Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Geeks saving the world

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Another Clive Thompson post, this one from Wired:

Bill Gates is an improbable humanitarian. He built a reputation as a nightmare boss at Microsoft, a totalitarian who screeched at employees he thought were stupid. He bludgeoned competitors with his illegal monopoly. And he’s a nerd’s nerd — someone who seems perennially uncomfortable around people and only at ease dealing with the intricacies of software code.

And that is precisely why he’s now saving the world.

As you probably know, Gates is aggressively tackling third world diseases. He has targeted not only high-profile scourges like AIDS but also maladies like malaria, diarrhea, and parasitic infections. These latter illnesses are the really important ones to attack, because they kill millions a year and are entirely preventable. For decades, they flew under the radar of philanthropists in the West. So why did Gates become the first major humanitarian to take action?

The answer lies in the psychology of numeracy — how we understand numbers.

I’ve been reading the fascinating work of Paul Slovic, a psychologist who runs the social-science think tank Decision Research. He studies a troubling paradox in human empathy: We’ll usually race to help a single stranger in dire straits, while ignoring huge numbers of people in precisely the same plight. We’ll donate thousands of dollars to bring a single African war orphan to the US for lifesaving surgery, but we don’t offer much money or political pressure to stop widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur.

You could argue that we’re simply callous, or hypocrites. But Slovic doesn’t think so. The problem isn’t a moral failing: It’s a cognitive one. We’re very good at processing the plight of tiny groups of people but horrible at conceptualizing the suffering of large ones.

In one recent experiment, Slovic presented subjects with a picture of “Rokia,” a starving child in Mali, and asked them how much they’d be willing to give to help feed her. Then he showed a different group photos of two Malinese children — “Rokia and Moussa.”

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

12 September 2007 at 8:23 am

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