The World is Getting More Free


Green countries are free, yellow partly free, purple not free.

Here’s the key headlines I picked up from a recent presentation at UI by David Kramer on the World Freedom Report. You can follow Freedom House on twitter  @FreedomHouseDC

  • We are seeing the longest period of decline in freedom (now running at 7 years) in decades, with 16 countries improving but 27 declining – obviously not so positive news!
  • There are 90 countries currently ranked as free (46%), and these account for 43% of the world’s population
  • There are 58 countries ranked as partly free (30%), which account for 23% of the population
  • There are 47 countries ranked as not free (24%), which account for 34% of the population (but note that China alone accounts for over half of the population in this category)
  • Of the 47 countries ranked as not free, 9 countries are ranked as the “worst of the worst” (this now includes Mali)
  • While we have seen a global “blossoming” of press freedom between 1980 and 2000, there is now real concern over current trends which show significant backsliding (the current trend is negative). As an interesting aside: Turkey now has the largest number of journalists in jail in the world; within the EU there are growing concerns over Greece and Hungary; and Cuba was noted as a particularly poor example of press freedom in the Americas
  • Finally we also need to look at the bigger, more optimistic picture too: in my lifetime (i.e. between 1972 and 2012) the number of countries ranked as free has doubled, the number of partly free has also risen dramatically (up from 38 to 58), and  the number of not free is dropping steadily (down from 69 to 47), and this despite the fact that there are now 38 more countries to take account of since 1972!

Massive drop in deaths from natural disasters

Natural Disaster Summary Chart 1900 – 2011

deaths from natural disasters

Here’s a really interesting bit of data via @HansRosling about the amazing decline in deaths resulting from natural disasters. Even though the number of disasters reported and the number of people affected has climbed substantially (no surprise given the better telecommunications and technology we have access to these days, and the global growth in population), the number of deaths from natural disasters has dropped by around 90% since 1920. As Matt Ridley has argued in The Rational Optimist, this may be explained as much by preparedness and relative wealth of the affected region than anything else: in 2007 category five hurricane Dean hit the well prepared (and relatively wealthy) Yucatán Peninsula and killed around 45 people; a year later the category four cyclone Nargis hit the poorly prepared and impoverished Burma killing around 138,000 people.

Source –

Steven Pinker on why life is no longer nasty, brutish and short


The Peace Dividend

A great Ted Talk here by Steven Pinker on the ongoing decline in violence. Not only does he present the hard data to show that the decline of violence is a fact, but he also gives several plausible explanations as to why the decline is happening.

Two points in particular that stand out for me. First, as technology and economic efficiency make life longer and more pleasant, we are clearly putting a higher value on life in general. Second, Peter Singer’s thesis that our “circle of empathy” has evolved well beyond encompassing only family and friends (in part because technology is making it ever easier to “trade places” with other people’s feelings and emotions). Powerful stuff and well worth your time. Hat tip to Oliver Sycamore for this one.

Most of us peeps is creeps

Radiohead Creep

When Radiohead’s Thom Yorke sang the lyrics, “I’m a creep / I’m a weird-o / What the hell am I doing here? / I don’t belong here” on their break-through (and breath-taking) song “Creep”, I felt like he had something special to say to me. I connected. So here’s the news. It turns out he was talking about all of us. At least all of us living in the western world anyway.

I first read about the WEIRD acronym (which stands for Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”.

Haidt reports that, “in 2010 Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Norenzayan published a profoundly important article titled “The Weirdest People in the World?”. [They] pointed out that nearly all research in psychology is conducted on a very small subset of the human population: people from cultures that are [WEIRD]. They then reviewed dozens of studies showing that WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalisations about human nature.”


Which arrow is longer? That answer might now depend as much on where you ask, as well as how.

This is how it works. We conduct a lot of social and psychological experiments in the West – a culture which takes as its cornerstone a belief in individualism and individual freedom – and then use the results to draw universal conclusions about human nature. Trouble is that these results often don’t often stand up to scrutiny in cultures where people prioritise groups and communities ahead of individuals. Which, by the way, is probably the majority of the way the rest of the world works.

So where does that leave us? Well, with a large batch of experiments that might need a rethink, as well as the whole bunch of assumptions about human nature that we’ve drawn from them. Experimenters will need to learn to get off campus more when looking for people to test their theories on too, and probably look at even getting out of their continent. Until then, we might need to put some of those generalisations we have about each other on hold.