Scott Sumner  

Lies, true lies, and statistics

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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.

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PPS. Happy Independence Day


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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences




COMMENTS (5 to date)
David Pinto writes:

I actually had this conversation a couple of weeks ago. Someone at dinner was going on about how bad things are. I pointed out that we now carry all the knowledge of the world in our pockets. Then dropped the "poverty is improving" nugget. And we're all living longer.

I actually think people know this deep down, they just like to complain.

Mike W writes:

I suspect the 9 out of 10 Americans polled are of the middle-class and have no experience of the conditions of poverty. Their perception of "poverty" is when they themselves earn less than just about anyone else.

Jake writes:

David Pinto,

I agree. Prof Sumner correctly points out that storytelling has evolved to be part of our DNA, so to speak. I find it plausible that negativity is also an evolutionary trait.

We learn to survive better by solving problems, so I think our brains are good -- too good -- at focusing on what is wrong.

The Original CC writes:

Can someone explain the General Butt Naked joke to me?

[See, for example, the easily-found Google results such as The Redemption of General Butt Naked or General Butt Naked, about Liberian leader Joshua Milton Blahyi, aka, General Butt Naked. It's a reference to his commonly-used nickname, not some kind of inside joke.--Econlib Ed.]

Jose writes:

The question is not that extreme poverty is being gradually reduced, but who is responsible for it: historic liberals and generally right wing people will say it is because of capitalism, whereas leftists and social democrats will say it is because the regulatory social democrat state has prevailed. The real question should be who is right, and therefore which set of policies should voter support

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