This post will review/summarise a new book on progress that was recently released, “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know” by Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy.
They begin the book with an interesting poll conducted by YouGov in 2016 spanning 17 countries. I’ll pose the question asked in the poll to readers here:
Only a meagre 11% of people responded with “things are getting better”. In the US, it was even worse at only 6%.
Bailey and Tupy posit a few reasons for why many individuals feel things are getting worse:
- There’s an asymmetry between positive and negative experiences. Negative events impact us more than positive events. The authors suggest that the media often think along the lines of, “News is bad news; steady progress is not news.” Because many of us follow the news – and the news tends to dwell on negative events – we often think that the world is far worse than what it actually is. In 1973, Kahneman and Tversky identified a cognitive bias they called the “availability bias”. Therefore, we have a tendency to think that the examples that come readily to mind are much more representative than what is actually the case. Because of this, the authors suggest that focusing on the news creates a bias towards being overly pessimistic about progress.
- Bailey and Tupy suggest that humans’ over-emphasis on negative trends may be due to evolutionary psychology, “A Stone Age man hears a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or a lion? If he assumes it’s the wind and the rustling turns out to be a lion, then he’s not an ancestor. We are the descendants of the worried folks who tended to assume that all rustles in the grass were dangerous predators and not the wind.” Humans developed to be cautious, instinctively focusing on potential negative events. Despite this, “the upshot is that we are again often misled into thinking that the world is worse than it is.”
- Thirdly, we underestimate the progress (of humanity) because as we make progress, our attention is captured by newer problems, rather than the progress we have made so far. Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues suggest, “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems. Our studies suggest that when the world gets better, we become harsher critics of it, and this can cause us to mistakenly conclude that it hasn’t actually gotten better at all. Progress, it seems, tends to mask itself.” [emphasis mine].
The late Hans Rosling said,
“I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.”
With this Rosling spirit in mind, the authors add to the burgeoning literature documenting the extraordinary progress humanity has seen across multiple domains over the last few hundred years.
The book covers 78 progress trends. Each trend is only a few pages long, with a figure at the end. The book covers progress in multiple domains, split up into the sections covering, “Top 10 trends, people trends, health trends, violence trends, work trends, natural resource trends, farm trends, tech trends, and US trends.” Thus, it really paints a holistic picture of progress.
I won’t spoil the book but a few of the trends I particularly enjoyed (for different reasons) were:
- Trend 6 “More land for nature”: surprised me. The global tree canopy increased between 1982 and 2016.
- Trend 21 “IQ scores rising massively”: average IQ test scores have increased by 30 points over the last 100 years. I was aware of the Flynn effect but wasn’t aware that it was this pronounced.
- Trend 28 “Vaccines are saving lives”: “In the 20th century alone, the disease [smallpox] is thought to have killed between 300 million and 500 million people.” It has now been eradicated.
- Trend 61 “Lighting costs near nothing now”: This is a famous paper I really like by William Nordhaus. The price of lighting has dramatically plummeted: “our Paleolithic ancestors labored 58 hours, mostly gathering wood, to “buy” 1,000 lumen-hours of light… In 1992, 1,000 lumen-hours required 0.00012 hours of human labor.”
To summarise, I think this book may be worth a quick skim for readers of this blog (it can be read in a single sitting). However, readers of this blog probably don’t need much convincing about the dramatic progress humanity has experienced over the last few hundred years. It may be better as a gift to pessimistic friends, who would be hard-pressed not to accept the vast amounts of progress humanity has made in the last couple centuries. I would guess that there are many books like this to come in the near future.
- I think there are issues with the poll. I would guess that we would see more positive responses if the question was reframed to something along the lines of, “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse, over the last 200 years?“.
- I think it’s important to note that it’s possible to simultaneously espouse both that humanity has made tremendous progress in the last few hundred years, and also be worried about the progress made in recent years. Reminding people of the tremendous amount of progress made in the past might make people more optimistic about progress in the near future.
I’m on Twitter @krisgulati, where I tweet about the causes and consequences of progress, economic growth, technological change, and innovation. I have made a Progress Studies subreddit to foster discussion. You can follow my work on the Progress Studies LinkedIn page or the Progress Studies Facebook page.
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