The Graphs That Make Optimism a More Realistic Worldview Than Pessimism

In this week's Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner brings his listeners a special treat: an interview with Dr. Steven Pinker of Harvard University. He's a psycholinguist, award-winning researcher, and, according to Time magazine, one of "The 100 Most Influential People" in the world today.

He's also the author of a number of books -- among them The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Language Instinct -- but here's how Bill Gates described his latest, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. "My new favorite book of all time."

In this segment, Pinker talks about the many graphs of human misery and bad outcomes that he's seen, all with the same general downhill slope -- despite the systematic pessimism of experts.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 7, 2018.

David Gardner: Optimism -- I want to talk briefly about that. Are you an optimist? Or are you just a realist who in a negative world looks like an optimist?

Steven Pinker: I would say the latter. Well, maybe I have an optimistic temperament. If I do, I try to discount it because that would give me perhaps an illegitimate view of the world. So maybe I am by temperament, but more to the point is that I plot data which are better than most people think. It's just a fact about the world, and I, myself, wrote Enlightenment Now and also a previous book,The Better Angels of Our Nature, when I, myself, was astounded by a number of graphs plotting human well-being over time. And to my shock, they showed improvements that one would never be aware of reading the papers.

In fact, the seed that led, that grew into The Better Angels of Our Nature was a graph that I came across on homicide in England from 1300 to 1990. And it went down like that, so that an Englishman had between a 35 to 50 times greater chance of being murdered in 1300 compared to 2000. And I was stunned when I saw that. I never would have guessed it.

In fact, I did a little survey to see whether people in general are surprised by this trend. And indeed, a majority of people asked to guess which was more violent, the 20th century, the 14th century, they say the 20th century and they're just wrong by a lot.

And I wrote Better Angels when I just kept coming across, not have a sunny disposition or rose-colored glasses, but I came across graphs for deaths in war, and child abuse, and spousal abuse. They all went downward, and no one knew about that. I've got to put them together between one pair of covers, and then as a psychologist do my best to try to explain them.

Then after I finished Better Angels of Our Nature, I came across some data in a book by Charles Kenny called Getting Better, where I had no idea that extreme poverty across the world was in steep decline. So just in 20 years, the rate of extreme poverty has been cut in half. In 30 years it's been cut by three-quarters. That literacy is increasing. 90% of people in the world under the age of 25 are literate. All these gruesome, infectious diseases like malaria, and guinea worm, and tuberculosis are in decline.

I had no idea. Most people have no idea. Hans Rosling, another rational optimist -- he calls himself a possibilist -- did surveys where he asked people, "Do you think that extreme poverty is increasing or decreasing," and by a large majority people say that global poverty is increasing and they're just dead wrong. It's decreasing and by a lot.

So he called his project the Ignorance Project, and its logo is a chimpanzee because he said if he wrote the answers to his questions on bananas and had chimpanzees in the zoo pick them, they would have done a better job than the experts on public health that they consulted, who are systematically pessimistic. So being random you're better than a lot of the experts.

Gardner: Matt Ridley -- who wrote The Rational Optimist, another amazing book that I recommend, and that also came through Fool HQ. The first question he said was, "Are you an optimist?" And I said, "Well, yes, I am an optimist," and I think he is. But one thing that I've observed -- tell me if you think I'm right or wrong about this -- is I think that optimism isn't in a state of mind or an emotion. I think it's a creative force. One of my favorite lines is Henry Ford. "Whether you think you can or whether you think you cannot -- you're right."

So if I'm right about that -- that optimism is actually a creative force -- then it's a tragedy if we're walking around in a world that's dominated by pessimism, especially if it's ignorant, because you think about all the things that could be created and mined even better, right now, if there was more awareness. And that's one of the things I love about your book, because you're creating more awareness and I think you're going to drive some more optimists.

Pinker: Well, I hope so. Certainly, it's better than being a fatalist; that is, to think that nothing we do can make any difference, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. And indeed, it's been said, similar to this Henry Ford quote, "Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy." Obviously, any improvement that you want to make involves taking risk. Involves some expectation that it will succeed, even if it's never a guarantee. And so just the mindset that problems are to be solved is crucial to them actually getting solved.

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