Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The world is getting better, but the media hide it

Systemic Flaws In the Reported World View

By Chris Anderson

Paradoxically, one of the biggest reasons for being optimistic is that there are systemic flaws in the reported world view. Certain types of news — for example dramatic disasters and terrorist actions — are massively over-reported, others — such as scientific progress and meaningful statistical surveys of the state of the world — massively under-reported.

Although this leads to major problems such as distortion of rational public policy and a perpetual gnawing fear of apocalypse, it is also reason to be optimistic. Once you realize you're being inadvertently brainwashed to believe things are worse than they are, you can... with a little courage... step out into the sunshine.

How does the deception take place?

The problem starts with a deep human psychological response. We're wired to react more strongly to dramatic stories than to abstract facts. There are obvious historical and Darwinian reasons why this should be so. The news that an invader has just set fire to a hut in your village demands immediate response. The genes for equanimity in such circumstances got burned up long ago.

Although our village is now global, we still instinctively react the same way. Spectacle, death and gore. We lap it up. Layer on top of that a media economy that's driven by competition for attention and the problem is magnified. Over the years media owners have proven to their complete satisfaction that the stories that attract large audiences are the simple human dramas. Rottweiler Savages Baby is a bigger story than Poverty Percentage Falls even though the latter is a story about better lives for millions.

Today our media can source news from 190 countries and 6 billion people. Therefore you can be certain that every single day there will be word of spectacularly horrifying things happening somewhere. And should you get bored of reading about bombs, fires and wars, why not see them breaking live on cable 24/7 with ever more intimate pictures and emotional responses.

Meta-level reporting doesn't get much of a look-in.

So for example, the publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better. If you believe Robert Wright and his NonZero hypothesis, this is part of a very long-term and admittedly volatile trend in which cooperation eventually trumps conflict. Percentage of males estimated to have died in violence in hunter gatherer societies? Approximately 30%. Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.

In fact, most meta-level reporting of trends show a world that is getting better. We live longer, in cleaner environments, are healthier, and have access to goods and experiences that kings of old could never have dreamed of. If that doesn't make us happier, we really have no one to blame except ourselves. Oh, and the media lackeys who continue to feed us the litany of woes that we subconsciously crave.


Anonymous said...

One of the thought I had reading this is that the prediction of catastrophe is used in order for people to get their own way. The idea is that if x is not done then there will be a catastrophe. This seems to be the way people like to argue.

The MM also does this as well. I often read predictions that feminism will lead to the end of western civilization. I don't actually see this even if I think it might not be a bad idea.

But for sure fear is probably the best way to get people on your side.

I have been familiar with TED's arguments along these lines before. That is that we are getting less violent. I can sort of see this as true up to a point. Measuring violence using a percentage measure is not the only way to do this. Probably in absolute terms many more have died in some recent conflict that those that occurred before. I am also a bit dubious about the statistics on hunter gathers.This is because I suspect different sample spaces are being used. That is one case we have a subset of the world population and in the other we have the entire world population.

Unknown said...

Unhappily I'd not been aware of TED or your work Chris until recently. Happily I am now, thanks to a change in media diet. I've yet to read your article in full and will but in the interests of adding a grain into the sandpit the central thesis rings very true. Witness the gloom in our main metropolitan daily here in Auckland New Zealand about the reform process that's changing our city government structures.