This article is about the importance of numbers for understanding the modern world. It reviews a book by Vaclav Smil, an energy theorist and scientist, who explores various topics that can be illuminated by quantitative analysis. It also cites Steven Pinker, a psychologist and author, who argues that scientific thinking requires us to put numbers to our claims and not rely on intuition.
Many people think that the modern world quantifies too much: everything is measured, reported, analyzed, matched with KPIs, and dressed up to tell a quantitative story. Many people also think that numbers can be deceptive, elaborate hoaxes, or – in the classic Mark Twain quote about statistics – damned lies.
There is good reason to be skeptical about precise figures and who made them and how. But whenever I hear claims that we shouldn’t rely on numbers, I think of a paragraph in Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now! The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress:
In 2020, Vaclav Smil, another prolific Canadian author, published a book celebrating quantitative powers: Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Things You Need to Know About the World. It’s a short and commuter-friendly book that reminds me of Hans Rosling’s Factfulness. The book includes a wide variety of topics that are swiftly dealt with in a handful of pages each.
We learn that the French drink less wine and eat less cheese than they used to; that the risk of dying from commercial flights is smaller than the background risk of death from just being alive; that Brexit isn’t that big of a deal; that the late-1800s invented many more civilization-changing items than the late-1900s; and that the green promise of electric vehicles is hugely oversold. We get a playful estimate of the number of people involved in building the pyramids and learn that the world’s phones and tablets use more energy than its cars.
Numbers don’t lie, but Professor Smil would be the first to agree that they sometimes deceive and that there can be uncertainty surrounding which numbers best capture reality. Investigating what numbers reveal about our world takes finesse as much as skill and requires us to think about how the numbers were constructed, what they leave out, and what nuance we miss when we quickly report them.
Smil, an energy theorist and reclusive scientist at the University of Manitoba, naturally focuses much on our physical environment: the energy that powers our civilizations, the technologies that dominate our lives, the gradual and long-term improvements in our technical capabilities of lighting, fuel efficiency, and electricity generation. Energy transitions, he has convincingly pointed out elsewhere, take time. An energy transition away from fossil fuels “is a task for many decades,” not a quick fix like political leaders at COP26 and elsewhere are fond of proclaiming.
There are no rivals for kerosene jet fuels or gigantic diesel engines for long-distance transportation over oceans. Today’s batteries don’t pack enough energy and thus take up much too much space to generate the power needed for a containership or an aircraft. In a revealing back-of-the-envelope calculation, Smil shows that we would need batteries that are ten times more energy-dense than the best lithium-ion ones merely to rival today’s fossil fuels. That is “a tall order indeed,” he concludes as, “in the past 70 years, the energy density of the best commercial batteries hasn’t even quadrupled.”
In the three decades since the first global climate change meeting, the world’s energy mix has gone only from using 86.6 percent fossil fuels to 85.1 percent – and not for lack of trying. The world has achieved more decarbonization through expanded hydroelectric power than all wind and solar installations combined. In the United States, three-fifths of the reduction in emissions from power generation came not from adding green technologies but from shifting towards natural gas.
Bar civilization-changing technological breakthroughs, which are by their nature unpredictable, fossil fuels are our future – whether we like it or not. As if that weren’t enough to anger many climate alarmists, Smil also thinks we can safely wait another few thousand years before we judge our times a completely new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene. He writes, “Let us wait before we determine that our mark on the planet is anything more than a modest microlayer in the geologic record.”
Healthy bodies, healthy homes, and healthy minds
We get a fair bit of nutritional advice as well. Smil likes the Japanese diet – the population with the longest life expectancies must be doing something right – as well as traditional Mediterranean cuisine. Smil has published a full book on eating meat, and some of that book’s arguments make their way into his new work – such as comparing the energy conversion for different meat sources (chicken, pork, and cattle). He shows the appalling degree of food waste in North America, which is inexcusable compared to best estimates elsewhere in the world, especially since Americans already eat too much (around 35 percent of the population is obese, and another 40 percent is overweight).
He advises us on how to insulate our homes (it’s the windows!) and takes us on a layman’s journey to compare energy conservation in engines, wind turbines, and container ships. Despite all the attention we give to batteries, some 99 percent of the world’s electricity storage capacity is provided by pumped hydro.
If Marian Tupy and Ron Bailey’s Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know deserves a place on everyone’s coffee table, then Smil’s Numbers Don’t Lie should form part of every smart person’s commute – easily accessible in the side pocket of your bag or within close reach during heated dinner conversations.
For understanding the modern world, Smil concludes, there really is no substitute for numbers.