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News got you down? Fear not, Harvard professor tells U.N., the world really is getting better

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Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker addresses the inaugural Presidential Lecture of the Economic and Social Council at the United Nations in New York,  May 21, 2019. United Nations

United Nations -- The headlines from around the world are gloomy; millions are starving, children dying in war zones, pandemics, trade wars and terror attacks. But diplomats at the United Nations got a dose of data-driven positivity this week from Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, who delivered a history lesson to prove the human condition is actually more peaceful and more prosperous than ever before.

Pinker teaches and writes about language, cognition and society, and his big-picture, historical analysis of the state of the contemporary world was filled with graphs and data showing how far humanity has come in the last 3,000 years or so.

The world, Pinker told the gathering of officials from around the globe on Tuesday, is a better place than ever, but our perspective -- and the way the news media convey events -- needs to change.

"People are getting not just healthier, richer, and safer, but freer," he said, but "they are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable, and smarter."

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Steven Pinker

Pinker's most recent book, "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress," presents facts that demonstrate how life around the globe, statistically, is improving.  

The psychologist measures a range of qualities to define progress; life, health, sustenance, prosperity, peace, freedom, safety, knowledge, leisure, happiness. As those have increased over time on aggregate, Pinker argues, humanity is making progress.

His data paint a clear picture, over the course of centuries, of life expectancy increasing, deaths by famine falling, the world's gross earnings rising and extreme poverty falling.

Pinker said the world has become freer, too, with dictatorships and autocracies decreasing in number.

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A member of the Indian security forces stands guard as voters line up to cast votes at a polling station during a general election in the world's most populous democracy, in Samuguri village, about 90 miles from Guwahati, the capital city of India's northeastern state of Assam, April 11, 2019. Getty

The Harvard professor didn't try to convince anyone that the world is perfect, but rather that world leaders, the media, and the United Nations -- as the principal global institution in the post-World War II period -- need to be more accurate and less selective in how they convey our "reality."

Plenty of room for improvement

After saying the world is a healthier, richer, smarter and safer place, Pinker added that, "Seven hundred million people in the world today live in extreme poverty."

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"My point in presenting the state of the world in these two ways is not to show that I can focus on the space in the glass as well as on the beverage," he said of the juxtaposition. "It's to reiterate that progress is not utopia, and that there is room -- indeed an imperative -- for us to strive to continue that progress."

At the U.N. this week, and in his new book, Pinker spoke about the rise in the 21st century of what he calls "authoritarian populism," which he says seeks to divide ethnic groups or classes of people within populations.

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Steven Pinker

He called it a "very different threat to human progress" that "excludes minority rights or the promotion of human welfare worldwide," and downplays the "marketplace of ideas, including freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, and the fact–checking of self-serving claims."

Pinker called the current advent of populism, "an old man's movement," and said he believed the next generation would do better.

Time to "polish" the U.N. brand?

At a meeting in the U.N. Bookshop after his main address to the global body, Pinker told the staffers and visitors that the organization needs to "polish the brand," and remind everyone what it has accomplished.

The U.N., he said, "deserves credit for drastically reducing the number of wars and the number of people who are killed in wars."

"For all its follies, the U.N. is one of our species' greatest achievements," he said.

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U.N. Director of the International Crisis Group Richard V. Gowan, who also tries to look at the big picture while evaluating present-day conflicts and crises, told CBS News that "Pinker is ultimately right."

"It is easy to single out the U.N.'s failures in cases such as Syria, but the organization has played a unique role in mitigating inter-state tensions and the U.N.'s humanitarian and peacekeeping systems have saved enormous numbers of lives despite their many imperfections," Gowan said.

Pinker concluded in his remarks that we are collectively depressing ourselves for lack of a complete, fact-based view with full appreciation for what came before. He said the media and intelligentsia have been complicit in the depiction of modern Western nations as unjust and dysfunctional.

Uplifting? Not really, he said, just realistic and data-driven.

"We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one," Pinker said. "But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing."