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Abusing Statistics 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.)

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.)