THE BLAME INSTINCT

 


CHAPTER NINE

THE BLAME INSTINCT

About magic washing machines and money-making robots


Let’s Beat Up Grandma

I was lecturing at Karolinska Institutet, explaining that the big pharmaceutical companies do hardly any research on malaria and nothing at all on sleeping sickness or other illnesses that affect only the poorest.

A student sitting in the front said, “Let’s punch them in the face.”

“Aha,” I said. “I am actually going to Novartis in the fall.” (Novartis is a global pharma company based in Switzerland, and I had been invited to give a lecture there.) “If you explain to me what I will achieve and who I should punch, I could try it. Who should I punch in the face? Is it just anybody who works there?”

“No, no, no, no. It’s the boss,” said that guy.

“Aha. OK. It is Daniel Vasella.” That was the name of the boss back then. “Well, I do know Daniel Vasella a bit. When I see him in the fall, should I punch him in the face? Will everything be good then? Will he become a good boss and realize that he should change the company’s research priorities?”

A student farther back answered, “No, you have to punch the board members in the face.”

“Well, that is actually interesting because I will probably speak in front of the board in the afternoon. So then I’ll stay calm in the morning when I see Daniel, but when I get to the boardroom I’ll walk around and punch as many as I can. I will of course not have time to knock everyone down … I have no fighting experience and there is security there, so they will probably stop me after three or four. But should I do that, then? You think this will make the board change its research policy?”

“No,” said a third student. “Novartis is a public company. It’s not the boss or the board who decides. It’s the shareholders. If the board changes its priorities the shareholders will just elect a new board.”

“That’s right,” I said. “It’s the shareholders who want this company to spend their money on researching rich people’s illnesses. That’s how they get a good return on their shares.”

So there’s nothing wrong with the employees, the boss, or the board, then.

“Now, the question is”—I looked at the student who had first suggested the face punching—“who owns the shares in these big pharmaceutical companies?”

“Well, it’s the rich.” He shrugged.

“No. It’s actually interesting because pharmaceutical shares are very stable. When the stock market goes up and down, or oil prices go up and down, pharma shares keep giving a pretty steady return. Many other kinds of companies’ shares follow the economy—they do better or worse as people go on spending sprees or cut back—but the cancer patients always need treatment. So who owns the shares in these stable companies?”

My young audience looked back at me, their faces like one big question mark.

“It’s retirement funds.”

Silence.

“So maybe I don’t have to do any punching, because I will not meet the shareholders. But you will. This weekend, go visit your grandma and punch her in the face. If you feel you need someone to blame and punish, it’s the seniors and their greedy need for stable stocks.

“And remember last summer, when you went backpacking and grandma gave you a little extra travel money? Well. Maybe you should give that back to her, so she can give it back to Novartis and ask them to invest in poor people’s health. Or maybe you spent it already, and you should punch yourself in the face.”

The Blame Instinct

The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened. I had this instinct just recently when I was taking a shower in a hotel and turned the warm handle up to maximum. Nothing happened. Then, seconds later, I was being burned by scorching water. In those moments, I was furious with the plumber, and then the hotel manager, and then the person who might be running cold water next door. But no one was to blame. No one had intentionally caused me harm or been neglectful, except perhaps me, when I didn’t have the patience to turn the warm handle more gradually.

It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide that when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions. We like to believe that things happen because someone wanted them to, that individuals have power and agency: otherwise, the world feels unpredictable, confusing, and frightening.

The blame instinct makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups. This instinct to find a guilty party derails our ability to develop a true, fact-based understanding of the world: it steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations elsewhere. This undermines our ability to solve the problem, or prevent it from happening again, because we are stuck with oversimplistic finger pointing, which distracts us from the more complex truth and prevents us from focusing our energy in the right places.

For example, blaming an airplane crash on a sleepy pilot will not help to stop future crashes. To do that, we must ask: Why was he sleepy? How can we regulate against sleepy pilots in the future? If we stop thinking when we find the sleepy pilot, we make no progress. To understand most of the world’s significant problems we have to look beyond a guilty individual and to the system.

The same instinct is triggered when things go well. “Claim” comes just as easily as “blame.” When something goes well, we are very quick to give the credit to an individual or a simple cause, when again it is usually more complicated.

If you really want to change the world you have to understand it. Following your blame instinct isn’t going to help.

Playing the Blame Game

The blame game often reveals our preferences. We tend to look for bad guys who confirm our existing beliefs. Let’s look at some of the people we most love to point the finger at: evil businessmen, lying journalists, and foreigners.

Business

I always try to be analytical, but even so, I am often floored by my instincts. This particular time, perhaps I had been reading too many cartoons featuring Scrooge McDuck, Donald Duck’s rich, greedy uncle. Perhaps back then I was as lazy in my thinking about commercial pharma as my students were many years later. At any rate, when UNICEF asked me to investigate a bid for a contract to provide malaria tablets to Angola, I got suspicious. The numbers looked odd and all I could think was that I was going to uncover a scam. Some dishonest business was trying to rip off UNICEF and I was going to find out how.

UNICEF runs competitive bids for pharmaceutical companies to provide it with medicines over a ten-year period. The length and size of the contracts make them attractive and bidders tend to offer very good prices. However, on this occasion, a small family business called Rivopharm, based in Lugano in the Swiss Alps, had put in an unbelievably low bid: in fact, the price they wanted per pill was lower than the cost of the raw materials.

My job was to go over there and find out what was going on. I flew to Zürich, then took a small plane to the little airport in Lugano. I was expecting to be met by a representative of a shabby, corner-cutting outfit but was instead whisked away in a limousine and deposited at the most luxurious hotel I had ever been in. I rang home to Agneta and whispered to her, “Silk sheets.”

The next morning I was driven out to the factory to inspect. I shook the manager’s hand then went straight in with my questions: “You buy the raw material from Budapest, turn it into pills, put the pills in containers, put the containers in boxes, put the boxes in a shipping container, and get the container to Genoa. How can you do all of that for less than the cost of the raw materials? Do you get some special price from the Hungarians?”

“We pay the same price as everyone else to the Hungarians,” he told me.

“And you pick me up in a limousine? Where are you making your money?”

He smiled. “It works like this. A few years ago we saw that robotics was going to change this industry. We built this little factory, with the world’s fastest pill-making machine, which we invented. All our other processes are highly automated too. The big companies’ factories look like craftsmen’s workshops compared with us. So, we order supplies from Budapest. On Monday at six a.m. the active ingredient chloroquine arrives here on the train. By Wednesday afternoon, a year’s supply of malaria pills for Angola are packed in boxes ready to ship. By Thursday morning they are at the port in Genoa. UNICEF’s buyer inspects the pills and signs that he received them, and the money is paid that day into our Zürich bank account.”

“But come on. You are selling it for less than you bought it for.”

“That’s right. The Hungarians give us 30 days’ credit and UNICEF pays us after only four of those days. That gives us 26 days left to earn interest while the money is sitting in our account.”

Wow. I couldn’t find words. I hadn’t even thought of that option.

My mind had been blocked with the idea that UNICEF were the good guys and pharma were the bad guys with an evil plot. I had been completely ignorant about the innovative power of small businesses. They turned out to be good guys too, with a fantastic ability to find cheaper solutions.

Journalists

It is fashionable for intellectuals and politicians to point a finger at the media and blame them for not reporting the truth. Maybe it even seemed like I was doing that myself in earlier chapters.

Instead of pointing our fingers at journalists, we should be asking: Why does the media present such a distorted picture of the world? Do journalists really mean to give us a distorted picture? Or could there be another explanation?

(I am not getting into the debate about deliberately manufactured fake news. That is something else altogether and nothing to do with journalism. And by the way, I do not believe that fake news is the major culprit for our distorted worldview: we haven’t only just started to get the world wrong, I think we have always gotten it wrong.)

In 2013, we posted results from Gapminder’s Ignorance Project online. The findings quickly became top stories on both BBC and CNN. The two channels posted our questions on their websites so people could test themselves and they got thousands of comments trying to analyze why the heck people were getting such worse-than-random bad results.

One comment caught our attention: “I bet no member of the media passed the test.”

We got excited by this idea and decided to try to test it, but the polling companies said it was impossible to get access to groups of journalists. Their employers refused to let them be tested. Of course, I understood. No one likes their authority to be questioned and it would be very embarrassing for a serious news outlet to be shown to be employing journalists who knew no more than chimpanzees.

When people tell me things are impossible, that’s when I get really excited to try. In my calendar for that year were two media conferences, so I took our polling devices along. A 20-minute lecture is too short for all my questions, but I could ask some. Here are the results. I also include in the table the results from a conference of leading documentary film producers—people from the BBC, PBS, National Geographic, the Discovery Channel, and so on.


It seems that these journalists and filmmakers know no more than the general public, i.e., less than chimpanzees.

If this is the case for journalists and documentarians in general—and I have no reason to believe knowledge levels would be higher among other groups of reporters, or that they would have done better with other questions—then they are not guilty. Journalists and documentarians are not lying—i.e., not deliberately misleading us—when they produce dramatic reports of a divided world, or of “nature striking back,” or of a population crisis, discussed in serious tones with wistful piano music in the background. They do not necessarily have bad intentions, and blaming them is pointless. Because most of the journalists and filmmakers who inform us about the world are themselves misled. Do not demonize journalists: they have the same mega misconceptions as everyone else.

Our press may be free, and professional, and truth-seeking, but independent is not the same as representative: even if every report is itself completely true, we can still get a misleading picture through the sum of true stories reporters choose to tell. The media is not and cannot be neutral, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

The journalists’ poll results are pretty disastrous. They are the knowledge equivalent of a plane crash. But it is no more helpful to blame the journalists than it is to blame a sleepy pilot. Instead, we have to seek to understand why journalists have a distorted worldview (answer: because they are human beings, with dramatic instincts) and what systemic factors encourage them to produce skewed and overdramatic news (at least part of the answer: they must compete for their consumers’ attention or lose their jobs).

When we understand this we will realize that it is completely unrealistic and unfair to call for the media to change in this way or that so that it can provide us with a better reflection of reality. Reflecting reality is not something the media can be expected to do. You should not expect the media to provide you with a fact-based worldview any more than you would think it reasonable to use a set of holiday snaps of Berlin as your GPS system to help you navigate around the city.

Refugees

In 2015, 4,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe in inflatable boats. Images of children’s bodies washed up on the shores of holiday destinations evoked horror and compassion. What a tragedy. In our comfortable lives on Level 4 in Europe and elsewhere, we started thinking: How could such a thing happen? Who was to blame?

We soon worked it out. The villains were the cruel and greedy smugglers who tricked desperate families into handing over 1,000 euros per person for their places in inflatable death traps. We stopped thinking and comforted ourselves with images of European rescue boats saving people from the wild waters.

But why weren’t the refugees traveling to Europe on comfortable planes or ferry boats instead of traveling over land to Libya or Turkey and then entrusting their lives to these rickety rubber rafts? After all, all EU member states were signed up to the Geneva Convention, and it was clear that refugees from war-torn Syria would be entitled to claim asylum under its terms. I started to ask this question of journalists, friends, and people involved in the reception of the asylum seekers, but even the wisest and kindest among them came up with very strange answers.

Perhaps they could not afford to fly? But we knew that the refugees were paying 1,000 euros for each place on a rubber dinghy. I went online and checked and there were plenty of tickets from Turkey to Sweden or from Libya to London for under 50 euros.

Maybe they couldn’t reach the airport? Not true. Many of them were already in Turkey or Lebanon and could easily get to the airport. And they can afford a ticket, and the planes are not overbooked. But at the check-in counter, they are stopped by the airline staff from getting onto the plane. Why? Because of a European Council Directive from 2001 that tells member states how to combat illegal immigration. This directive says that every airline or ferry company that brings a person without proper documents into Europe must pay all the costs of returning that person to their country of origin. Of course the directive also says that it doesn’t apply to refugees who want to come to Europe based on their rights to asylum under the Geneva Convention, only to illegal immigrants. But that claim is meaningless. Because how should someone at the check-in desk at an airline be able to work out in 45 seconds whether someone is a refugee or is not a refugee according to the Geneva Convention? Something that would take the embassy at least eight months? It is impossible. So the practical effect of the reasonable-sounding directive is that commercial airlines will not let anyone board without a visa. And getting a visa is nearly impossible because the European embassies in Turkey and Libya do not have the resources to process the applications. Refugees from Syria, with the theoretical right to enter Europe under the Geneva Convention, are therefore in practice completely unable to travel by air and so must come over the sea.

Why, then, must they come in such terrible boats? Actually, EU policy is behind that as well, because it is EU policy to confiscate the boats when they arrive. So boats can be used for one trip only. The smugglers could not afford to send the refugees in safe boats, like the fishing boats that brought 7,220 Jewish refugees from Denmark to Sweden over a few days in 1943, even if they wanted to.

Our European governments claim to be honoring the Geneva Convention that entitles a refugee from a severely war-torn country to apply for and receive asylum. But their immigration policies make a mockery of this claim in practice and directly create the transport market in which the smugglers operate. There is nothing secret about this; in fact it takes some pretty blurry or blocked thinking not to see it.

We have an instinct to find someone to blame, but we rarely look in the mirror. I think smart and kind people often fail to reach the terrible, guilt-inducing conclusion that our own immigration policies are responsible for the drownings of refugees.

Foreigners

Remember the Indian official in chapter 5 who so persuasively rejected the claim that India and China should be taking the blame for climate change? I used the story then to talk about the importance of per-person measures, but of course it is also about how finding someone to blame can distract us from looking at the whole system.

The idea that India, China, and other countries moving up the levels should be blamed for climate change, and that their populations should be forced to live poorer lives in order to address it, is shockingly well established in the West. I remember, during a lecture about global trends at Tech University in Vancouver, an outspoken student saying with despair in her voice, “They can’t live like us. We can’t let them continue developing like this. Their emissions will kill the planet.” It is shocking how often I hear Westerners talking as if they hold remote controls in their hands and can make decisions about billions of lives elsewhere, just by pressing a button. Looking around, I realized that her fellow students were not reacting at all. They agreed with her.

Most of the human-emitted CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere was emitted over the last 50 years by countries that are now on Level 4. Canada’s per capita CO2 emissions are still twice as high as China’s and eight times as high India’s. In fact, do you know how much of all the fossil fuel burned each year is burned by the richest billion? More than half of it. Then the second-richest billion burns half of what’s left, and so on and so on, down to the poorest billion, who are responsible for only 1 percent.

It will take at least two decades for the poorest billion to struggle from Level 1 to Level 2—increasing their contribution to global CO2 emissions by roughly 2 percent. It will take several decades more for them to get up to Levels 3 and 4.

In these circumstances, it is a testament to the blame instinct how easily we in the West seem to shift responsibility away from ourselves and onto others. We say that “they” cannot live like us. The right thing to say is, “We cannot live like us.”

The Foreign Disease

The body’s largest organ is the skin. Before modern medicine, one of the worst imaginable skin diseases was syphilis, which would start as itchy boils and then eat its way into the bones until it exposed the skeleton. The microbe that caused this disgusting sight and unbearable pain had different names in different places. In Russia it was called the Polish disease. In Poland it was the German disease; in Germany, the French disease; and in France, the Italian disease. The Italians blamed back, calling it the French disease.

The instinct to find a scapegoat is so core to human nature that it’s hard to imagine the Swedish people calling the open sores the Swedish disease, or the Russians calling it the Russian disease. That’s not how people work. We need someone to blame and if a single foreigner came here with the disease, then we would happily blame a whole country. No further investigation needed.

Blame and Claim

The blame instinct drives us to attribute more power and influence to individuals than they deserve, for bad or good. Political leaders and CEOs in particular often claim they are more powerful than they are.

Powerful Leaders?

For example, Mao was undoubtedly an extraordinarily powerful figure whose actions had direct consequences for 1 billion people. But his infamous one-child policy had less influence on birth rates than is commonly thought.

Most often when I show the low birth numbers in Asia, someone says, “That must be because of Mao’s one-child policy.” But the huge, fast drop from six to three babies per woman had happened in the ten years preceding the one-child policy. And during the 36 years the policy was in place, the number never fell below 1.5, though it did in many other countries without enforcement, like Ukraine, Thailand, and South Korea. In Hong Kong, where again the one-child policy didn’t apply, the number dropped even below one baby per woman. All this suggests that there were other factors at play here—the reasons I have already outlined for why women decide to have babies—than the decisive command of a powerful man.

The pope is also credited with enormous influence over the sexual behavior of the 1 billion Catholics in the world. However, despite the clear condemnation of the use of contraception by several successive popes, the statistics show that contraceptive use is 60 percent in Catholic-majority countries, compared with 58 percent in the rest of the world. In other words, it is the same. The pope is one of the world’s most prominent moral leaders, but it seems that even leaders with great political power or moral authority do not have remote controls that can reach into the bedroom.

The Inside of Sister Linda’s Door

In the poorest rural parts of Africa, it is still the nuns who maintain many basic health services. Some of these clever, hardworking, and pragmatic women became my closest colleagues.

Sister Linda, whom I worked with in Tanzania, was a devout Catholic nun who dressed all in black and prayed three times a day. The door to her office was always open—she closed it only during health-care consultations—and on its outside, the first thing you saw as you entered, was a glossy poster of the pope. One day, she and I were in her office and started discussing a sensitive matter. Sister Linda stood up and closed the door, and for the first time I saw what was on its inside: another large poster and, attached to it, hundreds of little bags of condoms. When Sister Linda turned back around and saw my surprised face she smiled—as she often did when discovering my countless stereotypes of women like her. “The families need them to stop both AIDS and babies,” she said simply. And then she continued our discussion.

The situation with abortion is different. Mao’s one-child policy did have an impact. It resulted in an unknown number of forced abortions and forced sterilizations. Across the world today, women and girls are still being made the victims of religious condemnation of abortion. When abortion is made illegal it doesn’t stop abortions from happening, but it does make abortions more dangerous and increase the risk of women dying as a result.

More Likely Suspects

I have argued above that we should look at the systems instead of looking for someone to blame when things go wrong. We should also give more credit to two kinds of systems when things go right. The invisible actors behind most human success are prosaic and dull compared to great, all-powerful leaders. Nevertheless I want to praise them, so let’s throw a parade for the unsung heroes of global development: institutions and technology.

Institutions

Only in a few countries, with exceptionally destructive leaders and conflicts, has social and economic development been halted. Everywhere else, even with the most incapable presidents imaginable, there has been progress. It must make one ask if the leaders are that important. And the answer, probably, is no. It’s the people, the many, who build a society.

Sometimes, when I turn the water on to wash my face in the morning and warm water comes out just like magic, I silently praise those who made it possible: the plumbers. When I’m in that mode I’m often overwhelmed by the number of opportunities I have to feel grateful to civil servants, nurses, teachers, lawyers, police officers, firefighters, electricians, accountants, and receptionists. These are the people building societies. These are the invisible people working in a web of related services that make up society’s institutions. These are the people we should celebrate when things are going well.

In 2014, I went to Liberia to help fight Ebola because I was afraid that if it weren’t stopped, it could easily spread to the rest of the world and kill a billion people, causing more harm than any known pandemic in world history. The fight against the lethal Ebola virus was won not by an individual heroic leader, or even by one heroic organization like Médecins Sans Frontières or UNICEF. It was won prosaically and undramatically by government staff and local health workers, who created public health campaigns that changed ancient funeral practices in a matter of days; risked their lives to treat dying patients; and did the cumbersome, dangerous, and delicate work of finding and isolating all the people who had been in contact with them. Brave and patient servants of a functioning society, rarely ever mentioned—but the true saviors of the world.

Technology

The Industrial Revolution saved billions of lives not because it produced better leaders but because it produced things like chemical detergents that could run in automatic washing machines.

I was four years old when I saw my mother load a washing machine for the first time. It was a great day for my mother; she and my father had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. Grandma, who had been invited to the inauguration ceremony for the new washing machine, was even more excited. She had been heating water with firewood and hand-washing laundry her whole life. Now she was going to watch electricity do that work. She was so excited that she sat on a chair in front of the machine for the entire washing cycle, mesmerized. To her the machine was a miracle.

It was a miracle for my mother and me too. It was a magic machine. Because that very day my mother said to me, “Now, Hans, we have loaded the laundry. The machine will do the work. So now we can go to the library.” In went the laundry, and out came books. Thank you industrialization, thank you steel mill, thank you power station, thank you chemical-processing industry, for giving us the time to read books.

Two billion people today have enough money to use a washing machine and enough time for mothers to read books—because it is almost always the mothers who do the laundry.

FACT QUESTION 12

How many people in the world have some access to electricity?

A: 20 percent

B: 50 percent

C: 80 percent

Electricity is a basic need, which means that the vast majority—almost everyone on Levels 2, 3, and 4—already has it. Still, just one person in four gets the answer right. (The full country breakdown is in the appendix.) The correct answer is the most positive, as usual: 80 percent of people have some access to electricity. It’s unstable and there are often power outages, but the world is getting there. One inauguration after another. Home by home.

So let’s be realistic about what the 5 billion people in the world who still wash their clothes by hand are hoping for and what they will do everything they can to achieve. Expecting them to voluntarily slow down their economic growth is absolutely unrealistic. They want washing machines, electric lights, decent sewage systems, a fridge to store food, glasses if they have poor eyesight, insulin if they have diabetes, and transport to go on vacation with their families just as much as you and I do.

Unless you are willing to forgo all these things and start hand-washing your jeans and your bedsheets, why should you expect them to? Instead of finding someone to blame and expecting them to take responsibility, what we need in order to save the planet from the huge risks of climate change is a realistic plan. We must put our efforts into inventing new technologies that will enable 11 billion people to live the life that we should expect all of them to strive for. The life we are living now on Level 4, but with smarter solutions.

Who Should You Blame?

It’s not the boss or the board or the shareholders who are to blame for the tragic lack of research into the diseases of the poorest. What do we gain from pointing our fingers at them?

Similarly, resist the urge to blame the media for lying to you (mostly they are not) or for giving you a skewed worldview (which mostly they are, but often not deliberately). Resist blaming experts for focusing too much on their own interests and specializations or for getting things wrong (which sometimes they do, but often with good intentions). In fact, resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it’s almost always more complicated than that. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes—a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.

Factfulness

Factfulness is … recognizing when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future.

To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat.

• Look for causes, not villains. When something goes wrong don’t look for an individual or a group to blame. Accept that bad things can happen without anyone intending them to. Instead spend your energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation.

• Look for systems, not heroes. When someone claims to have caused something good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give the system some credit.





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