Bad News for People Who Love Bad News

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.


Every day, it seems, we are informed of another mass shooting, terrorist attack, or other horrible act of violence on the news. That awful story will then be followed by another story about how our inept government is, how unequal our society is, or about how destructive social media is for our mental health. The news is basically a list of the worst things happening in the world on any given day..  We face a never-ending bombardment of bad news all day, every day, on every type of media. It really does feel like our world is getting worse and worse every day. Many people really believe our society is going off a cliff. But is our world actually getting worse? Or are we making progress?

Whether or not the human project is making progress or not is a very BIG, very IMPORTANT question. And it’s not a question for the faint of heart. This is the primary question at the core of Steven Pinker’s last two books The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). How does Pinker attempt to answer such a sweeping, broad question? What do we mean by progress, anyway?

The definition of progress is highly debatable, highly politicized, and prone to subjective interpretation. However, there are a few things that almost everyone can agree on: Longer and healthier lives, more literacy/education, less poverty, and less violence are indicators of progress. Pinker attempts to connect these near-universal indicators of progress with other data points to form a cohesive argument that the world is actually, on balance, getting better. 

Part I - Have we actually made progress?

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker’s argues, rather convincingly, that rates of physical violence in virtually all forms (war, homicide, genocide, rape, assault, slavery, etc) have declined precipitously over the past 100-1000 years of human history, but especially in the last 50-100 years. Pinker argues the decline in violence may be the most important and under appreciated development in human history. Pinker backs up this bold claim with data. Lots and lots and LOTS of data. 

Pinker's favorite data source appears to be Max Roser’s Our World in Data project, which he cites frequently throughout both books. And it’s easy to see why: Roser’s data is compelling, well cited, and beautifully visualized. Let's have a look at some data sets cited both directly and indirectly in the book:


Global deaths in military conflicts are near all-time lows.

homicide rates.PNG

Homicide rates have plummeted in Europe over the past 700 years.

child victimiztion.PNG

This data is often very surprising to people who are conditioned by news and social media to think that the world is awful and only getting worse. It's extremely easy to forget just how violent humans were up until the very recent past. Through an 800 page odyssey, featuring over 75 graphs like the ones you just saw, Pinker makes a really convincing case that violence has declined. 

But the decline in violence, is just the start. Enlightenment Now (again, with help from Roser) picks up where Better Angels left off and presents equally stunning data on how much progress humans have made in other key areas of human well-being. We humans have become much more educated, significantly longer living, more likely to live in a democratic-style government, spend LESS time working and doing chores, MORE time spent traveling and enjoying leisure., and have almost limitless access to information via the internet. Pinker argues very effectively that humans are making rapid progress, not just on violence, but progress in pretty much every quantifiable category that contributes to human well-being. 

We've gone from mostly illiterate to mostly literate in just the past 50-75 years.

We've gone from mostly illiterate to mostly literate in just the past 50-75 years.

Global life expectancy has doubled in the past 100 years.

Global life expectancy has doubled in the past 100 years.

The proportion of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen precipitously from about 75% to about 15% in the past 100 years.

The proportion of humans living in extreme poverty has fallen precipitously from about 75% to about 15% in the past 100 years.

Despite rapid population growth, even the absolute number of people in extreme poverty has been cut in half in the past 50 years.

Despite rapid population growth, even the absolute number of people in extreme poverty has been cut in half in the past 50 years.

The proportion of humans living in democracies vs colonies/autocracies/anocracies continues to grow.

The proportion of humans living in democracies vs colonies/autocracies/anocracies continues to grow.

Healthcare is being seen more and more as a right (vs a luxury) especially more developed countries.

Healthcare is being seen more and more as a right (vs a luxury) especially more developed countries.

We're working less and less. allowing for more and more leisure time.

We're working less and less. allowing for more and more leisure time.

We're increasingly freeing ourselves from the burden of housework.

We're increasingly freeing ourselves from the burden of housework.

And among the houseowrk that remains, more and more men are doing their share.

And among the houseowrk that remains, more and more men are doing their share.

Oh, and half of humanity now has access to a vast sea of information. Almost no one had that 20 years ago.

Oh, and half of humanity now has access to a vast sea of information. Almost no one had that 20 years ago.

And with all that free time and information, more and more and more humans are able to travel and explore the world.

And with all that free time and information, more and more and more humans are able to travel and explore the world.

As you can see, the average human living today lives much longer than their grandparents, in a more peaceful world, with far less poverty, greater literacy and education, much better access to healthcare, more democracy and human rights, and more leisure time to spend however they wish. These facts, Pinker claims, are evidence of PROGRESS.* 

Note: About the only major non-partisan issue I could find that has trended in the WRONG direction over the past few decades is opiate addiction. If anyone reading post this can find more important things that have trended badly over the past couple decades, PLEASE email me directly at: Assuming it's a valid criticism, I'll happily add it to the blog as an update to this post.

Here's the only thing I can find truly getting worse over the last 25 or so years.

Here's the only thing I can find truly getting worse over the last 25 or so years.

*Now, for an important reminder: Pinker reminds the reader repetitively throughout both books, that violence, poverty, and other bad things have NOT been fully eradicated from our civilization (duh), and that the remarkably good trends society has enjoyed are NOT necessarily guaranteed to continue indefinitely. Pinker is not claiming the world is all rainbows and unicorns, nor is he suggesting we "rest on our laurels" and ease up fighting hard for future progress yet to be made.

Part II - WHY have we made progress?

Pinker's secondary claims as to WHY humans have made progress are likely to be much more controversial than Part I, and indeed are less conclusive. Nevertheless, I will attempt to sum up three key pillars of progress that Pinker focuses on in both books:

Reason #1 - The emergence of the Nation-State, its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.

According to Pinker, the gradual rise of the consolidated nation-state (from approx. the 1600s through the 1900s) dramatically shrank the number of tiny fragmented kingdoms, principalities, and tribes that each handled local justice in their own "Wild West" sort of way. As the Nation-State rose to prominence, the State typically demanded the sole-authority to inflict deadly force. This monopoly on violence drastically reduced the incentive to commit "vigilante justice" and rates of violence declined rapidly as a result. By acting as a (semi)-disinterested 3rd party to mediate disputes, the Nation-State could, in theory, avoid the normal human desires for vengeance and escalation of hostility. The State, with its laws, police forces, and jail cells, acts like a big referee to settle disputes, issue punishments, and prevent what would otherwise be Hatfield-McCoy style violence and anarchy. This clever bit of Game Theory made non-violent cooperation the rational choice by introducing severe punishment as a disincentive for settling disputes with unsanctioned violence. Cooperation 1, violence 0.

p.s. The few places on earth with weak or non-existent States, like majorly impoverished slums and remote rural communities, are much more prone to violence than places with effective Rule of Law.

Reason #2 - The emergence of trade and commerce (positive-sum cooperation) compared to war/conquest of territory (zero sum/negative-sum coercion/violence) as a superior means of getting what you want.

The first or second lesson in any Economics 101 class is that there are major gains from trade. The great non-economic insight of gains from trade is that it makes strangers worth more to you alive than dead. Once humans realized (possibly subconsciously at first) that advanced commerce was almost always a better long-term strategy for amassing wealth than pillaging/conquest, the incentives to commit acts of violence became drastically reduced. For example, if your neighboring tribe makes great beaver pelts and trades them for your excess fishing hooks, you mutually benefit from the exchange. Killing your neighbor ends that benefit, so instead of killing you decide to be nice to your neighbor out of rational self-interest. Click here for an awesome, interactive illustration of this concept.

Looking towards the future, it's critically important to remember that the inverse is also true. Diminished trade reduces the incentive to be peaceful. This is one (often overlooked) benefit of globalized trade networks. If global trade ever gets truly fucked up, (say due to protectionist trade wars, reckless Wall Street speculation, or anti-capitalist revolution) you could logically expect a big increase in violence. This double whammy of increased poverty and violence would be very bad for human well-being.

Reason #3 - The emergence of "Enlightenment values" of freethought, reason, science, and humanism over religion, superstition, tradition, tribalism, and authoritarianism.

The increase in literacy in the post-printing press world led to the free exchange of ideas between regular working-class people, and in doing so, dealt a crushing blow to the moral authority of church and tradition. Growing economies and declining faith in superstition fueled revolutions in science, technology, and moral philosophy, which in turned allowed individual human rights to flourish in a way that was not previously possible. Pinker suggests (and I wholeheartedly agree) that this (continuing) shift from religio-traditional authority to secular humanism/liberal democracy is a key component in the radical improvement of the human condition over the past 300 years.

Open, scientific, secular democracies tend to treat their citizens much better (in terms of killing and/or intentionally harming their own people) compared to closed, theocratic, authoritarian type states. Additionally, open, secular societies have the capacity to be self-correcting after making socio-political mistakes. Closed, authoritarian societies, without free and open debate, are much less likely to self-correct when they make mistakes. 

Part III - Why progress doesn't feel like progress 

In the opening paragraph of this post, I referenced the phenomenon of the world feeling like it's getting worse. The reason for this seems to be that humans have evolved to respond more strongly to stimuli that elicit emotions of fear and danger than to those that elicit happiness and security. This is why bad news gets rewarded with better ratings (and more $) than good news, and why negative people on social media tend to be rewarded as well. So, likely due to these psychological quirks that helped our ancestors survive on the African Savannah, we are now subject to a 24 Hour News Cycle and globalized social media that both bombard us with extremely negatively biased content. Violence, scandal, outrage - that is what sells - that is what the consumer demands.

For example, between the year 2000 and 2015, over 1 billion humans (net) were lifted out of extreme poverty. During that time, the NY Times could have posted the following headline "Approximately 175,000 Humans Lifted Out of Extreme Poverty Today"  and they could have kept that headline EVERY SINGLE DAY and been essentially correct. However, as we know, progress doesn't sell many newspapers.

Can't sell ads with this headline!

Can't sell ads with this headline!


Part IV - Why it's so important that we acknowledge the progress we're making as a species

So far we've discussed progress, potential reasons for progress, and the fact that progress doesn't seem to feel like progress. That's all fine and dandy, but WHY should you care? What's the harm if no one realizes we're making progress?

The reasons this is important (and the reason I wrote this post) is because believing the world is getting worse (when it's not actually getting worse) can be really, really, really dangerous.


Extreme ideologies HATE the idea of progress because it undermines the urgency for radical change that extreme groups tend to advocate for. Therefore, extreme groups rely heavily on a dogmatic belief that society is awful, completely broken, and only getting worse. While there ARE real issues to be resolved, and there IS justifiable reason to be angry, rampant, fatalistic, pessimism is fertile ground for increased violence and extremism. 

When people harbor the false notion that the world is getting worse everyday, when they believe, falsely, that our current system of peace, globalized trade, and multicultural liberal democracy are utter failures, they become open to the option of burning the entire system to the ground. 

Like your frustrated sibling during family game night, if people believe all hope of a successful outcome for our country/world is lost, they are prone to "flip the monopoly board." The problem with flipping the global monopoly board, of course, is that many millions would die and virtually everyone would become worse off financially, intellectually, and health-wise. Plain and simple, life would suck. Don't flip the monopoly board.


Despite its many, MANY flaws, the current system of globalized trade and multicultural liberal democracy IS moving humanity in the right direction. This is not merely Whig history, this is a factual recognition that life has gotten better for the vast majority of humans on Earth over the past few hundred years. While we'll obviously need to make significant tweaks to continue to create a better world, we should not welcome sudden, violent revolutions that would significantly risk the gains we've made in peace, life expectancy, wealth, democracy, and overall quality of life over the last few decades. Nothing crushes human well-being so much as tyranny, poverty, and violence. We must preserve the key pillars that keep civilization civilized: the free exchange of ideas, globalized trade, and most importantly global peace and cooperation between all countries. We can continue to make rapid gains in human well-being from within the current system through improved laws, regulations, and norms. Burning the system down would almost certainly make life much worse for the vast majority of humans.

This is why Pinker's books Better Angels and Enlightenment Now are so important. If people on all ends of the political spectrum can acknowledge the real progress our species has made in the last 100 years, rather than fall prey to rampant pessimism, it would greatly help diffuse the growing political powder keg that continues to build in today's popular culture.  Pinker's work is the antidote to the rising extremism in the USA and Europe. 


I read 100 books in 2017. Here are my Top 4 recommendations.

Authors note: Anything you see in any of my blog posts that is underlined is either a cool external link to help you learn more or internal links to my own related content.


I read 100 books in 2017, which is more than double the 46 books I read in 2016. My breakdown was 90% non-fiction, 10% fiction in 2017 vs 100% non-fiction, 0% fiction in 2016. If you're curious, you can view them all HERE.

The two factors that helped to double my reading volume were: 1) I started a podcast that combines books, booze, and interesting conversations and 2) I began using Goodreads, which I highly recommend because it enables you to easily track books you've already read and books you want to read in the future.

Here are the 4 books I recommend everyone should check out:

1) Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

by Yuval Noah Harari


Of the 288 books I’ve logged over the past 6-7 years…THIS is the best book I’ve read. Sapiens is a mind-blowing, ambitious, and deep reflection on the past, present, and future of Homo Sapiens. I am literally going to force my family and friends to read this book.

The book breaks human history into 4 parts: 1) The Cognitive Revolution, 2) The Agricultural Revolution, 3) The Unification of Humankind and 4) The Scientific Revolution. From our humble beginnings as insignificant primates to our takeover of planet earth, Yuval Noah Harari takes you on a mind bending journey that explores human evolution, inter-subjective realities, expanded definitions of religion (including referring to human rights and money as religions), and sapiens unquenchable desire to innovate and conquer. Harari masterfully weaves it all together into one of the most remarkable single volumes of history ever produced.

Harari is not shy about confronting some of the big questions and dark realities of our human nature including genocide, environmental destruction, and the fact that, despite incredible innovations and global domination…sapiens STILL don’t seem to be any happier than they were in previous points in history

He ends the book by musing on his predictions for the future of humanity, which includes sapiens turning themselves into gods via AI, genetic engineering, and nanotech. Technology resulting in a “useless class” of people, the collapse of liberalism, humanism, and capitalism, and the rise of religions that worship technology.

He ends this masterpiece with an incredible quote that sums up humanities future:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

2) Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

by Sebastian Junger

This short, thought-provoking work focuses on community. What is community? How do groups of humans typically interact, both historically, and today? 

Junger argues that human community is more or less defined as a small band (approx 50-150) of humans who, in the face of existential threats (war, famine, natural disaster) depend on each other for their collective survival. Tribes are "the people you would share the last of your food with." Imagine a tight-knit band of hunter-gathers killing a saber-toothed tiger to protect their tribe. That image, per Junger, is essentially how humans evolved to interact with each other. This is why so many humans find deep meaning and sense of purpose fighting for and defending their tribe or community against dangers and disasters. 

During times of crisis, like 9/11 or the Fukushima nuclear disaster, people are at their VERY BEST. In times of crisis, suicide rates, crime rates, and substance abuse rates drop dramatically, and feelings of unity, community, and self-esteem reach otherwise unheard of levels.

The thing is, according to Junger, humans don't mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society, however, has perfected the art of making people feel unnecessary.

In today's affluent, safe, stable Western nations, much of society has been liberated from the common day-to-day dangers that our ancestors faced, such as extreme violence, famine, and disease. While all these advances are great achievements, it's also true that we pay something of a price for our affluence and safety - namely - that you no longer DEPEND on the people around you for your day-to-day survival. Without that dependence true community essentially vanishes. What we end up with is a hyper-individualized society with increased anxiety, alienation, and depression. 

If Junger's thesis is even partially true, this may help explain why Western countries seem less happy than less developed countries. It may help explain why many veterans consider their experience in war zones to be highlight of their lives. 

We should not, of course, forget that tribalism, in-group-out-group bias, and dehumanization of the "other," are root causes of some of the most vile human atrocities. Nor should we forget that individualist thinking has liberated billions from the shackles of monarchy, state religion, and collective punishment. We should, however, acknowledge that with our modern society we experience very real trade-offs between: individualism and community, between solidarity and alienation, and between affluence/safety and meaning. 

Junger, admittedly, doesn't have an easy solution to the negatives of this apparent trade-off between the liberation of the individual vs the destruction of community, and between the precious gifts of affluence, abundance, and safety vs the truest of human bonds that can only be formed when people truly depend on each other for their day-to-day survival. Perhaps the best we can do is, carefully, try to create small "tribe-like" special interest communities like running clubs, professional organizations, or Ben Franklin-style Juntos that include as much of the positive aspects of the tribal community, and as little of the group-think and out-group bias as we can.

3) War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

by Chris Hedges

war is a force.PNG

An amazing, powerful book on how humans are seemingly drawn to the narcotic of war and the horror that results. Everyone should read this book.

The central idea that war is a very potent drug – the biggest high you can get – often peddled by historians, reporters, and other myth makers as exciting, glorious, and heroic. In reality, war exposes the evil that lurks not far below the surface in all of us. Despite its horrors, humans seem to find great meaning and purpose in war, and of killing the evil “other” for the “greater good.” Humans are very often seduced by the power to destroy lives.

Self-worshipping national/cultural myths that cast “us” as the victim, and “them” as the evil aggressor, tend to suspend critical thought, lead to dehumanization of “the other,” and violence naturally follows.

However, once the war actually arrives, those who experience the terror of battle and death firsthand realize how awful and regrettable it is. They realize that our national myths are almost always false or exaggerated, and the pain of killing others and/or losing friends/relatives never heals.

In war, morality turns upside down: indiscriminate slaughter becomes a virtue, and honest inquiry becomes vice. The chaos of war almost always leads to the executing of women and children, rape and torture, and people displaying other people they’ve killed as trophies. You are often forced to commit atrocities or risk having your allegiance questionedwhich could possibly put your own life at risk.

Hedges tries to recommend compassion, humility, communication, and love as the possible solutions, however it must be acknowledged that while humans have little problem being compassionate, humble, loving, and communicating with those they view as part of their "tribe", humans are remarkably UNSUCCESSFUL at maintaining those virtues around "other" people/groups that they disagree with or have labeled as the enemy. Until that changes, it is doubtful that we can eliminate war and violence from the human experience.

4) Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and How You Can Make a Difference

by William MacAskill


For much more drunken jabbering on this book and the topic of effective altruism, check out the podcast episode on it that I did with my good friend Billy Ray Taylor HERE.

If there's a common thread between Tribe, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and Doing Good Better, it is this: human happiness, well-being, meaning in life - or whatever you want to call it - comes almost exclusively from contributing to a group or cause that is bigger than yourself. 

The big, perhaps controversial, idea of Doing Good Better is effective altruism, a philosophy and movement that advocates using science & data to analyze the effectiveness of charitable organizations, emphasizes cause neutrality, and recommends ONLY donating to the most effective charities in the world. As a corollary, you should NOT, as most people tend to do, donate to organizations based on your emotional connections or personal attachments. Your no local church? NO WAY! Your local food bank? NEVER! Your alma mater? SCREW THAT! Most of the data suggests that causes like intestinal deworming, malarial bed nets, vitamin supplementation, and direct cash transfers in the poorest parts of Africa and India are 10-100x more effective per $ donated than whatever local charity you're emotionally attached to. Given such a stark difference in effectiveness, many effective altruists would consider knowingly allocating your charity dollars to ineffective charities instead of uber-effective charities morally unconscionable. Some would argue you even have a moral obligation to choose to donate to the more effective charities over less effective alternatives, even if they make you feel less "warm and fuzzy" inside.

What makes this whole ideology both awesome and daunting is the extreme difficulty in objectively quantifying  "good" or "well-being." Measurements like Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) are probably the best we have right now, but our ability to collect and interpret the data is constantly improving. Despite the difficulty, it is absolutely possible to approximately compare and contrast the effectiveness of various charitable causes. I think we, as a society, need to invest serious time and energy into improving our ability to quantify the effectiveness of charitable organizations and quantifying human suffering in general. 

After much research, my wife and I (married just over a year) made our first annual effective altruism donation in December 2017. It made us feel REALLY good that for the rough equivalent of one month's mortgage payment, approximately 1,900 children in Africa and India won't get intestinal worms in 2018. NINETEEN-HUNDRED!!! That fact alone gives my life added meaning and added motivation to excel in my career and to be frugal so that suffering that would have otherwise happened will never occur. 

You don't have to go far down the Effective Altruism rabbit hole before things start to get pretty crazy and philosophical. Layering additional, potentially effective causes, such as social justice, animal suffering, and controlling future artificial intelligence, to the effective altruism framework can be seriously overwhelming and mentally frustrating. However, there is certainly an intellectual joy that comes from undertaking the challenge of attempting to quantify "doing good", and a deep satisfaction in going to bed each night knowing that you've given some of your hard-earned money to the most effective charities in the world. That hundreds or even thousands of children per year, may live better and suffer less, because you have existed, and to translate your otherwise unremarkable career, your unremarkable talents, your unremarkable life, into a truly remarkable amount of good, is truly the opportunity of a lifetime. If that's not something worth living for, then what the hell is?  

- john

p.s. Special thanks to Ron McIntire for doing a quick proofread of my first blog post. His expertise prevented me from committing what could only be described as an "atrocity against commas" of biblical propotions. Also thanks to Elliott Killian for inspiring me to start my own personal website. 

If you want to listen to, essentially, an audio version of this blog post, which includes my 2 least favorite books of the year, check out the podcast episode below: