Giving weight to worrisome reports

February 15, 2016

People-like my neighbor and I-for centuries, have tended to give too much weight to negative news stories and gloomy predictions. Hence my resolution for 2016 to pay less attention to the doomsayers and pour more drinks for my friends.

Take-home message: People-like my neighbor and I-for centuries, have tended to give too much weight to negative news stories and gloomy predictions. Hence my resolution for 2016 to pay less attention to the doomsayers and pour more drinks for my friends.

The weekend had arrived. After a busy week, it was cocktail hour on Friday and my neighbor and I-fortified with some refreshing beverages-began to weigh in on current events.

“This country is going to hell in a basket,” said my friend, who is a U.S. immigrant and not a native English speaker.

"You mean a hand basket," I replied.

“What about a hand basket?” he asked.

“You mean to say ‘this country is going to hell in a hand basket,’ ” I said.

"What is a hand basket?" he asked.

"I don't know what a hand basket is," was my response.

"Why would the country go in a hand basket?" he asked.

"I don't know! All I know is that the correct phrase is 'this country is going to hell in a hand basket!'"

My friend paused to reflect on this insight before responding: “Give me another drink.”

Zika, civil war, Ebola: Talk about depressing

 

Talk about depressing

Zika virus. Syria's civil war causing millions to flee their homes. Ebola. Climate change. North Korea's detonation of "The H-Bomb of Justice." Readers of newspapers-or the digital equivalent-these days can be excused for getting depressed about the prospects for our planet and our species.

It turns out that news organizations have better readership and viewership if they accentuate the negative. Hence the phrase: "If it bleeds, it leads." This negative bias fools us into thinking the world is getting worse, when the opposite is true.

Or so argues Ronald Bailey, science correspondent with a background in philosophy and economics, in his book, "The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century."

Doomsday scenarios have a long and distinguished history, of course. The English cleric, Thomas Malthus, logically concluded in 1798 that mankind would proliferate until, having outgrown its supply of farmland, we would be wiped out by famine and disease.

The reality, Bailey documents, is that our population has grown tremendously while fertility rates have fallen sharply-the world's population is expected to peak in the middle of this century. Meanwhile, farmers have become so productive, growing more and more food on less and less land, that a half-million square miles of farmland will no longer be needed. That translates into an area the size of the countries of France, Germany, and Italy combined.

Predictions in the 1960s that the use of synthetic pesticides and other chemicals would beget a spike in cancers proved wrong-the rate of cancer has been declining in recent decades.

Through two world wars and numerous civil wars, nuclear proliferation, pollution, emergence of infectious organisms resistant to many antibiotics, Bailey shows that life expectancy has quietly but consistently risen from an average of 35 years in 1900 to more than 70 years today. Some assert that a baby born today in the United States might reasonably be expected to live to reach 120 years.

Zika and Ebola are bad. The Syrian war is a tragedy. Who knows what mischief might be wrought in the future by the young potentate of Pyongyang with his "H-Bomb of Justice."

The take-away message from Bailey's rigorously documented book is that people-like my neighbor and I-for centuries, have tended to give too much weight to negative news stories and gloomy predictions. Hence my resolution for 2016 to pay less attention to the doomsayers and pour more drinks for my friends.

 

Reference

• Bailey R. The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century. Thomas Dunne Books. 2015.