If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data.
Statistics is the marmite science. You either love them or distrust them. They’re either the high road to true understanding or more damnable than lies. Hans Rosling loves them, and sees evidence of humanity’s progress everywhere in the data, unlike Hawken in the quote at the top of this post. (I have taken the quote completely out of context and his position is really more complex taking full and hopeful account of the hosts of people seeking to move civilisation in a positive direction in the manner of the Cultural Creatives, but I’ll come back to that in another post I hope.)
Rosling’s ardour is infectious as his recent programme on the BBC demonstrated. Unfortunately it’s not available anymore for downloading, but the video below, which he did for TED, is on YouTube and makes for a good substitute.
There’s something about lovers of data strings that seems to make them extravagantly optimistic. I’ve been looking at Matt Ridley‘s book, The Rational Optimist, which is riddled (1) with facts on every page I’ve read so far, and to say he wears rose-tinted spectacles would be an understatement. His opening chapter is called ‘A Better Today’ and starts with a quote from Thomas Babbington Macaulay (page 11):
On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?
I wasn’t reassured by this, remembering Matthew Arnold‘s remark that Macaulay wrote in a style in which it was impossible to tell the truth. Maybe this kind of optimism is a left-brain thing as McGilchrist suggests (The Master and his Emissary: page 306), Bolte Taylor‘s euphoric right-brain ‘lala land‘ notwithstanding. I can enjoy it but it doesn’t convince me – too much right-brain melancholy perhaps, in my case, if McGilchrist is correct.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of it all, it’s an enjoyable video that shows how statistics can be used to make presentations more enjoyable and the complexities of difficult issues far more accessible. It’s important not to lose the dark side of these figures though, as the case of China illustrates as one example. A recent article in the Sunday Times (Great Mall of China: 2 January 2011) shines a small torch into the murk of it:
[Randt] pointed out the terrible price [China] had paid for growth – a ruined environment, 656,000 deaths a year from pollution-related diseases and 95,600 deaths from poisoned water.
Note (1): I did notice the accidental pun but thought it worked OK