fbpx
01 / 05
Ridley: Good News Is Gradual, Bad News Is Sudden

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Ridley: Good News Is Gradual, Bad News Is Sudden

The bias towards bad news is getting worse, and affecting how we act.

Human progress is often overlooked because it happens gradually and incrementally, while bad news tends to be sudden and dramatic. This article explores why people tend to focus on the negative aspects of the world and ignore the positive ones.


‘Deadly new epidemic called Disease X could kill millions, scientists warn,” read one headline at the weekend. “WHO issues global alert for potential pandemic,” read another. Apparently frustrated by the way real infectious diseases keep failing to wipe us out, it seems that the nannies at the World Health Organisation have decided to invent a fictitious one.

Disease X is going to be a virus that jumps unexpectedly from an animal species, as happens from time to time, or perhaps a man-made pathogen from a dictator’s biological warfare laboratory. To be alert for such things is sensible, especially after what has happened in Salisbury, but to imply that the risk is high is irresponsible.

No matter how clever gene editors get, the chances that they could beat evolution at its own game and come up with the right combination of infectiousness, lethality and viability to spread a disease through the human race are vanishingly small. To do so in secret would be even harder.

I fear the only effect of the WHO’s decision could be to cause unnecessary alarm and damage public confidence in the very technology that brings more effective cures and vaccines for known and unknown diseases. It also feeds our appetite for bad news rather than good. Almost by definition, bad news is sudden while good news is gradual and therefore less newsworthy. Things blow up, melt down, erupt or crash; there are few good-news equivalents. If a country, a policy or a company starts to do well it soon drops out of the news.

This distorts our view of the world. Two years ago a group of Dutch researchers asked 26,492 people in 24 countries a simple question: over the past 20 years, has the proportion of the world population that lives in extreme poverty

  1. Increased by 50 per cent?
  2. Increased by 25 per cent?
  3. Stayed the same?
  4. Decreased by 25 per cent?
  5. Decreased by 50 per cent?

Only 1 per cent got the answer right, which was that it had decreased by 50 per cent. The United Nations’ Millennium Development goal of halving global poverty by 2015 was met five years early.

As the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling pointed out with a similar survey, this suggests people know less about the human world than chimpanzees do, because if you had written those five options on five bananas and thrown them to a chimp, it would have a 20 per cent chance of picking up the right banana. A random guess would do 20 times as well as a human. As the historian of science Daniel Boorstin once put it: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance — it is the illusion of knowledge.”

Nobody likes telling you the good news. Poverty and hunger are the business Oxfam is in, but has it shouted the global poverty statistics from the rooftops? Hardly. It has switched its focus to inequality. When The Lancet published a study in 2010 showing global maternal mortality falling, advocates for women’s health tried to pressure it into delaying publication “fearing that good news would detract from the urgency of their cause”, The New York Times reported. The announcement by Nasa in 2016 that plant life is covering more and more of the planet as a result of carbon dioxide emissions was handled like radioactivity by most environmental reporters.

What is more, the bias against good news in the media seems to be getting worse. In 2011 the American academic Kalev Leetaru employed a computer to do “sentiment mining” on certain news outlets over 30 years: counting the number of positive versus negative words. He found “a steady, near linear, march towards negativity”. A recent Harvard study found  that 87 per cent of the coverage of the fitness for office of both candidates in the 2016 US presidential election was negative. During the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency, 80 per cent of all coverage was negative. He is of course a master of the art of playing upon people’s pessimism.

This is a human susceptibility and one that is open to exploitation. Even while saying that they would prefer good news, subjects in a subtle psychology experiment in Canada who were told to choose and read a newspaper article while waiting for the “experiment” to begin in fact “chose stories with a negative tone — corruption, setbacks, hypocrisy and so on — rather than neutral or positive stories”. Financial journalists have been found to report rising financial market indices with declining enthusiasm as rises continue, but falling ones with growing enthusiasm as the falls continue. As the Financial Times columnist John Authers said: “We are far more scared of encouraging readers to buy and ushering them into a loss, than we are of urging them to be cautious, and leading them to miss out on a gain.”

That is one reason for the pervasive negativity bias that afflicts the public discourse. Humans are loss-averse, disliking a loss far more than they like an equivalent gain. Such a cognitive bias probably kept us safe amid the dangers of the African savannah, where the downside of taking risks was big. The golden-age tendency makes us remember the good things about the past but forget the bad, with the result that the present seems worse than it is. For some reason people sound wiser if they think things are going to turn out badly. In fiction, Cassandra’s doom-mongering proved prescient; Pollyanna was punished for her optimism by being hit by a car.

Thus, any news coverage of the future is especially prone to doom-mongering. Brexit is a splendid example: because it has not yet happened, all sorts of ways in which it could go wrong can be imagined. The supreme case of unfalsifiable pessimism is climate change. It has the advantage of decades of doom until the jury returns. People who think the science suggests it will not be as bad as all that, or that humanity is likely to mitigate or adapt to it in time, get less airtime and a lot more criticism than people who go beyond the science to exaggerate the potential risks. That lukewarmers have been proved right so far cuts no ice.

Activists sometimes justify the focus on the worst-case scenario as a means of raising consciousness. But while the public may be susceptible to bad news they are not stupid, and boys who cry “wolf!” are eventually ignored. As the journalist John Horgan recently argued in Scientific American: “These days, despair is a bigger problem than optimism.”

This first appeared in The Times.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Blog Post | Wellbeing

      Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

      Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

      Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

      As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

      For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

      How much progress?

      Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

      In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

      Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

      With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

      Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

      Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

      These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

      So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

      Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

      In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

      A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

      Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

      Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

      Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

      Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

      Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

      Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.

      Blog Post | Food Production

      Heroes of Progress, Pt. 1: Norman Borlaug

      Introducing the "Father of the Green Revolution," Norman Borlaug.

      Today marks the inaugural launch of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org named: The Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column will give a short overview of unsung heroes of progress who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. The Hero could be anyone from a scientist who invented a vaccine that saved millions of people, to a politician whose policies lifted a nation from poverty to prosperity.

      Today, on the 9th anniversary of his passing, our first Hero of Progress is Norman Borlaug, the man commonly dubbed the “Father of the Green Revolution.”

      Norman Ernest Borlaug was an American agronomist and humanitarian born in Iowa in 1914. After receiving a PhD from the University of Minnesota in 1944, Borlaug moved to Mexico to work on agricultural development for the Rockefeller Foundation. Although Borlaug’s taskforce was initiated to teach Mexican farmers methods to increase food productivity, he quickly became obsessed with developing better (i.e., higher-yielding and pest-and-climate resistant) crops.

      As Johan Norberg notes in his 2016 book Progress:

      After thousands of crossing of wheat, Borlaug managed to come up with a high-yield hybrid that was parasite resistant and wasn’t sensitive to daylight hours, so it could be grown in varying climates. Importantly it was a dwarf variety, since tall wheat expended a lot of energy growing inedible stalks and collapsed when it grew too quickly. The new wheat was quickly introduced all over Mexico.

      In fact, by 1963, 95 percent of Mexico’s wheat was Borlaug’s variety and Mexico’s wheat harvest grew six times larger than it had been when he first set foot in the country nineteen years earlier.

      Norberg continues, “in 1963, Borlaug moved on to India and Pakistan, just as it found itself facing the threat of massive starvation. Immediately, he ordered thirty-five trucks of high-yield seeds to be driven from Mexico to Los Angeles, in order to ship them from there.” Unfortunately, Borlaug’s convoy faced problems from the start; it was held up by Mexican police, blocked at the US border due to a ban on seed imports, and was then stalled by race-riots that obstructed the LA harbor.

      Eventually Borlaug’s shipment began its voyage to India, but it was far from plain sailing.

      Before the seeds had reached the sub-continent, Indian state monopolies began lobbying against Borlaug’s shipment and then, once it was ashore, it was discovered that half the seeds had been killed due to over-fumigation at customs. If that wasn’t enough, Borlaug learnt that the Indian government was planning to refuse fertilizer imports as they “wanted to build up their domestic fertilizer industry.” Luckily that policy was abandoned once Borlaug famously shouted at India’s deputy Prime Minister.

      Borlaug later noted, “I went to bed thinking the problem was at last solved and woke up to the news that war had broken out between India and Pakistan.” Amid the war, Borlaug and his team continued to work tirelessly planting seeds. Often the fields were within sight of artillery flashes.

      Despite the late planting, yields in India rose by seventy percent in 1965. The proven success of his harvests coupled with the fear of wartime starvation, meant that Borlaug got the go-ahead from the Pakistani and Indian governments to roll out his program on a larger scale. The following harvest was even more bountiful and wartime famine was averted.

      Both nations praised Borlaug immensely. The Pakistani Agriculture Minister took to the radio applauding the new crop varieties, while the Indian Agriculture Minister went as far as to plough his cricket pitch with Borlaug’s wheat.  After a huge shipment of seed in 1968, the harvest in both countries boomed. It is recorded that there were not enough people, carts, trucks, or storage facilities to cope with the bountiful crop.

      This extraordinary transformation of Asian agriculture in the 1960s and 1970s almost banished famine from the entire continent. By 1974, wheat harvests had tripled in India and, for the first time, the sub-continent became a net exporter of the crop. Norberg notes, “today they (India and Pakistan) produce seven times more wheat than they did in 1965. Despite a rapidly growing population, both countries are much better fed than they used to be.”

      Borlaug’s wheat, and the dwarf rice varieties that followed, are credited for ushering in the Green Revolution. After the Indo-Pakistani war, Borlaug spent years working in China and later in life, Africa.

      In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his accomplishments. He is only one of seven to have received the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in addition to the Nobel Peace Prize. It is said that he was particularly satisfied when the people of Sonora, Mexico, where he did some of his first experiments, named a street after him.

      Norman Borlaug’s work undeniably changed the world for the better, and in saving approximately one billion lives, he truly deserves to be our first Hero of Progress.

      version of this article appeared in CapX.

      Blog Post | Food Production

      Heroes of Progress, Pt. 2: Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch

      Introducing the inventors of the "Haber-Bosch process," Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.

      Today marks the second installment of a new series of articles by HumanProgress.org titled, The Heroes of Progress. This bi-weekly column gives a short overview of unsung heroes, who have made an extraordinary contribution to the wellbeing of humanity. You can find the 1st part of this series here.

      Our second Heroes of Progress installment features two German Nobel Prize-winning scientists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch. The two have created the “Haber-Bosch process,” which efficiently converts nitrogen from the air into ammonia (i.e., a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen). Ammonia is then used as a fertilizer to dramatically increase crop yields. The impact of Haber and Bosch’s work on global food production transformed the world forever.

      Throughout the 19th century, farmers used guano (i.e., the accumulated excrement of seabirds and bats) as highly effective fertilizer due to its exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium – nutrients that are essential for plant growth. But by the beginning of the 20th century, guano deposits started to run out, and the price of the fertilizer began to increase. If a solution to the depletion of guano hadn’t come soon, famine would have followed.

      Enter, Fritz Haber. Born in 1868 in Breslau, Germany (now part of Poland), Haber began studying chemistry at the age of 18 at the University of Heidelberg. By 1894, Haber worked at the University of Karlsruhe, researching methods to synthesize nitrogen. Nitrogen is very common in the atmosphere, but the chemical element is difficult to extract from the air and turn into a liquid or solid form (a process known as “fixing” nitrogen).

      After thousands of experiments over almost 15 years, Haber succeeded in producing ammonia on July 3rd, 1909. That proved that commercial production was possible. However, Haber’s breakthrough occurred in a small tube, 75 centimetres tall and 13 centimetres in diameter. At the start of the 20th century, large containers that could handle the pressures and temperatures required for industrial scale production of ammonia did not yet exist.

      That is where Carl Bosch enters the story. Born in Cologne in 1874, Bosch studied metallurgy at the University of Charlottenburg in 1894, before transferring to the University of Leipzig to receive his doctorate in chemistry in 1898. Bosch met Haber in 1908 and after finding out about the latter’s breakthrough the following year, Bosch took on the challenge of developing suitable containers that could manage Haber’s process on the industrial level.

      Within four years Bosch was producing ammonia in 8-meter-tall containers. The Haber-Bosch process was born. By 1913, Bosch had opened a factory that kick-started the fertilizer industry that we know today.

      The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process meant that for the first time in human history it became possible to produce synthetic fertilizers that could be used on enough crops to sustain the Earth’s increasing population. It’s nearly impossible to say how many lives this breakthrough saved, but the expansion of the world’s population from 1.6 billion in 1900, to more than 7.3 billion today, “would not have been possible without the synthesis of ammonia,” claims the Czechian scientist Vaclav Smil.

      After their revolutionary contribution to human progress, the two scientists worked to help Germany during World War I. Bosch focused on bomb making, while Haber became instrumental in developing chlorine gas. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Haber fled Germany to teach at Cambridge University, and he died shortly after in 1935. Meanwhile, in 1937, Bosch was appointed President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute – Germany’s highest scientific position. Being a staunch critic of Nazi policies, Bosch was soon removed from that position and died in 1940.

      Today, more than 159 million tonnes of ammonia are produced annually, and while ammonia is also used for cleaning and as a refrigerant, 88 percent of ammonia is used for fertilizer. It is estimated that if average crop yields remained at their 1900 level, the crop harvest in the year 2000 would have required nearly four times more cultivated land than was actually cultivated. That equates to an area equal to almost half of all land on ice-free continents – rather than just the 15 percent that is needed today.

      Without the combined efforts of Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, the world’s population would be much smaller than it is today. The two have truly changed the world for the better. Their lasting contribution to the wellbeing of humanity means that they rightly deserve to be our second Heroes of Progress.

      PS: Carl Bosch is on the left of our cover picture and Fritz Haber is on the right of our cover picture