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Monday, October 11, 2021

Review: Numbers Don't Lie

  Numbers Don't Lie was something recommended by a Bill Gates newsletter. The praise was effusive, and I like numbers so I checked it out of the library. The book reads like a series of blog posts, each topic being short and covering a short topic, and if you read them separately you might not notice anything odd.

But I read it over a series of just a few days, and one thing really jumped out, which is Smil's anti-environment agenda. For instance, he would take the time to talk about how impractical electrical power was for container ships, which pretty much require diesel fuel to cross oceans. But he would ignore the obvious big picture story, which is that reorganizing the global economy to be less carbon intensive would imply placing a carbon tax high enough to make the need for such large container ships less necessary: instead of shipping things on giant containers across the ocean, you might use rail transport instead and make more things locally, which is actually more resilient than outsourcing everything to China anyway, as the recent pandemic showed.

Don't get me wrong. His facts and numbers aren't wrong. For instance:

For every dollar invested in vaccination, $16 is expected to be saved in healthcare costs and the lost wages and lost productivity caused by illness and death. (Kindle Loc 308)

in just the last two years the country [China] emplaced more cement (about 4.7 billion tons) than the US did cumulatively throughout the entire 20th century (about 4.6 billion tons)! (Kindle Loc 2531)

But while numbers don't lie, providing numbers without surrounding context and interpretation is a form of insidious lying. By all. means read this book, but be very very wary about the implications Vaclav Smil wants to provide of the facts in this book, many of which are deliberately out of context and anti-environmental.

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