Bertrand Russell on statistical empathy

by jonathanstray28th Sep 20155 comments


Bertrand RussellHistory of effective altruism

The mark of a civilized human is the ability to look at a column of numbers, and weep.

I love this line. I've taken to calling this ability "statistical empathy." I think it's one of the core values required to do good in the modern world. 

This quote is widely attributed to Betrand Russell, though I don't think he actually wrote it. He may be responsible for articulating the idea, though. Re the probable source is a chapter titled "The Aims of Education" in Russell's 1926 "Education and the Good Life" (emphasis added):

The next stage in the development of a desirable form of sensitiveness is sympathy. There is a purely physical sympathy: a very young child will cry because a brother or sister is crying. This, I suppose, affords the basis for the further developments.

The two enlargements that are needed are: first, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.

 I love this. Very much in line with the EA approach.

  -  Jonathan 

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Thanks for sharing! :) "statistical empathy" will now be a permanent part of my vocabulary. I would love to see people sharing "statistics that made me cry". Here's mine.

I really like this. I'm curious, though - to what degree can this be taught/improved? Are there studies on this? I had the impression it was somewhat hopeless, but maybe that's just my behavioral econ background being dramatic and fatalistic.

Well, Russell believed it could be developed through education. One exercise which can help is comparing an abstract number of people to something that relates to daily experience, such as the number of people in your school or your city.

Here's a similar scale which was developed to communicate risk values

The metta training in Buddhism aims at training these skills but I don't know of any studies as to its effectiveness.

Thank you for finding these. Now I feel moved by the idea of statistics that would make me weep.