“Trying to determine what is going on in the world by reading newspapers,” said Ben Hecht, “is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of a clock.”
Hecht was a journalist-turned-screenwriter in quaint, bygone days when daily newspapers epitomized the modern world’s frenetic fixation with fleeting sensational events and fragmentary, often faulty information — “facts” whose main or only importance was the counterfeit urgency of being brand-new.
How much more helpless to understand what’s really “going on in the world” are today’s tireless Twitterers and 24/7 “breaking news” junkies?
It would be going too far to say that in this sense all news is fake news. But in the bigger picture much of it is misleading.
Prediction, meanwhile — especially about the future, as the drollery goes — truly is moonshine. Yet it only seems to flow ever more freely, and its peddlers only grow only more confident, as its track record deteriorates.
It isn’t hard to share the apocalyptic gloom of many elite political analysts as the Trump presidency approaches. But maybe there’s odd comfort in recalling that most of the gloom-sayers have for years now demonstrated their perfect inability to understand the first thing about the Trump phenomenon.
Anyhow, as the second hand keeps spinning, an alternative instrument for “determining what is going on in the world” has been offered this winter — and it’s worth a closer look.
In a provocative, widely noted commentary for the Washington Post (reprinted on these pages Jan. 1 as “Quit bellyaching! 2016 was hardly the ‘worst year’ ”) Oxford University economist Max Roser adapted an essay from his extraordinary online publication “Our World in Data.” The essay’s theme, like the website’s, is that the real facts about the world tell a story vastly unlike what most modern people have been, you might say, discouraged to believe.
The real story, Roser says, is one of revolutionary improvement in human welfare across the globe over roughly the last 200 years, and not least in the last few decades.
The main threat to continued advancement, Roser argues, is precisely that the average modern person doesn’t understand the progress that’s been achieved. And so bitterness and loss of faith in free societies spreads.
Roser’s zealous argument that only optimism is realistic is rewarding, and so is his shrewd diagnosis of how journalism’s habits and human nature have combined to place us gloomily in the dark about the world.
But the statistics themselves that Roser and his team have compiled to tell the real story are likewise worth patient pondering. This is one of those times when what’s been called the eloquence of facts can hardly be topped.
Poverty: Researchers define a person in “extreme poverty” as one living on resources of all kinds (not necessarily money) equivalent to $1.90 per day. Our World in Data says that in 1820, 94 percent of the world’s people lived in that kind of brutal want.
As recently as 1970, 60 percent still did.
Today, fewer than 1 person in 10 around the world is that poor.
Roser notes that across the globe today there are about 130,000 fewer extremely poor people than there were yesterday — and that this has been true every single day for the past quarter century.
Child mortality: In 1800, more than 43 percent of all children worldwide died before age 5. And the routine tragedy of burying young children wasn’t then limited to poorer regions. Roser notes that more than one-third of children in all countries died before turning 5.
The toll was still nearly 1 in 5 in the 1960s, though by then regional differences were large.
And today? Fewer than 1 young child in 20 dies around the world.
Life expectancy: Plummeting childhood death has a lot to do with the overall modern rise in life expectancy, but at every age modern people can look forward to more remaining years. The basic story is that life expectancy changed little anywhere before the mid-19th century, then soared in one region after another mainly as sanitation, vaccination, understanding of infectious disease and better nutrition took hold. World life expectancy rose from under 30 to more than 71 between 1870 and 2015. It more than doubled in India since the early 20th century — more than tripled in South Korea.
Literacy: As a measure of life’s quality, the ability to read and write is pretty basic. A century ago, three-quarters of the global population was illiterate. Half remained so just a half century back. But as of 2014, nearly 9 in 10 of the world’s people could read and write.
Our World in Data certainly houses many facts of a more sobering and challenging sort. But it offers a positively exhausting supply of remarkable and encouraging revelations like these — for those who can stand it.
If Roser misses anything in diagnosing causes of excessive pessimism about the course of history, it may be a mere old fact of human nature — that misery seeks companionship. For all our era’s incalculable advantages, individual life is still full of problems, frequently disappointing, ultimately tragic. Humanity may be getting healthier over the long run — most of us, as individuals, are not. Nor is our “life expectancy” increasing year by year. So we tend to find solace in taking note of the larger world’s troubles. And no doubt we always will.
But there really is something to be said for facing all the facts, even the uplifting ones.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.