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Anti-Pollyannas or: The Worst Arguments AGAINST the World is Getting Safer

(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.

four comments

Sadly, I just listened to a podcast about how aid groups actively try to keep the numbers of tragedies high…to ensure that aid money keeps flowing.

I thought the word was “doomsayer”.

Anyway, I don’t think free trade and such has made the world more peaceful (I) and don’t think war is going away (I) because I agree that it’s in human nature: It’s an extreme in human nature that can resurface again and again at interpersonal and inter-group levels. Many sports are ritualized versions of this.

Yet even in combination of both it’s still very much possible that warfare will play a much lesser role, will be mostly repressed in the future.
Moreover, there’s little actual threat to both Americas and Europe. The military preparations are still extremely lopsided in favour of NATO, and we could do with much less military power for defence. The surplus is not “defence”, but “offence” in my opinion – toys for politicians to play great power games with and toys to look at for writers (warmongers like Kristol, Friedman) to satisfy primitive ‘stronger tribe’ desires of theirs.

About (I): This hypothesis was busted in 194; globalised trade and interdependence did not prevent the First World War.


“By 1913, Norman Angell’s hugely successful work, The Great Illusion, popularized the argument that shared economic advantage would make war too costly to pursue. Jean Jaures, leader of the French Socialists, proclaimed in the Chamber of Deputies in 1911, “There is another force for peace in the world today, it is modern capitalism in the organized state.”

It’s not just war, but also homicide, torture, slavery, improved judicial systems.

War may not be “going away”—I think the next post we make this point—but it is certainly decreasing. And understanding why is important.

More important, and we’ll be writing about this soon, politicians from America to the UK to France warn “we live in a dangerous world” and argue this dangerous world means politicians need those “toys”.

It’s a mistaken belief and a dangerous conclusion.

I think you oversee an important point: the reason why the world is getting more peaceful lies in my opinion in the absence of poverty (to many have to loose to much through war) and starvation (which led to more peaceful feelings and behaviour) which is a result of the industrial revolution and especially of our present Oil-Culture. Because of “The Oil we Eat” (title of a very good book i want to recommend) there is less and less reason for war. But this civilisation of the oil depends on an ending ressource and destroys our enviroment. Moreover it has lead to an immense growth of mankind. More people means more divergent interests, more consumption of ressources, more speed in the spiral of doom which perhaps will soon end our golden age of prosperity and peace.