Former Irish president Mary Robinson has been doing the rounds warning the world it needs to wake up as the hands of the Doomsday Clock are moved to 100 seconds to midnight. Apparently things are so bleak that the world is closer catastrophe than at any point in history. Not only is climate change about to wash away most of the world’s coastline, but the threat of nuclear annihilation is greater than at the peak of the Cold War. Basically, we’re doomed.
It’s common currency to believe that the world is in truly awful shape, but is it really? If you had to pick a period of history to be born into – and you didn’t know in advance where you would be born and who your parents would be – you should pick now. Not because the modern world is perfect – far from it – but because it’s a great deal better, on average, for most of the people alive today than was the case in the past.
The late great Hans Rosling spent last few decades of his life trying to teach us the world isn’t as bad as we think it is. The Gap Minder website is a treasure trove of resources for showing people the truth about poverty and population. In his posthumously published book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, he sets out how we come to so misjudge the modern world and presents evidence that people’s understanding of global geopolitics is worse than a chimpanzee’s. Contrary to popular opinion average life expectancies are going up, violence is decreasing, poverty is reducing. Yes, there are still a billion people living in extreme poverty, but the gap between richest and poorest closed substantially in the last 50 years.
So, why do so many people assume the world is getting more dangerous and more unfair? Why do we think problems persist when they become less frequent? One intriguing answer is found in David Levari et al’s 2018 paper Prevalence-induced concept change in human judgment. Levari and his team began by demonstrating that when subjects were asked to distinguish between blue and purple dots, they reported seeing an equal number of purple dots even when their frequency reduced. This finding replicated even when subject were told what was happening and when they were offered a financial inducement to ignore fake purple dots! Levari and colleagues then looked at whether this phenomenon could be found in less abstract contexts. First subjects were shown faces and asked to pick out threatening expressions; sure enough, the number of faces that appeared threatening remain consistent even when the frequency of faces that had previously been seen as threatening were reduced. The exact same thing happened then subjects where asked to distinguish between ethic and unethical medical experiments; as the number of genuinely unethical proposal reduced, subjects began seeing experiments they had not previously had a problem with as unethical.
Human beings seem to have a tendency for concept creep. As a concept becomes less prevalent, our definition of that concept expands in fill the gap. As genuine violence and aggression has become ever rarer, our concept of what constitutes aggression has become increasingly broad. The same might be true of other concepts such as trauma. Currently, there is a move in education for schools and teachers to become more ‘trauma informed’. The suggestion is that if a child misbehaves the likelihood is that they’re experienced an incident which has caused them to suffer unresolved trauma. If teachers seek to understand the causes of this trauma then they can connect with the child on a human level, work to heal their wounds and head off bad behaviour.
No, of course, some children really do suffer genuinely traumatic incidents, but to expand the concept so far that it can be used to explain all or most misbehaviour seems naive, misjudged or even insulting. This causes those who object to concept creep to ridicule those advocating for ‘trauma informed’ practice. Discussion turns to name calling and the debate becomes increasingly and unhelpfully polarised.
There are two main takeaways from all this. The first is that if we want to solve problems in the future we are better doing so from a position of knowledge than ignorance. If we don’t know that the world is improving then we are likely to feel helpless or to suggest reckless, ill-conceived ‘cures’ which sometimes end up making the situation worse.* The second is that if we look at concept creep from a position of knowledge we can maybe see the expansion of definitions as a sign that things are getting better. The trouble is, from a position of ignorance, concept creep makes the world seem more fearful and broken than it really is. There is a very real danger that scared, ignorant people start seeing threats were they don’t exist.
So, to help you battle ignorance with knowledge, here’s a link to GapMinder’s free teacher guide to Factfulness and a video of Hans and Ola Rosling urging us to fight our own instincts for ignorance.
* China’s One Child Policy is an example of this. Conceived as a method for reducing population, it ends up not only with a hugely skewed gender imbalance (far more boys than girls) it has also resulted in an ageing population with too few young people to pay for the numbers of elderly. China is now offering financial inducements for large families. And it didn’t even reduce the population. What does reduce populations is increased living standards and girls’ education; as parents learn to trust that their children are likely to survive, they start having fewer children.