Read this yesterday. Thought I might use it later in the year as a way of helping kids think about how a writer identifies a key question — are things getting better — and then brings a series of close readings to bear upon it. Different disciplinary lenses — psychological, historical, sociological — provide the author with the glue to hold his essay together, although its his skillful writing that provides the connections.
Several quotes to consider:
Was the past good or bad? Are we on the right track or the wrong one? Is life getting better or worse? These questions are easy to ask—pollsters and politicians love asking them—but surprisingly hard to answer. Most historical and statistical evidence shows that life used to be shorter, sicker, poorer, more dangerous, and less free. Yet many people, like Milanovi?, have fond memories of bygone years, and wonder if reports of their awfulness have been exaggerated. Others concede that life used to be worse in some ways, but wonder if it wasn’t also better in others—simpler, more predictable, more spiritual.
The power of bad news is magnified, Pinker writes, by a mental habit that psychologists call the “availability heuristic”: because people tend to estimate the probability of an event by means of “the ease with which instances come to mind,” they get the impression that mass shootings are more common than medical breakthroughs. We’re also guilty of “the sin of ingratitude.” We like to complain, and we don’t know much about the heroic problem-solvers of the past. “How much thought have you given lately to Karl Landsteiner?” Pinker asks. “Karl who? He only saved a billion lives by his discovery of blood groups.”
Later in the year, when we get to writing/reviewing books, I hope I can use this piece as a model.
Rothman, Joshua. “Are Things Getting Better or Worse?” The New Yorker, July 16, 2018. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/07/23/are-things-getting-better-or-worse.