“WHEN people wrongly believe that nothing is improving,” Hans Rosling wrote in “Factfulness,” “they may conclude that nothing we have tried so far is working and lose confidence in measures that actually work.”
Because of this “negativity instinct,” Rosling said some people have already lost all hope for humanity. Or, worse, “they may become radicals, supporting drastic measures that are counter-productive when, in fact, the methods we are already using to improve our world are working just fine.”
To control the negativity instinct, Rosling does not recommend balancing out all the negative news with more positive news. “That would just risk creating a self-deceiving, comforting, misleading bias in the other direction. It would be as helpful as balancing too much sugar with too much salt.” A solution that works for him, he said, is “to persuade myself to keep two thoughts in my head at the same time.”
According to Rosling, when he says things are getting better, “I am…certainly not advocating looking away from the terrible problems in the world. I am saying that things can be both bad and better.”
This is quite similar to what economist and philosopher Max Roser wrote in 2018:
“Three things are true at the same time. The world is much better; the world is awful; and the world can be much better.”
Here’s another way to control our negativity instinct: expect bad news.
“Remember that the media and activists rely on drama to grab your attention,” Rosling said. “Remember that negative stories are more dramatic than neutral or positive ones. Remember how simple it is to construct a story of crisis from a temporary dip pulled out of its context of a long-term improvement. Remember that we live in a connected and transparent world where reporting about suffering is better than it has ever been before.” In other words, “More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering, not a worsening world.”
So when you hear about something terrible, he added, ask, “If there had been an equally large positive improvement, would I have heard about that? Even if there had been hundreds of larger improvements, would I have heard? Would I ever hear about children who don’t drown? Can I see a decrease in child drownings, or in deaths from tuberculosis, out my window, or on the news, or in a charity’s publicity material? Keep in mind that the positive changes may be more common, but they don’t find you. You need to find them. (And if you look in the statistics, they are everywhere.)”
Rosling also recommends that we learn more about history to find out if we have a rose-tinted version of it. (We usually do. Read this newspaper’s back issues.) History, Rosling said, is a great resource. “It can help us to appreciate what we have today and provide us with hope that future generations will, as previous generations did, get over the dips and continue the long-term trends toward peace, prosperity, and solutions to our global problems.”
Rosling, who was born in 1948 in admirable Sweden, said when he was four years old he had fallen, headfirst, into a sewage ditch in front of his grandmother’s house. “I remember the dark, the smell of urine, and being unable to breathe as my mouth and nostrils filled with mud. I remember struggling to turn myself upright but only sinking deeper into the sticky liquid.” Happily for humankind, he was rescued by his grandma. “My parents were not around to keep an eye on me. My mother was in the hospital, ill with tuberculosis. My father worked ten hours a day.”
Rosling said when he was “struggling for breath in that ditch full of pee 65 years ago in a working-class suburb in Sweden, little did I know that I would be the first in my family to go to university.”
During his lifetime, Rosling said Sweden became what we now call a modern, developed country. Today in Sweden, he added, “only three children in 1,000 die before the age of five, and only 1 percent of those deaths are drownings…. Child death from drowning is one of the many horrors that has nearly disappeared as the country has become richer. That is what I call progress. The same improvements are taking place across the world today. Most countries are currently improving faster than Sweden ever did. Much faster.”
Believe it or not.
To be continued
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