Getting Better, VI: Looking Beyond the Headlines for the Trend Lines

A report last month from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation indicates that humanity is headed in the right direction in many important ways. “Goalkeepers: The Stories Behind the Data” sheds light on how far public health officials have come in the fight against infectious disease and poverty.

Bill Gates says that global trends—including wins in the following areas over the last twenty-five years—indicate that “the world is far from falling apart. In fact, it has never been better—more peaceful, prosperous, safe, or just.”:

  • Childhood mortality
  • Maternal mortality
  • Family planning
  • HIV
  • Stunting
  • Poverty
  • Smoking
  • Sanitation
  • Financial services for the poor
  • Neglected tropical diseases
  • Vaccines

“Looking beyond the headlines for the trend lines,” as President Bill Clinton says, and understanding how many challenges have been overcome so far can be motivation to help solve current problems and prevent even more in the future.

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A Tendency to Cooperate

Teamwork is mankind's greatest achievement

Ayn Rand believed that people could become self-reliant by elevating their own interests above all else; as the Ayn Rand Institute’s web site says, she “wrote volumes urging people to be selfish.” As a result, she opposed religious and political controls that could hinder individuals from pursuing their personal goals. Certainly, there’s something to be said for having a society of people who are free to achieve their goals, right?

But when Rand’s followers extol her promotion of personal liberty, they fail to recognize or admit that individualism—or objectivism, as she preferred to call it—as a guiding principle:

  1. Doesn’t work in practice, and
  2. Is not the highest expression of mankind.

After reading Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead,” I came across Randall Munroe’s comic that pretty much depicted my impression. He said:

“I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge a**hole to everyone.'”

And there are concrete examples of her philosophy’s failure in practice and as a description of what drives human achievement.

Sears CEO Eddie Lampert has been largely guided by Rand’s ideas in his leadership of the company:

“Lampert broke the company into over 30 individual units, each with its own management, and each measured separately for profit and loss. Acting in their individual self-interest, they would be forced to compete with each other and thereby generate higher profits…What actually happened is that units began to behave something like the cutthroat city-states of Italy around the time Machiavelli was penning his guide to rule-by-selfishness. As Mina Kimes has reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, they went to war with each other.”

A decade into Lampert’s tenure, Business Insider said, “the 124-year-old retailer is imploding.”

Rand said, “Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.” She believed that teamwork was for savages.

But not only have humans always had a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, in fact, it may be “that it is our hyper-social, cooperative brain that sets us apart [from other human-like species]. From language and culture to war and love, our most distinctively human behaviours all have a social element.” Teamwork is mankind’s greatest achievement.

Oftentimes, Rand’s self-interested fans end up simply sounding like children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.”

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What Might This Be?

In the 1950s, the Rorschach inkblot test was “as closely identified with the clinical psychologist as the stethoscope is with the physician.” Since their publication in Psychodiagnostics, in 1921, Hermann Rorschach’s ten inkblots have not only been used as a military, educational, corporate, legal and anthropological tool, but also:

In his book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing, Damion Searls describes the progression that led from Rorschach’s visual work with a particular patient—”a wall painter with artistic ambitions” for whom the existing techniques of talk therapy, dream interpretation, and word association were ineffective—to the development of his famous test and the reasons it has endured for so long.

In the early twentieth century, klecksography, the art of making images from inkblots, was not only a popular parlor game—along with “readings” of patterns in tea leaves, coffee grounds, fireplace ashes and candle wax drippings—but also a method used by psychologists to measure the extent of people’s imagination, particularly children.

Rorschach—who prior to becoming a psychologist was an artist—began to show people the inkblots he created himself “in connection with research on the nature of perception, not the measuring of imagination; he was…interested in what people saw, and how, not just how much.”

Searls ultimately insists that the resilience and power of Rorschach’s unique “visual psychology” stemmed from the fact that “we evolved to be visual” and therefore, “seeing runs deeper than talking.” The visual nature of Rorschach’s test—movement, color, form—was the key that rescued it from relativist uncertainty.

“Rorschach’s fundamental insight was a visual version of Jung’s types: we all see the world in different ways. But the fact that it’s visual makes all the difference. Understanding the real inkblots and their specific visual qualities gives us a way to move beyond the relativism, at least in principle. It’s not all arbitrary: there’s something truly there that we’re all seeing in our own way. Rorschach’s insight can stand without forcing us to deny the existence of valid judgments, Truth with a capital T.”

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A Horse, Of Course

A horse’s size and strength typically command awe and respect, mixed perhaps with a bit of fear for the uninitiated. But when watching an experienced horseman locked in a dance with a horse—walking forward, moving back—gracefully sensing each other’s movements before they happen, the horse’s power and beauty under control is an amazing thing to behold.

Lessons can be learned about life, including communication and leadership styles, by being around horses and connecting with them. “Horses have a very unique and honest way of teaching us about ourselves,” said Abby Jane Ferrin, an equestrian programs manager.

Working with horses teaches the value of:

The similarity of horses’ social and responsive behavior to human beings allows many types of special needs to be addressed by interacting with a horse. Equestrian therapy uses horses to promote emotional growth in individuals with ADD, anxiety, autism, dementia, delayed mental development, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, depression, and brain injuries. It promotes confidence and self-esteem, enhances social relationships, and improves coping skills.

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The Good Nurses

At first reflection, Charles Graeber’s 2013 book, The Good Nurse, might provoke dread in anyone who thinks they or their loved ones will depend at some time on the work of health care professionals. But my further thoughts about the story led me to affirm that, while anyone in Charles Cullen’s position could do what he did—kill dozens (maybe hundreds) of patients with random overdoses in order to satisfy his need for control—none of the nearly three million nurses currently working in the US has.

If I didn’t know any nurses and had never been a recipient of their care, Cullen’s chilling work might cause me to fear nurses or hospitals in general. But in the last few years I have depended on the care of some excellent nurses, and I currently hang around a lot of them as a volunteer. My relationship with genuinely good nurses protects me from such an irrational fear.

Indeed, irrational fears are often enabled by a lack of familiarity with their object:

One of the most common abuses of power is generating irrational fear based on hate and mistrust. But we can choose not to be controlled and limited by irrational fears and resist the appeals to hate by taking control and overcoming those fears.

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Getting Better, V

News of success is the best way to inspire continued progress, according to Australian think tank Future Crunch.

“We really feel that negativity leads to cynicism, apathy, hopelessness and even hate,” said FC’s Tane Hunter. “While it does galvanise a few people into action, for the vast majority it really causes a retraction.”

“We believe a much better way to inspire change is through optimism. We believe that’s the best method and emotion to drive creative innovation and to build a better future.”

One example is to go beyond the stories heralding the economic “success stories” of these nations in the last few years:

According to Future Crunch, the greatest economic success story of all time is currently taking place in countries around the world.

For most of recorded history, they said, only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living. By far the majority of people were dirt poor—”bone-crushing, unrelenting, one-inadequate-meal-a-day, soul-destroying, no-dentist, no-doctor, no-electricity, single-accident-means-life-and-death poor”; inequality was just the way the world worked. As recently as 1970, around 60% of the world’s 3.7 billion people lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than 10% do, the lowest proportion of people in extreme poverty ever.

As Oxford researcher Max Roser puts it, the front page headline every day for the last 25 years should have read:

SINCE YESTERDAY, 137,000 PEOPLE
HAVE BEEN LIFTED OUT OF EXTREME POVERTY.

Future Crunch know the world is not a perfect place. “We still have massive issues with climate change, mass migration, Trump, Brexit, the rise of the alt-right, terrorism and Syria,” Hunter said.

But they insist, “you have to hold two ideas in your head at once: that the world is getting better and the world is not yet good enough. Our successors in the past should really give us hope as we move forward into the future.”

For the average human being on the planet today, the world has never been a better place. That’s a story well worth telling.

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No Newspapers, No Spreadsheets, No Waiting

As a kid in the 1970s, my friends and I played simulated baseball games by rolling dice and viewing charts made using the statistics of Major League players from previous seasons. Before long, however, we decided that the probabilities represented by the charts were not based on recent enough data. So we started taking the current season’s numbers—a limited version of which was printed in the newspaper every Sunday—and making new charts for our games every week.

Beginning in the 1980s, a scoring system called rotisserie baseball allowed people to form teams that competed based on the current statistics of Major League players, similar to what we had done, but without the probability-based gameplay aspect.

In the early 1990s, some friends in the office started a rotisserie (or fantasy) baseball league that relied heavily on two resources which had appeared just a few years before:

  • USA Today
  • Electronic spreadsheets

Introduced in 1982 as a national daily newspaper, USA Today printed the complete Major League Baseball statistics in the paper’s sports section every week of the season. It was a twice-weekly ritual to assign one of the league’s team managers to acquire a copy of the paper—for American League numbers on Tuesday and National League numbers on Wednesday—on the way to the office. We knew where the delivery boxes were around town and often what time they were typically filled, and we relied on the paper on those days for the week’s statistics to update the numbers for our players.

The league’s commissioner (who didn’t have a computer at home) would go to the office on Saturdays and enter the week’s numbers from the paper into our spreadsheet, which calculated current team totals and league standings that were printed and distributed to the owners on Mondays.

When the web came along in the late 1990s, of course, online fantasy leagues were quickly launched by major sports entities to attract visitors to their sites. Now, I manage fantasy teams in leagues with owners across the country and around the world. And while I no longer celebrate successes at year’s end with a Yoo-Hoo shower in a borrowed tuxedo, during the season I have access to my players’ data and the league standings in real time, pitch by pitch. No newspapers. No spreadsheets. No waiting. Amazing.

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