Uncertainty and Foreboding. Are Things Really Falling Apart?

December 26, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Don’t be fooled by the stories in the headlines or on the evening news, says Steven Pinker in an article for Slate (here).  Those stories are about death and devastation, and they reinforce a popular but incorrect picture of a world in chaos.

I think Robert McNamara was the first government official to use the quote from Yeats that has now become a cliche in this regard:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,*

Or as Times columnist Roger Cohen said just two months ago (here),

Many people I talk to . . . have never previously felt so uneasy about the state of the world. . . . The search is on for someone to dispel foreboding and embody, again, the hope of the world.

A few weeks later, in his year-end summary (in verse, no less), Cohen repeated the same idea: “The world has never seemed more fragile.”

Never? Nonsense, says Pinker. As a nation and as a world, we’ve never had it so good.  And unlike the journalists reviewing their headlines and ledes, Pinker backs up his never-better diagnosis with data from the last quarter-century.  Murder, rape, war, mass killing, genocide, dictatorships – all down. Democracy – up. 

As the graphs show, things look pretty good. So why the despair? Pinker, a cognitive scientist, has basically one answer: the availability heuristic:

As long as violence has not vanished from the world, there will always be enough incidents to fill the evening news. And since the human mind estimates probability by the ease with which it can recall examples, newsreaders will always perceive that they live in dangerous times. All the more so when billions of smartphones turn a fifth of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

True, but there’s something else, and I’m surprised that Pinker misses it: we are uneasy about the world today because of its uncertainty.  It seems worse than anything that’s gone before because we know how those things in the past turned out. 

The trouble with all the current problems that we can so easily think of – ISIS, climate change, global recession, and the rest – is not just that they’re bad but that they might get worse, and in ways that we can only imagine. (Of course we can only imagine them. They haven’t happened yet.) Hence, Cohen’s “foreboding” and “uneasy” feelings. 

Bad stuff happened in the past – recessions and crime and wars and global threats. But we survived them all, those of us who are still alive. Some things turned out terribly (Rwanda, Cambodia, Chernobyl, etc.), but they are over now, so we need not feel any sense of foreboding. In most cases, we don’t even feel much afterboding.  Even when the underlying problem remains, if we live with it long enough, it becomes familiar. So as long as it doesn’t get much worse, we learn to live with it.

By definition, what is familiar cannot be uncertain, so it causes less anxiety.  Back in the high-crime years of the 1960s and 70s, surveys found that people felt safer in their own neighborhoods than in unfamiliar neighborhoods – even when their own neighborhoods had a much higher crime rate. I remember phoning a guy for directions to his party in some NYC neighborhood I didn’t know. “Is it safe?” I asked. “Of course it’s safe,” he said indignantly.  When people asked the same question about my neighborhood, I’d give the same answer. “Of course, it’s safe.” I lived across from Needle Park, and I would sometimes see junkies on the nod, standing in stupor on the sidewalk. There were murders in Riverside Park two blocks away. But I had not been personally victimized, and the junkies became part of the taken-for-granted landscape.

My cognitions were adapting locally, but globally we do the same thing. The 1964 movie “Dr. Strangelove” is about a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Russia. People worried about that back then.  Today, both those countries still have more than enough nuclear warheads to blow up the world, and there have been some Strangelovian close calls. But the uneasiness, fear, and uncertainty of the 1960s have passed. Or as the full title of the movie says, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” It’s not that we love the bomb, but we have stopped worrying. 

When Roger Cohen and other handwringers look back at 2014 from the distance of a decade or probably less, they won’t see it with unease. Today’s problems won’t seem so threatening. They will instead be something that we lived through. And maybe, just maybe, they will also look at the data on long-term trends.

* I recall some journalist reporting that he overheard McNamara use this quote during a dinner party conversation. McNamara, Secretary of Defense for both JFK and LBJ, was one of the most important among the folks who brought us Vietnam. So I doubt that his quoting of Yeats extended to the next line of the poem, the one about “The blood-dimmed tide.”  My memory of this whole thing could be faulty. I’ve searched using Google and the Times index but can find no reference to it.

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