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Why human progress has not grounded to a halt

We’re constantly bombarded with dystopian predictions of the future and glorified tales of the past. They’re all nonsense. The world is continually getting better. Believing in nostalgic myths can only hurt us.

Do you know what the world will look like 100 years from now? Probably not. Considering the fundamental changes in society, electronics, and communication that the last 100 years have brought, we all must admit that there is an infinite number of possible futures, which makes it impossible to conceive of a definite prediction.

For our mind, this is a problem. Knowing that we’re completely incapable of predicting what will happen even ten years from now hurts our need for certainty. Many people try to use this lack of certainty in their advantage, either selling us their products or their radical ideas. To show how little substance these claims have, let’s look at an article from someone most people would consider a trustworthy source in this matter: Michael Hanlon, science writer of the British newspaper Daily Mail.

First, we will expose Hanlon’s nonsense for what it is. Then we will explain why we are inherently inclined to believe him, and finally we will show why ideas of this type are destructive and how we can avoid to fall for them.

The nonsense of a golden past

Hanlon claims that human progress has stopped. In his words, every significant technological development of our modern times “came to be, or had its seeds sown” between 1945 and 1974, a period he calls the “golden quarter”. To prove his claim, Hanlon lists a number of inventions that he attributes to the time period from 1945 to 1974:

  • The pill,
  • Electronics,
  • Computers,
  • The internet,
  • Nuclear power,
  • Television,
  • Antibiotics,
  • Space travel,
  • Civil rights.

Hanlon then proceeds to claim that nothing we have done since 1974 is more than a marginal improvement over what was there already.

This list, the only proof Hanlon offers to back up his claim, is where his theory falls apart: Of all the inventions Hanlon attributes to his golden quarter, only the internet was actually invented between 1945 and 1974. The first attempts at long distance communication between computers were made in 1969, and the TCP/IP standard, the same standard we use today, was defined in 1973 – a legitimate golden quarter invention. All other inventions, however, had “their seeds sawn”, as Hanlon put it, before 1945 – some even a couple of millennia earlier:

  • The first rudimentary form of television was presented in 1851. In the 1920s, the technology had matured enough to transmit moving pictures in real time. The first color transmission was made in 1938, and the NTSC television standard, which was in place until 2009, was developed in 1941. By the beginning of Hanlon’s golden quarter, the television was already well developed. Considering the major advancements that had been made in television before 1941 and since 2000, with the widespread distribution of flatscreen, HD, and 3D technology, contributions between 1945 and 1974 could easily be dismissed as insignificant.
  • The first programmable computer was developed in the 1820s. By the end of the 19th century, computers already had many of the basic functions they have now: They could import and export data, calculate algorithms, and be programmed. Konrad Zuse built the first fully electric computer in 1939. Of course, the concept of the computer was improved dramatically between 1945 and 1974, but these improvements were by no means more significant than the improvements since 1974 or before 1945.
  • The foundation of space travel was created by American pioneer Robert H. Goddard, starting in 1917. The first rocket to reach space, the German V2 in 1943, was built by Wernher von Braun, based on Goddard’s ideas – exactly like the American space rockets during Hanlon’s golden quarter. By 1945, the basic concept of space flight had been developed and, with more than 3,000 V2s launched during World War II, had been successfully put into action on a large scale. This groundwork makes it impossible to attribute spaceflight solely to the period of 1945 to 1974.
  • Similarly, the seed for nuclear power was sewn and started to blossom before 1945. The Manhattan project, which developed the first nuclear bomb, had built its own functioning nuclear reactor by 1943. Any development in nuclear power after 1945 was much less significant than the improvements we made on the internet since 1974.
  • Hanlon’s claim that civil rights were created between 1945 and 1974 is downright ridiculous. While black people gained equal rights during this time in America, from a world wide perspective, this was hardly the seed of the civil rights movement. The first civil rights were declared in the roman empire – roughly 2,300 years before Hanlon’s golden quarter. Among others, the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and the American Bill of Rights of 1789 and the ideals of the french revolution were much more significant stepping stones to universal civil rights than the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In most countries, women obtained full civil rights before 1945 and the LGBT community after 1974. Throughout history, minorities all around the world struggled to obtain equal rights. Cherry picking a single movement and declaring it the beginning of all civil rights requires the narrowest of views on history and social development.
  • Similarly, Hanlon’s claim that medicine has not improved since 1974 has little substance. We have introduced computers, new diagnostics such as the MRI, and new treatment methods. Many surgeries that required long procedures with massive side effects have been replaced with small, quick operations that are easier on the body and allow u to leave the hospital the same day. Yes, we have not yet cured cancer, but this can hardly be the only measurement for improvements in medicine. If I had broken my neck in 1974 and not in 2004, I very likely wouldn’t have left the hospital two weeks later without any lasting consequences. I suggest this is progress.

When we attribute major inventions of more than 2,000 years to a short period of time, it is easy to create a golden quarter. Compared to this made-up burst of genius, our current times must seem as desperately inferior as any human when compared to Superman. The trouble, of course, is that Superman is made up and that it makes no sense to discredit any mere mortal because they are not Superman.

The truth is, human progress is a continuous process. We constantly improve on what has been there before, combining existing ideas to a single, better idea. We could trace back Hanlon’s examples even further. The development of computers started when we used simple counting devices such as the Abacus, the first rockets were launched by the Chinese before 1300, and the first inventions in medicine can be traced back to at least 3000 BC.

Defining a concrete starting point for any human achievement is always difficult. Defining the starting point of everything that defines our modern times in a golden quarter is wishful thinking – and absolutely ridiculous. Unfortunately, most people lack the knowledge to recognize these early ancestors of modern developments and the continuous improvement that has led us to where we are now.

The not-so-golden quarter

Using a similarly flawed and selective approach as Hanlon, we could turn the period between 1945 and 1974 into anything we want – even the worst period in human history. You don’t believe me? Well, consider these facts:

  • Following the second world war, the winning super powers missed the chance to turn their alliance into a lasting friendship, thereby bringing the world to the edge of nuclear war. For the first time in history, humanity threatened to extinct itself. A few times, for example during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, this possibility almost came true.
  • John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963, his brother Robert in 1968, Martin Luther King in 1968, Malcom X in 1965. In the U.S., the 1960s were an unprecedented time of political murders and social upheaval, which was especially dangerous due to the permanent conflict with Russia.
  • In East Germany, the socialist regime started to build a wall to stop people from emigrating to West Germany. Of the thousands of people who tried to cross the wall and the other defense mechanisms, hundreds were shot and left to die in the no-man’s land between East and West Germany.
  • The Vietnam War started in 1955. Lasting two decades, this senseless conflict killed millions of people, many of them civilians.
  • Between 1958 and 1961, China’s Great Leap Forward let to the starvation of 45 Million people – a catastrophe as deadly as World War II.
  • The drug Thalidomide, which was first administered to relieve morning sickness in pregnant woman in 1957, killed thousands of children and left thousands others with malformed limbs.
  • In the 1950s, lobotomies became an accepted practice to treat mental health problems. Thousand of patients were incapacitated for life because doctors destroyed a part of their brain with an ice pick and a hammer – one of the most barbarian treatments in modern medicine.

If we wanted, we could paint an even darker picture of Hanlon’s golden quarter. We could find examples of all aspects of life – politics, medicine, social issues, etc. – for why the time period between 1945 and 1974 was the worst period in human history. Depending on whether we focus on the positive, as Hanlon, or on the negative, as in our examples above, we could make the golden quarter to be the best of times or the worst of times.

Of course, as sensible human beings, we should do neither. We can make better decisions and lead happier lives when we evaluate the world as realistically as possible and base our actions on facts rather than on faulty logic. But how can we do that? By all indications, Michael Hanlon, science journalist for such renowned newspapers as The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph, is an intelligent man. If he falls prey to such a perfect example of faulty logic, how can we hope to avoid doing the same? To answer this question, let’s first take a look at what causes us to employ faulty logic. After we have found the reasons for such mistakes, we can eliminate their source.

How the confirmation bias creates nonsense

Hanlon compares two time periods, period A from 1945 to 1974 and period B from 1974 to now. He fills period A with human accomplishments of more than two millennia and strips period B from everything that could be considered an advancement. Then he concludes that period A was a golden quarter and period B a backward wasteland – a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This type of reasoning is a clear example of the confirmation bias: Hanlon reached his verdict before analyzing the evidence and only sees what he wants to see. While neglecting all disconfirming evidence, Hanlon accumulates confirming evidence until he can seemingly proof the point he wanted to proof all along.

To form a worthwhile opinion, we must do the exact opposite: We must seek out disconfirming evidence, not neglect it. Only if our thesis still stands after we have looked at all possible disconfirming evidence, we can accept it. Since this is the basic principle of science, Hanlon, who calls himself a science writer, must not only know it, he should value it as the sacred principle of all his writings.

Why does Hanlon abandon the golden rule of his profession so easily? Why is he so focused on proving a point? Of course, there’s always the possibility that Hanlon ignored all disconfirming evidence to make a quick buck, but we should give him a little more credit than that. There must be another reason. What could it be?

When we succumb to the confirmation bias, we only see what we want to see. And that’s the problem. What we want to see is not a logical decision, it is based on our feelings. Realizing that what we want to see is not always true might simultaneously be the most difficult and most rewarding mental accomplishment we can make.

What we want to see depends on our four essential needs:

  • Certainty,
  • Possibility,
  • Significance, and
  • Love / connection.

Whenever we fall for a confirmation bias, we do it to meet one or more of these needs. By elevating the time period we live in to either the best or worst thing in the world, we can satisfy all our needs: At least, we are not mediocre, we are special. This gives us a feeling of:

  • Significance (“I am special.”),
  • Certainty (“I am sure about how special I am.”),
  • Possibility (“Because I am special, good things can happen.”),
  • Love / connection (“I like how special I am.”).

As long as we consider our time to either be the best of times or the worst of times, we can feel special and satisfy all our needs. Psychologists call this a self-serving bias. When Hanlon discredits the time since 1974 as the departure from everything that was good in the past, the self-serving bias creates the outcome he wants to achieve and the confirmation bias helps him to achieve it.

The same mental mistake has tricked humans into believing that the world will end soon for thousands of years. In medieval times, mountebanks told horror stories about the imminent apocalypse. Now, unscientific science writers and demagogues employ the same logic – which is equally nonsensical.

Why is it dangerous to believe in a confirmation bias?

Michael Hanlon’s reasoning is biased and unscientific – but does it matter? If seeing our time in a certain light helps us feel better about ourselves, what’s so bad about it?

Unfortunately, things are not that easy. To create his delusion of a golden quarter, Hanlon’s employs the exact same style of reasoning demagogues use to lure us into believing that the world is heading for disaster and that we need their extreme ideas to get back on track. Normally, nobody would believe them, but if supposedly respectable people feed us the same kind of half-baked theories, they sensitize us for their reasoning. We get used to the idea that our times are inherently flawed and that we need dramatic change, which creates fear and the willingness to accept radical ideas. Often, violence and hatred are the direct result of ideas along the line of Hanlon’s anti-progressive 21st century.

When we think critically, we can avoid falling for these disastrous ideas. We must seek out disconfirming evidence and only accept the ideas that stand our thorough testing. Hopefully, this example can help you to perform your own critical analysis. If you, too, believe in ideas that require acceptance without questioning – religions, conspiracy theories, political radicalism, etc. – I invite you to use the process outlined above to question their validity.

Conclusion

  1. There has never been a golden time, and our current time is neither inherently flawed nor heading for unavoidable disaster. As in any time, there are some problems we have to solve, but we will solve them.
  2. The world is getting better. General pessimism about the future is the result of faulty logic.
  3. Demagogues use our general pessimism about the future to sell us their ideas as the only way to avoid major crisis. This reasoning is a lie. There is no need for radical ideas.

Published in Politics

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