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Three cheers for Pollyanna

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 16 May 2018


One commenter to my last essay thought that I had 'a Pollyanna view of the world'. I didn't think it was a compliment, but it gave me the focus for another essay, which follows naturally from the last two. What has been most interesting in the comments to these two essays about progress has been the determination on the part of some readers to continue to see the world as bad, dangerous, awful, unequal, unfair, what you will, in the face of good global data that say the opposite, exactly, but make the point that for the great majority out in the world, things are getting better. What sort of things? Well, they live longer, they are less hungry, there is less war, economic growth is occurring almost everywhere as girls are educated and baby production drops. There are more possibilities for more people, again, almost everywhere. What's not to like?

I had to remind myself about Pollyanna, who is the heroine of a 1913 novel by Eleanor H. Porter, in which a young girl is sent to live with a nasty old aunt who treats her badly. Her Dad had taught her always to find something positive in the world, and she applied this teaching to all the vexatious things that happened to her, and to what happened to their neighbours in the village. Eventually she loses the use of her legs when she is knocked over by a car. The village rallies, and people come to see Pollyanna and tell her how much her attitude has improved their lives. The girl then takes comfort from the fact that she still has her legs, and in time all ends happily, with the stuffy aunt marrying someone and Pollyanna getting back the use of her legs. The book had lots of sequels, and four films and a TV series came from it. I've seen none of them, and never read the book.

Pollyanna doesn't have a view about the world, but about one's life: that life is largely what you make of it. Yes, you can have been dealt some poor cards, but it is how you regard your hand and how you play the cards that is important. As a bridge player I can attest to that. Really good players can make a great deal out of little, as I was sometimes horrified to observe when I was playing against them. Pollyanna did not wait for other people to do the things she thought ought to be done; she got in there and did them herself. She was, of course, an optimist, who believed that by and large you can trust people to do the right thing. I am happy to be seen as a kind of male Pollyanna, and I do, and have done, a lot of voluntary community work.

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I'll contrast Pollyanna with Voltaire's Candide (1759), who began as an optimist. Indeed, the subtitle of the novel is 'Optimism'. The hero Candide is taught that he lives in the best of all possible worlds, where all is for the best. The novel sets out his continual confrontation with reality, and his increasing disillusion as a result. At the end he devotes himself to a peasant-like existence on a small plot of land (this is a most brusque summary of an incident-filled story). Candide has become, I think, a pessimist - more, one who thinks that the world is naturally horrible and the less you have to do with it the better.

I wrote about optimism and pessimism in earlier essays, here and here. Pessimists agonising about the reality and the future of humanity puzzle me, partly because I don't feel as they do about what is happening, and partly because the evidence about humanity as a whole points in the opposite direction. Yes, bad things are happening every day, not just in Australia but in other countries too. But over time, the data suggest strongly that things are improving. No doubt pessimists are equally puzzled by my inability to see how horrible things really are. If I were poor, handicapped, of the wrong skin colour (whatever that is, depending on which country you are in), and in a horrible job or no job at all, they would argue, I would think differently. Perhaps, but I hope not, since I have at least been poor. I have known people who had a sunny disposition despite the problems they faced, and I would like to argue that my optimism is partly inborn, and partly the result of a good upbringing.

Before I go much further, I should say that in my experience we all have an optimistic side and a pessimistic side. For example, I remain pessimistic about the failure of the politicians and the electorate to see how the alternative energy madness (fuelled by the CAGW madness) makes electricity supply much more expensive and less reliable. Or, if I were to graph the matter, you would see two curves that show that optimists and pessimists actually share some perceptions, but have outlying perceptions that are rarely shared by the other group. This is a bow to Jordan Peterson and his objection to the over-use of binary opposites.

Let me set out the ways in which what I see as some of the pessimistic Commenters have reacted to the data showing that many bad things have decreased and many good things have increased.

Response 1 (an old seminar tactic) There is no balance. What about bad things getting worse and good things declining? Rosling's book says nothing about this, and is therefore deficient and we need pay no attention to it.

Response 2 Rosling's data are too short to suggest that we have a bright future ahead. All sorts of bad things could happen, and most likely will.

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Response 3 The homeless in Canberra on a winter's night will take little comfort from Rosling's figures.

Response 4 I can show you that things are getting worse for the Rohingya refugees, and Jewish settlements are increasing, and you only need to walk down the streets of a slum in Bogota (and so on…).

Response 5 Thomas Piketty shows that the word is getting more unequal.

Response 6 The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists says that this group has moved its Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes to midnight.

Response 7 Real wages are falling, species are declining, global debt is increasing (and so on…)

Response 8 It may be true that these things have occurred, but people aren't happier. The social compact is unravelling. Our leaders are awful (and so on…)

Response 9 The unemployed are not better off merely because their living standard has increased since the 1930s.

Response 10 Perhaps there has been some improvement, but it isn't fast enough.

I haven't identified the Commenters, and that's not the point of this analysis. And one comment at least was in jest (I think), though it could easily be used with great seriousness. What is displayed in the responses is an unwillingness to confront data, in this case good data. It is often possible to bring another dataset to bear, and then the argument becomes methodological. There are several public opinion polls, and they do not agree on particular findings. Which one is right? Probably none of them, but one can at least find out which one is more likely to be right if you are able to look at the methodology.

What we have in the responses is a variety of debating styles. Response 1 is one you see frequently in academia: you take issue with the aim and methodology from the start, and argue that the author should have done something else altogether. In fact, Rosling was quite clear about what he set out to do, and what the outcome is. Response 2 is about prediction. The fact that things are better doesn't mean that they will continue to get better. Agreed. Rosling made no claims involving prediction, other than the likely size of the human population in 2100, on which he is on safe ground, since he is simply agreeing with the world's demographers.

Responses 3, 4, 6 and 8 are simply irrelevant to the argument. Rosling says many times that there are poor people everywhere, and while armed conflicts have declined, they still occur. Happiness can only be measured by self-report, which is inherently unreliable.Response 5 is about inequality, and Thomas Piketty's book, which I have referred to before is in no sense a global database. Moreover, it is not straightforwardly the case that economic inequality is rising, let alone rising fast, even in Australia (despite Piketty and Andrew Leigh MP who argues that it is). Finally, as I've asked before, many times, what is an acceptable level of income inequality? None of the inequality-denouncers ever says what it might be.

Response 7 requires good global data. When none is provided one is likely to see a hand-wave rather than a substantial argument. Response 9 is plainly mistaken. What the Commenter meant to say (perhaps) was that being a better-off unemployed person is not as good as being an employed person. Maybe, but social welfare provisions now are very much greater than they were in the 1930s, while unemployment, at 32 per cent in May 1932, the worst month in the Depression has dropped to around 5 per cent now (I agree that there is some uncertainty about the level of real unemployment). Response 10 is helplessness exemplified. It is a version of 'What do we want??' 'X!!' When do we want it? 'Now!!'

If the commenters were in such a position that they had to answer the question 'Do you think that the human progress that Rosling draws attention is a good thing?' they would, I think, be forced to answer that it was, because the negative would make the one who chose it seem an unbelievably heartless creature. My guess is that they would all want to add, 'but…' to their 'Yes'.

Pollyanna wouldn't hesitate: she is doing her best to make the world an even better place. Rosling is probably right, that it is the little bits that everyone does, having seen it is possible elsewhere, that help to do so.

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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