Links and Comments: US rank in social progress; How to debate a flat earther

Are there any recent links that aren’t about Trump, or the Republicans? Well here’s one about American society in general. USA is Number One?

NYT, Nicholas Kristoff: ‘We’re No. 28! And Dropping!’. Subtitle: A measure of social progress finds that the quality of life has dropped in America over the last decade, even as it has risen almost everywhere else.

This keys off the notion of American exceptionalism, and the idea that the GDP and stock market are the ultimate measures of a nation’s welfare; authors like Hans Rosling and Rutgar Bregman have discussed these issues.

The newest Social Progress Index, shared with me before its official release Thursday morning, finds that out of 163 countries assessed worldwide, the United States, Brazil and Hungary are the only ones in which people are worse off than when the index began in 2011. And the declines in Brazil and Hungary were smaller than America’s.

“The data paint an alarming picture of the state of our nation, and we hope it will be a call to action,” Michael Porter, a Harvard Business School professor and the chair of the advisory panel for the Social Progress Index, told me. “It’s like we’re a developing country.”

The index, inspired by research of Nobel-winning economists, collects 50 metrics of well-being — nutrition, safety, freedom, the environment, health, education and more — to measure quality of life. Norway comes out on top in the 2020 edition, followed by Denmark, Finland and New Zealand. South Sudan is at the bottom, with Chad, Central African Republic and Eritrea just behind.

The United States, despite its immense wealth, military power and cultural influence, ranks 28th — having slipped from 19th in 2011. The index now puts the United States behind significantly poorer countries, including Estonia, Czech Republic, Cyprus and Greece.

The state of the stock market is misleading, even irrelevant, because most Americans don’t own stock; the stock market increasing is only an indication of increased economic inequality. And GDP, Gross domestic product, is problematic because it presumes that endless growth is good, whereas we should be thinking about sustainability in a world where growth has brought about planet-threatening climate change.

Quality of life, by the measures in the quote, should be just as important.

The United States ranks No. 1 in the world in quality of universities, but No. 91 in access to quality basic education. The U.S. leads the world in medical technology, yet we are No. 97 in access to quality health care.


And here’s this. Flat-Earthers, Anti-vaxxers, QAnon supporters — it’s never about the actual evidence. It’s about taking a stand, to defy the authorities or those elitist scientists, or demonize the politicians you don’t like, and then using motivated reasoning to defend your position, like a lawyer, not a detective or scientist. How to debate a flat-Earther. Subtitle: So, why do people believe this, and is it even worth getting into a debate over?

People who believe that the Earth is flat aren’t coming to that conclusion from the same types of observations. They, instead, believe that we are being misled and lied to, that scientists (including me) want you to believe that the Earth is round, despite its flatness.

So the question isn’t “why do people believe in a flat Earth” but rather “why do people believe in a conspiracy?” And the answer is the same reason it always is: a lack of trust.

Many people don’t trust the society around them, most notably the representatives of that society. That trust often falls even further when it comes to elite representatives of that society, which includes government officials, members of academia and scientists like me.

By claiming that the Earth is flat, people are really expressing a deep distrust of scientists and science itself.

(Some of this dovetails with the themes of the book I just posted about, Scienceblind, about how children and many adults default to their most intuitive notions of how reality works.)

I’m not sure this is quite right. First, some people do come to this conclusion by looking at selective evidence and using naive reasoning. And second, what is it scientists have done that earns mistrust by so many? Have scientists fooled you into believing the aerodynamics that makes planes fly? Have they fooled into into believing the cosmology and quantum dynamics that makes GPS devices work and the internet possible?

I think it’s deeper than that: it’s a commitment to a political or religious ideology, and the rejection of science that challenges that ideology.

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