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01 / 05
Halloween: More Walking Dead, Fewer Dead Walkers

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Halloween: More Walking Dead, Fewer Dead Walkers

Today’s trick-or-treaters have far less to fear than past generations.

Summary: Halloween is a celebration of death and fear, but it also reveals how much safer and healthier life has become. This article shows how child mortality, especially from pedestrian accidents, has declined dramatically in recent decades. It also explores how other causes of death, such as disease and violence, have become less common thanks to human progress.


This Halloween, you might see your neighbors’ front yards decorated with faux tombstones and witness several children dressed as ghosts, skeletons, zombies, or other symbols of death. Thankfully, today’s trick-or-treaters can almost all expect to remain among the living until old age. But back when the holiday tradition of children going door-to-door in spooky costumes originated, death was often close at hand, and the young were particularly at risk.

Halloween’s origins are closely linked to concerns about death. The holiday arose out of All Souls’ Day, a Christian commemoration for the deceased falling on November 2 that is also simply called the Day of the Dead. In the Middle Ages, this observance was often fused with another church feast called All Saints’ Day or All Hallows’ Day on November 1. The night before, called All Hallows’ Eve—now shortened to Halloween—in parts of medieval Britain, children and people who were poor would visit their wealthier neighbors and receive “soul cakes,” round pastries with a cross shape on them. In exchange, they promised to pray for the cake-givers’ dead relatives. This was called “souling.”

In Ireland and Scotland, Halloween also incorporated some aspects of an old Celtic pagan tradition called Samhain, including bonfires and masquerades. Samhain was also associated with death and sometimes called the feast of the dead. Eventually the traditions of wearing masks and of going door-to-door for treats combined, and young people in Ireland and Scotland took part in a practice called “guising” that we now call trick-or-treating. Dressing as ghouls and other folkloric incarnations of death became popular.

In the 1800s, an influx of Irish immigrants is thought to have popularized this Halloween tradition in the United States. The phrase “trick-or-treating” dates to at least the 1920s, when Halloween pranks or tricks also became a popular pastime. But according to National Geographic, “Trick-or-treating became widespread in the U.S. after World War II, driven by the country’s suburbanization that allowed kids to safely travel door to door seeking candy from their neighbors.”

And just how safe today’s trick-or-treaters are, especially compared to the trick-or-treaters of years past, is underappreciated. Despite the occasional public panic about razor blades in candy, malicious tampering with Halloween treats is remarkably rare, especially given that upward of 70 percent of U.S. households hand out candy on Halloween each year.

The biggest danger to today’s trick-or-treaters is simply crossing streets. But while Halloween is the deadliest night of the year for children being struck by cars, there is heartening news: annual child pedestrian deaths have declined dramatically. The number of pedestrian deaths among children aged 13 or younger fell from 1,632 in 1975 to 144 in 2020. The steep decline is even more impressive when one considers that it occurred as the total number of people and cars in the country has increased substantially.

Today’s children are thus safer as they venture out on Halloween than the last few generations of trick-or-treaters were. And, of course, when compared to the world of the very first children to celebrate Halloween, the modern age is by many measures less dangerous, especially for the young. In medieval England, when “souling” began, the typical life expectancy for ducal families was merely 24 years for men and 33 for women. While data from the era is sparse, among non-noble families in Ireland and Scotland, where “guising” began, living conditions and mortality rates may have been far worse.

It is estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of medieval children did not survive infancy, let alone childhood, with many dying from diseases that are easily preventable or treatable today. Given that context, the medieval preoccupation with death that helped give rise to traditions like Halloween is quite understandable. Life expectancy was lower for everyone, even adult royalty: the mean life expectancy of the kings of Scotland and England who reigned between the years 1000 and 1600 was 51 and 48 years, respectively. Before the discovery of the germ theory of disease, the wealthy, along with “physicians and their kids lived the same amount of time as everybody else,” according to Nobel laureate Angus Deaton.

In 1850, during the wave of Irish immigration to the United States that popularized Halloween, little progress had been made for the masses: white Americans could expect to live only 25.5 years—similar to what a medieval ducal family could expect. (And for African Americans, life expectancy was just 21.4 years.)

But the wealth explosion after the Industrial Revolution soon funded widespread progress in sanitation. That reduced the spread of diarrheal diseases, a major killer of infants—and one of the top causes of death in 1850—improving children’s survival odds and lengthening lifespans. By 1927, the year when the term “trick-or-treating” first appeared in print, there had been clear progress: U.S. life expectancy was 59 years for men and 62 years for women. The public was soon treated to some innovative new medical tricks: the following year, antibiotics were discovered, and the ensuing decades saw the introduction of several new vaccines.

In 2021, U.S. life expectancy was 79.1 years for women and 73 years for men. That’s slightly down from recent years but still decades longer than life expectancy for the aforementioned medieval kings who ruled during Halloween’s origins. Life expectancy has risen for all age groups, but especially for children, thanks to incremental progress in everything from infant care to better car-seat design.

So as you enjoy the spooky festivities this Halloween, take a moment to appreciate that today’s trick-or-treaters inhabit a world that is in many ways less frightening than when Halloween originated.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Blog Post | Cost of Living

      Even with Gas Prices at Historic High, Your Time Takes You Farther

      You can drive 62 percent farther for your time today than in 1980.

      Summary: Although nominal gas prices recently reached historic highs, your time can get you further than ever before. As this article explains, the time price of gasoline has decreased by 4 percent since 1980, and the time price per mile driven has fallen by 38 percent.


      The top-selling car in 1980 was the Oldsmobile Cutlass. Gas mileage on this vehicle averaged 20 miles per gallon (17 city/23 highway). By 2022, the Honda CR-V claimed that title. The CR-V reported mileage at 31 miles per gallon (28 city/34 highway). This represents an increase of 55 percent over this 41-year period. Mileage has been increasing at a compound rate of around 1 percent a year.

      Back in 1980, gasoline was selling for $1.19 per gallon and blue-collar hourly compensation (wages and benefits) averaged $9.12 per hour. This indicates a time price rate of 7.83 minutes per gallon. Today, gasoline is selling for around $4.18 per gallon and blue-collar hourly compensation is up to $33.39 per hour, indicating a rate of around 7.51 minutes per gallon. While the nominal price of a gallon of gasoline has increased by 251 percent, the time price has actually dropped by 4 percent.

      But how much does it cost to travel one mile? That depends on the time price of gasoline and the car’s mileage. In 1980, at 20 miles per gallon, the time price per mile on the Cutlass would have been 23.5 seconds. By 2022, with the CR-V getting 31 miles per gallon, the time price per mile would be around 14.5 seconds. The time price per mile has decreased by 38 percent.

      You can look at mileage from the perspective of how many miles you earn per minute of work time. The 1980 Cutlass would have given you 2.55 miles per minute of your time, while the 2022 CR-V gives you 4.13 miles. Gas mileage abundance, from your time perspective, has increased by 62 percent.

      There are other differences to consider. NADAguides, a website that values automobiles and other transportation equipment, reports that the price of a new Cutlass in 1980 was $6,735. At $9.12 per hour, it would have taken a blue-collar worker 738 hours to own this new car. Today the CR-V is retailing for around $28,334. At $33.39 per hour, it would take the worker 849 hours to buy one. So, while the time price of the top-selling car has increased by 15 percent, the mileage, safety, reliability, and comfort have all increased by much more.

      Yes, nominal gas prices are at historic highs, but it’s not the money that counts, it’s your time. Time prices are the true prices.

      Blog Post | Infrastructure & Transportation

      Crashing Through the Snow: The Grim Sarcasm Behind ‘Jingle Bells’

      Thanks to technological progress, cars are much safer than one-horse open sleighs.

      Summary: The popular Christmas song “Jingle Bells” is often seen as a joyous celebration of the holiday season. However, the song’s lyrics actually tell a darker story reflecting the dangers of horse-drawn transportation. This article explores the grim history behind the cheerful tune and how technological progress has made transportation safer.


      It’s the holiday season, and Christmas carols are everywhere, including the ubiquitous “Jingle Bells,” first published in 1857. Many take the refrain, “Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!” at face value. But an underappreciated aspect of the lyrics is that they are actually rather cynical about sleigh rides. Part of the song goes:

      The horse was lean and lank
      Misfortune seemed his lot
      He got into a drifted bank
      And then we got upsot.

      In the next verse, which is often skipped, the narrator relates being thrown out of the sleigh onto his back and getting laughed at by a romantic rival. His misfortune was relatively minor, but being thrown from a sleigh or carriage was not always a laughing matter.

      During the time of horse-drawn vehicles, accidents frequently caused not only delays and inconveniences but also injuries and deaths. The British historian Paul Hair called the horse “one of man’s most dangerous tools,” arguing that “it is likely that per unit of travel the horse was more dangerous than the motor vehicle.”

      He quotes Britain’s registrar general as noting in 1865 that “street accidents by horse carriages kill more people in a year than railways” and estimates a horse-related mortality rate of around 55 deaths annually per million people in 1874. In 2020, there were 1,516 road deaths in the United Kingdom. Divided by the current U.K. population of 67.2 million, that translates into a mortality rate from motor vehicle accidents of about 23 deaths annually per million people, making modern car rides more than twice as safe as Victorian horse carriage rides. And car deaths are becoming more rare almost everywhere.

      One problem with relying on unruly, skittish horses for transportation was that the animals sometimes bolted or reared unexpectedly. A slightly faulty harness could also spell disaster. Even dismounting a horse or carriage was dangerous; horse kicks have an average force of 2,000 pounds per square inch and an average speed of 200 miles per hour. One famous study found that, in the 19 years between 1875 and 1894, at least 280 highly trained Prussian cavalrymen died from horse kicks.

      No amount of wealth or power could shield someone from the inherent danger of a horseback or carriage ride. Servants and nobility alike succumbed to carriage accident injuries.  

      The crown prince of France’s July Monarchy, Ferdinand Philippe d’Orléans, died of a skull fracture from a horse carriage accident at the young age of 31 in 1842. In the United States, the French-born governor of Louisiana, Pierre Derbigny, died in office in 1829 when he was thrown from a moving horse-drawn carriage. A grandson of Thomas Jefferson died in a horse carriage accident in 1875. Future first lady Frances Cleveland’s father died in a horse carriage accident that same year.  

      A monument in New York City commemorates a debutante named Charlotte Canda, who was killed in a horse carriage accident in 1845. On her way back from her 17th birthday party, the horse bolted, and Charlotte was thrown out of the moving carriage.

      In Australia, the English novelist Charles Dickens’ daughter-in-law died in a similar accident in 1878. The ponies became spooked and ran wild, flinging her out of the carriage and causing a fatal head injury. She was just 29 years old and left behind two children who survived the accident, but were no doubt traumatized by witnessing their mother’s death. In Germany, in 1900, Prince Albert of Saxony died at age 25 when an open carriage collided with his own, overturning it into a ditch.

      Old newspapers reveal many episodes of startled horses running amok, wrecking the vehicles they were pulling and injuring riders. The horses themselves were often casualties. In fact, Victorian streetcar horses had an average life expectancy of barely two years.

      If we look beyond horse-drawn carriage accidents to other equine-related injuries, the list of victims includes several kings. William of Orange, for example, died from illness exacerbated by a broken collarbone sustained when his horse tripped on a molehill in 1702. After having the bone set, he took a bumpy 12-mile carriage ride that jolted the bone out of place and necessitated re-setting it. That carriage ride must have been horrifically painful.

      So rather than romanticizing horse-drawn transportation, the next time you hear the line, “Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!” remember that the lyric is somewhat sarcastic—and with good reason. And as you travel to see loved ones for the holidays, take a moment to appreciate the technological advances in transportation safety.

      This article was originally published in Reason.

      The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 13

      John Constable: Global Warming and Energy Policy

      Marian Tupy and John Constable discuss energy policy failure in the UK and the problems with the green agenda.