Add it up


For effect, I'm just going to say something here, something that your outer skeptic -- nay, even your inner skeptic -- might immediately buck against. Don't worry; I'm not going to start talking about the healing power of Lemurian Seed Crystals. I will only present you with this deceptively simple idea:

"The world is a better place than it was before."

Or, alternately: "The world, on the whole, is improving."

You may, very rightly, protest: they did kill the electric car, after all. Global warming is probably going to melt the Internet, and we are in a state of constant and meaningless war. Popular culture is an amalgamation of insipid garbage, and gay marriage is still illegal. This Lemurian Healing Crystal is doing nothing! The world's going down the tubes! Just look around!

Let's, however, tune in, drop out, and simplify the question. What defines the quality of life of the world? Is it the population? The amount of wealth per capita? Literacy? Disease prevention? Spiritual crystal vibes?

Has life gotten better on Earth recently, or what? It's a simple question, but the answer seems more elusive than Nirvana.

However, according to the statisticians and software programmers at the Malmo, Sweden-based nonprofit organization, the variables that go into understanding the quality of life on a global level are diverse and scattered -- but they are far from unknown.

The UN, for example, has been collecting precise global statistics of a staggering range, about everything from Internet literacy to HIV rates, since the mid-1960s. This data is incredibly rich and could potentially tell us a great deal about how the world has changed since the crystalline 60s; unfortunately, however, it is banished to unbelievably esoteric and dusty volumes that are generally inaccessible and boring. Statistics, right? Long the dread of adolescents, long bastardized by useless USA Today "Info-Graphics," and long expatriated to the cobwebbed rhetoric of phrases like -- yawn -- "see Fig. 2.5"

Statisticians, however, have an essential role to play in our blossoming world, in that they present a great deal of complex information to skilled and unskilled audiences alike. If they do badly by us, we end up feeling alienated by information. If they do well, on the other hand, laypeople become able to understand intricate images of the world in which they live, which has a huge effect on how they live and treat others.

Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, co-founders of Gapminder, wisely observed that, "many statisticians are like musicians standing up in front of the audience showing the sheet music instead of playing it." The global UN data is no exception: it's about as efficient as a tone-deaf person trying to read a Rachmaninoff symphony using a Russian phrase book.

What Gapminder does, which doesn't exactly seem revolutionary, is make this information accessible and understandable to anyone that wants to tackle it. They make free software that overhauls the dusty UN data, makes it interactive, and shows global changes over time. It lets you choose the variables, if you like. Most of all, it makes the state of the world pretty comprehensible.

Understanding the state of the world, they figure, will help us to define humanity's problems, and will point us to the places where action would be the most effective. This much is clear.

What is really revolutionary, however, is how fruitfully optimistic their graphics are. Across the board, Gapminder's presentations of UN statistics show us a world that, despite its pockmarks and setbacks, is definitely on the up-and-up.

One breathtaking animated graphic shows the changes in child mortality in every country of the world since 1962; each country, represented by a color-coded bubble (or "bubbel," as these Swedes have it), totters across a grid whose axes represent the percentage of child deaths pitted against the number of children per average woman. As the years peel by, the bubbles of developing countries move away from the danger zone incredibly quickly -- in a mere forty years, high infant mortality rates are almost eliminated. Life everywhere on Earth, if these variables are considered, is better.

Of course, children still die sometimes, and in some countries more than others. On a long-term scale, however, the human race is doing a remarkable job of taking care of its kind. Fewer babies are being born, we are living longer, we are more literate, and the gap between rich and poor is getting smaller. It takes a lot to make a dent in this juggernaut of human progress: looking at these statistics, you realize that even the Vietnam War only momentarily stunted the drastic reduction of child mortality in the history of the country.

If we look at our immediate surroundings, things will always look bad. The human race, however, has been on this planet for a hell of a long time, and things have often looked bad. For once, we should give ourselves some credit; at least in the grand scheme of things, the world is getting better.


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1) I heart edward tufte

2) alas the u.n. data is way anthropocentric. earth getting better for human population does not equal earth getting better in terms of endangered species, biodiversity, etc. not to kill yr optimistic vibe

I am a statistics major in university and this article rocks! The reason that stats is indeed the wave of a more successful future is this: I was watching "60 Minutes: with Andy Roony". He opens up by saying, "If global warming is such a big deal, why is it that every winter, I have to wake up early and scrap the ice off my windshield?"
It's precisely that which creates problems, a narrow world view. Stats lets us see a more complete picture. (The contributions of empirical observations construct a less subjective fact).
Soon, it will no longer be "cool" to shut down someone's argument based on a personal experience. We all know that those personal experiences are totally skewed/biased. Quoting a stat (and its source) will become the new way to make an argument: you sound informed, up-to-date, etc. It will help put an end to Andy Rooneys, Lars Larsons, Bill O'Reilys, and political ingots that encapsulate the scope of fact.

By Adam Omidpanah (not verified) on 20 Aug 2006 #permalink