Great article in Wired magazine this month. Clive Thompson talks about how Bill Gates is trying to rescue the earth. Say what you want about Gates, but his humanitarian efforts are outstanding.
Thompson argues the reason Gates is so good at philanthropy is because he gets big numbers. The articles gives some interesting insights into how our brains deal with numbers. From the article:
“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.” The group presented with two kids gave 15 percent less than those shown just one child. In a related experiment, people were asked to donate money to help a dying child. When a second set of subjects was asked to donate to a group of eight children dying of the same cause, the average donation was 50 percent lower.
“Slovic suspects this stuff is hardwired. Psychologists have long observed that our ability to discriminate among quantities is finely tuned when dealing with small amounts but quickly degrades as the numbers get larger. We’ll break the bank to save Baby Jessica, but when half of Africa is dying, we’re buying iPhones.
“Which brings me back to Gates. The guy is practically a social cripple, and at times he has seemed to lack human empathy. But he’s also a geek, and geeks are incredibly good at thinking concretely about giant numbers. Their imagination can scale up and down the powers of 10 — mega, giga, tera, peta — because their jobs demand it.
“So maybe that’s why he is able to truly understand mass disease in Africa. We look at the huge numbers and go numb. Gates looks at them and runs the moral algorithm: Preventable death = bad; preventable death x 1 million people = 1 million times as bad.”
Great article about a guy who too often gets a bad rap.