Book review Economics Mathematics Unputdownable

Book Review | Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Things You Need to Know About the World

Publisher: Penguin Viking (paperback)
Year: 2020
Pages: 366
Vaclav Smil

Rating: 4 out of 4.

Vaclav Smil’s Numbers Don’t Lie will have you basking in its intellectual afterglow. A pre-eminent authority in the field of energy, food production, and environment, Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Bill Gates counts him among his favorite authors – a distinction only a few can enjoy.

Smil’s latest book comprises 71 short essays written in a thematic format, each of which is a super delight to read. The essays are clustered into seven sections:

  1. The Inhabitants of our world
  2. Nations in the age of globalization
  3. Inventions that made our modern world
  4. Energizing our societies
  5. How we get around
  6. Energizing ourselves
  7. Damaging and protecting our world

As is typical of anthology-style, eclectic nonfiction books, Numbers Don’t Lie goes without a cohesive narrative, with every chapter highlighting crucial facts about the world we inhabit.

Since none of the chapters flow into each other, you can take a dip-in, dip-out approach. Go through the index, read the chapters whose titles attract you the most, and then go back and read the rest.

Enlightens with you numbers

Smil, by virtue of his profession, is a meticulous researcher. Over the years, he has published 100s of scientific papers, written over three dozen books, and contributed to research in several fields.

His books often carry a reputation for being far too complex. Bill Gates echoed the same sentiment in his documentary Inside Bill’s Brain. Numbers Don’t Lie is an exception in that sense. Smil injects only as many technical details into it as to not make it tedious for the larger audience base.

Essays in sections ‘Nations in the Age of Globalization‘ and ‘Inventions that made our modern world’, especially, are easy to consume for a layperson.

From shining the spotlight on the pivotal inventions from the past to sharing his candid, fact-based opinions on challenges of the present and future, he covers a lot of ground.

If you like taking notes, you’d better keep a ream of papers with you because this book will press your synaptic buttons and have your neurons firing on all cylinders.

For example, in one of the chapters, he writes about how air travel is a much safer option than all other modes of transport. Several authors have talked about it already. Nothing new. However, while others theorize with basic data, Vaclav Smil takes basic data and recast them into relevant information.

For the year 2017, the total fatalities were 5.6 X 10-9 per person per hour in the air. That’s substantive for me!

Reveals holes in accepted measures

Numbers Don’t Lie equips you to apply basic scientific literacy and numeracy to everything that is thrown at you as a fact but may not be one.

“My goal is to demonstrate not only that numbers do not lie, but to discover which truth they convey.”

Vaclav Smil’s key thrust in Numbers Don’t Lie.

In an initial chapter, he instructs the reader to accept viral metrics such as the World Happiness Index with a dose of healthy skepticism.

Frankly, until I read this book, I did not know that this index is made up of 6 constituents: GDP per capita + Social Support + Healthy Life expectancy  (taken from WHO which is further based on 100 different health factors) + Freedom to make life choices + Generosity (I wonder how they measure that) + Perceptions of corruption (throughout the govt and business).

A cursory look at the above metrics can tell you how difficult the process of gathering these data must be. In many cases, it could be fraught with opacity. Anyways, Prof Smil wants you not only to interpret data correctly but to identify wherever common sense is missing, too.

  • The Happiness Index scores are accurate to the 3rd decimal digit for every country. As per 2021 report, Finand with 7.842 score pips Denmark with 7.620 for the top spot. Prof Smil’s point: Why not just round those scores off? Why even do individual ranking in the first place? Just tell us which 10 or 20 countries make the top group and so forth.
  • A cursory look through 2021 report brings up strange deviations. Uruguay is ahead of Singapore in ratings and the narco capital Mexico is ahead of Estonia, the little Baltic nation with high quality of life, low crime rate and the highest number of per capita startups in Europe. Smil wants you to inquire into such seeming discrepancies.

Smil’s insightful explanations of various trends and inventions enhance your perspective and increase your intellectual bandwidth. What struck me the most as I read this book was his objectivity and clarity. He calls a spade a spade and leaves no room for ambiguity.

For example, he presents his stance on nuclear reactors – which he calls a glorious failure – with utmost persuasion. Incidentally, it runs counter to what his admirer Bill Gates promoted in his documentary and his book.

Final thoughts

Vaclav Smil is a polymath, a genius who likes to calculate the volumes of objects he encounters for entertainment. If an ordinary mortal tries that, they will end up with brain fatigue sooner than they realize it. But that’s how Smil stands in a different league altogether. His brain vibrates at a much higher frequency than others.

The discerning readers will clearly be able to figure Smil’s interdisciplinary knowledge at play in Numbers Don’t Lie. His masterful grasp of different subjects is something to be applauded.

One slight challenge in the book could be Smil’s objective writing style. It may come across as dry to some readers. He writes in a dispassionate way leaving little room for humor and storytelling. However, if you share even a peripheral interest in the subject matter, he will reel you in like a fish on the hook.

I highly recommend this book. It’s one of those gems that opens your eyes to so many things that you could have until now overlooked, thus adding immense knowledge to your existing base.

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