Surprisingly positive trends

I'm (as usual) late getting around to this, but back in May Rob Wile at Business Insider produced a set of 31 charts detailing positive long-run trends. (Some of these overlap with Steven Pinker's observations in The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I reviewed here. See also this video clip and this other post.)

The Washington Post's Wonkblog did its own amusing take of Wile's list that satirically spins them into bad news.

I recommend taking a few minutes to look over either version (I personally prefer the Post's), because it's nice to be reminded that bad as a lot of things are, in a lot of ways the world is better than it's ever been. (Or if you're of a more pessimistic mind, that things could be even worse than they are, because they used to be unbelievably awful.)

To be fair, in a few cases things are necessarily as good as the charts imply. Chart 9 indicates that the five-years survival rate for cancer is rising, but since that's measured in terms of the time from detection to death, it may at least partly mean only that detection is occurring sooner.

I also have a gripe with the Post treatment of Chart 7, the one that shows U.S. life expectancy rising from 47 in 1900 to 77 in 1998. The Post jokingly captions it "More 77-year-olds are dying than ever before." That may well be true, but only partly because of the rise in life expectancy. And it certainly was not the case, as the life expectancy figures might lead one to believe, that in 1900 Americans typically died in their 40s.

"Life expectancy" generally means life expectancy at birth, or the average age of death for persons born in the indicated year. (For relatively recent years this obviously involves actuarial estimates.) In most of human history that average was brought down by the tremendous number of childhood and infant deaths. It's happily true that, at least in the developed world, people of any age today have a good chance of living longer than their counterparts would have in the past, but the difference is by far the most dramatic for young children.

I think many people don't realize that even in the ancient past, people thought of a full natural lifespan not much differently than we do today. A fair number of Greek and Roman philosophers lived into their 80s. The 90th Psalm in the Old Testament describes a typical lifespan as 70 or 80 years: "The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away." (KJV)

But as usual, I digress. Do take a look at the charts. They're so encouraging they might even annoy you.

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Surprisingly positive trends — 3 Comments

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