The Cold Equations

“The Cold Equations” is an expression I lifted from the short story of the same name. I have not read the story, so can not comment on its style. Frankly, the plot has always crossed me as a great idea but, when you think about it, a bit stupid. No one designs a spaceship with no margin for error.

But I like the expression because I think it is a good distillation of how problems usually need to be addressed: with less emotion and more cold facts.

There are many applications of the cold equations, but I want to focus on just one: issue advocacy. In recent weeks, two very prominent victims of sex trafficking have been revealed to be frauds. Their horrifying stories — which sex workers had been poking holes in for years — turned out to be mostly or completely made up. The organizations and people who trumpeted them are now backing away and claiming that while these stories might be problematic, the issue is important. That’s debatable but I’m not going to get into that for the moment.

What struck me was this review of how the principle purveyor of tragedy porn — Nick Kristof — has built so much of his career and his advocacy around these stories:

The disconnect inspired Kristof to delve into social science studies on the psychological roots of empathy, which led him to an emerging body of work based on what inspires people to donate to charity. In one study, researchers told American participants the story of Rokia, a (fictional) 7-year-old Malian girl who is “desperately poor and faces a threat of severe hunger, even starvation.” Then, they told them that 3 million Malawian children are now facing hunger, along with 3 million Zambian people and 11 million Ethiopians. The researchers found that Americans were more likely to empty their pockets for one little girl than they were for millions of them. If they heard Rokia’s story in the context of the dire statistics of the region, they were less inclined to give her money. And if they were informed that they were being influenced by this dynamic, the “identifiable-victim effect,” they were less likely to shell out for Rokia, but no more likely to give to the greater cause. To Kristof, the experiment underscored the “limits of rationality” in reporting on human suffering: “One death is a tragedy,” he told the students, “and a million deaths are a statistic.”

In other words, people won’t donate to causes because they hear a million people are dying. But they will if they see one cute little girl suffering. Kristof has therefore built a career on finding these cute victims to bring attention to things like genocide and human trafficking.

That sounds noble. But it isn’t. Because what happens is that attention, money, volunteers and even military intervention flow not to the most important causes but to those that have the most compelling victims. So enormous amounts of attention are given to human trafficking in Cambodia, a problem which now appears to have been massively exaggerated. In the meantime, far larger ills — the lack of access to clean water for billions, the crippling micronutrient deficiency that affects billions, the indoor pollution from burning wood and dung that harms billions — goes unaddressed. Because we have yet to have the photogenic victim with a horror story of how she pooped her guts out due to drinking contaminated water.

Looking for victims with compelling stories that goad your audience into emotional reaction is the wrong way to go about healing the troubles of the world. That’s where the cold equations comes in: we have to make decisions not based on emotion but on facts, data and reality.

I can’t find the article, but I remember reading a long time ago that one of the reasons the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has such a strong track record is because they carefully identify that most important causes and the ones were money can make the biggest difference. The author attributed this to Gates’ geekiness — i.e, he’s more comfortable with numbers and data than pulls on the heartstrings. Maybe that’s true; it seemed a stretch to me. But the overall thrust was correct: we need to pick our issues based on data, not sensationalism.

Look at overpopulation. Forty years ago, Paul Ehrlich started his book “The Population Bomb” with the harrowing story of a trip through Delhi and used a series of emotional appeals to call for mass sterilization and abandoning foreign aide. He got lots of attention but nothing happened. In the meantime, Norman Borlaug carefully looked at the problem and went with the unsexy non-photogenic option of breeding better strains of crops. In the end, Borlaug saved a billion lives. And Ehrlich is still a raging fool known for his hilariously bad predictions and even worse policy advocacy.

(Bjorn Lomborg has talked about this in the context of the Copenhagen Consensus, arguing that we would ameliorate a lot more human suffering by focusing on large more solvable environmental problems other than the current sexy of global warming.)

I don’t expect or want people to be robots. And sometimes emotional reactions are a good thing. The wave of people donating blood after 9/11 did little to help with the actual tragedy but it did help the Red Cross build up their donor base, providing a big long-term benefit. But emotion is in a haphazard guide to action at best. It’s not nearly as effective as using the cold equations. It’s worth noting that Kristof’s emotion-based advocacy, in the end, accomplished nothing in the Sudan and even less on sex trafficking. Imagine if that attention had gone to something useful, like cleaning up people’s drinking water.

In the end, you have to be guided by the cold equations. In the end, you have to look at the problems of the world objectively, figure out which ones give you the most benefit for the least effort and do them. That’s the only way real progress is made.

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