Good News?

If you find yourself at a cocktail party searching for a conversation starter, I’d recommend working in the opening line of a recent Bill and Melinda Gates Annual Letter: “By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been.” Although people will react with incredulity at the very possibility that things could be getting better, they’ll welcome the opportunity to straighten you out. Just be prepared for the inevitable recitation of the daily headlines—bad news piled on top of even worse news—that will inevitably follow. Virtually everyone I’ve mentioned this quote to is sure it’s wrong.
Steven Quartz

That’s been my experience as well. And in all fairness, until a few years ago I would have been one of those people–confident that things are getting worse all the time.

Yesterday I posted a long list of ways the world has improved and is continuing to improve. I began by claiming, “humanity’s amazing progress, which has accelerated in recent decades, may well be the most significant and least-appreciated story in human history.”

So  if that’s true, then why isn’t humanity’s progress more well known? Why aren’t we not only seemingly ungrateful for it, but generally oblivious to it?

Here’s some further food for thought, which I also find fascinating. Keep in mind all of the facts I posted yesterday as you read this.

According to a recent survey, only 5% of people believe the world is getting better. 71% say it is getting worse.

According to Pew’s research, every year since the early 2000’s  a majority of Americans surveyed have felt that crime has increased since the year previous. The most recent Gallup poll found a full 70% of Americans think the crime rate is currently increasing. This despite the fact that crime rates continue to fall precipitously, and are now about half what they were just 25 years ago.

56% of Americans believe gun deaths have increased over the last 20 years. In fact, gun deaths (that is, deaths caused by gunshots) have fallen by nearly a third during that period.

Two-thirds of Americans believe that extreme poverty has doubled over the past 20 years. Only 5% of those polled responded that extreme poverty has decreased during that time. In fact, 95% of Americans are greatly mistaken–extreme poverty has been cut nearly in half over the last 20 years and may soon be eliminated entirely.

In poll after poll (and presumably at all the cocktail parties attended by Steven Quartz), respondents answer that the state of the world is worsening, even when objective data shows the contrary. Why?

Some attribute this to the media, and its emphasis on bad news. But in fact the human bias toward pessimism and the belief that humanity is becoming worse over time, long predates mass media. It is found in the two thousand year old poetry of the Roman poet Horace, and four centuries before Horace in Plato, and four centuries before Plato in the writings of Hesiod, and before Hesiod 6,000 years ago in Egypt. It seems that humans have always preferred the “good old days.”  I suspect the supposed deteriorating state of the world has been the subject of campfire discussions since the dawn of time.

There are interesting scientific theories for why we have a cognitive bias toward viewing the past favorably and the future negatively (the phenomenon called “declinism”). More on that HERE and HERE.

When I became aware of this phenomenon a few years ago I found it intriguing and fascinating, in part because of the fact that the actual state of affairs (that the world is not declining but instead is progressing rapidly) is so counter-intuitive, especially to my old-fashioned mind. But being aware of our natural bias has helped me resist pessimism and negativity. It’s helped me to keep the daily barrage of bad news in perspective. It’s helped me to better appreciate human nature and human potential. It’s given me good reason to look forward to the future, rather than dread it. It’s helped me resist despair and selfishness.

I find it much easier to be an optimist now that I’m confident that it’s not just wishful thinking. And that feels good to me.


21 comments on “Good News?

  1. DM says:

    Good stuff! I did something similar recently in terms of our finances. I am definitely feeling the pinch/ stress…and yet, when I punch in our personal income (or you can punch in your net worth) it compares your situation to the rest of the worlds population..and we are truly blessed. Here’s a link to that website if you’re curious or need an attitude adjustment (like I do occasionally) 😉


    • Bill says:

      Yes DM, I’ve used that site before. This became very real to me after we visited Haiti and became involved with orphanages there. What I’ve come to appreciate more recently is how much more affluent we are than preceding generations (in many ways that we just take completely for granted). Thanks for the important reminder!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beth says:

    Bill, Is there any way to share yesterday’s post on Facebook?

    Beth >


  3. Laurie Graves says:

    More food for thought and a great follow-up to yesterday’s post. A while back—I think it was on the radio show On Point—I heard a historian talk about pre-Nazi Germany and how they were convinced that things were so bad that there was absolutely nothing the country could do to make things right. In short, no improvements would get them out of the mess they were in. We know what that kind of thinking led to! And, to end on a positive note, Germany
    is now one of the most progressive countries in the world. So, not only can things change for the better, but countries can also turn themselves around.


    • Bill says:

      I wasn’t aware of that specific example, but I’m not surprised. In 18th century Georgian England it was generally believed that the status quo should be preserved, because change led not to progress but rather to anarchy and decline. That despite the fact that conditions in England at that time were horrifying by our standards.

      I’m reading a history of Europe at the beginning of WWI and it is astonishing to me how barbaric the “civilized” nations were, a mere hundred years ago.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Why we need to actually see what’s in front of us, to hear what’s going on, to think about everything and not accept it at face value. Keep an open mind and remain ever-analytical. Look for the truth of what IS, not how some would have it be just because they say it’s so…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. avwalters says:

    I generally agree with you. However, the failure of our leaders to address some of the less savory things looming in our future has a way of undermining optimism. Are you seeing a silver lining in climate change that I missed?


    • Bill says:

      I don’t see a silver lining, but I refuse to believe we’ve crossed some tipping point and that humanity can do nothing now but act in a hospice role for the planet (as some believe). There is tremendous attention to the issue and millions of people are devoted to addressing it. Just as we still have the potential to destroy ourselves in thermonuclear war, we still have plenty of opportunities to destroy ourselves with environmental degradation. But I choose to believe humanity will rise to the task and prevent those things from happening (while acknowledging that what I believe will happen is not inevitable).

      When Cherie was growing up in southern California the smog was so bad that they couldn’t see the mountains from Los Angeles. Often they had smog alerts which required them to cancel recess at schools. But thanks to public awareness and action, leaded gasoline was replaced with unleaded and now the smog problem doesn’t exist. Likewise the depletion of the ozone due to fluorocarbons. Likewise acid rain from factory emissions. The air in the industrialized world in the 19th century was so thick with coal smoke that in cities like London it was often impossible to see more than an arms length in front of a person, in the middle of the day. At the time Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring the bald eagle was nearly extinct. Now thanks to the elimination of DDT the eagle population is thriving. We even have them here now for the first time in a century.

      We face very serious and potentially catastrophic environmental issues, but I don’t see any good reason we can’t overcome them. I expect a future characterized by clean energy, and resilient localized sustainable economies.


      • avwalters says:

        I sure wish the human race weren’t so addicted to the cliff-hanger suspense genre.


      • While fighting the installation of incinerators in a nearby (upwind): community, much negative information has come to light, including how much industrial pollution wafts about overhead that we have no control over (it’s already here, so what’s a little more?). Granted this has become a much lesser problem (here): now that so much Industry has been relocated to “Other-Shores”. Hmm, lose manufacturing jobs so we can breathe cleaner air – only to move the problem somewhere (and inflict it onto someone) else? Quite the trade-off, eh?
        Over and over again through the comments/ examples cited, I see that those who have control and wish to hold onto it would use fear of the future(unknown) as a tool to retain the status quo…
        As I said yesterday, we need to keep pushing to improve this world of ours, not stopping to rest on complacency and “how much better we have it”.
        Btw, with the prevailing winds, and where we’re situated, we’re still getting the heat/ air quality alerts from the manufacturing that still exists, upwind; from whatever direction that might be, depending on the day… Sorry for being cranky (again): Bill


  5. Thanks for sharing this Bill, with your last post and this one I think I will be thinking differently about the world we live in as well.


    • Bill says:

      Thanks Gordon. I appreciate your comment. I know how much this way of thinking cuts against the grain. Believe me, it does for me too. But my fascination with the subject has led me to radically change my worldview, for the better I think.


  6. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, I did a crime check on my city. The charts I looked at had a formula for the city crime to come up with an index for the year. It used the actual police reports and included all crime. The chart showed that crime was slightly lower in 2015 than 2002 but not really a big difference. It was a rocky ride from 2002 with crime being double in 2007 and then slowly drifting back down to the 2002 level by 2015. Every year my city was about 25% above the national average for the year. I suspect all big cities wouldn’t do well compared to the national average. So my conclusion for my city would be that crime goes up and down from year to year but over all it kind of remains the same.

    If just straight out murders are compared year to year. The result is a couple more one year and couple less the next but it’s also the same level since 2002 even though the city has grown at least 100,000 since 2002.

    I do know that the city is much better than when the jail was burned down and the town sheriff was hung from a city lamp post back in the 1920s because he wouldn’t turn over a prisoner from the jail to be lynched. It caused riots in the streets so bad that after seven days the army was brought in to stop the rioting. It so happened that the man they lynched was black and so the army separated the population according to race to keep the peace and still today that part of the city is mostly African-American. That separation act back in the early days of last century can still be felt today in the city through the resentment in the community there. I’m not sure they even know why they fell that way but it’s just been passed down through the generations. It has been a real obstacle to overcome that part of our history. So, yeah, in many ways the city is much safer than 90 years ago for both black and white races.

    Have another great Good News day.


    • NebraskaDave says:

      The separation in the city does not exist except by choice today. That part has long been over come in the city.


    • Bill says:

      Very interesting Dave. Thanks for the fascinating comment and the work you put into it.

      It’s interesting to look at the survey results when people are asked whether time are better today than they used to be. Even though a majority of the respondents say the past was better, a large majority of the black respondents say the present is better. No surprise there.

      As for crime stats, I didn’t believe that crime here was worse in my childhood than it is now. I don’t remember any crime and I know we never locked our doors back then. So I was sure that wasn’t true here. But when I checked the crime stats I was flabbergasted. The crime rates when I was growing up in the 70’s were MUCH higher than they are now. The murder rate here was triple what is it is now, for example. So out of curiosity I read the old newspapers the family have saved from the time of the Kennedy assassination. I read the local news from November 1963 and sure enough the paper reported more shootings, robberies, and traffic deaths than we have now. Some of the crimes that would be front page news today got only a paragraph back then. And when you look at crime stats from Appalachia during the first half of the last century it is almost unbelievable. I asked my mother about it (she grew up in the mountains back then) and she said there was basically no law then. As I keep saying, fascinating stuff. I posted some of my findings on a local history Facebook page and one guy was especially indignant. Nothing I could say was going to change his mind. He insisted that there are more shootings now than then and that was that. It’s funny how we remember things.


  7. Good blog and subject, Bill. I think people are addicted to doom and gloom, maybe because it makes a better story. And I fault the newspapers for pandering to this addiction, because it is how they make money.
    People can and do make a difference. Having spent my life in health and environmental battles, I can say without a doubt, we have made progress. The same is true in most other areas we want to look at. Think about the position of women and minorities in our society. This doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges. They come in bushels. But I believe in our ability to confront them.
    Not everyone wants to hear this, of course, especially the politicians who benefit from doom and gloom… I came across this quote from H.L. Mencken (from 1921, I think) the other day and have been wanting to use it. You win. 🙂
    “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” –Curt


    • Bill says:

      Well said.Curt. Your work to reduce smoking is a great example of the kind of progress we’ve experienced but just take for granted. Look at the rates of smoking today versus 40-50 years ago when I was a kid. How many millions of lives have been saved and improved because folks like you took on that problem? We really don’t give ourselves enough credit for the great things humanity has accomplished. I was listening to a podcast today that was discussing some of the amazing breakthroughs in neuroscience over the past 10 years. We’re moving forward in leaps and bounds while most of us seem to sit around and complain.

      Liked by 1 person

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