Monday, September 15, 2008

The Scandinavian Myth-Busters

"I know of no time which is lost more thoroughly than that devoted to arguing on matters of fact with a disputant who has no facts, but only very strong convictions."

--James E. Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages, pub. 1901; quoted in Julian Simon's The Ultimate Resource 2, pub. 1996

For twenty minutes of your most precious and scarce resource (time) and with the express goal of testing your convictions against the facts, check out the lecture Hans Rosling presented at the 2006 TED talks. He is one of three prominent Scandinavians currently presenting essential data and analysis on the true state of the world. Their completed works and on-going research effectively show the immense gains the world has made and provide a foundation of principles, thoroughly backed by empirical evidence, for how to promote continued improvement.

Here is a chart from Rosling's Gapminder site illustrating the correlation between wealth and health:

The chart is great, but really, take the time to listen to his talk. He's entertaining, funny and inspiring! Rosling has developed software that gives his presentation of statistics the excitement of the 100 yard dash.

The other two Scandinavians worth reading are Bjorn Lomberg and Johan Norberg. I don't agree with them on all their points, but what they bring to the discussion is superb and much needed.

Here is a sample from Lomberg in The Skeptical Environmentalist:

I will…challenge our usual conception of the collapse of ecosystems, because this conception is simply not in keeping with reality.

We are not running out of energy or natural resources. There will be more and more food per head of the world’s population. Fewer and fewer people are starving. In 1900 we lived for an average of 30 years; today we live for 67. According to the UN we have reduced poverty more in the last 50 years than we did in the preceding 500…

[E]ver fewer people in the world are starving. In 1970, 35 percent of all people in developing countries were starving. In 1996 the figure was 18 percent…

The constant repetition of …often heard environmental exaggerations has serious consequences. It makes us scared and it makes us more likely to spend our resources and attention solving phantom problems while ignoring real and pressing…issues…

The point here is to give us the best evidence to allow us to make the most informed decision as to where we need to place our efforts. What I will show throughout the book is that our problems are often getting smaller not bigger, and that frequently the offered solutions are grossly inefficient.1

Lomberg then follows with 500 pages of data on trends in key areas of human well-being: health, hunger, education, pollution, crowding, environmental quality. Knowing the true state of the world and the direction of trends is a crucial. Setting priorities and choosing which problems to tackle requires a debate over values. That entails an entirely different conversation, but first, we must get the facts right.

And here's a recent one from Norberg:


It took some time, but now the World Bank’s revised poverty figures 1981-2005 have been published, taking better purchasing power statistics into consideration - and introducing a new and higher poverty line, $1.25 a day instead of $1.

The bad news is that the world is poorer than we thought, but the good news is that the world has been no less successful in reducing poverty than we thought. In other words, we had more people in poverty in 1981 than previously estimated but that number has been reduced by as much as previously estimated. Another way of putting this is that the decades before the 1980s were worse than we thought, but the decades since were just as good as we thought - and that’s important to keep in mind since at least Swedish radio presented this as if the number of poor increased dramatically right now.

The proportion in absolute poverty in developing countries 1981-2005 was reduced by half, from 52% to 26%. And despite an increase in world population by 2 billion, the number in absolute poverty was reduced by 500 million, from 1.9 to 1.4 billion. This means that 57,000 people have left extreme poverty every day since 1981. And the last decade has been the best one.

One word of warning though: This study does not cover the last two years when food prices increased dramatically, and poverty probably increased. We’ll have to wait for those figures. Just like before, we see dramatic regional differences. In globalised East Asia, poverty was reduced from 79 to 17 percent, in marginalised Sub-Saharan Africa it stayed around 50 percent the whole period (even though it has come down from 57.5% in 2006).

Here is the study, and here is a summary. 2

What is the state of the world? It isn't perfect. There is still too much suffering because of poverty, war and tyranny. But it is improving, especially when you consider the long-term trends. Humanity is still in its adolescence, stumbling with fits and stops toward maturity. Mistakes are bound to occur. It's all a part of the learning process. Yet, the task is hard enough without shackling ourselves with misinformation. I hope the above scholars find a wide and receptive audience in their efforts to dispel error and correct misconceptions.

As another key myth-buster, Julian Simon, so poignantly wrote:

"Untruth is the ugliest and most dangerous pollution that humans face today. It is just about the only pollution that cannot somehow be transformed into a product of value.”3

“The common assertions that resources are growing more scarce, that environmental conditions are worsening and that the poor suffer from economic freedom are the gravest danger to the poor and the environment.” 4

Let the facts roll in!

1. Lomborg, Bjorn, The Skeptical Environmentalist, pg 4-5
2. from Norberg's
blog entry Aug. 28, 2008: 14:07
3. Ultimate Resource 2, pg 527
4. Ultimate Resource 2, xxxvii

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