Post #100: The Genre of Progress Literature

This is post #100 on Thought Distiller! I’m personally surprised; I had no idea the blog was so far along in terms of post count. Anyway, thanks for being a reader! Here’s a post that, by the end, I hope will lift your spirits.

What’s wrong with the news?

It often feels as if we’re swimming in an endless whirlpool of bad news, besieged on all sides by word of some awful happening abroad or at home. With this torrent of negativity appearing all over news and social media, it can be difficult to remember that life is good. 

On the flip side, sites like GOOD and Upworthy strive to combat ambient negativity by highlighting the positive things happening in the world. However, I find their methods terribly flawed. First, these sorts of sites rely on clickbaity headlines (e.g. “Sisters Mistake Cashier For A Cartoon Character They Love. His Response Is The Sweetest.”), which rubs me the wrong way. Second, they highlight anecdotes without searching for impact. Often these stories will warm your heart, but don’t really reflect a lasting positive improvement in the world.

Upworthy headlines are silly clickbait.
Source: Slate

On Progress Literature

That’s why I find it heartening that expert authors are writing books to explicate positive secular change in the world. 3 relatively recent examples that come to mind are Abundance by Peter Diamandis, Factfulness by Hans Rosling, and Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker. These books belong to a genre that I’m dubbing “progress literature,” as they try to show the broad progress that human civilization has made in recent history. Furthermore, they take the stance that, despite constant media warnings to the contrary, the future continues to look bright.

I only have passing familiarity with Abundance and Enlightenment Now, so I’ll take the rest of this piece to discuss Factfulness, which I read last week. In his book, Rosling seeks to correct 10 “instincts” that he believes prevent people from seeing the world as it is. 

  1. The Gap Instinct: this is the idea that humans tend to think in black and white, which often happens when we draw conclusions from polarized extremes. Instead of highlighting gaps between groups, Rosling suggests we look at entire distributions to see what’s going on. As an example, he points out that most people think of “the West” (wealthy) and “the rest” (poor) when it comes to global per capita income; however, in truth, there are more like 4 levels, and the majority of humans fall somewhere in the middle.

  2. The Negativity Instinct: Rosling points out that neither good change nor gradual change tend to make the news. This is why we have a perception of great suffering in the world: the media only highlights the bad things. Rosling advises that we take negative news with a grain of salt and remember to balance it out with the good.

  3. The Straight Line Instinct: people are innately bad at understanding growth curves that are non-linear (i.e. exponential, s-curve, etc). But Rosling points out that most changes are not linear; we should not expect the past to indicate what will happen in the future. Thinking only in terms of linear growth is like extrapolating an infant’s rapid growth rate to say that a 10-year-old will grow to be 13-feet tall.

  4. The Fear Instinct: fear kept us safe for most of human evolution but, today, it can distort our outlook. For example, some people are afraid of flying to the point that they never fly (even though planes are much much safer than cars) yet few people are willing to give up their cars. Rosling suggests that we try to understand relative risks and ensure that we take time to calm down rather than make decisions in a state of panic. 

  5. The Size Instinct: Rosling posits that humans cannot accurately judge the size of numbers in isolation. For example, when you hear that the richest billionaires might be shirking a collective tax responsibility of, say, $100B dollars (I’m making a number up here), you may be appalled. But only when you hear that those $100B dollars ould contribute to a government budget of trillions of dollars can you accurately judge the relative size of the initial number. Rosling explains that we should try to compare numbers rather than viewing them alone.

  6. The Generalization Instinct: we like to extrapolate anecdotal evidence far beyond what’s wise, which can lead us to make bad decisions. Rosling cites the medical fad of putting babies to sleep on their stomachs. The study that initially said stomach sleeping was optimal was conducted on unconscious soldiers; it was improperly extrapolated to babies, who are better off on their backs.

  7. The Destiny Instinct: Rosling says that we have tendency to overlook gradual change, which causes us to think things will continue to be like they always have. Instead of thinking that a country or culture is incapable of change, we should expect that slow change over a great period of time will make a large impact.

  8. The Single Perspective Instinct: Rosling warns us about staying in our lane, saying that experts who think that their expertise carries over wholesale to other domains often wind up in trouble. The key to resolving this is to welcome complexity and seek tools and ideas from other disciplines.

  9. The Blame Instinct: we like to scapegoat others for societal ills, but Rosling states that there are few real villains (or heroes) in society. Instead of issuing blame, we should seek out the underlying causes of social ills. And instead of praising heroes, we should understand the social systems that drive forward progress.

  10. The Urgency Instinct: we are often taken in by limited-time offers that play on our emotions (e.g. “Act Now!”). However, dispassionate analysis of the data is much more likely to help us make good decisions, according to Rosling.

So what progress have we made?

  • In low-income countries, 60% of girls finish primary school.
  • In the last 2 decades, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has almost halved.
  • The life expectancy of the world is 70 years today, up from age 40-50 in 1920. 
  • 80% of 1-year-olds globally have been vaccinated against some form of disease.
  • Globally, women aged 30 have, on average, spent 9 years in school (just one year short of men aged 30).
  • 80% of people have access to electricity today.

I hope these statistics are as heartening to you as they are to me. It’s nice to know, that in the midst of negative news, the world truly is getting better. If you’re interested in this stuff, I highly recommend you find some progress lit. It’ll warm your heart.

2 Comments

  1. Your blog has really resounded with me. I would ask you to suggest me other such blogs if you know about them. Keep up the good work.

    1. Here are some of the blogs I regularly read:

      AVC – Fred Wilson
      Unenumerated – Nick Szabo
      Remains of the Day – Eugene Wei
      25iq – Tren Griffin
      Collaborative Fund blog (anything by Morgan Housel is great)
      Farnam Street – Shane Parrish
      Stratechery – Ben Thompson
      Views from the Shire – Shyam Sankar
      Wait but Why – Tim Urban
      Raptitude – David Cain

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