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Astonishing facts

There were two facts mentioned in passing in the Economist a fortnight ago, which struck me as astonishing, one good and one bad.

To start with the good news, in this article, citing this paper, it says:
The number of poor in “non-fragile” states has fallen from almost 2 billion in 1990 to around 500m now; they think it will go on declining to around 200m by 2025. But the number of poor in fragile states is not falling—a testament both to the growing number of poor, unstable places and to their fast population growth. This total has stayed flat at about 500m since 1990 and, the authors think, will barely shift until 2025.
Looking at figure 1 in the paper, this seems to be a slight exaggeration, and the actual fall in total number of poor people was from 2.25 billion in 1990 (or over 40% of the then world population) to 1 billion in 2012 (or less than 15% of the world population). ('Poor' here is being used to refer to people living on less than $2 a day at 2005 prices and purchasing power parity.) In other words, fully a quarter of the world's population has been lifted out of poverty (albeit using a low definition of 'poor') in the past 22 years. This strikes me as an astonishing achievement.

Then the bad news: in this article it is mentioned (though without giving a source) that, "The proportion of [UK] voters who believe climate change is the result of human activity has fallen from 55% to 43% since 2008." Since the evidence for the proposition has only got stronger over those 4 years, how is it possible that we're losing the argument so badly? I suspect the problem is partly what I think of as the "Assange effect", where people raise a large number of spurious points to muddy the issue. Even if other people carefully work through the points, showing that none of them stand up, the casual reader won't bother to follow that, or to check the sources, and will go away with the impression that the arguments are very complicated and that there is no clear consensus among informed opinion. Another part is probably what might be called the "Wakefield effect", where in an attempt to be even-handed, the media (especially the broadcast media) gives equal exposure to the mainstream view and to an extremely fringe view, thus giving the listener the impression of parity between them. A third part is probably a reaction to the shambles of Copenhagen. I suspect that the fact that we seem incapable, as a species, of seriously addressing the problem inclines people to deny that the problem exists.


Robert Jones

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