If It Bleeds, It Misleads
Posted by Richard Conniff on November 6, 2011
We tend to think the world is caught up an endless and ever worsening round of bloody warfare. But in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker argues that the opposite is true. The Guardian recently headlined its excerpt with a clever twist on an old newspaper rubric: “If it Bleeds, It Misleads”:
Why the gloom? Partly it’s the result of market forces in the punditry business, which favour the Cassandras over the Pollyannas. But mainly, I think, it comes from the innumeracy of our journalistic and intellectual culture. If we don’t keep an eye on the numbers, the programming policy “If it bleeds, it leads” will feed the cognitive short cut “The more memorable, the more frequent”, and we will end up with what has been called a false sense of insecurity.
The pessimism has been inspired by “new wars” involving guerrillas and paramilitaries that plague the developing world, symbolised by images of Kalashnikov-toting teenagers. It has been stoked by the widely repeated (and completely bogus) meme that at the beginning of the 20th century 90% of war deaths were suffered by soldiers and less than 10% by civilians, but by the end of the century these proportions had been reversed. It has fed on the claim that the world learned nothing from the Holocaust, and that genocides are as common as ever. And of course it has been redoubled by the threat of terrorism, which has been said to pose an “existential threat” to western countries, having the capacity to “do away with our way of life” or to end “civilisation itself”.
Each of these scourges continues to take a toll in human lives. But it’s only recently that political scientists have tried to measure how big a toll it is, and they have reached a surprising conclusion: all these kinds of killing are in decline. Battle deaths per 100,000 of the world population have fallen from 300 during the height of the second world war to the teens in the postwar years, single digits during the cold war, and less than one in the 21st century.
The deliberate killing of civilians has shown a similar bumpy yet downward trajectory. And other than in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, deaths from terrorism in the past decade were far lower than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, with their hijackings and bombings by countless revolutionary fronts, leagues, brigades and factions. A mental model in which the world has a constant allotment of violence – so that every ceasefire is reincarnated somewhere else as a new war, and every interlude of peace is just a time-out in which martial tensions build up and seek release – is factually mistaken.
It’s not easy to see the bright side in the world today, where the remnants of war continue to cause tremendous misery. The effort to quantify the misery can seem heartless, especially when it undermines claims that are serving as effective propaganda for raising money and attention. But there is a moral imperative in getting the facts right, and not just because truth is better than error.
The discovery that fewer people are dying in wars all over the world can thwart cynicism among compassion-fatigued newsreaders who might otherwise think that poor countries are irredeemable hellholes. And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us towards doing things that make people better off, rather than congratulating ourselves on how morally sophisticated we are.
The argument that humans are born to cooperate, to make love, not war, is of course hardly new with Pinker. Primatlogist Frans de Waal, among others, has made the case repeatedly, and my book The Ape in the Corner Office also emphasized our tendency to exaggerate the importance of conflict.