If you find yourself at a cocktail party searching for a conversation starter, I’d recommend working in the opening line of a recent Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter: "By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been.” Although people will react with incredulity at the very possibility that things could be getting better, they’ll welcome the opportunity to straighten you out. Just be prepared for the inevitable recitation of the daily headlines—bad news piled on top of even worse news—that will inevitably follow. Virtually everyone I’ve mentioned this quote to is sure it¹s wrong.
For example, about two-thirds of Americans believe the number of people living in extreme poverty has doubled in the last 20 years. People point to conflicts in the Middle East as evidence of a world in chaos, the retreat of democracy, plummeting human rights, and an overall global decline of wellbeing. Yet the news from social science through the accumulation of large-scale, longitudinal datasets belies this declinist worldview.
This isn¹t the place to delve into the details of how large-scale statistical datasets, and ones increasingly representative of the world¹s population, provide a more accurate, though deeply counter-intuitive, assessment of the state of the world (for that, see Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature).
In reality, extreme poverty has nearly halved in the last twenty years—about a billion people have escaped it. Material wellbeing—income, declines in infant mortality, increases in life expectancy, educational access (particularly for females)—has increased at its greatest pace during the last few decades. The number of democracies in developing nations has tripled since the 1980s, while the number of people killed in armed conflicts has decreased by 75%. This isn¹t the place to delve into the details of how large-scale statistical datasets, and ones increasingly representative of the world’s population, provide a more accurate, though deeply counter-intuitive, assessment of the state of the world.
Instead, I want to suggest three reasons why I think it’s such important scientific news. First, while these long-term trends may not resuscitate an old-fashioned notion of progress—certainly not one suggesting that history possesses intrinsic directionality—they do call out for a better understanding (and recognition) of the technological and cultural dynamics driving long-term patterns of historical change. What is even more intriguing to me is their stark demonstration of how deeply our cognitive and emotional biases distort our worldview. In particular, we have good evidence that we don’t remember the past as it was. Instead, we systematically edit it, typically omitting the bad and highlighting the good, leading to cognitive biases, such as “rosy retrospection.”
At the cultural level, these biases make us biologically vulnerable to declinist narratives. From Pope Francis’ anti-modernist encyclical to Capitalism¹s inevitable death by internal contradictions and tales of moral decline, declinist narratives intuitively resonate with our cognitive biases. They thus make for an easy sell and make it easy to lose sight of the fact that until a few centuries ago the world¹s population was stuck in abject poverty, a subsistence-level Malthusian trap of dreary cycles of population growth and famine.
In reality, not only has material wellbeing increased around the globe, global inequality is also decreasing as a result of technological and cultural innovations driving globalization. We should be particularly on guard against declinist narratives that also trigger our emotional biases, especially those hijacking the brain’s low-level treat detection circuits. These alarmist narratives identify an immediate or imminent threat, a harbinger of decline, which unconsciously triggers the amygdala and initiates a cascade of brain chemicals, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, dopamine, serotonin, and hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, creating both primal visceral feelings of dread and locking in our attention to that narrative, effectively shutting down rational appraisal.
Much of what counts as “news” today involves such narratives. The combination of an ever-shortening news cycle, near instantaneous communications, fragmented markets, heightened competition for viewership, and our cognitive and emotional biases conspire to make it all but inevitable that these narratives would dominate and make it prohibitive to grasp the progressive themes large-scale data analyses reveal.
The result is today’s dominant alarmist and declinist news cycle that’s essentially a random walk from moral panic to moral panic. To appreciate the real news—that by many fundamental measures the state of the world is improving—thus requires an exercise in cognitive control, inhibiting our first emotional impulses and allowing a rational appraisal of scientifically informed data. This by no means constitutes some Pollyannaish exercise of denial. But the most important scientific news to me is that the broad historical trajectory of human societies provides a powerful counter-narrative to today’s dominant declinist worldview.