Systemic Flaws In the Reported World View
Paradoxically, one of the biggest reasons for being optimistic is that there are systemic flaws in the reported world view. Certain types of news — for example dramatic disasters and terrorist actions — are massively over-reported, others — such as scientific progress and meaningful statistical surveys of the state of the world — massively under-reported.
Although this leads to major problems such as distortion of rational public policy and a perpetual gnawing fear of apocalypse, it is also reason to be optimistic. Once you realize you're being inadvertently brainwashed to believe things are worse than they are, you can... with a little courage... step out into the sunshine.
How does the deception take place?
The problem starts with a deep human psychological response. We're wired to react more strongly to dramatic stories than to abstract facts. There are obvious historical and Darwinian reasons why this should be so. The news that an invader has just set fire to a hut in your village demands immediate response. The genes for equanimity in such circumstances got burned up long ago.
Although our village is now global, we still instinctively react the same way. Spectacle, death and gore. We lap it up. Layer on top of that a media economy that's driven by competition for attention and the problem is magnified. Over the years media owners have proven to their complete satisfaction that the stories that attract large audiences are the simple human dramas. Rottweiler Savages Baby is a bigger story than Poverty Percentage Falls even though the latter is a story about better lives for millions.
Today our media can source news from 190 countries and 6 billion people. Therefore you can be certain that every single day there will be word of spectacularly horrifying things happening somewhere. And should you get bored of reading about bombs, fires and wars, why not see them breaking live on cable 24/7 with ever more intimate pictures and emotional responses.
Meta-level reporting doesn't get much of a look-in.
So for example, the publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better. If you believe Robert Wright and his NonZero hypothesis, this is part of a very long-term and admittedly volatile trend in which cooperation eventually trumps conflict. Percentage of males estimated to have died in violence in hunter gatherer societies? Approximately 30%. Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.
In fact, most meta-level reporting of trends show a world that is getting better. We live longer, in cleaner environments, are healthier, and have access to goods and experiences that kings of old could never have dreamed of. If that doesn't make us happier, we really have no one to blame except ourselves. Oh, and the media lackeys who continue to feed us the litany of woes that we subconsciously crave.