Town Square

Is Violence Falling Out of Fashion?

Original post made by Tom Cushing, Danville, on Dec 27, 2011

As the global village binds itself ever more closely, it’s difficult to avoid media coverage of anything that “sells newspapers,” in whatever form you actually now get your current events. Bad news does that, and dominates the airwaves, so it would be easy to conclude that man’s-inhumanity-to-man is thriving -- that it has civilization on the run. I want to end this year on an up-note, however, so I’m pleased to report there’s good evidence that the opposite is true.

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Posted by Wiscer
a resident of Danville
on Dec 29, 2011 at 9:08 am

"How to account for this improvement in the human condition? Is it genetics, or faith, the rule of law or the fact that folks can now vent their spleens, anonymously, into the Town Square Forum?"

This illusionary improvement is a result in the dramatic improvements in emergency medical care that have saved lives which would formerly have been lost. Normalize out this factor, and the murder rates would be dramatically higher, reflecting the growth in violence in society that the statistics do not accurately reflect.

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Posted by Tom Cushing
a resident of Danville
on Dec 30, 2011 at 7:41 am

Interesting point! I'm guessing he may have corrected for that factor, but I'll look. Author also has a website, to which I conveyed your idea. I'll post any reply I get.

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Posted by Tom Cushing
a resident of Danville
on Dec 31, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Mr Pinker directed me to his website's Frequently Asked Qs about Better Angels: Web Link

Q -- If you measure violence in terms of homicides or war deaths, couldn’t the decline of violence just be a by-product of advances in lifesaving medical care?

A -- Unlikely, for a number of reasons. First, before the late 19th and early 20th century, most medicine was quackery, and doctors killed as many patients as they saved, yet many of the declines I document occurred before that time.

Second, many forms of violent crime move up and down in tandem—for example, rapes and robberies went up in the 1960s and down in the 1990s, just like homicides—so it’s unlikely that any of these trends simply consist in a constant amount of violence which has been reallocated from deaths to injuries thanks to quick-acting EMTs.

Third, while medical technologies have improved, so have weapon technologies.

Fourth, advances in medicine can only move the numbers around for the statistical sliver consisting of the victims of violence who are injured so severely that they would have died with even with the primitive medical care in the past, but not so severely that would have died even with the advanced medical care of the present. Yet many of the declines are from scorched-earth campaigns of violence in which no amount of medical care could have reduced the death tolls to current levels—Mongol invasions, deliberate sieges of cities (in which doctors, even if they were around, would not have been allowed in), over-the-top frontal assaults into machine-gun fire, Dresden, Hiroshima, carpet-bombings, the deliberate killing or starvation of prisoners of war.

But most important, the development and deployment of medical care to save the lives of soldiers is itself a part of the very phenomenon I'm exploring—that war leaders and battlefield commanders today treat the lives of their soldiers as far more precious than in the days when they were used as fodder. Not only have armed forces invested in lifesaving technologies at tremendous cost, but battlefield commanders have avoided the temptation to compensate for the advanced lifesaving care by putting more soldiers in riskier situations, keeping casualty rates constant.

With lifesaving technologies, as with lifetaking technologies (that is, weaponry), far more of the variance in deaths over time depends on how the technologies are applied—whether people want other people dead or alive—than on what they technologies can do. (See “Weaponry and disarmament" pp. 673–674.)