It's a terrible time to be alive. Between spiralling economic inequality, the rise of the Islamic State, a migrant crisis that threatens to overwhelm Europe and a changing climate that casts a shadow over the future of our species, to name just a few of the challenges facing the planet, it sometimes seems like the world's best days are behind us. But, on the other hand, it's a wonderful time to be alive. With life expectancy higher than it's ever been and world-bettering technology developing at a startling rate, it sometimes seems as if the future is brighter than ever. So, are things getting better or are they getting worse? It probably depends on whom you ask. The idea of progress will be argued at Friday night's Munk Debate in Toronto. Arguing in support of the resolution – "Be it resolved humankind's best days lie ahead …" – will be the Montreal-born psychologist, linguist and author Steven Pinker along with British journalist and author Matt Ridley. Their sparring partners will be Malcolm Gladwell, the Ontario-raised New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author, and the philosopher Alain de Botton. The Globe's Mark Medley spoke to the four participants ahead of Friday's debate
Why do you believe the best is yet to come?
That's the way the trends have been going for quite some time. The quantitative data on indicators of human well-being are all pointing in a very consistent, powerful, positive direction – anything from longevity to health to prosperity to peace to democracy.
You often hear older people – grandparents, especially – say "it was better in my day." Why do we look on the past with rose-coloured glasses?
There's a phenomenon that psychologists call the illusion of the good old days. Every generation thinks that the younger generation is destroying civilization. Partly, it's because as we age, our capacities decline and we confuse changes in ourselves and changes in the times. Partly it's because as society changes our skills become obsolete, and so we protest changes that disempower us at the expense of younger generations. Partly it's because as we get older we become more cognizant of the risks of life – maybe we become parents and we suddenly are aware of all the things that can kill our children. We cannot discount our own aging and our own life changes when we assess the state of the world. We're always prone to seeing deterioration, whether or not it's objectively there. It's also because of a cognitive illusion that psychologists call the availability heuristic, which is the use of memorable examples as a way of assessing probability and risk – that is, the more easily you can recall an example of something the more likely we think it` to be. So, we think that plane travel is more dangerous than car travel simply because plane crashes are reported in the paper and car crashes aren't, even though car crashes are far more numerous. And as our ability to gather news worldwide becomes more extensive, we become aware of mayhem and risk and damage all over the world, and each one of those stories makes us think that the world is a more dangerous place.
Do you ever find yourself thinking things used to be better?
A: One of the great benefits of being a psychologist is that one is aware of these illusions and fallacies and one can at least take efforts to discount them. So, yes, it's a constant struggle. I see younger people obsessed with social media, something I can never appreciate having been born too soon, but I pinch myself before thinking that this is a deterioration of the quality in culture. Because I know that's what our parents said about us when we listened to the Beatles and had our transistor radios, to say nothing of television, which was seen as the great menace to civilization back in the 1960s. In fact, our parents had a stronger case against us than we have against Millennials, since the 1960s were a time in which many indicators of social well-being really did get worse. The crime rate skyrocketed in the 1960s – that was my generation's fault. The deterioration of civilization took place on my watch, not the watch of the young people today.
On the Munk Debates website you're quoted as saying that "it's just a brute fact that we don't throw virgins into volcanoes any more. We don't execute people for shoplifting a cabbage. And we used to." But we still do horrible things. Women are raped and then stoned to death in some countries. It seems as if there are mass shootings on a weekly basis. We're in the midst of a migrant crisis the likes we haven't seen since the Second World War…
[Interrupting] Yes, but each one of those is based on a fallacy. All it consists of is an observation that there's bad stuff happening today. None of them are actually based on a comparison with the same kind of events in the past. Also, the constant claim that the migrant crisis is worse than it has been since World War Two is actually not based on any data. It's almost certainly false. The huge expulsions and migrations following the partition of India, the boat people after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe following World War Two – we don't have numbers to compare but even the guesstimate, the frequently reported the claim that the crisis is now the worst since World War Two, is really not based on any numbers. It's horrific, but that isn't the point. That fact that's happening now tells you nothing one way or another about whether things are getting better or worse. Better or worse means you've got two points in time, and one of them is lower than the other. If you have one point in time it's absolutely meaningless unless you know that things were better in the past. Which, in fact, they were not.
Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His books include The Sense of Style and The Better Angels of Our Nature, as well as The Blank Slate and How the Mind Works, which were both finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
You've said that "the world has never been a better place to live in, and it will keep on getting better." What makes you confident this is true?
One is the trajectory of the past and where it's heading – the incredible improvements in human living standards over the last 50 years in particular, which is almost unnoticed and unreported. It's truly amazing what's happening. Pretty well every measure you look at there's been startling transformations. Because they're not happening so fast in the Western world these last five years, we've tended to forget they're happening, but actually they're happening faster than ever in the parts of the world that really count. The second point is the mechanism that brought that about is alive and well, and going strong – and that mechanism is basically the meeting and making of ideas to produce new ideas. Innovation, in a word. And innovation not just in things, but in thoughts, as well – both in rules and tools. To give you an example of that, we've now got a really good way of driving away smoking – it's called vaping. It was invented in China. And the point of that is that we don't have to do the heavy lifting of innovating in the West any more. Everybody's joining in. Technologies that were invented in California, and technologies that were invented in Japan, and technologies that were invented in Europe, came together in China to produce a new idea, which was the inhalable nicotine device rather than the combustible nicotine device. That's just one tiny example of how much faster ideas can breed today than they used to. The rate at which we're tackling problems is only going to go up as long as the world is interconnected and as long as people can share their ideas with others. That's basically my two-pronged argument.
Why are people often nostalgic for the past and afraid of the future?
We not only remember the good things about the past and forget the bad things about the past, but we notice the bad things about the future and forget the good things about the future. We have this strange asymmetry – we're very biased in our memories of the past and we're very biased in our assessment of the future. And we're kind of right to be worried about the future, because the things that are going to go well in the future we don't need to spend time worrying about. The things that are going to go badly we need to pay attention to. And, of course, in between those two, in the present, we've got a media that is totally dominated by bad news. And there's good reason for that – bad news tends to come suddenly whereas good news tends to come gradually. So, a headline in The Globe and Mail tomorrow that world infant mortality went down by .0001 per cent yesterday is not, presumably, a good idea in news terms, whereas a headline that an airliner crashed yesterday is much more salient.
Do you consider yourself an optimist?
I am an optimist, but I'm not an optimist by temperament. I worry about things just as much as everyone else, particularly at three in the morning. The word 'optimist' was coined by Voltaire, and he used it to mean something completely different – something that we would, today, really call a pessimist.
What did Voltaire intend the word to mean?
He was attacking theodicy, which is the argument that this world must be perfect because God created it. Therefore, even if bad things happen, they must be good things in disguise. Voltaire described as optimists the people who think the world is perfect, the world is optimal and, therefore, can't get better. So, actually, in the old 18th-century sense of the word optimist, I'm not. I think this world is a veil of tears compared to what we can make it in the next few generations.
Matt Ridley's books, which have been translated into 30 languages, include The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves and The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge, which was published in October. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Academy of Medical Sciences, a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and, in 2013, was appointed to the House of Lords.
Why do you believe humankind's best days are behind us?
I respect the uncertainty of the future, I guess is my position. I'm deeply suspicious of any attempts to project the future and I'm also deeply suspicious of any attempts to extrapolate from past events into the future. And it strikes me as those who are optimistic are making both of those mistakes. They're saying that because things have gotten better they will [continue to do so], and also they're overly confident in their understanding of where we're headed. I'm not. I'm willing to admit my own complete confusion about where we're headed.
What makes you suspicious of such attempts?
It comes from being old enough to understand that every prediction I've made about the future was wrong. And, by the way, every prediction that almost anyone I know has made about the future has turned out to be wrong. I don't think you can be a relatively self-aware person and not be deeply humbled by the human powers of prediction. We're always wrong. That's part of what's fun about the world.
Do you consider yourself a pessimist?
No. My position in this debate is that these labels – pessimist and optimist – are not appropriate. The only thing that I can be sure of is that the future will be different, and the risks and challenges that we face will not resemble the ones we face now. But whether that adds up to a better future or not is a leap I find impossible to make. I don't think that makes me a pessimist. I think that makes me skeptical, or at least humble, of my own abilities to project into the future.
The subject of this debate is progress. What does the word mean to you?
I understand what progress means on an individual basis: When human beings achieve the goals they set out to achieve, they can reasonably say to be progressing. I find it a lot harder to figure out what that means on a global basis. If we lift a billion out of poverty in China and India, that's clearly progress. But that doesn't answer the question whether the planet has progressed, because what we don't know is did we incur other kinds of risks in the process of that, or, maybe, in an unconnected way, did we incur risks elsewhere which will end up being far more detrimental than the progress that we made in the field of alleviating poverty? So making any kind of global assessment of progress is, to my mind, incredibly difficult. And it's not sufficient simply to identify specific things that have progressed. If I cure my heart disease but I still have cancer, my health has not progressed.
Malcolm Gladwell is the author of five New York Times bestselling books: The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw and, most recently, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. A former reporter for The Washington Post, he is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker.
Alain de Botton
Humans are living longer than ever before. Society, as a whole, is more prosperous than at any time in its history. Technology is advancing at startling rates, making our lives, in many cases, easier or at least more comfortable. Isn't this the best time in history to be alive?
There are many people having very nice lives today – perhaps more than ever. But life remains in many ways a deeply perplexing event: It ends often very suddenly, and almost always before we think it's time to go. The horror of dying and seeing our loved ones die has not changed one iota. Yes, certain sorts of suffering have been attenuated, but death remains the winner now as much as it ever did. Furthermore, though our machines are impressive, our capacities for making ourselves unhappy and for torturing ourselves and others remains undimmed. We are a properly puzzling animal, it seems not very well suited to contentment or peace.
Do you consider yourself a pessimist?
I am a very cheerful, very active pessimist. Everyone of us is facing their own mini Armageddon, everything they do will be wiped out, and their name and petty achievements entirely forgotten. This should lend a certain dark buoyancy to one's days. Pessimism, far from being a philosophy of despair, is in fact a vital guarantee of preparedness and anticipation; for it insulates one from a sudden disaster. This is the wisdom of ancient Stoic philosophy, which advised its adherents never to go to bed without examining how they'd feel if tomorrow was the last day.
How does one remain sane, or motivated to try to be better, if one accepts things are only going to get worse? It's a terribly depressing thought.
Homo sapiens is a profoundly flawed creature: The only hope lies in evolving into something else entirely, possibly aided by technology; something less violent, more forgiving and more educable.
The subject of this debate is progress. What does progress mean to you?
Progress means an increase in wisdom; and an increase in wisdom is entirely compatible with a modesty about one's own progress and that of one's society. Indeed, such modesty seems to be a precondition of moral evolution.
A philosopher and writer whose books have been bestsellers in 30 countries, Alain de Botton is the author of Essays in Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Consolations of Philosophy, The Art of Travel, Status Anxiety, The Architecture of Happiness, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Religion for Atheists, Art as Therapy, and, more recently, The News: A User's Manual.