Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Stories to Help Us Understand the Modern World

Vaclav Smil. Penguin, $18 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-14-313622-4

Smil (Growth), a professor emeritus in the faculty of environment at the University of Manitoba, sets out to explore “what is really going on in our world” in this episodic and inconclusive essay collection. Smil covers such topics as infant mortality, global food waste, and transportation efficiency, and presents a robust array of data, at times with devastating acuity. In his chapter on American exceptionalism, for example, he writes that the infant mortality rate is higher and high school education rates are lower in the U.S. than in other affluent countries, and concludes that “politicians may look far and wide for evidence of American exceptionalism, but they won’t find it in the numbers, where it matters.” Another essay presents a statistic indicating that “for every dollar invested in vaccination, $16 is expected to be saved in healthcare costs,” and the author elsewhere considers the amount of energy a smartphone uses per year and wonders whether the devices are worse for the environment than cars. Here, as in other pieces, Smil frustratingly fails to answer the questions he poses. While he provides no shortage of eye-opening facts, he too often stops short of doing much more than presenting his data. Readers will find far more information than insight. (May)