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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Why so gloomy?

Matt Ridley:

Has the percentage of the world population that lives in extreme poverty almost doubled, almost halved or stayed the same over the past 20 years? When the Swedish statistician and public health expert Hans Rosling began asking people that question in 2013, he was astounded by their responses. Only 5% of 1,005 Americans got the right answer: Extreme poverty has been cut almost in half. A chimpanzee would do much better, he pointed out mischievously, by picking an answer at random. So people are worse than ignorant: They believe they know many dire things about the world that are, in fact, untrue.

Before his untimely death last year, Rosling (with his son and daughter-in-law as co-authors) published a magnificent book arguing against such reflexive pessimism. Its title says it all: “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” As the author of a book called “The Rational Optimist,” I’m happy to include myself in their platoon, which also includes writers such as Steven Pinker, Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Shermer and Gregg Easterbrook.

For us New Optimists, however, it’s an uphill battle. No matter how persuasive our evidence, we routinely encounter disbelief and even hostility, as if accentuating the positive was callous. People cling to pessimism about the state of the world. John Stuart Mill neatly summarized this tendency as far back as 1828: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” It’s cool to be gloomy.

Studies consistently find that people in developed societies tend to be pessimistic about their country and the world but optimistic about their own lives. They expect to earn more and to stay married longer than they generally do. The Eurobarometer survey finds that Europeans are almost twice as likely to expect their own economic prospects to get better in the coming year as to get worse, while at the same time being more likely to expect their countries’ prospects to get worse than to improve. The psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania suggests a reason for this: We think we are in control of our own fortunes but not those of the wider society.

There are certainly many causes for concern in the world today, from terrorism to obesity to environmental problems, but the persistence of pessimism about the planet requires some explanation beyond the facts themselves. …

One reason why people are so gloomy about the state of the world might simply be that most of us are genetically programmed to look more keenly for badness than for goodness, because badness, if ignored, might kill us. Impending disaster requires us to take action, by, say, getting out of its way. All that impending wonderfulness demands of us is … well, not much at all. As evolutionary scientists constantly remind us, what matters is individual and group survival and procreation, not the mere truth of things. If being unrealistically gloomy about the future of mankind makes us more likely to perpetuate our DNA, perhaps by making us believe that life has to be more of a struggle than it really does have to be, then maybe such pessimism is an attitude that has consequently become part of that DNA, in defiance of the mere truth.

But what do I know? Personally, I’ve always been an almost pathological optimist, about the world if not so much about my own prospects in that world.  That being all part of why I have read so much of what Ridley says on these matters.

22 comments to Why so gloomy?

  • lucklucky

    Marxist Journalism.

    If the priests(journalists) at every mass(TV news) say that things are dire, then the people will believe it.

  • Stonyground

    Are people who get their news via the TV news still a majority then? The only time that I ever see TV news is very briefly when I walk past the tellies at the gym when I go swimming.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Mention of Marxism reminds me that, nearly a quarter of a century ago now, I did a piece called The Fixed Quantity of Wealth Fallacy: How To Make Yourself Miserable About The Past, The Present and The Future of Mankind, which deals both with Marxism itself and its various more recent ideological brothers and cousins, like the Green Movement.

    It’s good stuff, though I say it myself. Which I say now because if I don’t, who else will?

  • Henry Cybulski

    Besides Marxist Journalism and its never-ending tales of impending disasters (climate change for one), other factors are the absolutely abysmal political class in so many countries and the fact that there has been a noted uptick in a certain other class of people who seem to get a kick out of killing random strangers (for no apparent reason that authorities can determine of course).

  • pete

    Many people in the west are gloomy because things are getting worse for them – lower real wages, less secure employment, less access to affordable housing, deteriorating health and welfare systems etc.

    For a Brit on the streets or forced to attend a food bank it is probably of little solace that absolute poverty around the world is diminishing.

    It must be difficult to be globalist in outlook when you are at the bottom of the heap in a rich society and you know that it has enough money for everyone to live a decent life.

  • bobby b

    “Only 5% of 1,005 Americans got the right answer . . . “

    Well, no surprise there. He should ask the same question in Nepal, or Bangladesh, or Ghana, or Rwanda. Those are the places in which the numbers of people making less than $1/day have been reduced significantly. Those people would probably give the correct answer.

    But for those of us for whom “poverty” means living on less than some set percentage of the federally-chosen baseline income, we see no such reduction, because our governments change that number periodically in order to make whatever points they wish to make, and so we no longer derive any useful or believable information from such numbers.

    Our “knowledge” of this statistic now comes exclusively from a progressive media which favors larger government and stronger equalization efforts. Of course we’re going to think poverty is growing. It’s not gloom. It’s disinformation. Where’s the push for revolution and Big Brother in an improving world?

  • Slartibartfarst

    Some people (not me, you understand) might say that the reason why people tend to be gloomy is simply because the media keep telling us that all the problems – everything – from alleged Russian influence on the US presidential election, to actual child grooming in the north of the UK, to models of global warming – is “worse than we thought”, despite Brexit, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes things have got better for most people in the world.

    However, one can be too optimistic – so optimistic that one forgets basic principles. For example Matt Ridley’s own family forgot (or perhaps never really understood) that much of the “money” a bank claims in its books to have DOES NOT EXIST (is just a Credit Bubble), hence the collapse of Northern Rock – which establishment economists (who do not understand basic principles) were still insisting was perfectly sound even as it collapsed.

    Is this just one bank? No it is not one bank – it is all the banks and the entire “financial system”. And it is not just this – unlike Mr Putin’s boy Max Keiser I do NOT believe that people could have everything from government if only it were not for the evil “banksters” – partly because the bankers are NOT actually evil (like Matt Ridley they sincerely do not understand what they are doing – they are blinded by lots of incredibly complex details and, therefore, can not see the forest for the trees), but also because the Credit Bubble “financial system” actually HELPS the Welfare States – Welfare States around the world would have collapsed long ago without the Credit Bubble financial system.

    In most countries in the world the government has tried to REPLACE Civil Society with itself – education, old age provision, health care, poverty relief, just about everything is now dominated by government (including in the United States of America). Is this sustainable either economically or societal (cultural) terms? NO IT IS NOT SUSTAINABLE – IT WILL COLLAPSE.

    So the future will not be nice – at least not the economic or societal (cultural) future over the next few years. HOWEVER, after (AFTER) the collapse of both the international “financial system” (with its central principle that lending can be larger, VASTLY larger, than Real Savings – the actual sacrifice of consumption) and the collapse of the Welfare States, with all the incredible horror and suffering (around the world) that this will mean, TECHNOLOGY will still remain.

    I do NOT believe that technology will be forgotten as it was in the Dark Ages – so in the longer term (for those who are young now) the sort of advanced and prosperous society that Matt Ridley rightly longs for will, I believe, come to pass.

    So in the long term I am actually an optimist – although (of course) only those who are now young will see this prosperous future of a strong societies (Civil Society) taking back the various aspects of life that are now dominated by the state (around the world).

  • John B

    ‘One reason why people are so gloomy about the state of the world might simply be that most of us are genetically programmed to look more keenly for badness than for goodness’

    The other reason being the continuous cacophony of noise from parasitic gobshites telling us how bad it all is, our fault, and we need them to save us and the World, and as an excuse to keep plundering us.

  • llamas

    Hans Rosling was a rare combination of a statistician who could actually present statistics in a meaningful and comprehensible way, all-the-more remarkably because he was not a statistician by training or inclination, but rather a physician who developed unique ways of collating and presenting data. While his book and other writings are good, his métier was the live presentation of statistical models. For those who have not seen them, the Tubes of You are well-supplied with videos of his presentations, both before live audiences and as recorded seminars, and I recommend them to your attention. His TED talks are especially-awesome.



  • Deep Lurker

    It’s not just Mainstream Marxist Journalism. There are plenty of voices on the Right claiming that we’re all going to hell in a handbasket because of cultural decay, loss of religious faith, excessive Islamic fanaticism, illiterate youngsters, youngsters spending too much time reading things on-line, too much sex, not enough sex, too many sexes, insufficient masculinity, too many laws, too little law enforcement, etc. etc.

    And I’ll admit that I’m worried myself about Gramscian Damage.

  • EdMJ

    “I do NOT believe that technology will be forgotten as it was in the Dark Ages – so in the longer term (for those who are young now) the sort of advanced and prosperous society that Matt Ridley rightly longs for will, I believe, come to pass.”

    @Paul Marks, that’s a similar sentiment to one frequently quoted by one of my favorite authors, Paul Rosenberg. He states:

    “Politics is cyclical, but technology is cumulative. Kings, kingdoms, empires, and all the rest come and go. Technology accretes – it builds up. This is a great hope for the future… for our children and grandchildren. In time, technology will overtake the dark specter of politics and human life will flower.”

    Once you understand that, you understand that devoting your energy to trying to change the system via politics is wasted, and should be devoted to creating technologies that will do this instead. See “The Sovereign Individual” for more on this (co-written by JRM’s father…): https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sovereign-Individual-James-Dale-Davidson/dp/0684832720/

    Very pertinent with the 10 year anniversary of the release of the Bitcoin Genesis Block (https://www.investopedia.com/news/what-genesis-block-bitcoin-terms/), a technology which is the solution to the curse of the credit bubbles you so rightly despise.

    See “The Bitcoin Standard” to understand why: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Bitcoin-Standard-Decentralized-Alternative-Central/dp/1119473861/

  • Surellin

    Perhaps we have found the reason for our tolerance of alcohol. Pessimism engenders survival, alcohol allows us to endure pessimism. Slainte!

  • Rob Fisher

    We had Radio 2 on the other day. Jeremy Vine was talking about a Swedish teenager who did a speech about how not enough is ever going to be done about climate change. People were phoning in worried that life for their grandchildren (you know, in fucking Surrey, ffs) was going to be worse than ever because of climate change.

    I don’t know whether to have more contempt for the people that brainwash Swedish teenagers into thinking these things or the adults who so eagerly lap it all up.

    Because somehow, despite the best efforts of socialists and other politicians, we’ve never had it better and if we don’t do anything too stupid it will probably continue that way. The only thing I’m sad about is just how much better it could be with a bit of deregulation and some lower taxes that we’re missing out on. Other than that, I’m with Brian: it will all be fine.

  • PapayaSF

    Many people in the west are gloomy because things are getting worse for them – lower real wages, less secure employment, less access to affordable housing, deteriorating health and welfare systems etc.

    @Pete: Paradoxically, much of this is a direct consequence of the Third World becoming better off. Now many have the money to migrate out of their shithole countries to the First World, where they lower wages, raise rents, and crowd the schools and roads and social services.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Deep Lurker,

    I’ll thank you not to link to pieces from esr.ibiblio, because Eric’s stuff is almost always interesting, and usually engenders about eight hours’ worth of comments to read. (In this case, the discussion includes a good thread on Mormonism and the LDS.) I do, after all, require a small bit of time to surround a piece of dry toast.

    This one is no exception. I’m tempted to copy his list of the U.S.S.R.’s “memes,” disseminated décourager les autres. But people should read the piece for themselves…including the comments. :>))

  • Runcie Balspune

    What is declining in the world is an individual’s freedom of thought (IMHO).

    The very people who bemoan the state of the world perpetuate this belief because they endeavor to restrict individualism. The same people believe that introducing freedom-oppressive cultures will enhance our society – for them it does, because it conversely restricts freedom. The same people make up scare stories about the widespread malicious use information technology so it can be regulated to suppress discussion of ideas.

    What Mr Ridley should ask is not his questions on worldwide pessimism, but to examine the increasing attempts by others to suppress on his own beliefs, which are far more now that they were some decades ago.

  • Fraser Orr

    I mean I think the answer to the OPs question is pretty straightforward — why do people think things are getting worse when they are in fact getting better? Simply because the people who oversee public discourse NEED it to be so. “Man bites dog”, “if it bleeds it leads” are mantras of the press. Disaster sells a lot more newspapers than “things are getting better”. But not just newspapers, but the government too. “This prime minister is the worst in history”, “If we don’t get rid of Trump Philideplhia will b at the bottom of the ocean”, “the most corrupt president in history.” Were this not the public dialog then something utterly terrible might happen — people might not care about politics. If we were not teetering on the brink of disaster perhaps people would watch something interesting on TV rather than the news, were we not continually in the worst political crisis for a century, then maybe people wouldn’t care what politicians were doing. They might even get on with living their lives without the need for the government to “help” them. God forbid.

    So things seem to be getting worse because it is in the interests of those that manipulated and control the public discourse for it to be so.

    As someone pointed out, it is also part of the nature of humans to escalate and elevate threats as more important than they are. That rustle in the grass might be the wind, but there is a small chance it might be a lion stalking us. The cost benefit analysis of the cost of escape verses the benefit of not getting eaten, even multiplied by the low probability of the lion, means that escape, even if not needed is a good choice. So it is also built into our genes and learned behavior pattern.

    @Runcie Balspune
    What is declining in the world is an individual’s freedom of thought (IMHO).

    I know where you are coming from but I don’t actually think you are right. It is easy to look at recent losses in that area and ignore the massive gains. Of course no-one can directly control your thoughts, but what they can do is surround you with influences than might affect your thoughts, and secondly control what thoughts you are allowed to express (or at least provide consequences for doing so.)

    As to the first, one must remember that it was something like sixty years ago that Alan Turning was jailed for buggery. We actually controlled thought such that buggery was a horrendous crime in the eyes of many. It isn’t so long ago that people were actually hung drawn and quartered for thought crime against the monarch. The prevailing wisdom used to be that black people were sub human, and that women were incapable, and don’t even get me started on the church and some of the horrible morality they promulgated into public thought (much though they have tamed all that down). All these are in the realm of the former — influencing your thoughts through what is considered publicly acceptable. Of course the pendulum has swung too far, but I think I am free-er in my thoughts than I was when I was a kid. I can, for example, fairly freely discuss my atheism with people without the fear that others will find the argument not only unconvincing, but unacceptable.

    As to the latter, I’d remind you of the “fire in a crowded theater” argument that put two men in jail for protesting the war. I don’t think that could happen ever again.

    Of course were I to dwell on a university campus I might well take a different view on this. But I also think that perhaps universities are circling the drain of their own irrelevance. Their own self righteousness and pomposity will consume them. There are plenty of other ways to learn the skills necessary to operate than going to one of these castles of “don’t have any original thoughts”. But I could be wrong about that.

  • Roué le Jour

    While I agree technology is accumulative, much of our current technology is crucially dependent on having a very large mass market for it. Harm the economy enough and many items would become hopelessly uneconomic to produce, irrespective of whether or not the “how to” was known.

  • Tedd

    I think Francis Urquhart Slartibartfarst nailed it.

  • Tedd


    The very people who bemoan the state of the world perpetuate this belief because they endeavor to restrict individualism.

    My hypothesis is that (some) people are pessimistic because they fear other people’s freedom. That is, they see how other people use their freedom and think, “If that’s how people are going to act then we’re doomed.” That explains how they can be optimistic about their own life but pessimistic about society overall. The media and other supposed leaders simply react to and feed that attitude.

    (Julie: Yes, I’m breaking my own rule about armchair psychologising. But that more or less is the subject at hand.)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Tedd, fear not. Your parenthetical (some) recognizes the reality that there are several reasons for the actions and reactions of the Quivering Masses.

    And the particular reason you cite is one as old as humanity, I imagine. “If you let people do as they please, they will run roughshod over everybody.” This, we hear on all sides.

    It’s a more prevalent view in some cultures than others, of course. Our own society still preserves some remnants of an assumption of trustworthiness, although one is rightly a little cautious when trusting about matters important to us.