Steven Pinker: Violence Trends Are Understood by Analyzing Data, Not Reading Headlines

Steven Pinker: Violence Trends Are Understood by Analyzing Data, Not Reading Headlines

Historic trends in violence can’t be assessed
by headlines. Headlines are about things that happen and they give you no indication whatsoever
of how common a particular activity is. Because you never see a reporter standing outside
a school saying here I am in front of Maplewood High School, which hasn’t been shot up today.
Or here I am in the capital of Mozambique and there’s no Civil War. So forget headlines,
the only way to answer the question of what are the trends in violence is to look at data
where you count the number of occurrences as a proportion of the number of opportunities
and you see whether that’s changed over time. So since I wrote Better Angels of Our Nature
I sent it off to the press in the end of 2010, so the data that were available were from
’08 /’09, I keep yearly updates on what’s happened to those trends. And with the exception
of Civil War, which after a roller coaster downward from the end of World War II, has
shown something of an uptick because of the Syrian Civil War. It’s wiped out about 13
years of progress taking us back to the level of about 2000, but it’s still a fraction of
the level that it was at in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s when you had not just eight or nine
civil wars going on at a time but 25 or 30. We tend to forget them. We tend to be amnesic
about all those nasty wars in Africa and South East Asia that were going on in the ’70s and
’80s, but a lot of them had a considerable death toll. So clearly things have gotten
worse in Syria. They’ve gotten worse in Ukraine, in Pakistan, but the global trend has not
reversed the progress that we have seen by any means. All the other trends such as homicide,
which kills far more people than wars, continues to go down. Sexual violence, at least in countries
that have good data, have continued to go down, rape and domestic violence, child abuse
has continued to go down. More and more states and countries have abolished
capital punishment. Even democratization, absence of government violence where we’re
aware of backsliding in countries like Venezuela and turkey and Russia, but still the global
trend continues to be that the world is getting more democratic. We don’t read about the countries
that have liberalized but we hear about the countries that increase their repression.
And they do exist, but on the whole the world has become more democratic as well as less
homicidal, less gender-based violence, less child abuse and so on. And even in the category
of war you can divide wars into wars between countries, old fashion wars of country A declares
war on country B and civil wars. And the first category, interstate wars, government on each
side, has been in kind of puttering decline for many decades. There are fewer and fewer
wars between countries. The wars that exist are civil wars. And that record has continued
to improve; namely we’ve had zero interstate wars since The Better Angels of Our Nature
was published. And in fact we’ve had zero interstate wars since the American invasion
of Iraq in 2003. And historically, wars between countries tend to kill more people than civil
wars. So even with the backsliding that we’ve seen in the case of Civil War, in the case
in the most destructive form of wars, the world is still not seen a return to the bad
old days of the ’70s and ’80s.


85 thoughts on “Steven Pinker: Violence Trends Are Understood by Analyzing Data, Not Reading Headlines”

  • West African Gooner says:

    Yah. People tend to believe their opinions are infallible.. It's always best to make a claim with data to back it. In everything.. I always do this. And my friends hate me for it lol. You can't go wrong with proper data interpretation

  • rationalmartian says:

    Just when I'm on the verge of unsubbing Big Think, after the nonsense, idiocy and stupid shit they have been tending towards over the past few years. They come up with something like this, that has me holding my unsub again.
    Pinker is simply awesome. One of our most intellectual, fair minded and clearest thinkers.
    It is hard to over praise Steven Pinker.

  • I would like to see statistics on cops shootings in the United states from this guy. I would also like to see statistics on black on black homicides. I think this would be interesting for people to see and might bring to light the ridiculousness of the Black Lives Matter movement.

  • "What do you mean the world is better? How am I going to sell more stuff now? How am I going to scare more people into voting?" – said every politician, every time.

  • Ursallion GannonThraul says:

    i see this gentleman and cannot help but think every time (looks like dio, looks like dio, looks like dio)

  • Great video. See, guns aren't making things worse (just confirmed my bias!).
    Isn't the term "civil war" a funny one? I know that "civil" as used just refers to citizens, but it seems like an oxymoron when combined with "war."

  • you cannot rely on news anymore, study statistics of subjects you are interested in. Do not follow media that always compliment your way of thinking without checking figures from time to time yourself

  • Michael Pesavento says:

    Hi,I totally agree with your data and accept your premise but when you are the ones dying it's not that much comfort. Thanks

  • What are we supposed to pat ourselves on the back because there are fewer wars than there used to be. Let's wait til there are none, shall we?

  • "Rape is going down"
    No no no. Listen mate, 1 in every 5 women is raped. I know its higher then in the worst 3rd world country but its and epidemic and we need to teach males to not rape.

  • Headlines report the exception not the rule. What would be a bigger headline, ISIS murders a bunch of people or that they gave up their weapons and started singing around the campfire?

  • Data is also crap. Like children killed by guns in usa – Includes gang bangers under age 25 in the most violent areas of USA.

  • DaGingerHeadMan says:

    You gotta love Steven Pinker, if not then you're either; low information, a conservative douche, or a troll.
    I don't want to hear from any one of you idiots in these categories.

  • goldfishlaser says:

    <3 hearing from Pinker on the topic, but I wish that we could have had some data visualizations with this talk and maybe some sources. The 'Read More' link for me is broken.

  • Octopus On Fire says:

    It's always nice to listen to a rational, based view on reality from time to time. There are certain ideologies now that hold control of media and most institutions, and apparently the only use they find for it is to spread fear, impose censorship, control speech and micromanage people's behaviour.

  • Sometimes i think a good way of teaching a violent person to be less violent would be to trick them into thinking they had killed someone by their own hand (using fake gore and good acting or whatever) and then, when they've realized how horrible they feel about what they did, reveal to them that they didn't actually kill someone, and they'll feel so thankful about not killing someone they'll never be violent again!

  • Mr. Quiltworth says:

    The USA does not have good rape stats. The CDC with it's 1in5 stats puts us on the same level as the Congo. I mean who believes this?

  • Not buying it. Researchers often depend on governments to allow them to conduct their research. If they're not denied completely they most definitely have to follow guidelines set by those governments. I doubt the numerous authoritarian regimes out there would allow anything suggesting violence levels are increasing in their respective country.

  • AND! State on state or civil wars are obsolete. What about the sort of insurgency and terrorism we see in modern times. Those surely do not fall into the two categories you mention.

  • "We've had zero interstate wars since…"
    Yes, all you have to do is bomb, burn, and starve people without a declaration of war, and it's therefore not an interstate war. All you have to do is not recognize a nation State (Palestine), and therefore it's not an interstate war.
    Seems stats are a bit skewed, based more on accepted labels of some than data itself. Thumbs down for a bit of intellectual dishonesty.

  • can't wait for when all the fear porn to be over with. same with all the separation between people on this planet as well -_-

  • TestingU 4Research says:

    Most of what he states appears sound except for wars between countries vs civil wars. Many of the civil wars we see nowadays are actually proxy wars between nations.

  • I love everything that was said in this video. I've known about these statistics for a very long time, yet people still say things like, "the world is so violent these days," or, "Nothing happened like this when I was a kid." Basically, news is a lie. If you want facts, research them, and find them yourself. Also, I can't believe how much this guy looks like Rob Lowe from "Parks and Recreation."

  • Wow! Big Think's 2nd rational anti-regressive video! Let's go over some FBI crime stats here in America and see what the stats say per demographic on a per capita level playing field!

  • CinostheHodgeheg says:

    It's surely a good point that headlines misrepresent frequencies, but it almost seems that he's implying that everything will be fine in future because the data says so. obviously data are the most important source of information, but on its own, data is vulnerable to the assumptions that it captures everything important about the world. I'll put my faith in someone as reflective as Pinker to have considered this, but perhaps a 4 minute video is the wrong medium to get across the complexities of relying on 'the data'

  • But what about the war substitutes? Drones have killed a lot of people in the last decade and those without drones use guerrilla tactics to kill and disrupt those they oppose. I'm curious how those trends are going.

  • Hey Guys, This Is My New Name says:

    Well, this isn't something that people haven't been saying for years. We know this, but somehow we tend to ignore this. I think human reaction might be more important to us than data. If we get on facebook and read comments to an article, those comments might mean more to us than anything else, even if they're not balanced. We also might get a rush of inspiration or compassion when we go out in the real world and we actively protest or witness someone protesting. If we see a smaller person being attacked by a larger person, we tend to defend the smaller person, even if we don't know the full story. All of the emotions and everything else that goes into being a part of something and interacting with other people usually has a bigger impact than reading data, even if we are wrong.

  • omgutubeismylife says:

    he is being paid to lie about everything, he is a reptilian overlord that rapes and eats children as young as 3

  • Shadow knight 1389 says:

    according to some feminists rape isnt going down due in part to them making EVERYTHING count as rape from catcalling (which at times is disrespectful but even something like calling the woman beautiful then walking away is seen as a horrable atrocity) to domestic violence (which hitting your partner is wrong but to say that is rape is sadly misinformed) hell there have even been videos made saying when you hit a woman every woman in the proximity is "raped"

  • Many countries will engage in conflicts not wars. Violence is still violence. I would be curious to know if you added conflicts to his numbers, would his findings be backed up? The Vietnam conflict was not a war, but still killed quite a few people.

  • Talk about putting a spin on some data. lol. He's just another military industrial complex acadamia mouthpiece to pacify us into ignoring things like US involvement in clandestine/proxy wars.

    The latent message I get from him is, "Relax, masses. If there is less war and violence overall, then we have no right to complain about the remnant violence we still [do] have in the world".

    It kind of implies a sort of "don't worry, be happy" apathy towards the inequities that still exist today.

    ….and Pete's sake, somebody get him to cut that godforsaken mullet!!! lol.

  • Dear Professor, what can the world do to fix the situation in undemocratic countries? Do you have any suggestions?

  • I dont actually believe your data
    what planet do you live on ??????
    what about all the wars the US has created. civil wars……bullshit

  • Juliano Bittencourt says:

    Apparently, 19 people so far rather believe in headlines other than actual data.

    I guess most of the people who believe in headlines didn't even bother to watch this video.

  • sgtsnakeeyes11 says:

    I remember i told my grandparents that violence has been going down steadily for decades and they refused to believe me. A lot of people like the narrative of being a victim in a big bad crazy world. It's just not true.

  • Sandra Noneofyourbusiness says:

    I've just read Mr. Pinker's book.
    It was so surprising to find out that 'the good old days' of the 70's where you could send your kids outside to play was actually more dangerous than today, where you are made to feel like you can't let your kids out of your sight for a second.
    I have to wonder if there is an uptick of violence since Donald Trump has been elected? Does anyone have a link to a newer article or video from Steven Pinker on this subject?

  • Dennis R. Levesque says:

    I don't want to negate the importance of data. But, that's only part of the story. Another part is motives, values, intentions, mistakes, evaluations, and other subjective factors. You really don't want to rely on data/evaluations with one side of the brain tied behind your back.

  • Yusef Endure says:

    Of course, there's less violence. The empire has more control over the people. Don't underestimate the threat of an Iran/U.S. war nor a full-blown war between the U.S. and Russia. There is a proxy war between both countries that are ongoing as we speak, and the Middle East has been destabilized so much that the potential for war persists in that area between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and the U.S. We are being driven towards war; even as the data indicates a drop in violence between countries.

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