"The question of whether progress has occurred is not a matter of whether you have a sunny disposition or see the glass as half full... but it’s an empirical hypothesis. Human well-being can be measured." - Steven Pinker
New York Times bestseller and Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard Steven Pinker spoke to the SXSW community in March about the ideals of the Enlightenment period and used data to exemplify the social progress that has occurred in the 250 years since.
The session begins with a presentation of the various metrics for measuring quality of life of populations, represented in graphs that illustrate a steady improvement over time. These graphics lead to the inevitable question of the session — if we can statistically demonstrate that now is the best time to be alive in recorded history, then why are we so pessimistic as a society?
"Stop treating every bad event as the harbinger of a decline or epidemic or crisis. Put it into a statistical perspective... Americans list (terrorism) as the number one problem, even though fewer people are killed by terrorists each year than people who die by stings from bees and wasps."
Of course, there is no simple answer to how this pessimism has developed nor an easy fix for it, but Pinker’s presentation lays out the argument that society has progressed over time. "A narrative that progress is possible but not inevitable has to be part of our understanding," said Pinker. This statement is central to his presentation — that we cannot assume that living conditions will always improve without deliberate action to make it so.
Learn more about the ideals of the Enlightenment period, the pitfalls of backsliding as a society, and the possibility of progress in the full SXSW 2018 session, "Enlightenment Now: Reason Science Humanism Progress," from the Intelligent Future Track at the SXSW Conference.
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Steven Pinker "Enlightenment Now: Reason Science Humanism Progress" at SXSW 2018 - Photo by Will Blake