have been doing. The gifts of progress we have enjoyed are the result of institutions and norms that have become entrenched in the last two centuries: reason, science, technology, education, expertise, democracy, regulated markets, and a moral commitment to human rights and human flourishing. As counter-Enlightenment critics have long pointed out, there is no guarantee that these developments would make us better off. Yet now we know that in fact they have left us better off. This means that for all the ways in which the world today falls short of utopia, the norms and institutions of modernity have put us on a good track. We should work on improving them further, rather than burning them down in the conviction that nothing could be worse than our current decadence and in the vague hope that something better might rise from their ashes.
Also, quantified human progress emboldens us to seek more of it. A common belief among activists is that any optimistic datum must be suppressed lest it lull people into complacency. Instead, one must keep up the heat by wailing about ongoing crises and scolding people for being insufficiently terrified. Unfortunately, this can lead to a complementary danger: fatalism. After being told that the poor might always be with us, the gods will punish our hubris, nature will rise up and avenge our despoliation, and the clock is inexorably ticking down to a midnight of nuclear holocaust and climatic catastrophe, it’s natural to conclude that resistance is futile and we should party while we can. The empowering feature of a graph is that it invites one to identify the forces that are pushing a curve up or down, and then to apply them to push it further in the same direction.