Follow the trend lines, not the headlines.
January 2, 2015 4:11 AM   Subscribe

How can we get a less hyperbolic assessment of the state of the world? Certainly not from daily journalism. News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a reporter saying to the camera, “Here we are, 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. As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times.
posted by ellieBOA (36 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thanks, Thanks and Thanks for reminding me to look at the trends and data. This is keeper as far as I am concerned. Plan on referencing it through out the year(s).
posted by rmhsinc at 4:51 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


some of those are kind of stretching for optimism, like that deaths in war are lower than they were in WWII
posted by thelonius at 5:32 AM on January 2, 2015


This is about as useful as GWB's "You forgot Poland!".

Along with the trendlines there is our changing perceptions of what is right, just and expected. The reason that people think 2014 is the worst year ever isn't because it actually was according to some static criterion on an objective standard measures but instead because it was the worst year ever in terms of the disparity of what people now expect from the world and the what they can now witness and hear from the victims of calamity themselves.

We expect more good and we witness more bad. Sadness is not a woeful lack of statistical understanding but a wonderful and encouraging expansion of humanity.

Smug economist style statistical self-congratulatory lecturing about gradual improvement in aggregate stats is obnoxiously system justifying. "Maybe in a few hundred years there will be social justice for you if you just extrapolate the trend lines!" Screw that. Those trend lines need faster bending and that takes people to bend them. People who want to fix things rather than let them coast on their current positive but too slow trajectory. That takes feeling bad about how things are rather than just being comfortable with the statistical tyranny of the improving majority.

Pinker's proclamations may be easy for him to make. He lives deeply nested in the best parts of the aggregated data (and i do as well for the most part). The difference between me and him is that I won't tell people who have suffered horribly in the 2014 that statistically they are better off than ever before.
posted by srboisvert at 5:38 AM on January 2, 2015 [21 favorites]


Incidence trends and attitude trends (regarding those incidents) could change at different rates. Attitude trends could be driving incidence trends.

For example, perhaps sexual harassment as we define it now is much less common than it was in 1970, when many people were unaware of it or took it for granted. This would be fantastic news for a person from 1970 who had suddenly traveled into the present to see how much we have evolved. But we of the present, who have gradually traveled here from 1970 or have never known what it was like to live in 1970, now consider sexual harassment to be a much bigger deal than people generally used to consider it in 1970. Our reporting on (and general awareness of) sexual harassment goes up because our hopes and expectations have changed, not because the incidence of sexual harassment is trending up, and this attitude and awareness change is actually driving the incidence trend down. Sexual harassment has decreased in part because we feel as if it has increased.
posted by pracowity at 5:39 AM on January 2, 2015 [10 favorites]


The Jehovah's Witnesses left some papers in my door yesterday. One of the things inside exploited exactly this mental fallacy that the link describes. "When you look at the news, do you think that things are getting better, or worse?" Ugh.
posted by JindoFox at 5:40 AM on January 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Thelonius-14 or 15 graphs and you picked "one" not "some" and I don't understand your interpretation of the one you did pick--your interpretation does not reflect the data provided
posted by rmhsinc at 5:40 AM on January 2, 2015


"Smug economist style statistical self-congratulatory lecturing about gradual improvement in aggregate stats is obnoxiously system justifying." Quite a statement. Do you really think things turn around more quickly because people think they "should". In fact, there has been so much positive change in social/racial/economic equality in the world ( and US ) in my lifetime (72 years) that it is somewhat incomprehensible that you would summarily dismiss or minimize these changes.
posted by rmhsinc at 5:48 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


some of those are kind of stretching for optimism, like that deaths in war are lower than they were in WWII

...and the 1950s. And the 1960s. And the 1970s. And the 1980s. And the 1990s. And the early 2000s.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:13 AM on January 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


"When you look at the news, do you think that things are getting better, or worse?"

Who left those papers? Did you misspell "Republican Party"?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:18 AM on January 2, 2015


Another example that smells to me of a certain tendency to panglossianism is the suggestion "hey, the Mexican cartel killing spree hasn't undone the fall in Mexican murder rates since the 40's"

The war deaths graph just doesn't tell us much except that there aren't a lot of big armies shooting each other's divisions up with artillery right now. Why does dropping this rate by a few percentage points signify "progress"? When another bad war starts up, the graph will shoot back up. There are lots of nasty civil and guerrilla wars going on, and the death rate in battle in those wars seems to simply be lower than it is in a war with tanks and planes.

It's an interesting graph but it tells a more complex story than up on the y axis is bad and down is good.
posted by thelonius at 6:30 AM on January 2, 2015


Nearly all natural disasters are "news." So are many murders. So are many other tragedies.

There are terribly few local news stories that include the words "We go now live to a child who has just gotten licked by a puppy for the first time." There are even fewer along the lines of "This man lived to see his grandchildren married, because of a widely-distributed and inexpensive vaccine he received in his youth."

The good things in life are commonplace; when extraordinary, they quickly become commonplace.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:30 AM on January 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


Telling somebody who has lost a loved one to warfare that deaths in war are down from WWII is cold comfort at best. Telling somebody who has suffered from sexual harassment that it's less common than in the 1970s doesn't do them any good. Telling an unemployed person that "the economy created 250,000 new jobs last year" doesn't mean a damned thing to them; they're still jobless and broke. Pinker's statistics are nothing but doctrine from the Church of Fuck-You-I-Got-Mine.
posted by starbreaker at 6:33 AM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Why does dropping this rate by a few percentage points signify "progress"?

Because that is the very definition of progress. That's like asking why reducing infant mortality a few percentage points is "progress."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:42 AM on January 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


I hate to put it in such juvenile terms, but:
Ctrl+f "climate" = zero hits.
Ctrl+f "global warming" = zero hits.

Now, I grant that the article is really about journalism and reporting on violence, but since it specifically focuses on "trend lines," these are glaring omissions.
posted by Verg at 6:50 AM on January 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yeah the lack of news from the environment is telling because the welfare of 7 billion people is directly proportional to the welfare of the environment. The news from the environment is horrendous. The trends are not sustainable and many of the problems in the world today are directly related to human population increases putting stresses on the environment. Global warming is one but there are about a dozen big ones like that.
posted by stbalbach at 6:56 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


This article is like some bastard child of "No News Is Good News" and "Keep Calm and Carry On."

Instead, I wish they focused more on why we see this emphasis of bad news. You know, something like these.
posted by Johann Georg Faust at 7:02 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


The bread and butter of Pinker's argument seems to be that battle deaths from great power wars have declined since WWII. Which, of course, is true since WWII was the largest great power war ever fought and the nature of warfare has been changing since then. Pinker's statistic of "battle deaths" does not include civilians, which since WWII are an ever-increasing percentage of the dead. I suppose if one simply excludes the largest and a growing type of death from the body count, war doesn't look so bad anymore. This is the kind of statistical slight-of-hand that seems to be a chronic problem for Pinker.

Even assuming that all his graphs are valid, as others have noted there are concomitant trends that are not so hopeful. I would add the exploding slum population, which has hit a billion people and shows no signs of stopping. Even if we assume that wars are of declining importance in today's world, it does not warm one's heart to note that an ever greater share of the population are instead relegated to a daily, monotonous, crushing poverty. That also rarely makes the headlines.

This article obviously rides off the coat tails of Pinker's previous book. You can find some devastating reviews of it here and here. Personally, Pinker's work reads to me like a convenient bedtime story for a neoliberal ideological agenda -- "Don't get mad; don't worry! Everything is fine." It's "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" spoken in a soothing voice instead of a bilious one.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 7:36 AM on January 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


It never does anyone any good to tell them--"you are lucky you did not live 50 years ago", "why are you complaining things are much better now than before", "so you had a heart attack just be glad you do not have lung cancer", "welfare is much more generous that 40 years ago" " "you should see the other person in the car they have 80% burns you only have three fractures"--BUT--You know that is not what the linked article was about. It was not a guide to therapeutic/helpful interventions to people in distress. It does seem to me that there are a group of posters who steadfastly refuse to recognize that things might be better, not everybody is suffering, that conspiracies are the exception not the rule and CEOs do not get up every morning thinking about how to screw consumers.
Assessing articles to support an existing confirmation bias really does not get one anywhere except talking to like minded souls. Just because something is better does not mean it is OK, it just means one has to work harder, smarter and in a new environment with developing science, technology and commitment.
posted by rmhsinc at 7:37 AM on January 2, 2015 [7 favorites]


Threads about behavioral biases are the best.
posted by JPD at 7:51 AM on January 2, 2015 [6 favorites]


Sure there's lots of stories and articles around that focus on the problems we face, but I don't see any consensus around "2014 is the worst, ever", so right from the start the article is setting up a humungous strawman to tilt at.

Second, we didn't get to this relatively better time by standing around slapping each other on the back about how nice it is now. We focus on the next problem and we (hopefully) solve it.

Finally... let's look at those trendlines. Wealth is concentrating in fewer hands while the majority of us are just staying put, or slipping back down the economic ladder. The world's most powerful 'democracies' are increasingly controlled by the wealthy. When most of society is experiencing economic insecurity, social corrections and improvements fall off the radar. Fossil fuels continue to be extracted and consumed at an unsustainable rate, materially affecting the environment. The seemingly infinite oceans are being overfished while they warm up and fill up with our garbage.

These aren't good trends.

So while we should of course maintain perspective, and stop to count our many, many blessings, the job's not done.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:54 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Finally, I don't remember the article suggesting that because some things appear to be improving everything was OK--The article was not titled:It Is Not as bad as You Think--Some Things Are Even Worse. Well, at least I am not one of those senior citizens who will tell you about how good the old days were--trust me they weren't. Particularly if you were a woman, black, gay, had polio, a developmental challenge, wanted to do international travel, lived by a radioactive waste site, lived near Love Canal, wanted a higher education ( sure no debt but much more limited opportunities), suffered from depression, bi-polar or schizophrenia, state sanctioned apartheid, Mao,etc. There are extremely serious challenges facing the world--climate, population density, wealth inequality, religious fundamentalism of all sorts, social inequality etc. But in many ways still much better.
posted by rmhsinc at 7:58 AM on January 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


We expect more good and we witness more bad.

We have a lot more probes on the world and events too, and we don't probe where nothing happens, as this article suggests.

Smug economist style statistical self-congratulatory lecturing about gradual improvement in aggregate stats is obnoxiously system justifying.

We are a messy bunch. It is an understatement to say we're doing pretty good, all things considered.

"Maybe in a few hundred years there will be social justice for you if you just extrapolate the trend lines!" Screw that. Those trend lines need faster bending and that takes people to bend them. People who want to fix things rather than let them coast on their current positive but too slow trajectory. That takes feeling bad about how things are rather than just being comfortable with the statistical tyranny of the improving majority.

Exactly: It'll take people, lots and lots of people. For what it is worth, stats can either be your best friend or worst enemy, but probability is your virtual consultant, like if you were to work with a random bunch of 100 people, how many can you expect to come on to your side? If you're looking for a certain number of people, the answer to the prior question can tell you how many people, at a minimum, you need to contact. And of course, how many out of 100 changes over time, location, etc.

I, as well, want things to change quicker than they are now. But, humans aren't machines or computers: hitting the box or issuing commands doesn't work here.
posted by JoeXIII007 at 8:36 AM on January 2, 2015


That's ok, things getting better on average still leaves cases of everything to be outraged about, no one's identity is under threat.
posted by Spanner Nic at 8:46 AM on January 2, 2015 [3 favorites]


there has been so much positive change in...economic equality in the...US in my lifetime (72 years)

This is certainly not my understanding, and I would like to see some data. Possibly we are in a better place than we were 72 years ago, but I think that must ignore that we are in a worse place than we have been within that 72 year span, no?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:02 AM on January 2, 2015


Steely-eyed Missile Man--well you caught me ( sort of)--yes, in the US income inequality in the US has increased in the last 72 years--If only I was 92 my statement would have been correct. I do believe the statement is correct regarding Global Inequality with China, India, Brazil, Africa bring considerable growth, numbers and income to billions. I should have just left it out--and I did identify it as one of the major challenges we now face. Out of time now but will post conforming articles.
posted by rmhsinc at 10:12 AM on January 2, 2015




Sure there's lots of stories and articles around that focus on the problems we face, but I don't see any consensus around "2014 is the worst, ever", so right from the start the article is setting up a humungous strawman to tilt at.

Perhaps not around "worst ever" (the idea that people commonly claim that we are living in the "worst ever" period of history, by the way, is a claim advanced nowhere in the article), but you would have to be living under a rock (and, indeed, religiously avoiding Metafilter comment threads) not to have heard the ubiquitous expressions of the idea that we're living in extraordinarily unstable, violent and threatening times. It strikes me as terrifically useful and clarifying to be reminded that this is simply not the case.

It is also no part of the thesis of this article--stated or implied--that everything in the world is hunky-dory and that there's no point trying to improve anything or fighting against any perceived injustices in the world. In my opinion, those who think that any ratcheting down from the rhetoric of world-in-peril crisis is some sort of victory for the oppressors are actually misunderstanding the effect of that rhetoric. It's the Fox Newses of the world who benefit from cultivating a sense that everything in the world has gone to crap and that we're living in a time of dire peril. When you cultivate that apocalyptic language you don't motivate people to get out and fix the problem, you make them hunker down and cling desperately to whatever sense of security they can foster. You make people less generous, less willing to sacrifice their own goods for the safety and security of others. I think it would be far easier to generate a wider spirit of progressivism in US politics if the rhetoric was "look at all the successes we've already had! Let's keep building on that proud legacy!" than, as it is, "OMG, the Dark Times are upon us!"
posted by yoink at 10:17 AM on January 2, 2015 [8 favorites]


Well, the article kicks off with:
It’s a good time to be a pessimist. ISIS, Crimea, Donetsk, Gaza, Burma, Ebola, school shootings, campus rapes, wife-beating athletes, lethal cops—who can avoid the feeling that things fall apart, the center cannot hold? Last year Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before a Senate committee that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.” This past fall, Michael Ignatieff wrote of “the tectonic plates of a world order that are being pushed apart by the volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred.” Two months ago, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lamented, “Many people I talk to, and not only over dinner, have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. … The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.”
... which I think has more straw than substance. First it blends together a number of issues - a pointless melange of the big and the relatively small (anyone really think the world is going to hell because of wife-beating athletes?).

Then it takes some stuff out of context. Sure it's hyperbole for Dempsey to have claimed that the world is “more dangerous than it has ever been.”, but it's now reality that small, isolated global conflicts (and diseases) can be more easily transported into formerly "safe" parts of the world like the US. Examples: A battle in a small part of the Ukraine takes out a Malaysian jetliner. Or the deliberate acts of terrorism inflicted in Europe and the US as a consequence of unrest and interference in the Middle East. And is it that unreasonable to refer to the danger posed by powerful, modern insurgencies like ISIS as a "volcanic upward pressure of violence and hatred"?

Pinker needs us to admit we feel "the center cannot hold" and to be cowering in the corner, overwhelmed with uncertainty and fear, before he can soothe us with lovingly curated statistics. Actuarial easy-listening.

I'm not objecting to the main thrust of the article; it's always useful to have perspective. Things are pretty sweet for a lot, maybe most of us. I mainly object to the setup and the implication that the real problems we currently face, are somehow not worth the concern. Yes it's better than the dark ages. Or WW II. But many of the short-term trendlines are NOT good.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:58 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


but it's now reality that small, isolated global conflicts (and diseases) can be more easily transported into formerly "safe" parts of the world

And that's a pretty nice example of the kind of ahistorical, presentist "OMG, the world has changed into something unrecognizable" statement Pinker's criticizing. Because it's just hilariously wrong to suggest that small, regional conflicts blowing up to wildly disproportionate consequences is something new. Does the name Gavrilo Princip ring any bells?

If anything, what is remarkable about the Ukraine conflict is how far it seems from threatening to blow up into a real major-power conflict. If anything it's evidence for the various ramshackle institutions of international peacekeeping and dispute resolution that have been developed since WWII working more than evidence of some new unheralded threat to world peace.

And this, by the way, is part of why it really is important to keep our eyes firmly on advances that have been made and not to just take them for granted as we move on to whatever the new outrage du jour is. If you tell me that the world is basically as bad now as it ever has been, then you're also telling me that all attempts to ameliorate it are a sucker's game. If race relations inthe US are no better now than they were in the 1930s, then what possible point could there be in trying to improve them? If the massive civil rights movement of te 1950s and 1960s achieved precisely nothing, then there's really not much point in trying to revive that old Selma spirit, is there? Or if you're going to say that the UN is just a pointless talking shop where nothing of value ever happens, then why should anyone try to move the needle on international peace and cooperation; if the historically unprecedented efforts of the major powers following WWII were a complete waste of time, what possible use could any contemporary effort be?

I think this is something liberals and progressives really lose sight of again and again. You really can't sell progressivism to the masses if your sales pitch is "It's never done anybody a lick of good yet, but we have to keep trying!"
posted by yoink at 11:43 AM on January 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


Not to mention the ahistorical notion that diseases used to remain isolated. Smallpox? The Black Death? The Spanish Flu? We're far better at preventing widespread epidemics than we were even 75 years ago.

It's true that there are a lot of problematic things happening right now. But it's still pretty much the best time to be alive for the largest number of people. Life has historically been nasty, brutish, and short for virtually everyone.
posted by Justinian at 11:47 AM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples

That right there is the key part of the article, I believe.
posted by echo target at 11:51 AM on January 2, 2015


So much harmful public policy is driven by misperception of risk. If more people knew that violent crime in the U.S. was at an ebb, there would be more political impetus behind reducing our stupendously high (incarceration rate. In terms of negative immediate trends, how many cartel-driven killings in Mexico could have been prevented by the enormous public misunderstanding of the harm-benefit ratio between legalized marijuana and prohibition? Even now, people are searching for some kind of however-minor negative outcome of Colorado's legalization, and if it is found, will attempt to leverage it against the huge geopolitical upside of a loosening of prohibition laws.

Imagine if more people understood the disparity between accidental gun deaths and successful gun-involved home defenses? Maybe a movement could even be spawned that suggested that the macho thing to do was to support gun control, because you're tough enough to put yourself at a (tiny) higher risk in order to help lower the (much higher) chances that more children will die of accidental shootings.

Such misperception also inhibit progress in social justice. See the widely-believed but wholly incorrect links between homosexuality and pedophilia. Between homosexuality and negative child-rearing outcomes. In both cases the statistics were clear long before the fear-mongering ceased (well, it hasn't ceased).

These public misapprehensions also inhibit addressing things whose trend lines are moving negatively. For example the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States. Or climate change. As long as people are obsessed with the infinitesimal chance that someone will snatch their child off their lawn, these less immediate-seeming problems will take a back seat.
posted by lemmsjid at 12:07 PM on January 2, 2015 [4 favorites]


I concede I haven't argued my point at all well. I was trying (and failed) to show how it's the article that implies that there's now some significant level of paralyzing anxiety.

My biggest objection remains that while the article presents statistics as proof of how good we've got it, it ignores current trends that suggest that many of these gains are in danger of being unwound.

Anyway, there's still some eggnog in the fridge, it's sunny outside, I have no excuse to be so negative.
posted by Artful Codger at 12:30 PM on January 2, 2015 [2 favorites]


Great post, good discussion: Metafilter loves the quotation "reality has a liberal bias" except when it doesn't!
posted by alasdair at 4:57 PM on January 2, 2015 [1 favorite]


Great post, good discussion: Metafilter loves the quotation "reality has a liberal bias" except when it doesn't!

That's cute, but most of these gains were made by liberals over the dead bodies of conservatives. And if you're under the impression that US Liberals are the only people claiming the world is going to hell, I have a great TV news network to show you that will blow your mind.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 10:44 AM on January 3, 2015


That's cute,

Thank-you! I was going for wry, though. Ah well.
posted by alasdair at 4:33 AM on January 13, 2015


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