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2019: Are you Ready for a New World War? A Statistical Analysis

2019: Are you Ready for a New World War? A Statistical Analysis

Detail from Picasso’s “Guernica” – 1937

With the end of 2018, also the centennial of the end of the Great War (or WWI) is past. It passed remarkably in silence: a few celebrations, but little or no discussion of the reasons and the consequences of that war, supposed to be the one that would “end all wars.”

Reasonably, it was too much to expect that wars would ever end but maybe we could have at least learned something from rethinking to a conflict that caused some 40 million victims. But that didn’t happen (if you can read Italian, you may be interested in a reflection of mine on the subject). The world situation, today, looks more and more similar to the military build-up that took place in Europe in the years preceding the Great War. The “Great Powers” are arranging their forces as if they were setting their pieces on a giant chessboard. At some moment, someone may well decide to make the first move. And in this giant chess game, the kings can wipe out all the pawns in a single move with their nuclear warheads.

It would be nice to follow Steven Pinker’s optimism about modern times becoming less violent. There may be such a trend for the past few decades, but it is always dangerous to extrapolate from a limited dataset. In this case, the optimism of Pinker seems to be simply wrong if measured over a time span of several centuries. This is the result of an analysis of the data for the conflicts of the past 600 years that myself and my coworkers Martelloni and Di Patti performed in 2018 — it was thought, in part, as a way to celebrate the centennial of the Great War.
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Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why.

Steven Pinker’s Ideas About Progress Are Fatally Flawed. These Eight Graphs Show Why.

It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By falsely tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim.

In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, published earlier this year, Steven Pinker argues that the human race has never had it so good as a result of values he attributes to the European Enlightenment of the 18th century. He berates those who focus on what is wrong with the world’s current condition as pessimists who only help to incite regressive reactionaries. Instead, he glorifies the dominant neoliberal, technocratic approach to solving the world’s problems as the only one that has worked in the past and will continue to lead humanity on its current triumphant path.

His book has incited strong reactions, both positive and negative. On one hand, Bill Gates has, for example, effervesced that “It’s my new favorite book of all time.” On the other hand, Pinker has been fiercely excoriated by a wide range of leading thinkers for writing a simplistic, incoherent paean to the dominant world order. John Gray, in the New Statesman, calls it “embarrassing” and “feeble”; David Bell, writing in The Nation, sees it as “a dogmatic book that offers an oversimplified, excessively optimistic vision of human history”; and George Monbiot, in The Guardian, laments the “poor scholarship” and “motivated reasoning” that “insults the Enlightenment principles he claims to defend.” (Full disclosure: Monbiot recommends my book, The Patterning Instinct, instead.)

In light of all this, you might ask, what is left to add? Having read his book carefully, I believe it’s crucially important to take Pinker to task for some dangerously erroneous arguments he makes. Pinker is, after all, an intellectual darling of the most powerful echelons of global society.

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The Root of It All

The Root of It All

Steven Pinker wrote, “In almost every year from 1992 through 2015, an era in which the rate of violent crime plummeted, a majority of Americans told pollsters that crime was rising. In late 2015, large majorities in eleven developed countries said that “the world is getting worse.”

But crime isn’t rising, and the world is objectively getting better. And while life is improving at the macro level, at the micro level, people aren’t feeling so great. So what gives?

We tend to expect the worst as a way to insulate ourselves from disappointment. Life is not about good or bad, it’s about better or worse, so if things don’t turn out as bad as we imagine, we’re pleasantly surprised.

If you were asked to think about how your life could improve, a few things might come to mind. But imagine how your life could get worse, and a barrage of negative possibilities fills your brain. The risk and reward of every day life is asymmetrical. This is why being a pessimist feels safe and being an optimist feels reckless.

One of the reasons why it seems like the world is getting worse is due to the cacophony of noise coming from the news. Here’s Pinker again:

Whether or not the world is really getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is. News is about things that happen, nothing things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting 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…Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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