“The good news about bad news is that there is not nearly as much of it as you might think. The bad news about good news is that good news doesn’t tend to sell.” So John Ortberg, in the Foreword to Brad Wright’s new, important book (Upside: Surprising Good News About the State of Our World), and every pastor and professor needs this book. The old communication model of Monroe and Eninger was that you create a need first, and the way to create a need is to put the bad news on the table. And that form of communication works … oh how it works. And many are doomsday sayers predicting the imminent demise of the world, and that the world is going downhill fast and we better scream and shout louder so everyone will hear us, wake up and reverse this ugly trend.
Do you think the world is getting better or worse? OK, let’s get personal: Is your life better this year from last year? Is your economic life better or worse? Is your community’s education better or worse? The environment?
But how does one prove such things? With facts. Brad Wright is a master of social facts, and if we paid more attention to facts and less attention to apocalyptic warnings buttoned up with some good anecdotes, we’d know that the world is not getting worse, that there’s all kinds of good news to go around, and it’s seen in a number of topics. Brad discusses, for instance, this one:
The majority of Americans think that most things in our country and around the world are on a downward spiral, but is such pessimism justified? Is the world really facing impending doom?
I like Brad because I learn so much from him and his studies. I tend listen to social sciences, but I have not studied it technically so knowing a good study from a not-so-good study isn’t my forte.
What we find in this book is that “life is improving in many ways” (16). Yikes, who’d say that today? Brad, and Brad’s got the facts to support it. But who wants to run around, and I swipe this from Ortberg, saying in unPaul unRevere-like fashion, “Stay in bed, the jolly ol’ Brits aren’t even coming?” Read on.
In 2009 Americans answered a set of questions about whether in the last 5 years the USA are getting better, the same, or worse. 83% said worse. A strong 5% thought it was getting better. 1 out of 16 Americans think the USA has gotten better over the last five years. Over the last forty years the majority of Americans have regularly thought the USA was getting worse. About 2 of 3 think that way. Fourteen different items have been studied (like moral standards, crime, public safety, honesty, etc) … and, yes, true to form, we Americans think things are getting worse on each of these topics.
But the facts are that they aren’t. 75% think more are on welfare now, but welfare has declined; 90% think crime among teens is on the uptick, but they’re wrong. Typical Brad Wright: “While the United States is the best in the world at some things (e.g., basketball, putting people in prison, and In-and-Out hamburgers), pessimism isn’t one of them” (19).
Here’s the weird thing: Americans are optimistic. We think positively about our own life but negatively about everyone else’s. The sky is falling, but we’ll miss it. Most Americans rate their own lives better than the country as a whole. Ergo: We are all above average. (HT: Garrison Keillor) Folks like Brad Wright, sociologists, call this the optimism gap. Most of us anticipate a better future, but the future is about the same as the present.
Here’s a good example: Since the 1970s, the GSS (General Social Survey) has asked Americans about the/ir financial situation: 30-45% have said they have improved, but only 5-25% said the same about the national economy. This optimism gap applies to crime, environment, education, government officials, moral standards, poverty, hunger, homelessness and health care. [I imagine folks thinks blogs are now going downhill. I read that on one blog.]
It’s a tale of two countries: the one “I’ live in and the one “they” live in.
He sketches the famous Thomas Malthus, and then Paul Ehrlich (Wright’s got some gotchas here) who predicted there would be no England in 2000!