How Bad is It?

October 4, 2016

Have you ever thought the world was going to hell in a hand basket? Many people do. A recent article entitled "The State of the World" in The Economist magazine had some interesting data on that very subject. Much of the article was based on a book by Johan Norberg called Progress: The Reason To Look Forward To The Future.


So why are we so pessimistic? Norberg writes that one of the reasons is that we are just predisposed to think things are worse than they are. We overestimate the likelihood of disaster. This is because we ignore factual information while we remember stories; and the more catastrophic the story, the more memorable. Of course this natural distortion is amplified by the media and by presidential candidates with unusual hair and orange skin.


Here's a short True/False test to illustrate this point.
1. In 1990, 37% of humanity subsisted on less than $2/day (in 2016 dollars), but by 2015, that percentage had decreased to 10%.
2. The homicide rate in hunter-gatherer societies was about 150 times what it is today.
3. Globally, wars are smaller and less frequent than they were a generation ago.
4. The average European is 10 times more likely to die by falling down stairs than to be killed by a terrorist.
5. Thanks to more efficient farming, by the end of the century, an area the size of France will be taken out of cultivation because it will be unnecessary.


If you answered True to all the above....Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner.


So why are things getting better? One reason is that people are smarter. The average IQ of Americans just after World War II was 100. By 2012, using the same test, it had risen to 118 (psychologists call this the Flynn Effect). The biggest IQ improvements have been in our ability to answer abstract questions. This is most likely because of better nutrition and education and environmental improvements like the elimination of lead.


With our improvement in abstract thought, we have become more empathic, so our society is more open and tolerant. In 1987, only 48% of Americans approved of inter-racial dating. By 2012, this percentage had increased to 86%. In 1964, even the ACLU thought that gays and lesbians should be barred from government. 


It's probably normal for an inmate at Bastrop Federal Satellite Camp to think the world is currently a little wacky, but you should cheer up! Just remember the above optimistic data. If you are unswayed by facts and still prefer ominous stories, here's one for you:

As you age and lose what few brain cells remain, your smarter, more enlightened and more empathic children will put you in a cheap, poorly staffed and unsanitary nursing home. But chances are, you'll lack the mental capacity to understand your dire circumstances. You'll think you are doing great!

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© 2016 by Charles D. Jones