During the years 1992 to 2015, a majority of Americans told pollsters that they believed violent crime in the U.S. was steadily increasing. In truth, the violent crime rate was falling during all those years.
That fact, this sharp difference between reality and popular belief, is the sort of evidence Steven Pinker brings forth in his current book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
Pinker specializes in how most people think, and how we might think better if we understood the directional shaping forces in society.
A year ago, Donald Trump said, "The murder rate in our country is the highest it's been in 47 years, right?" No, dead wrong. The rate is close to historic lows, at less than half its peak. But Trump wasn't lying. He had heard that idea somewhere, and probably it felt right to him, so he said it. And he promised to end "this American carnage."
Pinker's audacious challenge to ordinary views became widely known in 2011 with his book and its poetic title from Lincoln, The Better Angels of Our Nature. He argued that liberal Enlightenment values had made humanity less violent. The world now, he wrote, is not the vicious cauldron many claim. Particularly if judged in the perspective of history.
Pinker is an optimist in an intellectual world dominated by pessimists. He believes humanity has accomplished much that is valuable and will accomplish much more. He says, "The Enlightenment principle that we can apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing may seem obvious, trite, old-fashioned. I wrote this book because I have come to realize it is not."
Montreal-born, Pinker did a BA at McGill and then ascended the U.S. academic world. He now speaks with the authority of a much-quoted Harvard psychology professor. In his view, a crisis of confidence afflicts many who would otherwise be the supporters of progress. Even so, he finds it hard to convince doubters of the evidence that we have made progress, that our present is better than our past, and that our future -- through our efforts -- can surpass this present. Civilization's flaws have never been so visible.
Journalism, including television, informs us 24 hours a day on the evils and errors of the world. It rarely offers good news. Pinker notes that we never hear a journalist say to a camera, "I'm reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out." If the country was at peace it wouldn't be attracting reporters.
Psychologists have invented the term "availability error" to magnify bad news. When an ominous fact is easily available, it becomes the first thing in our mind. Anything threatening, to an individual or a nation, carries potency in the imagination. After 9/11 we thought first that any explosion or plane crash was the result of terrorism. Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. "Not surprisingly," Pinker says, "many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving."
Pinker quotes Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist, who said that if a newspaper came out once every 50 years instead of once a day, and if broadcast news followed the same schedule, they would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. They would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy, the defeat of cholera or the rise of literacy.
Pinker gives us perhaps the most powerful reason for studying history: if we recognize the advances that reason, science and humanism have brought us in the past, we may be able to imagine what they'll do in the future.