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  • Kenneth Jacobs

The Pragmatic Realism in "Numbers Don't Lie"

Updated: Jan 7

Numbers Don't Lie.


That's the title of the book I'm reading by Vaclav Smil.


Smil is Bill Gates's scientist; "He’s a slayer of bullshit” (see the feature on Smil in Science Magazine).


Arguably, Smil slays with C.S. Peirce's pragmatic maxim:


Consider what effects, which might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.

That maxim is wordy; maybe even clumsy. But as peculiar as it may be, it is precise. First, the object of our conception must have some effects. That is, conceivable effects we can see, imagine, and importantly, name. Those effects, in turn, must have some practicable bearings. That is, bearings on your life circumstance.


For example, photovoltaic (PV) is the name for materials that produce electricity when exposed to light. The practical bearings of such an effect is solar power––PV generated electricity. But did you know that PV supplied only 0.01 percent of global electricity in the year 2000, and only 0.16 percent a decade later, and only 2.2 percent in the year 2018? Enter Vaclav Smil on "The slow rise of photovoltaics", "Why we need bigger batteries", "The real cost of electricity", and "The inevitably slow pace of energy transitions".


If we want to make solar work, practically speaking, then we need bigger and better batteries to store our electricity. Solar is a renewable but intermittent source of power. Additionally, it is associated with increasing (not decreasing) costs of electricity for consumers.


To be clear, Smil is NOT arguing against an energy transition––i.e., toward renewables and away from fossil fuels. Smil simply brings certain conceptions to our attention and elucidates their practical bearings. Like how every object you consume––from books to electronics and from clothes to food––has been moved by a diesel-powered engine. It's "Why you shouldn't write diesel off just yet". There is no competitive alternative to Diesel's affordable, efficient, and reliable machine. How else will you get your creature comforts?


71 Things You Need to Know About the World


Time and again, or 71 times to be exact, Smil applies the pragmatic maxim to what we think we know about society, machines, energy, transportation, food, and the environment. Here are just a few of his 71 things you need to know:

  • Approximately 24-25 million deaths will be averted due to vaccinations between 2011 and 2020 (p. 8).

  • Six per 1,000 infants in the US die in the first year of their life, which is indicative of poor health care, poor social supports, and economic inequality. For comparison, Finland, Iceland, Slovenia, and Japan's infant mortality is 2 per 1,000 (p. 12).

  • There is no "remote indication of any exceptional US educational achievements" (p. 60).

  • Lab synthesized ammonia accounts for half of the nitrogen required by the world's crops, which means we could not secure enough food in a world without lab synthesized fertilizers (p. 223).

These few things say a lot about our current life circumstance: Science has a major role to play in the survival of our species, but not if people cannot learn it and access it in their schools and hospitals.


By the Numbers


When I read Smil I do not think "realist." I think "pragmatic realist." Smil's numbers capture what other numbers do not. They capture the practical bearings of our life circumstance. Smil says it best in his epilogue, where his pragmatism rings out:


Numbers may not lie, but which truth do they convey? In this book I have tried to show that we often have to look both deeper and wider. Even fairly reliable—indeed, even impeccably accurate—numbers need to be seen in wider contexts. An informed judging of absolute values requires some relative, comparative perspectives.

Smil values reflections that broaden our meanings. Additionally, he links his conception of truth to that which affects us in practice. He continues:


Rigid ranking based on minuscule differences misleads rather than informs. Rounding and approximation is superior to unwarranted and unnecessary precision. Doubt, caution, and incessant questioning are in order—but so is the insistence on quantifying the complex realities of the modern world. If we are to understand many unruly realities, if we are to base our decisions on the best available information, then there is no substitute for this pursuit.

There's no substitute for a pursuit that applies our best methods of observation to social affairs.

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