THE ASIAN AFFAIRS PUBLISHER'S MOOD
WHY USE MYTHS RATHER THAN TRUTHS? (issue nº 17)
We recently looked at four essays (available on Asian Affairs website) that seem to trouble the mind of human kind more than any other.
The first essay deals with the problem of an ever-increasing population that is seen as the root cause of the immigration problem facing Europe and the United States. Is there really a correlation between population growth and immigration flow? Are we running out of space, food and water? In short, is it that serious or are we deluding ourselves for a reason? And if yes why?
Amartya Sen, the 1998 Economics Nobel prize winner, has carefully studied the issue. He seemed all the more qualified that he is not only a brilliant economist but he was born in India, where population growth is above the 3% mark. His reading of the population issue debukes old clichés. In fact, he is taking a contrarian view, and he backs it up with economic data. The problem is not that acute, the level of immigration is not what it seems (actually it is lower than at the onset of the industrialization of Europe, a quite remarkable observation), population growth is manageable, and birth rate is falling quite rapidly, therefore we are victim of a delusion. Why? I will come to that point later.
The second essay was written by a controversial academic, Bjørn Lomborg. His book, "the Skeptical Environmentalist" has been so heavily attacked by the academic establishment, that one tends to think that he must be right. He is actually an endangered species: the independent minded one. A Professor Pim, from an American University, went to deride Mr. Lomborg because he was not even a professor in a major country (Denmark does not seem to account for much in an American mind!), nor did he write at length on the subject of his book before (the environment) and yet he managed to dismiss "the science of dozens of the world's best scientists, including many prize-winners".
Well, if Professor Prim had been already in charge of his tenure when Einstein was a clerk in an obscure office in Zurich, I have no doubt that he would have treated the same way the author of the theory of relativity using accurately the same arguments.
Bjørn Lomborg is not Einstein, he does not deal with a new theory, but with our four big environmental fears: 1) natural resources are running out, 2) species are becoming rapidly extinct, 3) forests are vanishing, 4) air and water are becoming ever more polluted. In short, Earth is dying.
In each case, he demonstrates that the doom and gloom is wildly exaggerated. And for that, he uses the same data that Professor Prim and other critics are using to say the reverse. Why we are deluding ourselves once again on that issue, is quite similar to the previous delusion.
The third essay deals with democracy. To illustrate that we readily delude ourselves in that domain too while reality is very different, we asked a independent security analyst of Pakistan to explain to us why Musharaff, the current leader, will not be able to modernize his country and bring democracy any time soon. Yet, the Western world is full of praise for the general it demonized when he took power in a coup d'état. Here, the reality seems to have evolved, or evaporated in view of other considerations. Why delude ourselves a third time? The answer is probably with the fourth essay.
This last essay is about the financial architecture of the world, circa 2002. It was written by Il Sakong, a former Finance Minister of South Korea who summarized the works of financial wizards of the emerging world. By this, you have to understand it was not written with a view to please the Western institutions that were born fifty years ago, in a different century and a different world. Yet, these dinosauric institutions have no intention to abdicate their privileges, even if it means more Asian crises, more Argentina melt-down in the future. This essay is a reality check, but to believe that the financial architecture Il Sakong outlined here will be implemented for the benefit of the majority of the countries is rather naive. Yet to believe that the current financial structure of the world, that provides the capital needed to bring economic progress to the majority of the world population is currently suitable to them is another delusion that we are prepared to live with as long as we can.
You understand now that on the four big major issues we are facing (population, environment, democracy and capital), while we know the reality, we prefer to delude ourselves. But as Bjørn Lomborg puts it, if we are to make an informed decision about the future, one certainly needs to base one's judgment on reality.
Why use myth rather than truth? There are many reasons some more mundane than others. For example, the environment debate is clouded by vested interests. It is the survival of a number of NGOs that is at stake, not the survival of the species. But more generally, if delusion is encouraged, it is because it leads to a given set of allocation of resources when comes the decision. In other words, the means justify the end.
It is quite disappointing today to see that, while our scientific tools have never been so powerful, our attitude to human kind problems remains very much controlled by our basic instincts and the vested interest of the mighty and powerful. On the one hand, we dream of a perfect world run by science, and on the other, we do our best to ignore what our scientific knowledge allows us to do.
This issue of Asian Affairs teaches us too that we should be cautious with the word "science". The iconoclast scientist Paul Feyerabend used to say that interest, forces, propaganda and brainwashing techniques play a much greater role than is commonly believed in the growth of our knowledge and in the growth of science. The same is valid with statistics, which belong to the realm of mathematics, by the way not a natural science per se (the test of its validity is not experiment).
The misuse of statistics is nowadays a daily occurrence, and what two of these essays show us is that statistics can lie, and they do lie. We should therefore avoid placing our trust in a set of data when we know little about the way they were collected, how percentage were arrived at, and whether they came with strings attached. Most of the time, those informations are kept out of view, but as Darrel Huff explained in a marvellous little book fifty years ago "How to lie with statistics", the sampling procedure is critical to assess the validity of the percentage (today more than ever, it is common to select a sample with a built-in bias).
We should also be very cautious towards the well-chosen average, the best-known one in economic circles being the per capita income, being actually the worst average one can chose to describe the well-being of an individual in a given economy (the per capita is the arithmetical average, while the mode or the median of the range would provide a more accurate information). Another trick is the use of small sampling groups. The reason is this: with a large group any difference produced by a specific event (the one you want to emphasize actually) is likely to be a small one and unworthy of big attention. Hence the overuse of small sampling groups by many organisations to get attention (attention means money).
As they have noticed for their marketing campaign, there is terror in numbers. A way to create panic is the use of the "gee-whiz" graph as Huff puts it. There is no rule (or law actually) against changing the proportion between the ordinate and the abscissa. With a clever proportion, a stock can drop as a stone or go up like a rocket. The same applies for level of pollution and disappearance of species. Finally there is the semi-attached figure. It is the conversion of a linear graph into a pictorial chart.
Distortion and manipulation of data to an end are not always the work of professional statisticians as Bjørn Lomborg forcefully explains in his essay. What comes from the statisticians' work may find itself twisted, exaggerated, oversimplified and distorted through selection by politicians, journalists and more often than not by NGOs of all kind.
One intolerable example of abuse of such tricks is the problem of child sex-abuse. The known statistics of such cases is 0.4% among the juvenile population. Compared to other crimes, it is not a major issue. Yet, looking at your newspaper, you may have the impression that it is becoming a terrible problem (as if people, specially clergymen, were today more inclined today towards abusing children sexually) with an increasing number of cases being reported and confirmed. But the NGOs focusing on such an issue and taking the high moral ground seem to be quite unscrupulous in the way they use selected and tricked data to panic people through numbers.
Whether it is socially desirable or not to let NGOs peddle their trade and their own political agenda is now becoming an explosive issue that no politician is prepared to tackle. Yet, they create the perfect condition for delusion to persist and mis-allocation of resources to flourish further.
No wonder there is no law and order in the world of statistics. There is a direct link between politics and numbers. It is therefore not surprising that we seem to have lost track of what is really going on while in Washington, some people live in a fantasy world. After all, they are the same people that told us, using flawed data, to believe in Enron and deregulation in the energy sector while their best friends were rigging the market in California.
Two years after entering a new millennium, with high expectations, we have never been so tainted with blood on our hands, ready to bomb whoever stands in the way and ready to destroy terrorist networks labelled al-Qaeda, a name fast becoming generic for everything that goes wrong everywhere and people that feel that the world as it is is not just and fair to them.
We are so confused that we are ready to invest countless billions of dollars in new weaponry, to bomb more accurately and to destroy our enemies faster. It is quite pathetic in fact to see that the entire budget of Afghanistan is currently about US$200 millions, while the Pentagon admits that it spent since September 11th, about US$10 billion, that is fifty times more, on destruction. So, is it really the way the world should go?
Realistically, to believe that such actions make sense and will bring progress, while so many are poor, desperate, disfranchised and hopeless, is another delusion.
As the four essays outline, more knowledge or power does not bring answers to societal and communal problems. An "override" approach, where decision are forced upon a population to enforce its own interest has never been in the long term a successful strategy. At some point the delusion is too far away from reality to be bearable, the economic costs that ensued too much to bear. When we come to that point, then something snaps. It could be September 11th, it could be something else.
That people bomb other people, that a country as rich in natural resources as Argentina collapses, that Enron implodes making the Asian crisis look like a fraud perpetrated by the swindlers upon naive Asia, ruins thousand of employees while its directors cashed in hundred of millions dollars (the budget of Afghanistan for that matter!) raise serious questions as to the morality of the leadership of the world. The American answer to such events has been to deny reality and espouse delusion. That is the best way to come to grief at a later stage. We have yet to see a semblance of strategy that makes sense and it would be foolish to believe that an arm race coupled with the control of the world oil known resources is the answer.
If we want that century to be different from others, we should address issues differently. But these four essays show that we have difficulties when it comes to reality. Our past history is full of myths, our present one, too.