Readings and reflections

Dear colleagues,

An exceptional summer is slowly coming to an end. On a positive note (for some), we saw “Les Bleus” win the 2018 World Cup. More bleakly (for us all) we saw record temperatures, low to non-existent rainfall, losses in crop harvests and an outbreak of wildfires, leading many, including myself, to reflect on the increasing effects of climate change that now can be felt even in the “North”.

For climate experts, these are the first signs of the impending “heat age”, adding to an already fatalistic mood of the broader public. With multilateralism under threat, political tensions at an all-time high and the Paris Agreement in limbo, I needed to find inspiration in a more nuanced and optimistic narrative.

That led me to three books that looked at some larger philosophical issues, including the state of play of humanity, the cognitive reasons behind our pessimistic thinking and how an attention-seeking society has placed feelings and emotions ahead of sound data and knowledge.

The first book by Steven Pinker, “Enlightenment now: the case for reason, science, humanism and progress”, demonstrates the progress humanity has made over the last 100 years in areas ranging from health and equal rights to quality of life and the environment. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, uses data to argue that the state of the world is the fruit of progress based on knowledge that enhances human prosperity. This progress is under threat by populists, demagogues and cultural pessimists leading to a corrosive fatalism that undermines democracy and multilateralism. In addition to making a compelling read, the book shows how data and official statistics can be used as building blocks for a powerful narrative, something that we can take into account when talking about “the value of data”.

Factfulness”, by our late colleague Hans Rösling, his son Ola and his step-daughter Anna, focuses on why so many of us believe the world is in worse shape than it actually is. A very engaging, visual and personal book, it guides us through ten traps often at the heart of our misconceptions, such as the “fear instinct” which explains why things that frighten us often get our attention; just think about how easily some politicians have used fear-mongering tactics to sway public opinion about migrants. For those who had the chance of seeing Hans in action with his lauded data visualizations, there is a lot of new material, including a new way of dividing the world across four income levels with practical and visual examples of each – definitely worth reading.

Lastly, Vincent Hendricks’ book (co-authored with Vestergard, Mads, open access) “Reality lost: markets of attention, misinformation and manipulation”. His entry point is to explain why principles of “enlightenment” and factfulness have such great difficulties prevailing in the current information economy. The emergence of populist narratives, fake news, misinformation and alternative facts are thriving as more people focus on them rather than on “boring” facts and knowledge. Recent elections in the US and UK have shown how the use of headlines on social media vastly contributed to the spread of fake news and subsequently warped public perception on important issues. In attention-grabbing societies, facts can be easy targets with severe consequences for our democracy and institutions.

While the first two books gave me the optimistic outlook I craved and delivered powerful arguments for official statistics, the last one put a lot of water into the wine. It is up to us as a community to stand more firmly for facts and knowledge, and weigh in on public debates that are emotionally loaded. We can no longer sit back and assume that statistics are used accurately.

In the end, optimism will buoy us, but facts will keep us grounded. In my own field – development – we need to get better at showing and sharing the progress we have made over the last decades. There is no more room for being humble. Drawing inspiration from Hans’ innovative approach in communicating a fact-based worldview is a start but there is still work to be done. And the book won’t write itself.

Johannes


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