Misplaced doom and gloom predictions can be self-fulfilling prophecies.
For a little lunchtime reading on a sunny day from the American Institute for Economic Research, Joakim Book highlights how little people (perhaps educated people, especially) really know about the progress humanity has made:
Gapminder routinely asks 12 questions (sometimes with a thirteenth question on global temperatures, which most people tend to get right) about basic, uncontroversial, changes in global development – multiple-choice questions on things like demographic change, how many girls in poor countries finish primary school, and what’s happened to extreme poverty in the last twenty years.
The results are terrible, but it’s not a question of ignorance. If people genuinely didn’t know, by chance alone they’d pick the right answer a third of the time: this is the chimpanzee threshold. Instead, the average human gets 2.2 answers right. The results for some questions, like global life expectancy (50, 60, or 70 years?), ought to scare us more than any dismal vision of climate change. Having more than doubled since 1900, the global improvements in the last forty years seem to have passed most smart people by. Of students and faculty at top universities less than one in five manage to get this right – even Nobel Laureates underperform the chimps. The worst-performing groups were Swedish trade unionists (10% got the answer right) and Norwegian teachers (7% correct). In one memorable lecture, Rosling animatedly exclaimed “What in the world are you teaching the kids?!”
The Gapminder questions aren’t difficult or tricky. For the most part, they take the form, “On this issue are things getting worse, staying the same, or getting better.” And for the most part, they’re getting better.
Part of the reason people do worse than they would if they randomly guessed is that misplaced and ideological lessons have been deliberately inculcated for decades now. Another part of it is natural; as Book points out, you never hear news stories about the 100,000 people who didn’t die from a natural disaster even though they probably would have in the same conditions a century ago. In the 1920s, President Coolidge lost his son to an infected blister from playing tennis. I have yet to see a headline remarking on blister survival.
The danger is that the doom and gloom will lead to policies that halt or even reverse our progress. Book asks the question, “What is the point of studying when the world is collapsing around us?” However, the risk is worse than that. The solutions that doomsayers propose are inevitably of two forms: 1) We must stop people from doing things that we think are leading to our doom, and 2) We must take resources from people in order to direct them to places that we think will be better.
Both of these approaches are antithetical to the basic dynamic that has produced so much human progress and thriving, particularly since Jesus spread the message that every person has value. When we presume superiority over others and impose our will on them, we tend to underestimate the worth of their contribution and overestimate the worth of our own.
The way to continue our progress, heal what wounds persist, and avoid making a turn for the worse is not to dictate what people can and can’t do so much as to reinforce positive beliefs to guide why they do what they do.