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Why We Can’t Acknowledge Progress

I grew up in the 1950s when, for the most part, people seemed optimistic and positive about the world (if we didn’t blow ourselves up with atomic bombs). All things seemed possible. Today, in stark contrast, we seem immersed in a sour milieu in which many think the world is worse than ever and things are going to hell. You can always find abundant examples to support that view (or any other view), but what do the data show?

In his new book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker not only strongly defends science, humanism, and the ideals of the Enlightenment—ideals we strongly support—but also excoriates educated people for their consistent negativism and pessimism. In fact, in an extended excerpt titled “Progressophobia” that we publish in this issue, he contends that intellectuals hate the very idea of progress. If so, is that perhaps because if things are getting better, we fear that our various efforts to improve the world lose their power? That’s part of it. But Pinker shows that our current sour view comes primarily from a system of psychological biases and mental bugs that cause us to accentuate the negative and downplay the positive. Couple that with natural journalistic tendencies to emphasize bad news over good (not news)—and a demonstrated worsening trend in that regard—and we have a clear recipe for seeing things through ever-darkening glasses. And that prevents us from noticing and acknowledging widespread improvements in human conditions that are indeed happening globally. In our article, Pinker responds to critics of his previous book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, in which he persuasively demonstrated that worldwide and in historical perspective violence has gone down. In his new book he demonstrates, with detailed and credible data, that historically and globally we have also seen long-term improvements in life, health, sustenance, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, democracy, equal rights, knowledge, quality of life, and happiness.

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About Skeptical Inquirer

Progressophobia: Why Things Are Better Than You Think They Are STEVEN PIKER Percival Lowell and the Canals of Mars The Curious Question of Ghost Taxonomy and much more!