Gavin Esler

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and Chancellor of the University of Kent

December 30, 2017

Continuing UnHerd’s under-reported series – Ben Page of Ipsos MORI, below, and journalist Gavin Esler, in the orange box on the right, encourage us to be less pessimistic about our world.

Gavin Esler: Reasons for optimism
There is a famous experiment called a “selective attention test” in which volunteers watch a basketball game and count the number of passes made by one team. In the middle of the play, a man dressed in a gorilla suit appears, beats his chest and then leaves. In the experiment half those counting the passes fail to spot the gorilla.

Failing to spot the gorilla — to see what to others is blatantly obvious — is one of the biggest human failings. It bedevils businesses — Kodak missed the gorilla of the digital revolution. It also bedevils journalism. In 2018 journalists “counting the passes” will report on North Korean missiles, Brexit ups and downs, various conflicts and Donald Trump’s latest weirdness.

So let us begin the year with a few happy gorillas:

  1. new cures will be found for old illnesses;
  2. Yemen and other disasters will remind us that famine exists, but we will forget that more people are well fed than ever before and that obesity kills more humans in the developed world than hunger;
  3. terrorist attacks will scare us all, but terrorism is a sign of weakness, not strength. In developed countries terrorists use knives and trucks because more effective weapons are hard to come by;
  4. and while we struggle with vast income and wealth inequalities, the world has never been wealthier and healthier.

By all means we should count the passes. But remember the gorillas. Some have smiles on their faces.

At a time when many people are pretty gloomy about the state of the world – as Douglas Murray recently noted – several Ipsos MORI studies in 2017 showed that we are often far too pessimistic about both Britain and indeed the world in general.

Whether it’s the murder rate, trends in teenage pregnancy, the number of foreigners in our jails we are far more negative than we need to be – and things are better than we think they are.

Trust is not in inexorable decline – in fact our 2017 Veracity Index found that trust in experts like scientists, professors, the police and even civil servants are all at a historic high.

Looking further afield, our view of what has been happening in much of the world is also too pessimistic;

  • There has been a fall of 137,000 people in extreme poverty EVERY DAY for the last 25 years – but only two out of every ten people realise that poverty is reducing around the globe…
  • …by contrast, 52% think it has increased.
  • And although 85% of one-year-olds have been vaccinated against at least one disease, again, most people think the number is far lower.

So while there are plenty of problems, as we review 2017, let’s remind ourselves that actually the world is becoming a better place in many, many ways – and certainly better than most of us think it is. It’s even the case that other people are generally much happier than we tend to think they are.

Happy New Year!

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Introduction to this Under-reported series.

Summary guide to all under-reported articles in this series.