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Wishing that Hans Rosling Were Still Alive

In my latest column for AIER, I apply some lessons from Hans Rosling’s posthumously published – and simply superb – 2018 book, Factfulness, to today’s derangement over Covid-19. A slice:

Among the instincts that Rosling warns against is the fear instinct. Noting that “‘frightening’ and ‘dangerous’ are two different things,” Rosling writes that the fear instinct “makes us give our attention to the unlikely dangers that we are most afraid of, and neglect what is actually most risky.” Yes. And Rosling repeatedly advises his readers to understand that the news media naturally appeal to our fear instinct by exaggerating dangers, typically by failing to put them into proper context:

Here are a couple of headlines that won’t get past a newspaper editor, because they are unlikely to get past our own filters: “MALARIA CONTINUES TO GRADUALLY DECLINE.” “METEOROLOGISTS CORRECTLY PREDICTED YESTERDAY THAT THERE WOULD BE MILD WEATHER IN LONDON TODAY.” Here are some topics that easily get through our filters: earthquakes, wars, refugees, disease, fire, floods, shark attacks, terror attacks. These unusual events are more newsworthy than everyday ones. And the unusual stories we are constantly shown by the media paint pictures in our heads. If we are not extremely careful, we come to believe that the unusual is usual: that this is what the world looks like.

For the first time in world history, data exists for almost every aspect of global development. And yet, because of our dramatic instincts and the way the media must tap into them to grab our attention, we continue to have an overdramatic worldview. Of all our dramatic instincts, it seems to be the fear instinct that most strongly influences what information gets selected by news producers and presented to us consumers.

Encountering most of today’s reports and commentary on Covid gives no sense that the median age of Covid victims in the U.S. is the late 70s or early 80s. Or that 79 percent of American Covid victims are 65 years or older. Or that 92 percent of these deaths are of people 55 and older. (The preceding figures are estimated from here.) Or that fully 41 percent of all Covid deaths in the U.S. are of residents of nursing homes. Or that, according to the CDC, the Covid infection fatality ratio for all Americans ages 50-69 is 0.005, while that for Americans ages 70 and older is 0.054.

Were the media to report these figures, Americans’ fear instinct would not be stimulated.


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