07. Numbers Don’t Lie (Book Review)

Did you know cars are older than bicycles? That’s just one of the surprising facts we discuss on this latest episode where I share my impressions of Vaclav Smil’s book “Numbers Don’t Lie.” 

Script Notes

Welcome to Episode 7 of the Blinded by Science. Today on the show, I will be taking a different approach and reviewing a science book I read recently. The book is called Numbers Don’t Lie and is written by Vaclav Smil.

We’ll start with my initial impression of the book. The subtitle of the book is “71 Things You Need to Know About the World.” Each chapter is an essay written by Smil that breaks down a lot of the numbers and statistics we often see highlighted in the media. Smil takes these and provides a deeper and wider context to better understand what these numbers mean.

I particularly enjoyed this, because a lot of what we see in the news or other media outlets is, quite frankly, click bait. It’s about getting the views whether it is on traditional television or on more modern platforms such as YouTube, Instagram, and other social media.

Remember, all of these platforms and traditional media are powered by advertising. So the more views they can get, then the more views they’ll have for advertisements. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this business model, but we have to remember that when dealing with sharing information and educating the public this can create conflicts of interests or dilute your purpose.

In other words, are you going to show me the best possible analysis of something or show me the stuff that gets me in an emotional state so that I’m more likely to click and share.

Something to keep in mind as we navigate this ever increasingly complex and nuanced world. And hence the goal of this podcast is not just to appreciate science but to use it to better understand our world.

Further, a single number—or statistic—does not always tell the full story. As humans, we love having things simplified and boiled down to their raw essence, but the world doesn’t work that way. It is much more nuanced and complex.

And this is what Smil aims to do with his book “Numbers Don’t Lie.” He shows us that the world is not always black and white, context and history matters when we look at what data is telling us, and to better understand our world we need to take a deeper and wider dive than what is often quoted in media headlines, news pundits, politicians, and your friends on social media.

My initial impression of the book is that it is quick to read, easily digestible, and great for getting a more contextualized view of the numbers we encounter in today’s modern, digital age.

The 71 topics are short essays, usually a page or two long. They’re also mostly disjoint topics so you don’t need to read it all in one sitting. You can pick it up and leave it and come back whenever you need to.

That said, I felt these short and easy to read essays in each chapter were also missing an in-depth look at some of the topics. Sometimes it felt very surface level. However, I should note he does have other books that I have not read and I think they go into a more in-depth look. Also, it should be noted that at the end of the book he does have suggestions for further reading.

That said, this book covers a wide variety of topics around People, Machines, Fuel, Transport, Food, and Environment. Because of that I don’t think the aim of this book is to give an in-depth look, but rather to give the reader a broader view of the context behind numbers from data, statistics, and headlines.

And for this, I am grateful because it has left me curious and wanting more. As such, I have selected several chapters from this book to be the focus of future episodes where we can take a more in-depth look at these topics.

To give you a preview, here are seven surprising things I learned after reading this book. In no particular order, here is short list:

  1. Most of our modern world was built in the 1800s. The technology has been improved, but we haven’t made any significant technological leaps or created as many new inventions and technologies as were created in the 1800s.
  2. The GDP is often cited as the primary metric for a country’s quality of life and overall economic health, but Smil argues that Infant Mortality is a better indicator of a country’s quality of life and economic health.
  3. The best return on investment is: Vaccines. This seems especially relevant in semi-post-covid pandemic world.
  4. Technological progress is much slower than we think it is. Which is partially why we’re still waiting for electric cars, flying cars, and hoverboards.
  5. The combustion engine is older than bicycles. And it has to do with the design as well as the tires used on bicycles.
  6. Humans like to think of this as our planet, but if you were an extraterrestrial alien conducting reconnaissance from space you might be inclined to think it is actually a planet of cows instead of humans.
  7. Lastly, plane crashes are terrifying and tragic, yet they are extremely rare—making flying one of the safest modes of transportation.

We’ll take a deeper dive into these topics and more in future episodes. If you want to read the book and follow along, check out the link in the description. Please note, this is an affiliate link with Amazon and I receive a commission at no extra cost to you. Purchasing with this link helps support me and the show.

Alright, that’s it for this special book review episode of Blinded by Science. If there are other science books you want me to review, send an email to blindedbysciencepodcast (at) gmail (dot) com. Thanks for listening.

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