Nobody can deny the progress humans have made in science and technology. But when it comes to moral and political progress, doubts start to rise. Why is that? How can we figure out the truth? Is progress an illusion?
Why Are We Critical of Progress?
1. The Illusion of Profundity
Pessimism sounds more profound than optimism. “It’s all bad” sounds more trustable than “It’s all good,” if one had to choose. “Harsh truth” sounds more believable than “encouraging fact.” This intellectual bias makes it easy for us to convincingly complain about the deep-rooted ills of modern trends in culture and politics.
2. The Optimism Gap
Statistically, a person tends to think that his own life is improving or at least OK, while everything around him is going to shit. “I’m fine, but most other people are getting worse, stupider, poorer, and more depressed.” There is a broad gap between how we judge our own situation and how we judge the situation of others, of society, and of the world. While we acknowledge progress in ourselves, the optimism gap blinds us to societal and worldwide progress.
3. The Availability Heuristic
Current events come to mind more easily, especially if they are emotional and amply covered by the media; and what comes to mind more easily is remembered more frequently. This leads us to deduce false overall trends.
4. The Negativity Bias
Destruction can occur quickly, but good things take time. Bad events stir up emotions, but good ones not as much. Problems are salient, but what works well is easily overlooked. We are biased towards negativity both by our psychology and by the media:
If you ignore all the years in which an indicator of some problem declines, and report every uptick (since, after all, it’s “news”), readers will come away with the impression that life is getting worse and worse even as it gets better and better. (Stephen Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, p. 44)
This is how the negativity bias makes us doubt politico-moral progress.
5. The Cycle Shortcut
“It’s all cyclical!” is a common cognitive shortcut used to interpret seemingly recurring trends: “Cultures rise and decay in cycles, prosperity and recession follow each other in cycles, as do war and peace.” Since thinking in cycles comes naturally to us (day & night, summer & winter, etc.), we are quick to disregard the idea of progress.
But the cycle shortcut is a lazy way of analyzing trends. It neglects that “changes over time may be statistical, with unpredictable fluctuations, without being cyclical, namely oscillating like a pendulum between two extremes,” writes Steven Pinker, “Progress can take place when the reversals in a positive trend become less frequent, become less severe, or, in some cases, cease altogether.”1
What Is the Truth About Progress?
How can we, with all these cognitive biases, ever hope to figure out the truth about progress?
There is no need to hope, only a method to apply: the method of science. We must study the research, we must face the facts, we must look at the data. In a word, we must think quantitatively. Truth is found in numbers, critically analyzed, not in emotions, biasedly rationalized.
- Stephen Pinker, 2018, Enlightenment Now, p. 44