xkcd Misconceptions Day 2012

No Finnish version, sorry; this was written on a lazy day.

I was inspired by this comic:

I like the idea. I know we can’t live in the universe where on this day middle school students are required to read the Wikipedia page “List of common misconceptions”, and will be that much less misinformed. (And then those wouldn’t be common misconceptions any more, and the article would have to be changed, but then…) But we can at least make sure we ourselves are less ignorant. There are better reasons for that than saying silly things at parties, and besides, it’s interesting to learn about such things. So I’m going to consider the first Tuesday of February each year the “xkcd Misconceptions Day” on this blog. Besides linking the Wikipedia page as above and urging you to at least take a look, I intend to write about a common misconception not covered there. (For extra “fun”: Is the Wikipedia page right about all of those things it claims? I expect there’s at least one or two somewhere that it’s got wrong. I noticed earlier there were at least small contradictions with claims made in a source I rate about in the same class of credibility as a convincing-looking Wikipedia page, perhaps slightly higher, namely the Finnish popular science magazine Tiede. Sorry, but being critical never stops.)

Misconception of the day: That the world has got more violent

I recently read the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes by Steven Pinker. It was extremely impressive and I may write more based on it, because I found much more than I went in looking for. But here, I’ll just briefly outline the thing that I was looking for when I started reading. The title already says it.

The world is not more violent or unsafe than it has been before. We don’t live under a constant threat of being blown up by terrorists or shot by crazy criminals or anything of the sort. People seem to think this is a particularly violent age, perhaps because the media picks up on all the violence that does happen and keeps showing it to us.

Pinker shows with extensive use of statistics and other historical records that violence has decreased in just about every possible way. There’s homicide and other personal-level violence, but it’s rarer than ever. There are wars, but there are less and they are less deadly. The world wars were terrible, but there has been nothing like them since, and besides, even the Second World War wasn’t as deadly in proportional terms as a number of other conflicts in history, the most deadly having been some war in China as early as the sixth century that no-one these days has even heard about that may have killed a sixth of the population of the world at the time. The Twentieth Century was not the most violent in history — in fact, only its first half was violent at all, and the next one saw huge developments in nonviolence — and the notion that wars only started targetting civilians then is completely untrue. As for genocide, what has changed about that is not that it has been invented, but rather that it’s now considered universally wrong.

Do you think this period in history is somehow alienated and terribly violent? Violence isn’t a problem that has been solved, but comparisons to the past can hardly help make that point. Violence has been unsteadily but surely decreasing in the world all the time, naturally at different rates in different parts. Just one example: In medieval Europe, it was obscenely common compared to today. People apparently lacked the kind of self-control we take completely for granted today, and would attack each other viciously for trivial reasons. They also liked to watch people being tortured in bafflingly cruel ways. And rulers thought nothing of going to war if they felt like it. We’re not talking “USA invading Iraq” in today’s terms here, it was more like “USA invading Canada for no reason.”

You can find all the details in the book, so I won’t go on about them any more here. About the only way in which Pinker finds violence to have increased is that we eat more chicken — which means that we have to raise more sentient beings just to be slaughtered, because it takes a lot of chickens to provide as much meat as one cow does.

We still have problems with violence, since it’s always a bad thing. But comparing today unfavourably to the past is completely against the facts. I already knew many of the facts implying this, but Pinker makes it especially clear.

As for why violence has declined… it’s a whole another fascinating topic covered in the book. I won’t go into that here. I recommend reading the whole book.


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