A Must Read: Steven Pinker Marks to Market

Steven Pinker’s master work, The Better Angels of our Nature, found very long-term declines (going back to pre-history) in a broad array of violence indicators.  The book is mercifully long although it doesn’t reach the lofty standards of the John Cage Organ Project.  Those of us craving further fixes can briefly binge on the annual updates of the graphs.  This year’s installment is here and here.

Doing updates like these is a really healthy practice.  Marking to market should be almost a legal requirement for people who make predictions.  Better Angels is more about explaining the past than predicting the future but much of its allure comes from the clear sense it projects that declining violence is likely to carry forward into the foreseeable future.

The latest update suggests that, indeed, the decline has continued except that battle deaths have recently turned upwards.

I have just a few comments.

First, please don’t label the battle deaths graph as “war deaths”.  The term “war deaths” usually includes things such as the killing of unarmed civilians and non-violent excess deaths that are not covered by the battle deaths concept (see here and here).

Second, what about refugees?  I know this comment seems almost optimized to confirm Pinker’s observation about the undeserved dominance of the “availability heuristic.”:

But headlines are a poor guide to history. People’s sense of danger is warped by the availability of memorable examples – which is why we are more afraid of getting eaten by a shark than falling down the stairs, though the latter is likelier to kill us.

Fair enough, and I’m not an expert on migration flows.  But it does seem that something serious is afoot that we need to think through.

Finally, one massive event could make things look a lot different.  (This article of mine can provide a gateway into this discussion.)

Looking forward to next year.

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