Breaking news: It’s the best of times
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We live in the best of times. That is, we live in the most peaceful of periods. That is what Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has argued in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Based on statistical analysis of vast amounts of data, Pinker shows violence has been on the decline over the millennia. The present is probably the most peaceful time in human history.
I am constantly reminded of Pinker’s thesis when reading the international news, especially when it comes from the Middle East. Digesting the seemingly unending numbers of atrocities, optimism can turn to depression. On the one hand, I believe in solid data analysis, on which the book is based. In that sense, like many of my fellow well-educated chaps, I am a child of Enlightenment. At the same time, there is the unattractive prospect of becoming Panglossian. Deluded by a dogmatic belief in the idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds, like Voltaire’s fictional character Candide who experiences tragedy after disaster yet sticks to the notion of optimism taught by his professor Pangloss, despite mounting evidence of the contrary.
Of course, there is a crucial difference between Pangloss and Pinker. Pangloss—styled on the brilliant German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibnitz—derived his conclusion from logic, while Pinker relies on data. Yet, both are vulnerable. Voltaire demolishes Leibnitz’ rational optimism through irony. And today’s news can do the same to Pinker’s data. After all, it is data about the past, which offers no guarantee for the future, as Pinker indicates himself.
Yet, both ideas are intriguing. Leibnitz believed that we must live in the best possible world because it was created by god. And he would not create an imperfect world if a better one was possible. Flaws in this world, Leibnitz thought, must exist in every possible world. Otherwise god would have chosen to create the world without those flaws. Pinker shows the number of violent deaths per capita has declined over the ages. He attributes this to six large historical trends—the move from hunting to city-based agricultural societies, the civilization process taking place through centralized empires, the humanitarian revolution of the Enlightenment, the long peace after World War II, the end of the cold war and the human rights revolution. Ironically, Pinker, a self-declared atheist, comes to the same conclusion as the god-fearing Leibnitz, albeit on entirely different grounds. Unfortunately, despite the size of both their intellects, they cannot always convince the self-thinking news follower.
This morning, one of my former philosophy professors, Ger Groot, writing in a Dutch newspaper, attended me to a Big Data study by the University of Vermont that indicates that people tend to be a positive lot. Deep in our hearts, Groot says, we are convinced that the world is harmonious. The study analysed 100 billion words in tweets. “We looked at ten languages,” explains mathematician Peter Dodds who co-led the study, “and in every source we looked at, people use more positive words than negative ones.” Positivity seems to be built into our nature. This raises the worrying possibility that we are all hard-wired Panglossians.
However, there is one final insight in this context that never fails to comfort me. It comes from an intriguing little book called Innumeracy, by America mathematician John Allen Paulos. In it, he writes about the importance of a basic knowledge of numbers and probability. He indicates that along almost any dimension, the average value of a large sample of measurements is roughly the same as the average of a small sample. But the most extreme values of a large sample are always much larger than the extreme values in a small sample.
What does this mean for the news? The crucial consequence is, that the international news is usually worse than national news, which is worse than regional news, which is worse than local news. In other words, international news is depressing for statistical reasons. The extremity of atrocities and tragedy is not a representative reflection of the state of the world. They are statistical outliers. In an ever more connected world in which the sample size of the news increases rapidly, the extreme cases are bound to become more extreme. Given the fact that international news channels focus on the extremes because they sell, extremists must devise ever more extreme deeds to stand out.
Whether for the reasons of Leibnitz or Pinker, perhaps ours is still the best of all worlds after all.
Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.