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Three cheers for Pollyanna

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 16 May 2018

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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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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