Lies, true lies, and statistics
By Scott Sumner
We’ve all been hearing a lot about “fake news”, although we may not agree as to which side of the ideological spectrum is peddling these lies. But there is another problem as well—news that is accurate, but extremely misleading. Indeed I’d say this sort of news is far more prevalent and far more of a problem than fake news.
The news media is good at storytelling. That’s no surprise, as people like to learn through stories, indeed this preference is probably hardwired into our brains. The news media can’t survive without readers and viewers, and so naturally they focus on storytelling. And the most riveting stories involve war, terrorism, natural disasters, and other serious problems. While the individual stories are usually true, the overall effect is to present a very false image of the world. As a result, at least 90% of Americans literally have no idea as to what is actually going on in the world. Here’s Nicholas Kristof:
Nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty has been staying the same or worsening. So let’s correct the record.
There has been a stunning decline in extreme poverty, defined as less than about $2 per person per day, adjusted for inflation. For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.
Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water. When I was a boy, a majority of adults had always been illiterate, but now more than 85 percent can read.
Family planning leads parents to have fewer babies and invest more in each. The number of global war deaths is far below what it was in the 1950s through the 1990s, let alone the murderous 1930s and ’40s.
Aneri and I are reporting from a country whose name, Liberia, evokes Ebola, civil war and warlords like General Butt Naked. That’s partly because we journalists have a bias toward bad news: We cover planes that crash, not planes that take off.
Unfortunately these true lies are hard to push back against. Statistics tells us that the world is getting better at a mind-boggling rate (Seriously, can your brain even imagine the improvement in human welfare associated with 250,000 people a day rising above extreme poverty? I can’t.) But that’s not the world people tend to see. As a result, they elect politicians who pander to their ignorance of the world.
[I’m not sure how accurate that data is, but there is no question that global poverty is declining rapidly.]
PS. Here’s another example:
[W]e are defeating leprosy. Worldwide, cases have dropped 97 percent since 1985, and it is now easily treatable. A global plan set 2020 as a target for no more children to become deformed by leprosy.
As recently as the 1980s there were still over 5 million cases of leprosy. And now it’s almost gone. Amazing.
PPS. Happy Independence Day