Last week President Obama spoke to the Summit on Global Development and he said something important.
"[I]t is worth reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history.
Now, that's hard to absorb if we're watching the newscasts every night, because there's heartbreak and terrible things taking place at any given moment across the globe. But it's important for us to remember, not so that we become complacent but so that we understand that good works can make a difference. Think about it. It has been decades since a war between major powers. More people live in democracies. More people are linked by technology. Thanks in part to the dedication and passion and hard work of so many of the people who are gathered here today, in recent decades the world has achieved incredible advances in development and human dignity.
We've saved over 60 million lives from measles and malaria and tuberculosis. We've slashed HIV/AIDS infections and deaths. Across the developing world, incomes have gone up. Tens of millions of boys and girls are in school. Millions have gained access to clean energy, helping to mitigate the threat of climate change. In just the past 25 years, more than 1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty -- 1 billion. Michael Elliott, the former head of the ONE Campaign, who we remember today -- he liked to say that we're living through an 'age of miracles.' And he's right.
...the world has never been less violent, healthier, better educated, more tolerant, with more opportunity for more people, and more connected than it is today."
President Obama is correct. So, why do people get it so wrong? Why do so many think the world is going to hell in a handbasket -- an odd image if you think about it.
There are two prime reasons, and several secondary ones. First, the news media reports the "unusual," which is typically bad news. If something bad happens it gets reported over and over. Today, unlike in the past, we have 24 hour news sources. And, news is more rapid. A gunman in Munich, upset over being bullied, kills some people and the entire world knows in minutes. When the attack took place on Pulse in Orlando I knew about within a couple of minutes thanks to Facebook messages, and was watching it on CNN almost immediately after that.
What we forget is anecdotes do not trends make. I can link together a series of anecdotes, which are the complete opposite of a trend. We know that people, in general, are living longer than ever. Average life expectancy is up. That doesn't mean I couldn't string together a series of tragic incidents where people died young. But, it is incumbent on us to remember which is the trend and which is the exception.
In my parents' day they got the news in the evening on television and in the morning in the newspaper. At best it was a few hours old, and was rarely accompanied by film or photographs. In my grandparents day they might hear it on radio, or read something in the paper--if they lived in a major city. Everyone else got the news days or weeks later. Go back much further and even the most awful news could take months to reach people.
Throughout most of history news was neither immediate nor pervasive. Now, because news tends to focus on horrible things--which get everyones attention--people assume the exceptional is the typical.
Another problem is that politicians tend to love bad news. What President Obama did is praise-worthy. Most politicians exaggerate the fears people have. We see it in scare stories about "illegal immigrants" from the Right and gun violence from the Left. As Jason Riley pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, "numerous studies going back more than a century have shown that immigrants -- regardless of nationality or legal status -- are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or to be incarcerated."
Two years ago the Pew Research Center noted that firearm related violence and homicides are down significantly, yet most people think both have increased. Their perceptions are the complete opposite of the truth. But, it's not just crime and violence that people get wrong. Most people over-estimate all bad news rather significantly. As Deseret News reported:
"In the past 30 years, the number of people who live in extreme poverty has decreased by half -- but most Americans wouldn't tell you that.
According to a recent survey by Barna Group and Compassion International, eight in 10 Americans don't know that global poverty is in sharp decline. In fact, two-thirds think it's getting worse."
The sad reality is that many people vote their fears -- and the politicians know it. And, so do the media.
None of this means bad things don't happen. But, whatever it is that terrifies you, chances are good it's less of a threat than you think. The reality is people today are better fed, safer and live longer, healthier lives -- it’s not just true in America, but it is especially true in America.