Tyler Cowen: Do The Numbers Give Us The Full Picture?

Aug 17, 2018

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Story Behind The Numbers.

About Tyler Cowen's TED Talk

When it comes to global progress, Tyler Cowen says there's much more to the story than numbers can tell. And it's important, he says, to pay attention to the inherent "messiness" of the data.

About Tyler Cowen

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics and director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

His latest book is called The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream (2017).

Cowen co-authors and monitors the blog, Marginal Revolution and website Marginal Revolution University, a venture in online education, with Alex Tabarrok. He is also an opinion columnist at Bloomberg.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about progress and whether the numbers we use to measure it give us the entire picture.


RAZ: OK. We just heard from Steven Pinker. And, you know, he wrote this book about progress called "Enlightenment Now." And his conclusion is that the world is getting better, that it's irrefutable based on the numbers, so do you agree with that?

TYLER COWEN: I know that book well. I'm an admirer of the book and its author, but I'm not quite convinced by his message.

RAZ: This is Tyler Cowen. He's a professor of economics at George Mason University. And he writes a blog called Marginal Revolution.

COWEN: When I look at the same numbers about wars throughout human history, for instance, I tend to think the pattern is major wars become less and less frequent, but they haven't stopped altogether. And when each one comes, it's worse than the one before it. So I'm reminded of the saying, I don't know how World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones, so I'm not as optimistic as Pinker. I think nuclear proliferation remains a major issue. And at some point, those weapons will be used, so the fact that we have a lot of linear trends with apparently positive extrapolations, it's ignoring the fact that wars, when they come, are much deadlier, riskier and more destructive.


COWEN: I definitely agree with Pinker that most trends are positive. We should not be doomsayers. The creative potential of mankind is enormous. But nonetheless, we need to look at all the numbers.

RAZ: Do you think that numbers and data, things that you study and look at all the time, can tell a complete story?

COWEN: I don't think anyone ever can tell a complete story. Numbers are important. They are undervalued by the public. But that said, one needs to be cautious when numbers are cited selectively, always ask yourself, what are the other sides of this elephant? What are the numbers I am not hearing about? If I knew other numbers, would that, in fact, end up making this a messier story? And most of the time, the answer to those questions is definitely yes.

RAZ: But we humans, we have a - wouldn't you argue - wouldn't you agree that we have this natural, almost innate appreciation for and responsiveness to stories, to narrative?

COWEN: I think it's biologically programmed in us. That's exactly why stories are dangerous, so I love to read fiction. I'm not advocating that we abolish stories. When you're trying to communicate information succinctly to other individuals, you have to use stories. But at the end of the day, think of it as looking for a competitive advantage. If you can see past the stories and see greater complexity and why that might make the world a different place from what other people are thinking, that's a source of competitive advantage for you.


RAZ: Here's more from Tyler Cowen on the TED stage.


COWEN: There's a book by Christopher Booker. He claims there are really just seven types of stories. There's monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth. You don't have to agree with that list exactly, but the point is this. If you think in terms of stories, you're telling yourself the same things over and over again. There was a study done. We asked some people - people were asked to describe their lives. And when asked to describe their lives, what's interesting is how few people said mess. It's...


COWEN: ...It's probably the best answer. I don't mean that in a bad way. Mess can be liberating. Mess can be empowering. Mess can be a way of drawing upon multiple strengths. But what people wanted to say was, my life is a journey. Fifty-one percent wanted to turn his or her life into a story. Eleven percent said, my life is a battle. Again, that's a kind of story. Eight percent said, my life is a novel. Five percent, my life is a play. But again, we're imposing order on the mess that we observe, and it's taking the same patterns. And the thing is, when something is in the form of a story, often, we remember it when we shouldn't.


RAZ: In a perfect world, how would people assess information? How would they respond to information?

COWEN: I think media - mainstream media in the United States has improved significantly over the last 15 years in terms of how well it uses and interprets numbers. I think some of that has come about through the internet, that journalists are better able to self-educate themselves. So if you look at, say, the website FiveThirtyEight or if you look at "Sportometrics," which uses numbers, or you look at the New York Times feature The Upshot, how numbers are used in their stories.

In all of these instances, I've seen the world get much better. I think there's room for much further improvement, but I also think a lot of the problem is in the audience. Audiences don't always want the truth. It's easier in some ways to dismiss numbers you don't like. People want mood or resentment or feelings of self-righteousness out of news stories. And so often, it becomes a kind of partisan issue.


COWEN: So if you think, which set of stories do you end up hearing? You end up hearing the glamorous stories, the seductive stories. And again, I'm telling you, don't trust them. There are people using your love of stories, basically, to manipulate you. And pull back and say, what are the messages? What are the stories that no one has an incentive to tell? And start telling yourself those, and then see if any of your decisions change, that's one simple way. You can never get out of the pattern of thinking in terms of stories, but you can improve the extent that to which you think in terms of stories and make some better decisions.

RAZ: So how do we do that? How do we make better decisions?

COWEN: I think it's important to point out to people what are the biases of stories. So a lot of storytelling has a good versus evil bias built into it, when in fact, both sides of a dispute may have varying degrees of good and evil. I think a particular bias we see in the news is a bias toward negativity, so when something goes wrong it makes for a story.

But no one has a headline, world economy grew again this year, you know, at 4.3 percent. Life expectancy increased by some small amount. It's not very exciting. It feels like ordinary business, so people overstressed the negative. They think crime is more frequent than it is. They think natural disasters are a greater risk than, in fact, they are. And I think this can be explained to people and to some extent we can undo that bias.

RAZ: I think - I have a feeling that if you were a Hollywood screenwriter you would be, like, broke. Like nobody - really, Tyler, you need an editor. Like we just - we can't do all the nuance here.

COWEN: There's a reason why I'm not a Hollywood scriptwriter, correct?

RAZ: Yeah.

COWEN: But there are other roles in life which will perhaps never be as popular as Hollywood movies or TV shows where you can, nonetheless, get some messages through. And I would like to see more people doing that.

One is always seeking improvements at the margins, right? There's never a perfect solution, part of the messiness.

RAZ: Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University. You can see his full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.