Contrary to appearances, social science statistics show a remarkable worldwide decline in violence

I am as appalled as most people by the astonishing amount of worldwide violence that is the daily staple of our news media. It seems as non-violent peacemaking efforts are few and far between and rarely seem to show dramatic successes. So I was surprised, impressed and heartened when I learned of statistical social science research that shows a historical decline in violence. An article by Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer, drawing on research by Harvard social psychologist Steven Pinker, as well as others, summarizes the evidence for the trend toward less violence. Below are some excerpts –

That’s the thesis of three new books, including one by prominent Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. Statistics reveal dramatic reductions in war deaths, family violence, racism, rape, murder and all sorts of mayhem. In his book, Pinker writes: “The decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.” And it runs counter to what the mass media is reporting and essentially what we feel in our guts.

Pinker and other experts say the reality is demonstrated in the black and white of spreadsheets and historical documents. They tell a story of a world moving away from violence.

His findings are based on peer-reviewed studies published by other academics using examinations of graveyards, surveys and historical records:

— The number of people killed in battle — calculated per 100,000 population — has dropped by 1,000-fold over the centuries as civilizations evolved. Before there were organized countries, battles killed on average more than 500 out of every 100,000 people. In 19th century France, it was 70. In the 20th century with two world wars and a few genocides, it was 60. Now battlefield deaths are down to three-tenths of a person per 100,000.

— The rate of genocide deaths per world population was 1,400 times higher in 1942 than in 2008.

— There were fewer than 20 democracies in 1946. Now there are close to 100. Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian countries has dropped from a high of almost 90 in 1976 to about 25 now.

Pinker argued his case in a commentary this past week in the scientific journal Nature. He has plenty of charts and graphs to back up his claims, including evidence …that our everyday lives are also less violent:

— Murder in European countries has steadily fallen from near 100 per 100,000 people in the 14th and 15th centuries to about 1 per 100,000 people now.

— Murder within families. The U.S. rate of husbands being killed by their wives has dropped from 1.2 per 100,000 in 1976 to just 0.2. For wives killed by their husbands, the rate has slipped from 1.4 to 0.8 over the same time period.

— Rape in the United States is down 80 percent since 1973. Lynchings, which used to occur at a rate of 150 a year, have disappeared.

— Discrimination against blacks and gays is down, as is capital punishment, the spanking of children, and child abuse.

Even when you add in terrorism, the world is still far less violent, Pinker says.

“Terrorism doesn’t account for many deaths. Sept. 11 was just off the scale. There was never a terrorist attack before or after that had as many deaths. What it does is generate fear,” he said.

It’s hard for many people to buy the decline in violence. ..In 1998, Andrew Mack, then head of strategic planning for U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, said a look at the statistics showed the world was becoming less violent. The reaction from his professional peacekeeping colleagues?

“Pffft, it’s not true,” they told Mack, arguing that the 1990s had to be the worst decade in U.N. history. It wasn’t even close.

Joshua Goldstein, a professor of international relations at American University and author of “Winning the War on War,” has also been telling the same story as Pinker, but from a foreign policy point of view. At each speech he gives, people bring up America’s lengthy wars in the Middle East. “It’s been a hard message to get through,” he acknowledged.

“We see the atrocities and they are atrocious,” Goldstein said. “The blood is going to be just as red on the television screens.”

Mack, who’s now with Simon Fraser University in Canada, credits the messy, inefficient and heavily political peacekeeping process at the U.N., the World Bank and thousands of non-governmental organizations for helping curb violence.

The “Human Security Report 2009/2010,” a project led by Mack and funded by several governments, is a worldwide examination of war and violence and has been published as a book. It cites jarringly low numbers. While the number of wars has increased by 25 percent, they’ve been minor ones.

The average annual battle death toll has dropped from nearly 10,000 per conflict in the 1950s to less than 1,000 in the 21st century. And the number of deadliest wars — those that kill at least 1,000 people a year — has fallen by 78 percent since 1988.

Mack and Goldstein emphasize how hard society and peacekeepers have worked to reduce wars, focusing on action taken to tamp down violence, while Pinker focuses on cultural and thought changes that make violence less likely. But all three say those elements are interconnected. Even the academics who disagree with Pinker, Goldstein and Mack, say the declining violence numbers are real.

“The facts are not in dispute here; the question is what is going on,” John Mearsheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.”

“It’s been 21 years since the Cold War ended and the United States has been at war for 14 out of those 21 years,” Mearsheimer said. “If war has been burned out of the system, why do we have NATO and why has NATO been pushed eastward…? Why are we spending more money on defense than all other countries in the world put together?”

What’s happening is that the U.S. is acting as a “pacifier” keeping the peace all over the world, Mearsheimer said.

The beauty of this research is that it is numbers and the numbers don’t lie. The interpretation of the findings is another matter. Mearsheimer’s view that the US is acting as a “pacifier” helping to reduce number of violent wars  concurs with the view of the American foreign policy establishment and the US mainstream media. It is of course quite at variance with the views of non-conforming critics of American foreign policy interventions like Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, Michael Hudson, Canadians Michel Chossudovsky, Webster Tarpley and others who regard American policies as the consistent expression of a long-term goal of global military and financial dominance (dressed up of course in the rhetoric of humanitarian peacekeeper)

It’s interesting to speculate about whether the downward trends in violence revealed in  these statistics would be even greater if the political goals of the rulers were in accord with the apparent and evident wishes of the masses of the people. And this, synchronistically, is the central message of the Occupy movement.

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One Response

  1. I love to hear this. A similar though evidently smaller study at a Canadian University about 11 years ago showed the same thing. Very heartening; but not likely to sell newspapers.

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