Chicken Little Syndrome
by Roy Jones
“The sky’s a-falling!” exclaimed Chicken Little in the American version of the classic children’s tale. A kernel had fallen from a tree and struck poor Chicken Little on the head. To his little bird-brain, this could only mean that the sky was about to collapse. He immediately ran off to tell anyone that would listen. Chicken Little had soon recruited a sizable following with Cocky-locky, Ducky-daddles, Goosey-poosey, and Turkey-lurkey all joining him in his procession. The lessons from this children’s folk tale are just as applicable today as when it first originated centuries ago. Stories circulating in the news and on social media would have us believe that calamity and devastation are just around the corner. How can we differentiate the “kernel of truth” at the center of the story (like the kernel that struck Chicken Little’s head) from the sensationalism and even hysteria?
When I turn on the television or read about current events on the internet, I get the distinct impression that our nation and the world are just one step away from a precipice of destruction. Tales of doom and gloom are everywhere. Is humanity careening off a metaphorical cliff? How can I separate fact from fiction? My answer, in one word, is “context.” If I can keep the news of the day in context then I can weigh the good and the bad over the long perspective of history. Historian Johan Norberg cites several metrics such as global life expectancy and literacy rates to help gauge the progress of humanity in the context of history. 
Global life expectancy is a wonderful metric to use as a gauge of human progress because it includes so many other variables. Poverty, undernourishment, sanitation, access to clean water, access to medical services, child mortality and maternal mortality rates (the rate at which expectant mothers die from pregnancy related complications including the childbirth process), and even death through violence and war, each influence the life expectancy average. This is why life expectancy is the measure most often used to illustrate the overall health of a population. Humanity had been stuck at an estimated average life expectancy of about 30 years for thousands of years. Through medical and technological advances, life expectancy more than doubled in some countries by the early 1900’s but the impact was unequal. For example, in 1950 the country of Norway had the highest life expectancy in the world at 72.3 years while many impoverished countries continued with life expectancy rates hovering around the 30-year mark. Less than 70 years later, In 2019, the global life expectancy rate finally caught up to and surpassed the life expectancy benchmark set by 1950’s Norway by hitting a record global average of 72.6 years. This is an amazing accomplishment and the positive trend continues on into future projections.
Global literacy is another fantastic measurement of progress. The ability to read is critical because it is the skill needed to unlock much of the world’s knowledge. We must first learn to read, afterward we will read to learn. in 1900, only 1 out of 5 people 15 years or older could read. In only 100 years that statistic was flipped on its head. By the year 2000, only 1 out of every 5 people 15 years and older living on planet earth could NOT read. In other words, the rate of global literacy climbed from 20% to 80% during this period! Literacy levels today in the poorest and most struggling countries are better than literacy levels in the richest and most literate countries of 100 years ago. Even in countries currently struggling with lower literacy rates, the younger generation are better educated than they have ever been. Literacy rates in these countries will only continue to improve as these students mature and overtake their less well-educated elders.
The arc of human progress is truly wonderful to see! With so much for humanity to “crow” about, why then are the Chicken Littles of the world still crying “fowl?” It comes down to three main factors. The first factor is evolutionary. It appears that human brains might just be hardwired to focus on the negative. The second factor is economic. There are individuals, businesses, and entire industries that have a vested interest in playing up the negative aspect. This used to be called “sell more newspapers” and has now morphed into a more tech-friendly version known as click-bait. Lastly, humans can have incredibly short memories and tend to forget how much things have improved in just the span of a few generations. This final factor is where we can work to most effectively combat this negativism around us, by reminding our fellow humans of just how far that we have come together.
We can learn a lot from the misadventures of Chicken Little and his feathered friends. Think critically before jumping to conclusions and also avoid following others blindly. In today’s world, celebrities may have a significant twitter or social media “following” but that does not make them experts. Humanity can come together to face the challenges of the day just as we always have. If we remember to keep the current events in the context of history, we can avoid the panic of the moment even when those around us are singing a chorus of, “the sky’s a-falling.”
- Henny-Penny: The Sky is Falling! (n.d.) American Literature Library. Retrieved from https://americanliterature.com/childrens-stories/henny-penny-the-sky-is-falling#:~:text=Henny%2DPenny%20is%20a%20story,)%2C%20illustrated%20by%20Arthur%20Rackham.
- The Good News of 2020 (2021, Jan. 21) Stossel in the Classroom. Retrieved from https://stosselintheclassroom.org/the-good-news-of-2020/
- Max Roser, Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, and Hannah Ritchie (updated 2019) “Life Expectancy”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/life-expectancy#twice-as-long-life-expectancy-around-the-world
- Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina (2016) “Global Education”. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/global-education#literacy
- Life is Getting Better (2020, Apr. 7) Stossel in the Classroom. Retrieved from https://stosselintheclassroom.org/life-is-getting-better/