Jun 30

Say you’re an American who’s been alive for the last 10 years. You’re more likely to die from any of the following things than terrorism…

- Bathtubs

- Bee stings

- Being shot by a police officer

- Lightning

- Drunk drivers

- Moving heavy furniture

- Traffic accidents

And so on. Basically, terrorism is one of the least likely ways that you can die in America. But Jeffrey Goldberg doesn’t buy this argument:   

“...a bathtub death is in most ways not equivalent in impact to a death caused by terrorists. The death of someone in a bathtub accident is obviously a terrible tragedy for that person's family and friends. But unlike a death caused by terrorism, a bathtub death has few, if any, political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications.”

Researching the likelihood of dying from terrorism for an upcoming "Costs of Security" post, I stumbled upon this article from a years ago. Michael C and I disagree 100% with it so much, we had to respond. Why? A few reasons...

1. The Difference Between Terrorism and Other Ways of Dying is our Over-Reaction to it.

In Goldberg’s mind, terrorism matters because it has “political, economic, foreign policy, societal and constitutional ramifications”, forcing us to take it more seriously than other ways of dying. But flip that around: because society takes terrorism more seriously than other ways of dying, it has political, economic, societal and constitutional ramifications. It’s a trap. We overreact to terrorism, and because we overreact to it, we should take it more seriously, but taking it more seriously causes us to overreact even further...

Goldberg actually makes the point for us. Which came first? The ramifications or the reaction? Goldberg, in his piece, cites the strain on the constitution caused by terrorism:

“And consider the impact of terrorism on the Constitution, and on our collective self-conception as an open and free society. Just look at the stress placed on our constitutional freedoms by 9/11. A sustained terror campaign, even one with much lower death tolls than 9/11, would inevitably lead to the curtailment of our rights.”

It’s sort of a circular argument.The impact of 9/11 and terrorism on our constitutional liberties is exactly why we should treat terrorism like other forms of dying. If society treated terrorism like we did bathtub deaths--just another hazard in the modern world--then our Constitution and civil liberties wouldn’t be threatened.

2. Terrorism Has Foreign Policy Ramifications...Because Terrorism Guides our Foreign Policy

Goldberg claims terrorism matters because it has foreign policy ramifications. Do you think I could find a column where Goldberg argues we should invade Iraq and relate it to 9/11? Here you go. “The WMD fiasco was a global intelligence failure, but calling Saddam Hussein's bluff after 9/11 was the right thing to do.” And this is from a post where he admits the Iraq war was a failure! (More to the point, Goldberg also wrote a New Yorker article falsely claiming a link between al Qaeda and Iraq.)

So terrorism matters...because it has foreign policy ramifications...and politicians and pundits use terrorism to endorse foreign policy decisions. You see the loop again, right?

3. The Comparison That Totally Debunks Goldberg

For most ways of dying, it is hard to directly rebut Goldberg’s point. Deaths from terrorism don’t have a direct connection to say bathtub deaths or bee stings. (Unless terrorist start arming bees...) But what if I could find an example where it does?

Like, say, car crashes.

In America, car crashes kill around 30,000 people each year. Terrorism since 9/11 has killed less than thirty people a year, and even those numbers are inflated by including the deaths of American civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Domestically, terrorism has only killed 74 people. (And white Christian extremists have killed twice as many people through terrorist attacks than Islamic extremists...without the remifications Goldberg worries about.) The evidence is clear; cars kill more Americans than terrorists.

Here’s a thorny problem for people who fear terrorism: what if a miracle cure for car crashes existed that was also a terrorist threat?

Like the self-driving car.

Self-driving cars will see better and react faster than humans ever can. Unlike humans, self-driving cars will only get safer through improved sensors and programming. And they won’t even make it on the roads until they are proven to be safer than humans. They’ll never get tired, drunk, distracted or lose their senses to old age. Some car companies are also developing vehicle to vehicle communications, which will save even more lives.

Of course, the only thing can stop the clearly safe self-driving car is the one thing that Jeffrey Goldberg fears most: terrorism! Take this headline from CNBC, “Self-driving cars—the next terrorism threat?

Let’s assume the terrorist threat is real and, when self-driving cars are adopted, terrorist use them to successfully kill Americans. Say self driving cars cut the number of car crash fatalities in half, but terrorists successfully kill ten Americans each year by hijacking self-driving cars. Would the “ramifications” of terrorism mean those ten deaths matter more than the 15,000 saved lives? Perhaps those numbers are too extreme, but at what point do the saved lives from car crash fatalities outweigh the “ramifications” of terrorist deaths?

We’re comparing two ways of dying: the current reality of humans dying in car crashes versus the potential for humans to die from terrorism in self-driving cars. And the inevitable over-reaction to terrorism by the American people. Will self-driving cars cut down the number of traffic fatalities compared to the risk they’ll be used by terrorists? Absolutely, but the terrorism deaths will get a lot more news coverage. A lot more.

And that’s why this comparison is so needed.

Jun 24

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Some critics of the “world is getting safer” theory (I call them “anti-Pollyannas”) make what appears to be a very convincing argument: why use per capita statistics? Isn’t that unethical? From a Scientific American review of the The Better Angels of Our Nature:

“Of greater concern is the assumption on which Pinker's entire case rests: that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease?”

This Foreign Affairs review makes the same argument:

“But ask yourself: Is it preferable for ten people in a group of 1,000 to die violent deaths or for ten million in a group of one billion? For Pinker, the two scenarios are exactly the same, since in both, an individual person has a 99 percent chance of dying peacefully. Yet in making a moral estimate about the two outcomes, one might also consider the extinction of more individual lives, one after another, and the grief of more families of mourners, one after another.”

Or from David Bentley Hart at the website First Things:

“Pinker’s method for assessing the relative ferocity of different centuries is to calculate the total of violent deaths not as an absolute quantity, but as a percentage of global population...Population sample sizes can vary by billions, but a single life remains a static sum, so the smaller the sample the larger the percentage each life represents.”

It’s a seductive ethical argument, but there are two problems with it.

First, for most categories of human violence, you can use either per capita or absolute measures, violence has gone down. Actually, since the end of World war II, absolute deaths in war have gone down. Not per capita, absolute numbers, which coupled with exponential population growth, represents an absolutely remarkable transformation for the better.

Same with homicides, at least in England’s case. According to The Better Angels of Our Nature, 14th century England had a murder rate that was 95% greater than it is today, despite having only 1/50th the population. The pattern holds for slavery, torture, public executions, and so on.    

Humanity isn’t just getting better, it’s becoming so much better that despite exponential population growth, violence in absolute terms is still going down.

Second, this is still a very bad philosophical argument. Here’s the counter-argument from a comment on the Scientific American review. Honestly, I can’t say it any better:

“...how did this statement make it into the review? To take the counter argument, presumably you'd rather live in a world of 20 people where 9 are murdered every year than a world of a million peole [sic] where 10 are. Come on.”

Just, wow. Sort of says it all. And that’s why you use per capita statistics. If you approached someone independent of this debate and asked, “How should society track change for violence through the ages?” I can’t imagine anyone saying, “absolute terms instead of per capita”. Do these people watch news reports about the crime rate and shout at the television, “A single life remains a static sum!”

Have criminologists fundamentally based their discipline on an immoral metric?

Of course not.

(MC Comment: I would say that this is Eric C’s attempt to handle one minor statistical squabble in the realm of the “declinist” theory versus the world. Nassim Taleb and Bear Braumoeller have both posted lengthy academic articles critiquing the statistical methods used by Pinker, using much more advanced techniques to rebut the theory of the long peace. We’ll try to handle those in a later article, though it is tough without access to their data/code.)

Jun 22

(To read the entire "The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series, please click here.

A while back, I wrote a post on how I would have argued on America’s greatest Oxford-style debating competition, Intelligence Squared US, specifically the episode on the Arab Spring. Today, I will present the opening statement I would have delivered rebutting the motion, “Spying Keeps You Safe”.)

Before I begin, let me concede a shocking point: I agree with the motion. Spying does keep us safe. I mean, if we didn’t have any police, would we have more crime? We would. So if we didn’t have a single spy or counter-terrorist, would we have more terrorists? Yes, we would.

Of course, we don’t really mean that spying keeps us 100% safe. And we don’t really mean this motion in the abstract. The motion is really asking whether the exorbitant costs of the spying apparatus--in both fiscal and civil rights terms--keep us safer than if we spent that money elsewhere. Especially when it comes to domestic spying by our government.

Literally, by any metric--cost-benefit, lives saved, efficiency--America wastes most of the money it spends on counter-terrorism and spying.

Let me give you a thought experiment to help explain how. Last year, America’s intelligence agencies spent a collective $75 Billion with a B on intelligence. What if we had only spend $70 billion? Would the likelihood of a terrorist attack have gone up? By how much?

Unfortunately, those are all questions America’s intelligence chiefs can’t answer, and wouldn’t even know how to begin to answer. And if they can’t answer them, do we really think “spying is keeping us safe?” They can’t even tell us how!

In our contemporary times, terrorism is excessively rare. Terrorism kills less people than gun violence. Or bee stings. Or heart attacks. Or suicides. Even the year that America suffered 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in history, more Americans died in car accidents. But even making those comparisons doesn’t capture the fact that you have a better chance to win the lottery than die of terrorism.

In fact, because terrorism is so unlikely, intelligence spending actually hurts Americans because we could use it in better ways. Instead of improving economic opportunity or curing diseases, we spend money paying multiple agencies to write the same reports with the same information. We pay signal intelligence agents to spy on their ex-wives and girlfriends. Or we encourage FBI agents to ignore financial malfeasance, organized crime, drug trafficking and other crimes to entrap Muslim Americans.

So vote against the motion because spending on spying means not spending the money on other concrete ways that could save lives now. As the debate goes on, we can also discuss how the intelligence community over-hypes this threat, how the intelligence community over-estimates its effectiveness, how the intelligence community favors expensive technological solutions over low-cost, more effective human intelligence solutions, how spying on Americans hurts our civil liberties and we can also discuss the waste in the intelligence community.

But most importantly, spying doesn’t keep us safe...in fact it’s killing us.

(Unfortunately, we don’t have enough street cred to get invited on Intelligence Squared. From my listening, though, to win an Intelligence Squared debate, the best technique is often to reframe the terms of the debate. Eric C and I have tried to do this in our series, “The Costs of Security” where we have tried to reframe the debate on terrorism in the U.S.)

Jun 17

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

This next rebuttal to “anti-pollyannas” (as I call them) isn’t a logical fallacy, but more a plea: fact check your assertions. More importantly, double check that the person you're arguing against hasn’t already debunked said fact.

John Arquilla, in his Foreign Policy article “The Big Kill”, cites a disturbing piece of evidence: civilians are dying in war at greater rates than the past!

“In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since. Perhaps the worst, but hardly the only, terrible example of this trend can be seen in the Congo war — flaring up again right now — in which over 90 percent of the several million dead were noncombatants.”

John Gray’s article in The Guardian paraphrases (and links to) Arquilla’s argument:

“Around a million of the 10 million deaths due to the first world war were of non‑combatants, whereas around half of the more than 50 million casualties of the second world war and over 90% of the millions who have perished in the violence that has wracked the Congo for decades belong in that category.”

There are a number of problems with both these quotes and this argument...

First, this factoid has been debunked. Turns out that academics, like William Eckhardt, studying fatalities and war throughout history, have estimated that “The civilian percentage share of war-related deaths remained at about 50% from century to century." This incorrect factoid about civilian deaths in war was invented in the early nineties and has been erroneously repeated, even by academics, ever since. Thanks Wikipedia!

Second, fact-check your assertions. Gray cites Arquilla, but didn’t bother googling this fact himself.

Third, this is an example of moving the goalposts. The above critics argue civilian deaths matter more than regular deaths. But Pinker, Goldstein, Tertais, and others are arguing that overall violence related to war is decreasing. It’s a different argument. But say you wanted to go with that argument...

Fourth, what constitutes a civilian? Neither Arquilla nor Gray make a solid definition. If they had, they’d run into the tricky problem of explaining why soldiers conscripted to fight in World War I had lives that were less valuable than civilians at the time. (Also, the Sedition Act made it a crime to criticize the draft, so if you wanted to speak out against the draft, you’d go to jail. Ask Eugene V. Debs.)

Is a soldier who was drafted, coerced or conscripted into military service really worth less than a civilian? (Not to mention social ostracization depending on the popularity of a war at the time.) Does this distinction matter? Does this affect John Arquilla’s belief that we need to reinstate the draft?

Fifth, this example is a firmly 20th century example. One of the reasons why deaths in war have plummeted from olden times (think the Thirty Years War as the peak of “total war”) is that civilians are targeted much less frequently. In the 16th century, 18th and 20th centuries, besides conscripting entire armies, those same armies roamed the countryside eating all the food, raping all the women, and stealing all the plunder. If you weren’t murdered, you were enslaved. Listen to Dan Carlin’s series on Genghis Khan and tell me civilians made out great in the middle ages.

Sixth, and most importantly, Pinker himself already debunked this fact. Gray and Arquilla could have read Pinker’s debunking on pages 317 to 320 of The Better Angels of Our Nature.

So anyone writing a review who cites this debunked factoid, is, well, being very disingenuous. And writing a very poor review.

Jun 15

(To read other “Facts Behaving Badly”, please click here.)

Here’s an odd question, from the first line of the The Social Network, “Did you know there are more people with genius I.Q.s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?”

I did not know that.

And though I loved the film, this line always stuck me as wrong. Why? Basic arithmetic. Definitionally, to “have a genius IQ”, you have to be in the top 2% of intellectual prowess and cognitive ability. Since China has approximately a billion people, 2% of their population is about 20 million people.

I think there are more than 20 million people living in America. (Unless one-third of the Chinese people are geniuses...which doesn’t sound realistic does it?)

Writing up posts on the media, Iraq and the military at the start of the year, I remembered another “Fact Behaving Badly” I hadn’t written about yet. Many of the guests on political talk shows during the lead up to war are from the military and most--if not all--support future military interventions.

But this odd fact--that soldiers and generals support war--contradicts the wisdom passed down to Michael and me by my father when we were kids. Our dad has taught us an old adage about the military: soldiers hate war. But don’t take his word for it. Here is a legitimate, not-behaving-badly quote from a soldier on war:

I hate war as only a soldier can.”

- Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Address before the Canadian Club, Ottawa, Canada, January 10th, 1946

This isn’t a hard fact, like the debunked Social Network quote from above, but it’s still a “Fact Behaving Badly”, or at least an “Adage Behaving Badly”. On a purely factual basis, do some soldiers hate war? Probably. I can’t debunk that. Do all soldiers hate war? Absolutely not. So we should probably stop repeating this adage, unless we change it to the less impactful addendum “Some soldiers hate war”.

As has been widely discussed since the release of The Hurt Locker, some soldiers and veterans fall in love with the thrill of battle. Sebastian Junger described the phenomenon here, of which he is a self-described victim. (Junger after having seen the devastation of war first hand, still wanted military intervention in Syria.) Many inexperienced soldiers love going to war to see what it’s like, as we wrote about here and here. Officers love war because, frankly, nothing advances a career like successfully leading a battalion, brigade or division in war. And retired generals have a financial self-interest to support future wars; when they leave military service, many generals join the boards of defense contractors and think tanks.

So, adage debunked. But there’s a more concerning rhetorical flourish to this adage, as our next two quotes will prove, emphasis mine, that we need to debunk:

Nearly all soldiers—and this applies even to professional soldiers in peacetime—have a sane attitude towards war. They realise that it is disgusting, and that it may often be necessary.

- George Orwell, August 1944

This does not mean that you are warmongers. On the contrary, the soldier above all other people prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war. But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: 'Only the dead have seen the end of war.'"

- General George MacArthur, West Point, May 12th, 1962

First off, yes, MacArthur misquoted Plato. More importantly, both Orwell and MacArthur take the sentiment “soldiers hate war” and add the qualifier “but we should still go to war.” It takes the first sentiment, “War is awful. I’m a soldier. I’ve seen it.” and adds “...so when I tell you we need to go to war, you can trust me.” Coming from Orwell, writing in the middle of World War II, the sentiment is understandable. Coming from MacArthur, who was relieved of command because he was trying to escalate a war, well, you see the danger in this line of reasoning.

The MacArthur/Orwell point of view is both more popular and more dangerous. And a very sneaky rhetorical device. Basically, they’re arguing that because soldiers and veterans hate war so much, if they think we should go to war, well, you know they must be right. They’d only argue for it in the most dire circumstances; it’s not in their self-interest as soldiers, allegedly, though, as I showed above, it actually is.

Which brings us to our last example, from John McCain in the 2008 presidential campaign.

Only a fool or a fraud talks tough or romantically about war...I hate war, and I know how terrible its costs are.

- From a 2008 TV ad.

I detest war. It might not be the worst thing to befall human beings, but it is wretched beyond all description....Only a fool or a fraud sentimentalizes the merciless reality of war.”

- From a speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.

Wow. That’s a powerful anti-war statement. But McCain follows the “I hate war, so when I tell you we need to fight another one, you know you can trust me” rhetorical playbook perfectly. In his speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, he continues:

But we must also have an aggressive strategy of confronting and rooting out the terrorists wherever they seek to operate...I hold my position because I hate war...we must sometimes pay those wages to avoid paying even higher ones later.

For someone who “hates” and “detests” war, John McCain sure wants us to fight a lot of them. In Iraq. In Iraq again. In Syria. In Iran. In Ukraine. In Libya.

And that is the danger with adages like this one.

Jun 11

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

Probably the most frustrating rhetorical technique you can encounter when you’re debating a topic is “moving the goal posts”, usually used by an opponent losing an argument.

For example, say you’re arguing for marijuana legalization, debating all the pros and cons, and then your opponent says, “Well, if you want to legalize marijuana, shouldn’t we legalize heroin? But heroin is so dangerous!” No, we’re not arguing about heroin or drug legalization more broadly--marijuana is much less dangerous than heroin--we’re debating legalizing marijuana.

Critics of the “world is getting safer” theory (“anti-pollyannas” as I call them) move the goal posts a lot. Though the argument is about whether society is less violent--using real, physical violence--critics move the goal posts asking, what about other metaphorical forms of violence? What about “slower” forms of violence? What about income inequality? Or America’s prison population? (You can find examples of this phenomenon here and here.)

First off, most “slower” forms of violence have also probably gone down. (For example, more countries are democracies today than at about anytime in world history.)

More importantly, the problem with critics citing these “slower” forms of violence is they are moving the goal posts. Pinker, Horgan, and others aren’t arguing all violence has disappeared or will disappear, just that wars and violence are becoming less frequent.

To see one example of moving the goal posts, as will happen a lot in this series, we’ll turn to John Gray,:

Then again, the idea that violence is declining in the most highly developed countries is questionable. Judged by accepted standards, the United States is the most advanced society in the world. According to many estimates the US also has the highest rate of incarceration, some way ahead of China and Russia, for example.

In short, an anecdote that willfully ignores the global prison population or whether that global prison population is trending up or down. Though America has a massive over-incarceration problem, it’s an exception to the larger trend. Europe doesn’t have a massive over-incarceration problem, which, again, proves that the world is getting safer. Some people debunking Pinker actually point this out, without realizing...they’re proving his point. (And this argument is about more than America.)

Professor Christian Davenport makes a similar “moving the goal posts” argument:

“In my view, states engage in not less but different levels of severity—for example “torture-lite” (e.g., immobilizing individuals to make them more physically manipulable [sic] instead of old-school torture such as removing skin from individuals, stun grenades instead of real ones…”

Me personally? I prefer stun grenades to real grenades. Or not having my skin ripped off. Later, he equates killing someone for theft versus imprisoning them; it takes a real leap of logic to argue that the latter isn’t an improvement over the former. As bad as the American Justice system/prison system can be, our modern legal system is infinitely better than either mob rule (lynchings) or the divine right of kings and aristocrats capriciously doling out capital punishment.

More importantly, arguing that the world is getting better doesn’t mean you’re arguing that everything is perfect. To correct the issues of the “legal system” of the ancient world, we adopted the modern legal and penal system. But that system has problems. What happens next? We fix it.

The reason violence has gone down is that humanity has gotten better, and also gotten better at getting better. I could see, in relatively short time, America reforming its prison system. We’ll be writing about this more in our ‘Most Thought-Provoking Event of the Half Year”. Prosecutors across America are already taking steps to address racial disparities in the justice system and it should be an issue in the 2016 election.

But here’s the rub: say in the next ten years America cuts its prison population in half and abolished crueler practices like indefinite solitary confinement. Would the person arguing against the “world is getting safer” theory change their mind? Will they say, “Huh, I guess the world is getting safer?”

I’d predict no. There will always be other problems in the world, and the pessimists will perpetually find new things to complain about and say, “This new problem exists, thus the world isn’t getting safer”, despite the evidence.

And that’s really why moving the goal posts is a fallacious argument.

Jun 10

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

It’s a cruel world out there, folks. Turn on CNN and you hear about another plane crash. Turn on Fox News and see ISIS taking another town. Hell, even the the local morning news broadcast has a story every day about a shooting or car accident.

Sociologists have a word for this: “mean world syndrome”. Mass media makes violence seems more prevalent than it actually is. This doesn’t just apply to the average person; it also applies to critics and academics who don’t think the world is getting safer. (Or as I dub them, “anti-pollyannas”.) In other words...

They use anecdotes!

Imagine someone who is trying to disprove that the world’s population is growing larger, pointing out that their grandmother just died. Or imagine a global warming denialist pointing out that it’s snowing outside. No one said that people weren’t dying and that there would be no more winters. They said the population is growing and average global temperatures are rising.

For most anti-pollyannas, the best way to disprove the “world is getting safer” theory is to bring up an anecdote of an isolated incident of violence. No one said violence no longer exists, we said it’s becoming rarer. (Ironically, as the world gets safer, incidents of violence may actually get more news coverage.)

Commenters here at On Violence have provided us two perfect examples of using anecdotes. As we wrote about a few weeks ago, someone on the blog argued the world isn’t getting safer because North Korea is a dictatorship. Next, we had a comment on Facebook that the world isn’t getting safer for cartoonists. Looking at the statistics and larger trends instead of isolated anecdotes, the world is getting more democratic and safer for expressions of free speech.

(In response to my question about the larger statistics on cartoonist deaths, the Faceboook commentator brought up gun control.)

Using anecdotes isn’t limited to internet commentators. Take Elizabeth Kolbert (who I love, especially for her work on the environment) in her review for The New Yorker (a magazine I adore) of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. She opens by describing the mass shooting in Norway a few years ago, an anecdote. But homicides in Europe are down over the last 50 years, last 100 years and last 500 years. This anecdote doesn’t prove a thing.

Or take Ross Douthat (who I don’t love) for The New York Times (which I still kind of respect), who opens his op-ed about Pinker’s book by describing the threat posed to Coptic Christians, “They may not survive the Arab spring.” Well, that doesn’t disprove Pinker’s theory. Statistically, mass genocide is way, way down. And it’s not even a good anecdote: the Coptic Christians survived the Arab spring.

This blog post, by professor Christian Davenport, counters the “world is getting safer” theory by arguing, “After looking at political violence data for about 20 years and witnessing Darfur, the DRC, and Rwanda over the last few decades, I have my doubts.” First off, Davenport should have stopped the sentence at “looking at political violence data” then cited that data. But he uses the anecdotal example about violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to debunk Pinker. Using upper estimates, about 5.4 million people died in their various civil wars that closed the twentieth century, or less than 10% of the country’s population.

Was that really worse than Belgian colonialism at the close of the nineteenth century?

According to scholars, ten million people died under Belgian rule from 1885 to 1908 or 20% of the country. In both absolute and relative terms, shockingly, even Congo has witnessed a decrease in violence. (And the Congo Civil war was the deadliest war the world had seen since World War II.) For a conflict scholar who has studied the region, he should know that. Of course, he didn’t witness that devastation with his own eyes and society didn’t have cameras to capture it either.

And I can keep going, citing Andrew Brown in The Guardian (“This news [that wars are less common] must come as a relief to the inhabitants of Iraq.”) or the blog Utopia or Dystopia (“Regardless of tragedies such as the horrendous school shooting at Newtown...”) or Frank Hoffman in War on the Rocks. The website World Beyond War has an entire article that cites a lot of numbers about deaths in American wars, but doesn’t analyze a single trend.

Edward S. Herman and David Peterson only use anecdotes to debunk Pinker, the more American the anecdote the better. They write, “Whereas in Pinker’s view there has been a “Long Peace” since the end of the Second World War, in the real world there has been a series of long and devastating U.S. wars”. I’m pretty sure those wars are included in Pinker’s data about battle deaths, and I’m also pretty sure there were devastating wars (American and not) before that time period.

The problem with anecdotes is that they’re just that, anecdotes. They don’t prove trends. As we pointed out earlier, saying “The world is getting safer” isn’t saying “Violence is extinct.”

Again, think about the “mean world syndrome”. Many of these critics wouldn’t have anecdotes to open their writing without mass media. Andrew Brown, from England, cites the Newtown massacre in America for a newspaper based in England. Elizabeth Kolbert, for the New Yorker, cites an example in Norway. Would either of these writers be able to use these examples without mass communication? Probably not, which is why they think violence is unchanging.

Step away from the coverage, look at the numbers and you’ll see, yes, the world is getting safer.

Jun 08

(Though many don’t want to believe it, the world is getting safer. There will be an end to war, someday, if the world works towards it. To read the rest of our posts on “The World is Getting Safer”, click here.)

What’s the opposite of a “pollyanna”?

A “pollyanna” is someone who irrationally expects the best. Optimism without evidence. So what’s term for a pessimist who predicts doom as illogically and unreasonably as a “pollyanna”, someone who assumes the worst, even though their world view isn’t based in fact?

Reading the critics of the-world-is-getting-safer “pollyannas” optimists like John Horgan, Steven Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, Bruno Tertais, John Mueller and so on, I’ve decided I (Eric C) need to figure it out. (From Michael C: Real-world-ist?)   

As I wrote a few weeks ago in the introduction to our recent salvo on the world getting safer, I’ve been researching the criticisms of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Mainly, I wanted to make sure I was keeping an open mind, not falling into the trap of a confirmation bias, which seems especially likely on this subject. (I would have focused more on Horgan and Goldstein’s critics, but their books didn’t have the same reach, so they didn’t have the same pushback.)

In short, I’ve been very disappointed with the criticism.

Critics of the “world is getting safer” theory twist logic in ways that, frankly, make no sense. Trying to refute Pinker, Goldstein and others, these “anti-pollyannas” commit obvious logical fallacies. They don’t want to believe (believe being the key word) the world is getting safer, guided more by emotions than logic.

I’ve found at least five examples of logical fallacies critics (or “anti-pollyannas”) use to debunk the “world is getting safer” theory, but there is one bias that overwhelms them all:

Confirmation bias.

Some critics just can’t let go of their current worldview. For the far-left, this means pushing back against the idea that free trade, globalism and state governments have made the world safer. Arguing that the world is getting safer, in their minds, absolves America of its warmongering. The title of “Reality Denial: Steven Pinker’s Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence” says it all. The website World Beyond War has an article, “War Is Not Going To End On Its Own” (we agree with this) which argues, “The fictional account of war going away treats Western civilization and capitalism as forces for peace”.

I should point out the irony that those on the far left have aligned themselves with military strategists on this issue, like Donald Rumsfeld advisor John Arquilla, Frank Hoffman and Colin S. Gray who believe war is eternal and isn’t going away. John Grey and Frank Hoffman cite “Plato” debunked quote that “Only the dead have seen the end of war” as proof. (Already debunked by Michael C here.) For right-wing, pro-war politicians and generals, “The world is a dangerous place”.

Both of these viewpoints are dangerous. The pro-war/pro-military intervention types advocate for keeping the American military “ready for war”, which really means keeping it gigantic, which endangers the world. This increases the risk of war around the globe.

The far-left anti-imperialists, on the other hand, have undercut their own success. I’d argue that the work of anti-war activists to document deaths in war zones have made war more unpalatable to the general population. But knee-jerk arguments against Pinker make them appear ineffective. It’s the same problem that faces foreign aid: we’ve been giving money to Africa since the 1980s and people are still starving, so let’s stop trying to help.

No, let’s highlight the successes. (Poverty and starvation are down, globally.)

And by blaming America, democracy and capitalism for violence, despite the evidence, alienates them from the wider population, limiting their anti-war message. As longtime commenter and friend of the blog S.O. has pointed out, the anti-war voices in the world don’t have much reach.

Another bias is at play here, availability bias. More precisely, “anti-pollyannas” fall victim to the “mean world syndrome”. Daily exposure to mass media depictions of violence make people think “the world is more dangerous than it actually is”. If you spend your days studying war (either to decry it or perfect it), a book about how war is on the decline just won’t resonate.

But it doesn’t mean it’s not true.