Most people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good. If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right? Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation. And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy. The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is
to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.
Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.
"Statistics are far from politics-free; indeed, politics is encoded in their genes. This is ultimately a good thing."
- Angus Deaton, a British-American economist. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare. The Nobel Prize website writes, "To design economic policy that promotes welfare and reduces poverty, we must first understand individual consumption choices. More than anyone else, Angus Deaton has enhanced this understanding. By linking detailed individual choices and aggregate outcomes, his research has helped transform the fields of microeconomics, macroeconomics, and development economics."
This weekend, the movie The Martian opens. It’s based on a book by Andy Weir, the most exciting one I’ve read this year. In the very near future, a mechanical engineer and botanist turned astronaut named Mark Watney gets marooned on Mars, with little hope that he can survive long enough for a rescue team to reach him. The narrative proceeds on two paths, with Mark showing amazing resourcefulness to extend his survival on a barren planet, and the U.S. National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) at home, scrambling to come up with a plan to save him.
At one point, Mark ponders a big question: “The cost for my survival must have been hundreds of millions of dollars. All to save one dorky botanist. Why bother?” (He gives an answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.)
Throughout the book, I pondered the same question. The researchers at GiveWell.org estimate that you can save a life through a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net for $3,340. A program of community health promoters in East Africa is estimated to save a child’s life for $4,400. By those estimates, instead of saving Mark Watney (and let’s assume that it cost just $100 million), NASA could have saved almost 30,000 people with mosquito nets or almost 23,000 children through community health promoters.
Beyond the requirements of a thrilling piece of science fiction, why would we make that choice?
Guest post from the beach big Data Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, by Oxfam’s Head of Research and paid up member of the numerati, Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva (@rivefuentes)
A spectre is haunting the hallways of the international bureaucracy and national statistical offices – the spectre of the data revolution. Now, that might suggest a contradiction in terms or the butt of a joke – it’s hard to imagine a platoon of bespectacled statisticians with laptops and GIS devices toppling governments. But something important is indeed happening – let me try and convince you.
A new research report by ODI “Data Revolution – Finding The Missing Million” (launched yesterday in Cartagena during a Data Festival) tries to make sense of the coming data revolution, and what it means for international development. According to the authors: The data revolution is “an explosion in the volume of data, the speed with which data are produced, the number of producers of data, the dissemination of data, and the range of things on which there are data, coming from new technologies such as mobile phones and the internet of things and from other sources, such as qualitative data, citizen-generated data and perceptions data.”
For the numerically minded (I proudly include myself in this group) this is a rather welcome transformation. Data, data everywhere – but then why haven’t we, number geeks, solved all of the world’s problems yet?
Regular FP2P readers will be (heartily sick of) used to me banging on about the importance of ‘killer facts‘ in NGO advocacy and general communications. Recently, I was asked to work with some of our finest policy wonks to put together some crib sheets for Oxfam’s big cheeses, who are more than happy for me to spread the love to you lot. So here are some highlights from 8 pages of KFs, with sources (full document here: Killer fact collection, June 2014).
However, in the same universe, administrative data is often ignored. Administrative data is the data collected primarily for (or as part of) implementation of specific interventions or functions. Within the government, this may refer to data as varied as that of birth and death registries; cooking gas cylinders issued; teachers’ attendance or mid-day meals served. It is easy to see how such administrative data can be used in monitoring implementation—better data can help identify and plug leakages; ensure better targeting and delivery; and maintain a high quality of service delivery, among others. In fact, the quality of data is both a contributing factor as well as outcome of the quality of governance. Better data, made public in easily digestible formats can also enable citizens to hold governments to account.
I’m definitely not a stats geek, but every now and then, I get caught up in some of the nerdy excitement generated by measuring the state of the world. Take today’s launch (in London, but webstreamed) of a new ‘Global Multidimensional Poverty Index 2014’ for example – it’s fascinating.
This is the fourth MPI (the first came out in 2010), and is again produced by the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), led by Sabina Alkire, a definite uber-geek on all things poverty related. The MPI brings together 10 indicators, with equal weighting for education, health and living standards (see table). If you tick a third or more of the boxes, you are counted as poor.
New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.
Internet Live Stats is a counting clock that tracks live statistics on information technology, including Internet users in the world, emails sent today, Google searches today, smartphones sold today, and how much electricity is used today for the Internet. The website is part of the Real Time Statistics Project that also includes Worldometers and 7 Billion World.
Two brilliant speakers visited the World Bank last Friday: Beth Noveck, the United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government and Head of President Obama's Open Government Initiative and Hans Rosling, Swedish Professor of International Health and famous for his bubble graphics of complex development statistics. They commented on the World Bank's recent Open Data initiative that brought 17 data sets with more than 2,000 indicators from World Bank data sources online and into the public domain.