Statistics show us how hatred becomes violence and how responsibility is deflected.
We have all been exposed to quite a lot of news about Global Warming recently. Sorry, Climate Change, mustn’t offend anyone.
Without being overly simplistic about it, if you actually read the science rather than relying on a journalist or a 'journalist' to interpret it for you, the facts are extremely clear and uncomfortably stark. We have driven up the carbon dioxide levels to such an extent that we are going to raise the overall temperature of the planet so that massive and unpredictable effects will impact every part of our lives. It will change how we eat, how we spend our time, how we travel, whether we go on holiday. It will impact our economies and, in a refrain so common it should really be a catch-phrase, the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer the most. I hear that a lot and it’s completely meaningless because it’s true of everything, by definition, it’s what 'vulnerable' means.
So, suffering sounds like something we’d like to avoid, but we’ve developed a remarkable capacity for selective blindness, deafness and amnesia when it comes to facts we find difficult to accept.
I’m old enough to remember the famous famine in Ethiopia. It was nightly news, broadcast directly into our living rooms. We watched people by the million starving in front of our disbelieving eyes. And then we went out to dinner. I also remember the outpouring of charity, of sympathy and of real tangible help that was sent and I don’t disregard it. But, if you were paying attention, there was also another story, another narrative.
Pompous people, who’d just had lunch and were about to head out for a dinner accompanied by a selection of fine wines, offered their opinion as to the causes of the famine. It’s a human trait to do this. We see an effect and we go looking for a cause. Time and time again we were told that the cause of this famine was, in no particular order, overpopulation, lack of land management, corruption in Africa and, most disturbingly, charity. The idea was that by offering people charity we’d taken away the incentive to deal with their problems themselves.
While all of these alleged causes sounded different they all shared one common thread. Ultimately, however unfortunate, the cause of this humanitarian disaster was something rooted in Africa. The victims were the perpetrators, however unintentionally.
The former Apple cult-leader Steve Jobs famously opposed the idea of charity for this exact reason. He didn’t believe in giving away a single cent of his vast wealth because he thought it was better for people to earn their own futures rather than receive help. He, after all, had not had any assistance so why should anyone else?
Of course, though I suspect you’re already spitting at the last statement, he was talking absolute rubbish. He had been born to middle-class parents in the USA. He had the benefits of roads, education, a functioning police force, he didn’t have to worry about the secret police murdering him and if he fell ill he would be offered medical attention. Interestingly he didn’t consider any of these things as 'aid' in his ambitions. Whereas if someone with none of those benefits was asking for the loan of a textbook so they could improve their education then that, in his mind, was charity.
Isn’t it interesting that his definition of the perils of 'help' carefully excludes any of the thousands of examples that he received his entire life and yet carefully includes anything that he might, as a billionaire, be asked to put a few dollars towards. It’s fascinating how much our intellectual positions are tied to our wallets.
So, Ethiopia. Were people wrong to offer aid? Was that compounding a problem by throwing more money into a situation that might make the recipients more dependent?
Well, first, I think the human instinct to want to help, even if our help is never perfect, is something that should never be criticised. We can discuss how to spend the aid, but criticising the aid itself is vile.
Second, and this is something I didn’t know at the time, there was an actual cause of the Ethiopian famine. Not multiple causes, but just one. Global Warming. One of the earliest signs of it was drought in East Africa.
Someone was to blame and it was me. And you, if you’re reading this. It was industry, power generation and transport in the developed world. It was Steve Jobs.
There’s a reason it’s hard to connect these things together and it’s a matter of the way we use statistics. Let me explain.
Imagine you live in a city which is underwater. Not very much underwater, but there are a few inches of water everywhere. Every time you walk anywhere you wade through two or three inches of water. One day you wake up and there are no longer a few inches of water everywhere, now it’s a couple of feet. Now, as you squelch around the shops the water is above your knees.
That night you get home and you hear that sadly one of your neighbours has drowned. A local tragedy. In fact, as the news reports, drownings are more common everywhere in the city. It seems logical, after all, the water is higher so you’d expect more people to drown. But, and here’s the thing, it’s possible to drown in a couple of inches of water. That means that while statistics will cheerfully tell you that the rate of drownings or the risk of drowning has gone up it can’t absolutely say, unequivocally, that any one specific drowning is linked with the increased depth of the water. It could have happened anyway.
Your city has a Mayor. We need a name for him, let’s call him 'Donald'. Donald cheerfully tells anyone who will listen that there’s not a shred of evidence that a single death is down to the rising water. Periodically he points out that people die of things unrelated to the rising water. He isn’t lying, of course, he’s just not providing leadership or guidance. He’s decided to be useless. Maybe there’s a powerful local industry that thinks it may be held responsible for the rising water and it funded Donald’s campaign for Mayor.
The weird thing is that this has all happened before.
Now it’s climate. Thirty years ago it was smoking. Statistically smokers are much more likely to contract cancer but, non-smokers get cancer too. It’s never been possible to definitively state that any single instance of disease is down to smoking. It’s only overall that we can be sure. We can say that a proportion of cancer is caused by smoking, but we can’t say which cancer-sufferers are in that group.
Over and again we see politicians state that it’s not possible to prove a link between a hurricane, a flood, a drought, a fire and changing climate. That’s true. All we can say is that these sorts of dangerous events are more frequent and more powerful in a warming world. We never get to be able to say that a specific incident wouldn’t have happened anyway, we can only say that the number and severity of incidents in general has risen.
I’m beginning to think that most people in society don’t understand how statistics work. They are astonishingly powerful tools but it’s really easy to ask statisticians questions that their tools can’t answer.
It’s like sitting someone down to talk about climate and asking them the question, "Why don’t I wear a hat?"
It may or may not be relevant to the discussion but, either way, there’s no statistical method that can answer it. The idea that in order to be able to know anything you must, by definition, be able to explain everything is a pernicious and dangerous idea, possibly one rooted in religion. For thousands of years we’ve had people in our society who literally have an answer for any possible question. It’s fairly easy for them, of course, because it’s always the same answer: 'God wanted it that way.'
Still the idea that an expert may be able to state something with confidence and yet be unable to answer a seemingly related question can feel suspicious. How can they be expert if they don’t know everything?
It’s possible to find people who have an answer to everything. For many of us that feels much more reassuring, but for anyone who’s familiar with statistics it means there’s something wrong. If someone has answers for everything it means they’re lying. When Michael Gove famously declared that he thought the UK had 'had enough of experts', what he meant was that the country should instead listen to him, someone who didn’t know anything, didn’t understand anything, but had confident answers for everything. He was in the middle of a marathon session of falsehood and fantasy and he was disparaging those who disagreed with him, presumably because they were trying hard not to lie.
Today I woke to the news that an absolutely horrific atrocity had been committed in New Zealand. Details are emerging as I write but we know that an attack on two Mosques in the city of Christchurch has left dozens dead and many more wounded. This sort of hatred is not that uncommon, it’s merely uncommon for anyone to act on it in such a stunningly violent way, so we need to take a long and uncomfortable look at ourselves.
We see people in the public eye launch bigoted attacks on anyone who doesn’t look like they do. We saw a man at a podium in the US explain that a group of people marching behind swastikas are 'very fine people'. In the UK we saw the leader of a political party recycle Nazi propaganda as part of a campaign that was founded on divisiveness. In a thousand ways, not all anywhere near this egregious, our public square has become more tribal, our forum has become a battleground.
But the experience we gain from looking at smoking and climate can be applied to this problem as well. The terrorist atrocities aren’t the cause, they’re the effect. Even the high-profile public figures that may seem to be driving the narrative are a symptom of it first; that’s how they get to be high-profile.
Trump, Farage, they aren’t the smoking, they’re the cancer, they aren’t the warming, they’re the storm. This attack, however horrific, is just the symptom of a deep and underlying problem and it is that which requires our attention. We need a 'public health' solution, one that goes after the causes. We managed it with cholera by installing clean water and closed sewers. Now we have to deal with terrorism by going after its driving causes. If we do it right we get rid of terrorism but we also reduce bigotry and divisiveness.
Is this even possible? I don’t know, but I do know that we’ve never achieved anything by declaring it couldn’t be done. We try. We try to make it possible. Humanity is at its best when it achieves great things through concerted effort but it is only slightly less great when it exerts its all in a cause that remains elusive.
As Samuel Beckett once said: