The illusion of regress

An article in USA Today, which seems reasonably objective, says that while the lead levels in Flint, Michigan are bad and reflect serious indifference and ineptitude, they would have been normal not long ago. This isn’t the only case where reports of disaster hide long-term trends of improvement. Crime rates have gone down over the years, though people think they’re getting worse. The number of people living in poverty has gone down as the world population has gone up.

I think the main reason for these improvements is advances in science and technology. It’s easier than ever to get photographic evidence of crime and to report it quickly. Advances in materials have allowed lead-free plumbing at reasonable costs. Ways of producing food have improved. All the malice and blundering of power-hungry rulers and dishonest people haven’t been able to hold the advances back.

Things seem to get worse because good news isn’t news. “Lead levels decline” is, at most, an article for the science page. Often people are reluctant to mention long-term improvements because they might be accused of making excuses for the problems that still exist.

Another factor is moving goalposts. When things get better, people aim for more ambitious goals. Total elimination of a problem is very rare. Setting new goals when old ones are reached can make people who aren’t paying close attention (which is most of us, most of the time) think nothing has gotten better.

I spend too much of my time thinking the world is going to Hell. Occasionally I try to remind myself it probably isn’t.

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