Report from the Empire of Nice

by Daniel A. Kaufman

The experimental psychologist, Steven Pinker, says that we are getting nicer.  Way nicer.  We kill and rape each other much less than we used to.  (The “rape culture” folks apparently didn’t get the memo.)  We’re less racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, sizeist, ageist, and ableist.  (We’re just less -ist in general.)  We don’t have comedians like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay anymore.  Morton Downey Jr. is a dim, blurry memory.  You get the drift.

Certainly, nice is the thing, today.  Or at least, that’s what we’re all telling each other.  Lots of mutual – and self — congratulation going on, for sure.  A big, Kumbaya-style hug between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, with the meanie Gen-Xers crushed between them and forgotten.  But, I’m skeptical.

For one thing, the nice-narrative conflicts with another popular story, namely, that we are suffering unprecedented levels of depression, worldwide.  Yes, I know, some of the increase can be explained by a growing and aging population – old people tend to be more depressed – but regardless, there is something strange about being told that we are the nicest we’ve ever been … and everybody’s miserable.  For another, I really wonder about the concept of niceness in play here.  There seems to be some notion that less violence or overt, slur-style-meanness translates into greater niceness.  But, does it?  Is punching someone meaner than frivolously suing him?  Or Twitter-ruining him?  Overall, the punch does less harm and for a much shorter time.  I’d certainly prefer it – getting punched that is.  Is calling someone an “asshole” or a “pussy” worse than passively-aggressively tormenting him?  I don’t think so.  Again, I’d much rather have the former done to me than the latter, but of course some (of a masochistic bent) might disagree.

One contrary thought, then, is that the turn towards niceness involves nothing more than preferring one modality of meanness over another.   If we punch fewer people, but frivolously sue each other left and right, we’ve certainly become less violent, but hardly nicer.  We just do meanness differently.  And if we call people fewer mean names, but have turned into a bunch of passive-aggressive borderline cases, we’re certainly less overtly mean, but it would be very odd to say that we had become nicer.

This idea that the Empire of Nice is really just a cover for a reconfiguration of the modalities of meanness also makes me wonder whether one might read it as simply rearranging the acceptable targets of meanness.  In 1976, if two junior-high school boys had a dispute, they’d have settled it in a schoolyard punch-up.   This method of conflict resolution certainly favored the physically aggressive and strong and typically, this meant the greaser kid, whose dad was the local garbage man, over the scrawny science kid, whose dad was a professor or engineer.  Today, of course, punch-ups are subject to zero-tolerance policies and will get you arrested, and student conflicts are swiftly dispatched to administrative, talk-focused conflict resolution infrastructures.  Clearly, this advantages the smart, the articulate, and the overall linguistically adroit which, more often than not, means the wealthier of the disputing parties.  Does the new regime really show that we are nicer, then, or does it simply reflect the fact that we’ve taken the side of the upper-middle-class kid over that of the garbage man’s kid?   (Proverbially speaking, of course.)

But even taking ‘nice’ on the terms they’d like us to, the residents of the Empire of Nice seem to like a lot of not-nice things.  Exploitation, which was once a hyper niche-market brand of cinema – and which is characterized, most generally, as entertainment, in which the audience gleefully revels in the misery of others – is now mainstream, wildly popular, in fact, in the form of Reality TV.   We may not call people “fatsos” or “lardasses” anymore, but boy, do we love watching the socio-cultural, obesity-drenched car wreck that is “Honey Boo-Boo.”  We may enforce zero-tolerance policies against punching anyone, but we adore watching people punch, kick, and claw each other into bloody pulps, on UFC.  (Fuck that pussy-assed boxing shit.)  And I haven’t even scratched the surface – watching people with their heads in jars, having centipedes and cockroaches poured over their faces (Fear Factor) … joyfully anticipating the crushed, disappointed, embarrassed face of the next contestant to be given the chop (The Weakest Link) … laughing at (not with) the lewd and boorish antics of a bunch of posturing, developmentally-challenged Guidos (Jersey Shore) … or marveling at tweaking, rictus-grinning Charlie Sheen winning on Good Morning America — these are not the sorts of thing that nice people like (something Bret Easton Ellis observed, to devastating effect, in a featured article in Newsweek, “Charlie Sheen is Winning”).

Of course, the whole thing is a ridiculous joke to begin with; a by-now tedious example of the perils of pop-science.  If it wasn’t bad enough that someone could think that the question of whether we are becoming better, as a people, or whether history has a clear, morally positive direction could be answered by counting how many people got killed or raped or were punched or called bad names before the Industrial Revolution and after, the numbers, even if relevant, don’t tell the tale.  The numbers of war-dead and dead-by-totalitarian-fuck-states in the 20th Century are up in the hundreds of millions.  One has to take at least a half a millennium of pre-modern history, adjusted for population, to get anything approaching the carnage that we managed to unleash in one measly century.  (And that doesn’t even consider all the qualitative distinctions we might want to make, between modern and pre-modern forms of human beastliness – as Hannah Arendt once observed, “certain categories of men today are far worse off than any slave or serf ever was.”)  It might be prudent not to sing the praises of the Empire of Nice too soon.  We might want to wait a few more hundred years, before declaring victory.  Because if they’re anything like the last one hundred, Steven Pinker’s descendants (the Pinkies?) might have to reconsider the master’s underlying thesis.

Such hesitation is unlikely, however, and I expect the Empire of Nice to continue merrily on its rose-bricked road.  But for me?

I miss Sam Kinison.

Some Relevant Sources

Hannah Arendt, “The Ivory Tower of Common Sense” (1946).







32 responses to “Report from the Empire of Nice”

  1. s. wallerstein

    There’s something smug and complacent about Pinker that makes one almost wish that someone somewhere sets off a hydrogen bomb in a crowded shopping mall to prove him wrong. I wonder what Syrians or Mexicans (the incredible violence due to drug wars) would think about his thesis that the world is getting less violent. Pinker’s assumption that his Harvard politically correct liberalism is the highest state of human cultural evolution (if something which could be called “the highest state of human cultural evolution” exists, which I doubt) is also irritating, as is his hair-style. In singing the praises of contemporary society, he also overlooks that economic inequality has reached record level in formerly more equalitarian societies, such as the U.S.

  2. Hi Dan, that was an interesting take on nice as change in how one is mean.

    First, I want to defend UFC from the charge you brought against it. I think enjoying visceral, cathartic sports is not about hating or “meanfulness”. It is about something else entirely. And for the UFC in specific, while sure many or even most may watch for the blood, that is not necessarily how it emerged or why many others may watch it. There was an interest in seeing how different styles of fighting would fare against each other. I was definitely in that camp, having studied several styles. I would note some of the early ones (I haven’t followed it for some time) ended in lengthy, bloodless grappling matches.

    I think “bum fights” is a better example of looking for blood in an overtly mean, and demeaning sense.

    Second, well… Sam Kinnison. I like his jokes, I agree he is funny, but they were always undercut (to me) by his screaming the punchline. It is just an aesthetic thing. Screaming makes me physically uncomfortable, like nails on a chalkboard. And unfortunately, following in his wake were a number of comedians who confused yelling their punchlines with telling a good joke. Perhaps Sam should have yelled some instructions to other comedians about making sure they… HAVE A GOOD JOKE FIRST!!! 🙂

    Of course I didn’t like it when people criticized him or other comedians for being offensive. I mean if you don’t like them, you can always put on a Gallagher special.

    Third, Mort Downey Jr. Kudos for that reference. Yes his yelling made me uncomfortable too. He was nails on a chalkboard.

    Finally, Pinker has always come off to me as a smug apologist for the status quo, or at least for the currently crystallizing state and corporate power structure. He keeps claiming bad things are decreasing but (even if true) that does not mean lives are improving or the situation is something we should be satisfied with. As an analogy, maybe there are statistically fewer fires in the house, but the ones remaining are larger, more intense, and in the most critical parts. And ironically while ignoring economic disparities and encroachments on civil liberty, he seems willing to suggest we should fear individuals like Snowden.

  3. “We don’t have comedians like Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay anymore. Morton Downey Jr. is a dim, blurry memory.”

    But today we get to watch Donald Trump (and his “huge” rallies) on TV. We’ll see how long that show lasts.

  4. Good essay, but difficult to comment on. Can’t help feeling that we have got it right here and there, in ways which the human race have not got it right before.

    But it is such a curates egg.

  5. “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.” was Mark Twain’s way of saying that people love to talk about things that by their own reckoning they can have no impact on. I don’t think he meant just asking someone about the weather report and deciding whether to take an umbrella, but the bitching and moaning about the weather. The “by their own reckoning” part is important. If the people talking about the weather were trying to work out how to do something about it, that might be more interesting. In Mark Twain’s day, those people would have easily been dismissed as crackpots. Today they might be libertarian engineers explaining how it doesn’t matter if we wait til the last moment to deal with global warming. As Wally from Dilbert says, “Every problem has an engineering solution”

    But in the case of the climate engineering theorists, it is mostly a conversation for inaction whether than a conversation for action.

    Why do we piss and moan so much? Or conversely, talk about how wonderfully things have been going, and how great it’s going to be? It’s either going to be great or awful or not. What good does this kind of talk do? A couple of theories (by an incorrigible evolutionary sociologist):

    1) “Alphas” or designated decision makers in a band or tribe get to use speech acts to make things happen. Others get to have “input”, to cheer or complain, or analyze trends. Hence their brain power can have an effect, if the alphas find a statement compelling, but they aren’t going around using the imperative, saying “let’s do X” which would destabilize the leadership structure.

    2) It’s a way for people to sort themselves out. Evolutionarily, “sorting out” is useful when a band has grown to an unwieldy size and would tend to be more optimal if split. The piss-and-moaners, e.g., can go one way, while the “won’t-it-be-wonderfullers” can go the other. Or those who like to fish can go one way and those who like to catch birds in nets can go the other.

    Neither seems to be as functional in the modern world. Today the alphas look around and see/hear a cacophony of complaints of all sorts, and praises and can just pick the ones they want to listen to. Also we are sedentary, and our social structures aren’t so fissionable; rather they are just constantly fragmented. People can still sort themselves out, but they can’t get away from the overall direction the society is taking, like our ancestors could, by mere separation.

  6. DanK,

    Got a bit of a rant going on here; but that’s okay, I agree with a lot of it.

    It’s a profound mistake to think that human nature has undergone gross improvement over the centuries. Biological evolution doesn’t work that way – why should we think social evolution (whatever that might be) does?

    No one denies that progress occurs – in some fields within certain cultures, in given historical periods; but not without continuing potential for regress. When I was young, capital punishment seemed on its way to becoming a thing of the past; now the arguments against it are barely heard in public. Sometimes it is 2 steps forward, 1 step back; unfortuately, it can just as well prove the other way around.

    In my next comment, I want to discuss Pinker’s article, which I found alternately amusing and irritating, and which I think is at the heart of your response here.

  7. dbholmes: Finally, Pinker has always come off to me as a smug apologist for the status quo, or at least for the currently crystallizing state and corporate power structure.

    Hmm, seems to me to be, like Jonathan Haidt, a naive liberal being steadily drawn into the libertarian fringes of Movement Conservatism. They would be touching quite different ecological niches of the movement, but both sort of Templeton Foundation-ish.

  8. Pinker’s article is the most ridiculously skewered, narrowly focused argument I’ve read in a long time. But it’s quite in keeping with the painfully artificial optimism of academic progressivists – from Marxists still prophesying a global revolution to robotics experts promising ever greater ‘leisure’ for humanity (read: unemployment and poverty). Undoubtedly, the worst delusion fostered by Modernity is that social evolution (technological, cultural, psychological) can somehow hasten biological evolution – if we can’t somehow realize the full potential of our species, why, transhumanists will create another species that will inherit that potential and improve upon it.

    Pinker only picks the ripest cherries for his argument. No talk at all about state surveillance and other oppressive measures used to keep the masses in line in many countries. No discussion of the exigencies of global capitalism, which has produced some pressure to avoid military confrontation, but which has also generated cultures of vicious competition and inhumane disinterest in the spread of poverty. Further, Pinker is pretending to offer an argument concerning statistics over history – but surely this is a profoundly truncated history we are given!

    “From a high in the second world war of almost 300 battle deaths per 100,000 people per year, the rate rollercoasted downward, cresting at 22 during the Korean war, nine during Vietnam and five during the Iran-Iraq war before bobbing along the floor at fewer than 0.5 between 2001 and 2011.”

    The Second World War was only 70 years ago; the potential for another such war remains problematic. One dirty bomb in the wrong city would shift these numbers somewhat, I should think.

    But this is an odd way to count the dead, anyway. We’re not looking at some bugs under a microscope. The victims of ISIS would hardly breathe relief reading this article, ‘ah, well, but over all the species is doing better!’ Nor can this reckoning account for how WWII happened to begin with. The 19th century had its fair share of pacifist savants and progressivists promising the dawn of new eras of enlightenment and camaraderie. Yet WWII saw the violent death of more than 100 million globally in less than 10 years (if we see Spain, Manchuria, and Ethiopia as part of that war, as i think we should). What happened to all that pacifism, how did the new era of enlightenment meet such a bloody finale?

    Pinker can’t even consider such a question, yet it’s the question that can’t be avoided when trying to make sense of his argument. The fact remains that neither political movements not statistical trends can fully explain, nor prophecy what current social configurations will produce tomorrow or exactly how. How could the tragedy of 9/11 really lead to America launching an aggressive war of conquest against an uninvolved nation, leading to the chaos in the mid-east with which we deal today? Pinker reads this as just a spike on a graph – how impoverished an ‘explanation’ is that?

  9. Anyone read Pinker’s wife’s peculiar book about Spinoza?

  10. Pinker’s article is the most ridiculously skewered, narrowly focused argument

    Skewed? But then it’s also been skewered a lot.

  11. Hall Morris,

    Yep, “skewed.” My bad. I am skewered with embarrassment – rather like the starship captain foist on his own picard (but at least he wasn’t thoid).

  12. Hi Hal, that’s an interesting point. I sort of like Jonathon Haidt, though more based on his earlier work. Over the last few years he’s had a pro-conservative/business angle which seems more campaigny than researchy. Though I still side with his concerns about the increasing intolerance and childishness among students.

  13. Hi Dan (and all), I was thinking about Pinker’s paper and (beyond the obvious categories he misses) I wondered if the stats themselves were correct for the categories he chose.

    His working concept seems to be that he can show violence has been chosen/used less if certain stats related to violence have decreased.

    My first issue is many of these stats seem to be based on world population. Well the largest populations of people (India and China) are generally not involved in the numerous/massive conflicts about which the data is being collected. So as long as they are militarily stable (not choosing the forms of violence under study) while growing in population over this period (more so than other nations), they sort of artificially depress the figures. It would seem like if stats were just about people in the regions where conflicts have been going on (militarily active) rather than all people on earth, there could be a different trend.

    Second, how do deaths in combat say anything about warfare, and choices to engage in it as a solution, when there are so many other factors involved? Medical treatment has improved vastly since 1990s, and much more so since WW2. Same for transport, which gets supplies to wounded and vice versa. Wouldn’t a more reliable statistic be how many have been wounded, gone missing, killed, and displaced (as an aggregate figure) due to combat? I mean we now have 2 million displaced from Syria… or does Pinker suggest we are not facing a refugee crisis (or that it is not from war)?

    Or, perhaps more importantly since this is about CHOOSING violence, how many people (or amounts of material goods) have been deployed to solve a problem by exerting a threat of violent force (whether they see combat or not)?

    Or, a ratio of international problems that have arisen to the choice of using violence (or threat of violence) to solve them?

    Here he does switch to regional (US) stats for some categories (which means he no longer includes the world?).

    But those falling scores (if taken at face value) do not take into account the increased militarization of police forces and actions of states/police against citizens. US incarceration rates have sky-rocketed such that it has the highest proportion of its population confined in prison compared to all other nations (and with the US looking back in time). Is this not choosing violence as an instrument just as much as warfare? If not, why not? The violent crime rate might be near nil in North Korea, but that does not suggest North Koreans are not choosing violence as a solution less… just perhaps so much so from the state side of the equation the oppressive atmosphere keeps people from trying anything on the individual level.

  14. s. wallerstein

    Astrodreamer, I read Rebecca Goldstein’s book on Spinoza, which is more about Rebecca Goldstein than it is about Spinoza. She seems to project her own ambivalence about Judaism into Spinoza, who unlike Ms. Goldstein, shows no interest in Judaism in his writings (or in his letters) and seems to have made a clean break with it. Steven Nadler is a better introduction to Spinoza for the lay person (like myself).

  15. davidlduffy

    Looking at the changes over just 25 years since 1990 in:

    and the actual papers Pinker is citing on organised violence from

    and also from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010

    I don’t think there is much doubt over the actual overall trends. As to whether absolute numbers are more “real” than rates, I would have to go with rates. Otherwise, one can’t really make sense of anything eg 275000 people killed by cars per year in China alone versus only 100000 killed in the entire world by warfare in 2014.

    Regarding secular trends in depression, I suspect that “[m]easures based on assessment of symptoms showed no evidence of change over time. However, the frequency of diagnosis and treatment appears to be increasing”
    and many other papers over the past 25 years – which may be a good thing.

    Possibly it is the case that having more educated people living longer may be a bad thing, since it will lead quickly to the collapse of civilisation – I don’t think so myself.

  16. Thomas Jones

    Not much to add to this discussion, except to say “Happy Holidays!” and to add Wallace Stevens’s sardonic humor to the occasion:

    “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”

    Call the roller of big cigars,
    The muscular one, and bid him whip
    In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
    Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
    As they are used to wear, and let the boys
    Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
    Let be be finale of seem.
    The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

    Take from the dresser of deal,
    Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
    On which she embroidered fantails once
    And spread it so as to cover her face.
    If her horny feet protrude, they come
    To show how cold she is, and dumb.
    Let the lamp affix its beam.
    The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

  17. davidlduffy: even if one accepts the numbers and the manner in which he uses them, there is still the remaining questions of (a) the relationship between the decline of overt violence and “niceness” and (b) the question of quality versus quantity. And (a) really made up the bulk of my point. I simply wanted to point out, towards the end, that the numbers and the way they are used may be a more complicated thing than people might think.

  18. Daniel, apparently we hit university at about the same time. It was then that standard “bums” and “vagrants” were instantly given the blameless and respectable title of “homeless.” This was another example in which “reality” was being overcome by the social pressures of “morality” — and the associated dishonesty repulsed me. I may not have possessed your tools to join the academy, though I also decided that that path might corrupt my position. How many formal scholars had failed to do what I thought needed doing? Every last one! Thus I decided to hammer out my ideas in seclusion, and only then work my way back.

    So what is my position? Its that the social tool of morality itself, effectively causes our mental and behavioral sciences to fail. Because the realities of good and bad existence can have incredibly repugnant implications, these sciences haven’t been permitted to take up a “true,” and thus “immoral,” founding premise.

    The one exception that I know of, does also help make my case. The science of economics is founded upon utilitarianism, though only conditionally so. If pressed about its associated “selfishness ideology,” an economist can always say, “Hey this is just a secondary science, not psychology. Furthermore we don’t hold that happiness is ‘good’ for anyone, but rather that people simply behave this way. Economics seeks to explain how we behave in practive, not how it’s ‘good’ for us to behave.” Daniel your wonderful interview with Glenn Loury did reinforce this notion in me. Though you didn’t pressing him about the “horrors” of utilitarianism, it was quite clear to me what his answer would have been. (For anyone who missed it, I believe that an extreme degree of scholar sensibility was displayed:

    Daniel, I am convinced more than ever that our projects conform. I look forward to your continued scrutiny.

  19. Hi Davidlduffy, you said you don’t think there is much doubt regarding trends, but don’t say what it is you took away from those citations or why. One thing that tends to bug me is people using statistics poorly, especially social statistics where one knows you have to be careful. This is why Pinker tends to bother me, and if you think those links support his thesis then I am confused where you see support for the trend he is talking about.

    Dan was clear what he was concerned with, and I saw nothing in those pages you linked to refuting his argument.

    I was clear in my reply what I was concerned with, and I saw nothing in your links to suggest my concerns about Pinker’s questionable use of data were unjustified. Indeed quite the opposite. I will set aside meta-concerns I could raise about the sources of data and take them at face value.

    The UN paper completely vindicates my position on use of battle deaths as somehow suggesting violence is used less or somehow effecting less people. Check out the graph and text on Page 23 concerning displaced persons. The rate of people being displaced by war quadrupled between 2010-2014. Relevant quote:

    By the end of 2014, almost 60 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide, the highest level recorded since the Second World War. If these people were a nation, they would make up the twenty-fourth largest country in the world… Nine out of ten refugees under the UNHCR mandate are located in the developing regions. This compares to seven out of ten a decade ago… Based on available evidence, children accounted for half of the global refugee population under the UNHCR mandate in 2014, the highest proportion in 10 years.

    This does not get into deaths within those populations due to the hazards of being a refuge which would not be tallied as “battle deaths” in the Uppsalla study (which for some reason doesn’t include wounded or displaced to measure violence).

    Here I will only discuss the most recent and pertinent paper from Uppsalla ( Again I will set aside meta-discussions of data sources and quality other than to note that they themselves discuss qualifications in that paper.

    Their conclusion seems to be a mix of supporting and directly contradicting Pinker (my emphasis).

    Patterns of organized violence show important regional variations, but two major conclusions can be drawn. First, in the last few years the world has become more violent, with death tolls in all three forms of organized violence rapidly rising from a period of considerably lower levels . Second, despite the fact that the number of people who died in organized violence in 2014 is the highest since 1994, when the Rwandan genocide took place, the Cold War period was much more violent than the present. It is imperative to keep analyzing the factors that have caused this positive development in order to learn how best to promote peace in the future. There should be no contradiction in dealing with present catastrophes and preparing for looming threats on the one hand and appreciating the overall decline in violence on the other.

    Once again my point is made (if one reads the paper) that if things are looked at regionally, one gets a much different message than using purely global estimates, particularly when a few massive populations are not currently engaged militarily (that skews the data). But the most important point here is that one has to really selectively choose the window of data to claim Pinker’s thesis things are getting better (less violent) is true. Just because there are less deaths now (and remember I am not even addressing the flaw in that idea) than in the cold war or WW2, does not mean the trend is currently in a peaceful direction. It is currently (2010 on) becoming more violent (massively escalating from 2014) and certainly more than since his book came out (his claim was it was better).

    I am personally baffled how they cite a trend of any kind even including WW2 and the cold war. Check their graph on page 7. I see cycles, with perhaps a trend that the heights of the periods with most deaths are falling. Again, no taking into account the potential effects of improved medicine and transport for that trend.

    The final laugh, is that by this standard (and they claim this) the Middle East and Africa are regions where violence has increased, while violence has decreased in America and Europe. But uhmmmm, the US and European nations are the ones CAUSING many of the deaths recorded in those regions. How does that get interpreted that the US and Europe have become less violent? Perhaps they need a deaths inflicted on others graph.

    As far as ratios go, yeah they are great and sometimes more informative. The point I made is depending on what ratios you are using. Does taking a global average have meaning for the question you are asking? In this case, as both documents show, the answer is no.

  20. davidlduffy

    Hi DB. I’m afraid I was limiting my analysis to the “ripest cherries” (EJ’s winner ;)) criticism of Pinker’s article, which specifically addressed changes over 2007-2015.

    The Melander (2015) paper also has (in the intro):

    Even the exploding violence in the most recent years does not contradict the trend that overall levels of organized violence are declining, albeit unevenly.

    So, I guess my simple point was that Pinker is not distorting the analyses of the UCDP. Obviously, by taking a narrow enough window, you can see the upswing since 2010 either as a failure of the model or a blip (1990,2000,2015). My citation of the MDG and GBD papers was more to Pinker’s thesis about what he thinks underlies the trends – which I believe at a worldwide level he would hold are largely due to increases in absolute wealth (with the middle class defined as earning over $4/d!) and education level. The Global Burden of Disease Study also includes estimates of worldwide changes in disability due to violence from 1990-2013:

    The decline in rates for almost all injuries is so prominent that it warrants a general statement that the world is becoming a safer place to live in…The decline in DALY rates for interpersonal violence was −19.1% (UI −24.2% to −11.5%), with significant decreases in
    11 of 21 world regions with non-significant changes in the other regions. However, the increase by around 50% in the
    rates of interpersonal violence DALYs in South sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania are reason for concern…

    Which comes back to your last point, as to whether global averages are informative – what were you suggesting as a replacement? Either education levels and life expectancy are improving on average (eg 2m fewer malaria deaths in the last decade), and more populations are going through the demographic transition, or they are not. There is going to be regional heterogeneity for a long time into the future. But even in South Africa, where homicide rates are 7 times higher than the world average, they have fallen since 1994.

    As to one of Dan’s original contentions, “take at least a half a millennium of pre-modern history, adjusted for population” to equate with the 20th C. deaths due to warfare is tricky because of the fact that most civilian mortality associated with earlier warfare was due to famine and infectious disease: “The Holy Roman Empire lost 5-6 mio. out of 15 mio. inhabitants during the
    Thirty Years War; France lost 20% of its population in the late 16th century as a result of civil war.”
    By contrast, the USSR lost 10% of its population during WW2, with the world total being 3%. Anyway, this wanders well off topic.

  21. Hi Davidlduffy, the point of the quote you gave from the intro was also within the conclusion I quoted in my reply to you. So I was well aware of the verbiage (and not hiding their conclusion).

    You did not address my points about the meaning of that quote. First, they are equating “levels of organized violence” with “deaths”. That is problematic for the several reasons I gave, to repeat only one: the ignoring of displaced persons which is (as your other citation explicitly states) at it’s highest levels since WW2. Second, regarding the concept of a trend, it is a decrease in height of the highest peaks of deaths. There is no trend to less frequent periods of increased deaths. I even cited the graph they used to discuss the trend. The cyclical trend is clear.

    Obviously, by taking a narrow enough window, you can see the upswing since 2010 either as a failure of the model or a blip.

    Was Pinker’s assertion things had been getting better or not, particularly since the publication of his book? If you claim the upswing is a failure of the model then you pull the rug from under Pinker’s entire argument which is based on that model. He is the one attempting to avoid the obvious recent increase by throwing the window back to specific peaks (WW2 or Cold War) while ignoring the heights of the troughs (to which this period is equal or higher).

    To claim it is a blip is to have psychic powers beyond that of even the authors… who are concerned we avoid a return to high levels of violence seen in the past, which is a concern based on the current trend.

    As I pointed out the MDG report conflicts with the conclusions of both Pinker and Uppsalla. I’m not sure why you are avoiding that, to tell me you meant to use it to discuss the factors underlying the truth of Pinker’s claims. They are clear about the harm recent increases in violence is causing, regardless of increases in wealth and education in non-war torn regions.

    Getting into the flaws of their assessment of increased wealth is a meta-discussion we can leave for another time. I would be glad to discuss it and I hope economic topics come up at EA more often.

    The subject of the GBD study you cited is survivability from injury and not rates of being injured (particularly in war). Their conclusion supports my criticism of using “death” as a measure of “organized violence”. Improvements in medical services and transport (among other things) are making the world “safer” by decreasing the chance that injury leads to death (which is good news). On the rates of war injuries (separate from DALY rates), you will note that they have a separate category for it in their graphs during a break down of interpersonal violence, but it is not included in the text you mention. There is no concluding from this paper whether injuries due to warfare have increased or not, and I will point out their own caveat on such numbers (in regions of war) precludes accuracy.

    Which comes back to your last point, as to whether global averages are informative – what were you suggesting as a replacement?

    It depends on what your question is. As far as the question if we are getting less violent, I have already stated several options. If it is regarding how often we are effected by violence, that has also been mentioned. Some are answerable by global averages based on individuals, some global based on nations, some based on regional assessments. And I have been clear (global ratio or not) it is not based on combat deaths alone.

    A person is not an average of the world’s statistics of all people. They do not “see” that effect. It is similar to the difference between climate and weather. Sometimes looking at the entirety drowns out significant trends associated with the actual question.

    Either education levels and life expectancy are improving on average (eg 2m fewer malaria deaths in the last decade), and more populations are going through the demographic transition, or they are not. There is going to be regional heterogeneity for a long time into the future. But even in South Africa, where homicide rates are 7 times higher than the world average, they have fallen since 1994.

    The first sentence has nothing to do with the question of violence. The last two basically make my point: it is not one size fits all regarding which stats are pertinent to the question you want answered. The last sentence only raises my points back to you regarding what are the trends we are seeing (global or other) on all other effects of violence, and measures of people using violence as a method to solve their problems?

    I mean you understand that by the Uppsalla definition the fact that the US is able to project death and destruction on others (and has been) without needing to put as many soldiers in direct harm’s way as previously required, the US has enjoyed a decrease in and engaged in less “organized violence.” That is an absurd conclusion, stemming from a poor choice in defining the criteria for measuring levels of “organized violence”.

    Since this is already too long, I will let Dan defend his own turf.

    Hope I didn’t come off too angry. Discussing bad stats can bring out the Grinch in me 🙂

    Merry Christmas!

  22. davidlduffy,
    Do you really want to suggest that the world is ‘nicer’ now because the Holy Roman Empire lost a third of its population in thirty years of war, whereas the Soviet Union only lost 10% in 5 years of war? Outside of the weird statistical parameters needed to make that suggestion, the kind of argument going on, if we carry that suggestion to term, not only begs the question of what ‘more or less violence’ would actually mean (supposedly indicative of evolving empathy, charity, and tolerance, as we might define ‘niceness), but would actually beggar it by reducing it to a matter of the most obvious instances of egregious transgression.

    My comment was not questioning the statistics Pinker was using, but the narrow selection of categories measured, and the kind of argument Pinker seemed to be making, which, IMO, is facile and specious.

    Your comments do nothing to change the ground of my criticism or effect that opinion, because it shows the same narrowness of focus, the same telescoped sense of history, and the same hope that such narrow statistical comparisons and telescoping assure us of a ‘nicer,’ happier population in the future.

    I’m reminded of the efficiency expert who needed to account for the contentment of the workers in a given factory, and whose sole criteria for this were the number of complaints workers made (in a company where any complaint would lead to immediate termination). Statistic: 0 complaints; conclusion: happy workers.

    The measure is true; but there is something wrong with the choice of what’s to be measured. And the structure and style of the argument seems divorced from actual experience, because lacking any depth or breadth of consideration of context.

    One long standing argument for capital punishment has been that it cannot be inhumane (which would violate the Constitutional interdict against inhumane punishment), because there are humane means of killing the sentenced person. So presumably, if one kills another ‘humanely,’ with legal authority, then no violence is involved, and everyone remains ‘nice’ and innocent? There is a line of reasoning that goes down that path, and it shows up whenever the SCOTUS has to decide cases involving methodology of execution. But the stronger, more basic argument for capital punishment is that the state reserves the right to violence against individuals and groups that threaten the interests of government or of the people as a whole.

    That reservation (and I know of no national government that has foresworn it) tells us that, although global capitalism has for now largely re-channeled violence into forms of financial competition, the future of warfare has not been settled.

    And that is what rebels, terrorists, fanatics and the occasional war-mongering dictator (and police and military responses to these) remind us – not that we are more violent than we have been in the past, but that potential for great violence remains within us pretty much the same as it ever was.

  23. Hi dbholmes, you wrote “Hi Hal, that’s an interesting point. I sort of like Jonathon Haidt, though more based on his earlier work. Over the last few years he’s had a pro-conservative/business angle which seems more campaigny than researchy. Though I still side with his concerns about the increasing intolerance and childishness among students”

    I think The Righteous Mind was mostly a brilliant book, but at one point in the book, he goes off on a weird tangent. He thinks he’s giving the right their due when he says “Markets are magic”, and gives a very bad illustration, picking up an argument that somebody else has been hammering away at.
    1) Hospital-borne super-bacteria ought to be wiped out.
    2) Laser eye surgery, which operates in a typically structured competitive market unlike other medical procedures has become wonderfully cheap and effective.
    3) If all medicine worked in a typical market-structured environment, it would become cheaper and more effective and MRS-like infections would probably be eliminated.

    The problem is, people will go price shopping for laser surgery. There is no health care compensation, and they will probably be selecting among providers with whom they’ve had little or no prior dealings. But nobody wants to go price shopping for the right doctor or medicine when their sick and possibly in mortal danger. That, and a tax loophole for businesses is why starting decades ago almost everyone got into medical insurance plans. At first it was like a the imaginary “socialist paradise” – you’d been getting a couple of hundred dollars a month of your compensation, almost invisibly in health care insurance, you get sick and no worries. The best plans let you go to any doctor and paid for them. These private market plans, however did make it easier to raise fees, and big pharma to become more profitable, which lead to skyrocketing health care cost and more and more restrictive plans, and sometimes the insurance companies playing hardball to get out of some heavy payments.

    Besides which, did anyone bother to compare rates of hospital infection in countries with national health care plans versus the US pre-ACA? In Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto, he noted cases of hospitals having tremendous success against these infections using check lists.

    A quick look has turned up an Atlantic article, by Megan McCardle that shows European hospitals being almost 10 times as effective in preventing these infections. How do they do it? Want to bet there are no universally mandated methodologies involved. This is the perfect sort of problem for that sort of approach.

    So that’s part one of Jonathan Haidt goes off the rails, IMO.

  24. Hi Hal, agreed. That’s a good example.

  25. davidlduffy

    “Hope I didn’t come off too angry” – Not at all!
    I do think you mischaracterize the GBD injury data – I don’t think they in any way suggesting the trends are due to improvements in medical care, and their interest in burden is that the long term consequences of injury are underrecognized – just in the same way the long term costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the US have been revised upwards.(I am very interested in how on earth warfare can be financially viable in the interconnected modern world – one can think of successful localized warlordism only working if tolerated or supported by larger countries etc, and for “lawful” nations only by reneging on obligations eg treaties, disability pensions. Of course we have plenty of examples of both of these).

    Coming across to EJ’s and your wider concerns, I see the progressivist thesis (“march of civilization”) is that improved health outcomes, wealth, introduction of football etc reduce the causes of violence, so the “true” causes of the Arab Spring, as an example, are food insecurity and the poor economy. So, I have no qualms in citing improvements in income, injury rates, and reductions in malaria rates as supporting evidence. They aren’t assuming any great changes in human nature. In that long term view, incidence of interpersonal violence is only going to diminish slowly, and fluctuate greatly, given how wars and economic crises actually work. Happy Boxing Day sales!

  26. davidlduffy wrote:

    “As to one of Dan’s original contentions, “take at least a half a millennium of pre-modern history, adjusted for population” to equate with the 20th C. deaths due to warfare is tricky because of the fact that most civilian mortality associated with earlier warfare was due to famine and infectious disease: “The Holy Roman Empire lost 5-6 mio. out of 15 mio. inhabitants during the
    Thirty Years War; France lost 20% of its population in the late 16th century as a result of civil war.”
    By contrast, the USSR lost 10% of its population during WW2, with the world total being 3%. Anyway, this wanders well off topic.”

    and then, EJwinner wrote:

    “Do you really want to suggest that the world is ‘nicer’ now because the Holy Roman Empire lost a third of its population in thirty years of war, whereas the Soviet Union only lost 10% in 5 years of war?”


    It is precisely this sort of suggestion — made on nothing but a quantitative analysis — that represents what I think is a complete, utter, total misunderstanding of what it means to say that a civilization has become better, in the sense of “more moral” or “better, as a people.” The bizarreness of saying, after the 20th century, that we are nicer than ever before, is just the *indicator* of this misunderstanding. The work lies in a qualitative understanding of the difference between warfare in the Middle Ages, and Einsatzgruppen, extermination camps, “great leaps forward,” the atomic incineration of cities, and the like. I won’t deny that it is disappointing (to say the least) to have to have such conversations with ostensibly educated, grown-up people like Steven Pinker, but apparently, it is necessary.

  27. I fucking loved Sam! More seriously, I agree with the take on Pinker. And, with Wallerstein’s comment. Plus, Pinker is a Pop Ev Psycher, so I’ve got little use for him on other grounds, too. Hal, he IS a smug apologist for the status quo.


    DavidLDuffy: On things such as organized state-controlled violence, we have to include things like police brutality, not military action. I don’t see things getting better. I agree with DB and others that improved health care is part of it.

    Also missing in this is that, due to its technological dependence, modern civilization is a lot more fragile than the Holy Roman Empire, its classical Roman predecessor or whatever. People in Hellenestic Alexandria could move a few miles inland a lot easier than today when faced with ocean rise. American Indians could flee the island of Manhattan a lot more easily than can Wall Street.


    Astro, having read Goldstein’s “Plato at the Googleplex,” I have less than zero desire to read another word she ever writes about philosophy.


    Oh, whether you’re Christian or not, I hope readers here enjoy The Cajun Night Before Christmas:

  28. Hi Davidlduffy,

    I do think you mischaracterize the GBD injury data – I don’t think they in any way suggesting the trends are due to improvements in medical care,

    How could I be mischaracterizing the GBD study when I was basically paraphrasing their own comments? Here is the relevant section, which is the discussion section of their paper (p.7), (my emphasis).

    GBD 2013 provides a systematic quantification of mortality, incidence and disability over the time period 1990 to 2013, allowing analyses of time trends and comparison between regions. Since 1990 age-standardised rates of DALYs due to injuries have significantly decreased in all major injury categories.The slower decline in incidence rates compared with YLL and YLD rates, GBD’s measures of premature mortality and disability, suggests that the observed changes are driven by multiple mechanisms. Reduction in incidence would be the effect of measures preventing the occurrence of injuries (eg, road safety measures, gun control or safer tools). The greater declines in YLL and YLD rates could be brought about by injury prevention measures reducing the severity of the injury sustained (eg, seat belts and helmets) or by improved access to better quality care after an injury (eg, trauma systems).

    And as if I needed more vindication for the arguments I made in this thread, Pinker just gave me a Xmas present I just have to unwrap in front of everyone!

    Yesterday Pinker tweeted the following:

    Post-Ferguson de-policing is pushing the violent crime rate upward after 23 years of decline.

    In it he linked to this WSJ article ( describing the dangers of the so-called “Ferguson Effect”, where demonstrations against police (because you know… they killed people without reason) have led to a decrease in so-called “proactive policing”. The result of this? Violent crime is going back up!

    So let’s be clear, as I said we cannot know based on the stats Pinker gave if people are becoming less violent or if the apparent trends are a result of an oppressive police state (militarization, etc). Here we have a rise in violence which Pinker himself is attributing (or accepting the attribution) to the backing off of police pressure on communities. This can only be true if the “nature” was already there and being held in check.

    And his message appears to be (as is the WSJ’s) that citizens are wrong for demonstrating against agents of the state, even when they kill people recklessly and are not held accountable, because that will result in violent crime. Nevermind, I guess, the “violent crimes” of the state. Bring back the proactive police! One assumes the people getting killed by this proactiveness are not in his neighborhood. Beware the great and powerful Oz! He will protect you… and do not look behind the curtain please.

    Read ’em and weep 🙂

  29. Socratic: “Hal, he IS a smug apologist for the status quo.”

    Did I deny that? It seems fully consistent with my main point. I think I had in mind, however, that he takes as given and beyond question the sort of JHaidt “Markets are magic” notion. He’s probably not nearly as high value an asset as Haidt, and less likely to have a personal handler somewhere in the bowels of Movement “Conservatism”. (If that sounds fantastic, maybe it is, but take another look at “The Integration of Theory and Practice: A Program for the New Traditionalist Movement”.

  30. Pinker “Post-Ferguson de-policing is pushing the violent crime rate upward after 23 years of decline.”

    Hmmm, maybe I’lll have to revise what I said above.

  31. Oh, and I notice the WSJ opinion piece is being called an “article” and the URL even implies this, but I’m hopeful that WSJ journalism is still not as corrupt as its editorial page. Tell me if you think I’m wrong.

    But this is part of the “End of the Front Page” effect, where people “keep up with the news” by going to aggregators neatly tailored to their POV, and is, I think, related to perceived need for “Trigger Warnings”.

  32. Hal, no, since Uncle Rupert took over, straight news at the WSJ has moved more and more that way. And, you’re right that, even if not obsolete, the front page is worth less than it was before.