Vaclav Smil’s book — Numbers Don’t Lie — is a helpful approach to understanding the world. He is able to layout what numbers mean answering a number of important questions around transportation, food, energy etc… The numbers are very helpful. That said, even though he mostly just outlines numbers you can see his perspective coming through. Even with his attempt at ‘just the facts’ you can’t get away from the fact that what you see depends upon how you look. Numbers don’t lie, but people frame decisions.
Simple Indicators Are Helpful
Want to know how any country is doing? Look for a simple view that is hard to manipulate for political ends. It is easy to change definitions of things like employment. This makes it hard to compare countries. Yet, some things are so obviously undesirable their reduction is a strong indicator of achievement. Indeed, one of the great arguments that the world is getting better relies upon falling infant mortality. (For more on positive data on the world see here, here, and here).
Smil suggests that the best indicator of quality of life might be infant mortality. Who can disagree that infant mortality is something we should be reducing? If we aren’t reducing this then something is going wrong. Some countries will find it harder to reduce the number than others for good reasons. (Welcoming immigrants from poorer countries might see a short-term increase in child mortality if the newcomers start less healthy). That said, infant mortality is about as strong a single indicator of country success as one could hope for. It is simple, hard to fudge, and who can argue that less infantry mortality is better? Wealth tends to be heavily linked to low infant mortality. Sadly, the US does relatively badly given its wealth suggesting a considerable opportunity for improvement.
What Is Worth Pursuing?
Smil notes a few ways to improve the world. He suggests that vaccination is the best way to invest dollars in societal improvement. I am writing when many people are not taking the Covid vaccine for whatever reason. I am going to be surprisingly controversial and say that I agree with Smil that reducing fatal infectious diseases is a good thing. Such investments seem like a good investment to me and, apparently, the numbers bear this out.
He makes interesting points about reducing climate change through better insulation. Suggesting this might do quite a bit of good. Are people really not as excited about simple, practical solutions because they don’t seem that cool? It sounds plausible to me but would like to hear more.
The philosophy of the book is clearly laid out in the epilogue.
Even fairly reliable — indeed, even impeccably accurate — numbers need to be seen in wider contexts. An informed judging of absolute values requires some relative, comparative perspectives.Smil, 2021, page 307
A good example of this was when the news told us Covid cases in Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics. Given Tokyo is a huge city the number of cases, all else equal, is going to be big (compared to smaller places). As such, I spent a lot of time wondering: “Is that a lot? Is it more or less than we should expect?” It was rarely clear to me from the news coverage.
What is more, when communicating you shouldn’t be a stickler. Getting the message right often means not worrying about immaterial decimal points.
Rounding and approximation is superior to unwarranted and unnecessary precision.Smil, 2021, page 307
Numbers Don’t Lie, But People Frame Decisions
It is a good lesson though that how you look at data changes what you see. Smil comes across as a bit cranky at times. He has his thoughts (like the rest of us) and these influence the views he comes to.
Consider his dilemma. The data suggest a problem with climate change. He wants to do something. Yet, he is a numbers-based person so he wants to do things that are effective and efficient, not just do something to feel better about himself.
The challenge is that he pretty clearly likes eating meat and doesn’t want to stop. Thus, he needs to create a justification for having a few steaks.
Firstly, he tackles another significant problem and makes a compelling case for solving that. Food waste is an environmental travesty that he rightly says we should tackle. Yet he frames this by saying.
Instead [of creating fake meat], why not try to find clever ways to reduce food waste..Smil, 2021, page 234
Why is it fake meat or cutting food waste? Why can’t we do both?
Let us think about why might fake meat work? Because people can make money while improving the world. If people stopped creating and selling fake meat would they suddenly turn to cutting food waste? How would this be resourced? Given the lack of funds in stopping consumption that seems more likely a governmental task. The either/or for cutting food waste is frankly not serious public policy thinking. Hardly the ‘rational’ view he claims to espouse. After all, he is right that the numbers clearly show that throwing fake meat away is bad for the environment but surely that is still better for the environment than throwing away beef.
Why not pursue all leads? I know the answer — because he likes steaks and doesn’t want to change his behavior. Such motivated thinking is very human but hardly the epitome of ‘rational’ policy.
Is Not Doing Harm A Benefit?
Smil wants to eat meat and needs a justification so he invents benefits to “moderate carnivory”. This is a book full of numbers but I didn’t see any numbers to justify this ‘benefit’. Instead, he frames the choice as lots of meat versus moderate amounts of meat and claims benefits to moderate meat consumption. The benefit he sees is entirely driven by his comparison. Even when your numbers are accurate what you choose to compare drives the options you decide upon. Smil chooses his options to ensure that moderate carnivory — what he always wanted — looks the best option. A good political maxim to remember is that ‘you can do the numbers if you let me give you the alternatives that we are choosing between.’
Numbers don’t lie, but people frame decisions
Read: Vaclav Smil (2021) Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand The Modern World, Penguin Books