Progress Studies Assorted Links 3

  1. A new book on Progress Studies has recently been released, “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know” by Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy. I wrote a short review/summary here.
     
  2. Another new Progress Studies related book was recently published, “Open: The Story of Human Progress” by Johan Norberg. Quick caveat, the book has been released in the UK and other European countries. However, it’s only coming out in the US on the 15th November. 
  1. Matt Ridley appears on the EconTalk podcast. He discusses his book, “How Innovation Works”.
  2. Do we need more ‘yellow-beret’s? To escape being drafted for the Vietnam War, “Between 1955 and 1973, almost 3,000 medical school graduates enrolled in the program”. From this pool of people, “Nine physicians who trained at the NIH during this period went on to win Nobel Prizes.”
  3. “What unknown technological invention will have a huge impact on the future?”
  4. Tim Harford, “We fall in love with the new, but not everything is obsolete.”
  1. “Does economic history point towards a singularity? “Over the next several centuries, is the economic growth rate likely to remain steady, radically increase, or decline back toward zero? This question has some bearing on almost every long-run challenge facing the world … Ultimately, I found very little empirical support for the Hyperbolic Growth Hypothesis.”
  2. A Progress Studies magazine has launched, “Works in Progress”.
  3. John Myers on the hard question in Progress Studies. Myers concludes “how do we in practice actually engineer that a government fixes these policies and laws? There is astonishingly little focus on that hard question in developed countries, when it may give a higher return on effort than almost any other human endeavor. I believe it should be a core focus of Progress Studies and would like to work with others to summarize the state of the art and identify areas for future research.”
  1. Conversations with Tyler podcast episode 103: Jason Furman on Productivity, Competition, and Growth
  1. The Torch of Progress podcast episode 11: Jerry Neuman. “Key discussion points: the funding, organisation, and management of research; linear and non-linear models of innovation; uncertainty vs. risk in progress”
  2. The WHO confirmed that Africa defeated wild polio.
  3. Caleb Watney and Alec Stapp launched a blog/newsletter called “Agglomerations”. They will be writing about a “broad set of technology and innovation policy issues, with a particular eye on the impacts and importance of agglomeration effects.” Their first post examines the differences between, “technology policy, innovation policy, and industrial policy”.

I’m on Twitter @krisgulati, where I tweet about the causes and consequences of progress, economic growth, technological change, and innovation. I have made a Progress Studies subreddit to foster discussion. You can follow my work on the Progress Studies LinkedIn page or the Progress Studies Facebook page.

If you like this blog and want to see more posts on Progress Studies you can support me (regularly) on Patreon or for one-off donations visit Buy me a Coffee.

You can subscribe here

“Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know” by Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy

This post will review/summarise a new book on progress that was recently released, “Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know” by Ronald Bailey and Marian Tupy.

They begin the book with an interesting poll conducted by YouGov in 2016 spanning 17 countries. I’ll pose the question asked in the poll to readers here:

Only a meagre 11% of people responded with “things are getting better”. In the US, it was even worse at only 6%.

Bailey and Tupy posit a few reasons for why many individuals feel things are getting worse:

  1. There’s an asymmetry between positive and negative experiences. Negative events impact us more than positive events. The authors suggest that the media often think along the lines of, “News is bad news; steady progress is not news.” Because many of us follow the news – and the news tends to dwell on negative events – we often think that the world is far worse than what it actually is. In 1973, Kahneman and Tversky identified a cognitive bias they called the “availability bias”. Therefore, we have a tendency to think that the examples that come readily to mind are much more representative than what is actually the case. Because of this, the authors suggest that focusing on the news creates a bias towards being overly pessimistic about progress.
  2. Bailey and Tupy suggest that humans’ over-emphasis on negative trends may be due to evolutionary psychology, “A Stone Age man hears a rustle in the grass. Is it the wind or a lion? If he assumes it’s the wind and the rustling turns out to be a lion, then he’s not an ancestor. We are the descendants of the worried folks who tended to assume that all rustles in the grass were dangerous predators and not the wind.” Humans developed to be cautious, instinctively focusing on potential negative events. Despite this, “the upshot is that we are again often misled into thinking that the world is worse than it is.”
  3. Thirdly, we underestimate the progress (of humanity) because as we make progress, our attention is captured by newer problems, rather than the progress we have made so far. Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues suggest, “When problems become rare, we count more things as problems. Our studies suggest that when the world gets better, we become harsher critics of it, and this can cause us to mistakenly conclude that it hasn’t actually gotten better at all. Progress, it seems, tends to mask itself.” [emphasis mine].

The late Hans Rosling said,

“I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.”

With this Rosling spirit in mind, the authors add to the burgeoning literature documenting the extraordinary progress humanity has seen across multiple domains over the last few hundred years.

The book covers 78 progress trends. Each trend is only a few pages long, with a figure at the end. The book covers progress in multiple domains, split up into the sections covering, “Top 10 trends, people trends, health trends, violence trends, work trends, natural resource trends, farm trends, tech trends, and US trends.” Thus, it really paints a holistic picture of progress.

I won’t spoil the book but a few of the trends I particularly enjoyed (for different reasons) were:

  • Trend 6 “More land for nature”: surprised me. The global tree canopy increased between 1982 and 2016.
  • Trend 21 “IQ scores rising massively”: average IQ test scores have increased by 30 points over the last 100 years. I was aware of the Flynn effect but wasn’t aware that it was this pronounced.
  • Trend 28 “Vaccines are saving lives”: “In the 20th century alone, the disease [smallpox] is thought to have killed between 300 million and 500 million people.” It has now been eradicated.
  • Trend 61 “Lighting costs near nothing now”: This is a famous paper I really like by William Nordhaus. The price of lighting has dramatically plummeted: “our Paleolithic ancestors labored 58 hours, mostly gathering wood, to “buy” 1,000 lumen-hours of light… In 1992, 1,000 lumen-hours required 0.00012 hours of human labor.”

To summarise, I think this book may be worth a quick skim for readers of this blog (it can be read in a single sitting). However, readers of this blog probably don’t need much convincing about the dramatic progress humanity has experienced over the last few hundred years. It may be better as a gift to pessimistic friends, who would be hard-pressed not to accept the vast amounts of progress humanity has made in the last couple centuries. I would guess that there are many books like this to come in the near future.

Caveats

  • I think there are issues with the poll. I would guess that we would see more positive responses if the question was reframed to something along the lines of, “All things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse, or neither getting better nor worse, over the last 200 years?“.
  • I think it’s important to note that it’s possible to simultaneously espouse both that humanity has made tremendous progress in the last few hundred years, and also be worried about the progress made in recent years. Reminding people of the tremendous amount of progress made in the past might make people more optimistic about progress in the near future.

I’m on Twitter @krisgulati, where I tweet about the causes and consequences of progress, economic growth, technological change, and innovation. I have made a Progress Studies subreddit to foster discussion. You can follow my work on the Progress Studies LinkedIn page or the Progress Studies Facebook page.

If you like this blog and want to see more posts on Progress Studies you can support me (regularly) on Patreon or for one-off donations visit Buy me a Coffee.

You can subscribe here

A silver lining: do we have more trees now than in 1982?

A very commonly held opinion is that the number of trees in the world are decreasing over time. Indeed, that’s the opinion I held until recently.

On the FAO’s website, it states:

“Since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses, although the rate of deforestation has decreased over the past three decades.”

Technically this statement is true. A lot of forests have reduced in size. However, a letter published in Nature (ungated link here), “Global land change from 1982 to 2016” by Song et al. (2018), shows that the number of trees have increased since 1982. Song and coauthors use global satellite imaging data to investigate this question alongside others.

The authors explain:

“A global net gain in tree canopy contradicts current understanding of long-term forest area change; the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported a net forest loss between 1990 and 2015. However, our gross tree canopy loss estimate (−1.33 million square kilometres, −4.2%) agrees in magnitude with the FAO’s estimate of net forest area change (−1.29 million square kilometres, −3%), despite differences in the time period covered and definition of forest.”

Therefore, there was an overall net gain. There was a net loss in the tropics, but there was a larger net gain in the subtropical, temperate, and boreal climate zones.

Image taken from Song et al. paper (2018). TC denotes tree canopy coverage.

Observant readers will notice that I have only used the word trees so far, I haven’t mentioned the word forests. This is because tree coverage does not necessarily correspond to forest coverage. For example:

‘Cutting down a 100-hectare tract of primary forest and replacing it with a 100-hectare palm plantation will show up in the data as no net change in forest cover: the 100-hectare loss is perfectly offset by the 100-hectare gain in tree cover. Yet, that activity would be counted as “deforestation” by FAO. Therefore tree cover loss does not directly translate to “deforestation” in all cases.’

I should stress here, in the example above, despite the effects ‘cancelling each other out’, it doesn’t take into consideration the effects on biodiversity or other negative ramifications.

Nevertheless, I found this paper interesting. My original prior when confronted with this question was massively wrong. I thought that the number of trees in the world was decreasing overall. It seems likely that following the media coverage of deforestation shaped my opinion on this particular fact. Thus, it was refreshing to have a positive picture painted in this (very specific!) domain. We’re making some progress on this front, an area often thought to be plagued by a complete lack of progress. Overall, the paper paints a negative picture (I didn’t cover all of the findings), however, sometimes it’s good to dwell on the positives, even if in the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty small.

I’m on Twitter @krisgulati, where I tweet about the causes and consequences of progress, economic growth, technological change, and innovation. Also, I have made a Progress Studies subreddit to foster discussion, a Progress Studies LinkedIn page, and a Progress Studies Facebook page.

If you like this blog and want to see more posts on Progress Studies you can support me (regularly) on Patreon or for one-off donations visit Buy me a Coffee.

You can subscribe here