As a clearly difficult year winds to a close, allow me to say how thankful I am for … last year. And the year before that. And, really, all the years dating back to my first Thanksgiving in 1978.
Here in 2020, I’m thankful “2020” – the worldwide phenomenon and serial tragedy – is such an aberration.
Disease, joblessness, social strife, natural disasters, political crisis: This year could hardly have featured more pitfalls. (No, December, that’s not a challenge.) This was the year optimists became an endangered species. But remember, we feel under attack mostly because such calamities are so foreign to our age.
In 2018, a Swedish doctor and teacher named Hans Rosling published “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” I received a copy as a gift, put it on my bookshelf and forgot about it. But in search of reminders that the world isn’t in such bad shape, I came across a 13-question quiz Rosling includes at the beginning of the book.
Would you believe that in just the past 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 per day) has been cut by about half? People in my policy-oriented world tend to know that. But opinion polls find only about one in 20 Americans got the answer right; the rest thought it had remained about the same, or more than doubled.
Or how about the proportion of 1-year-olds globally who have been vaccinated against some disease? Would you guess 20 percent, 50 percent or 80 percent? The correct answer is 80. The pollsters say only about one in six Americans got that right.
Rosling’s quiz includes questions about life expectancy, education of girls in low-income countries, the number of deaths each year from natural disasters, and more. On all but one of them, the truth is better than most people believe. The exception was a question about global warming – which of course is in the headlines a lot more often than good news about, say, the rising number of tigers and giant pandas in the wild.
When I was in the newspaper business fulltime, I was often asked why we didn’t print more “good news.” My answer was always the same: because people won’t buy that. There’s a reason for the saying, “if it bleeds, it leads.” That’s what people actually read or watch, whatever they say about wanting more “good news.”
The reason is simple: People generally don’t pay for information they already know. And deep down, we know that, on the whole, good news is commonplace. Most people don’t get robbed at gunpoint, or die in a car crash. Most politicians don’t take bribes. Most teachers and clergymen and scout leaders don’t abuse children. News outlets cover the instances where those things do happen – and people read or watch those stories – precisely because they are the exceptions to the rule.
That’s good news of its own, in a way.
But it’s sometimes hard for humans to remember that. We’re prone to recency bias: We favor current events or conditions over past ones. We’re prone to confirmation bias: We pay attention to facts or anecdotes that reaffirm what we already believed.
In a year of repeated bad news, we start to think this is the way things will always be from now on. With so many shocks to the system, we find all the proof our brains require to keep thinking that way.
But things have been quite good in our world for many years leading up to this one. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but there are plenty of reasons to believe this rough patch is just that: a temporary struggle that we’ll eventually overcome.
The memories of better times past, and the prospects for better times ahead, are reasons enough to be thankful. Even in 2020.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.