I am pretty sure I’m not alone in thinking that we seem to be inundated with bad news, and ever worsening pictures of the world.
So I thought for Christmas I’d pick out 12 bits of data – stories, really – that give a different perspective. Think of them as the glass half full against the standard “half empty” of news and social media loudspeakers.
These don’t deny the hardships and worries that are behind the “half empty” – nor of course, the individual tragedies. One of my professional sources of inspiration was the inimitable Hans Rosling, who would point out that we can find good news in stories of bad things. As he put it, grasping the cognitive dissonance with both hands:
“Does saying “things are improving” imply that everything is fine, and we should all not worry? Not at all: it’s both bad and better. “
(You can read a snippet of his genius at https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2018/apr/11/good-news-at-last-the-world-isnt-as-horrific-as-you-think , however far better go the whole hog and buy his book Factfullness. )
But news, and stories, form frames of reference, as well as shaping our instinctive assessment of the world. And it is important that we recognise them. Otherwise we are – and apologies for straying into politics here – at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as, seeing the bad, we don’t notice the progress made.
Some of these little data nuggets are surprising. Some quirky. Some, I hope, appeal to a data scientist just as much as to a citizen of this planet.
Incidentally, one can’t focus on the good news without being accused of optimism. While I’m not sure that matters – here, I’m not denying the existence of bad news, just trying to highlight the counterpoint, it’s true, I’m an optimist. But on this, I’m inclined to reference another of my heroes – Daniel Kahneman.
“If you were allowed one wish for your child, seriously consider wishing him or her optimism.” If you are genetically endowed with an optimistic bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person—you already feel fortunate. An optimistic attitude is largely inherited, and it is part of a general disposition for well-being, which may also include a preference for seeing the bright side of everything. If you were allowed one wish for your child, seriously consider wishing him or her optimism. Optimists are normally cheerful and happy, and therefore popular; they are resilient in adapting to failures and hardships, their chances of clinical depression are reduced, their immune system is stronger, they take better care of their health, they feel healthier than others and are in fact likely to live longer. A study of people who exaggerate their expected life span beyond actuarial predictions showed that they work longer hours, are more optimistic about their future income, are more likely to remarry after divorce (the classic “triumph of hope over experience”).”
and think myself lucky. He does warn against overconfidence – in a fashion that probably feels terribly apposite to those who find that the glass of current politics half empty:
“The most damaging of these is overconfidence: the kind of optimism that leads governments to believe that wars are quickly winnable and capital projects will come in on budget despite statistics predicting exactly the opposite. It is the bias he says he would most like to eliminate if he had a magic wand. “https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/18/daniel-kahneman-books-interview
I am sure that this rings true to many. And there is clearly a point where optimism and overconfidence lead to self-delusion. Like so much in life, moderation is essential.
But I digress, and Kahneman’s fabulous work on biases is a whole other subject for scrutiny. For now, I’ll accept my optimism, and concentrate on adding some balance; I hope that some of these nuggets bring you joy, spark interest, or even maybe engender new optimisms.