Sunday, October 07, 2007

Gates gives 'cuz he's a geek

(photo from

Or at least that is what Clive Thompson claims in the September 2007 issue of Wired Magazine, (p. 62).

To be more accurate, being a geek is not just why Bill Gates (and, Melinda too, presumably) gave $25BB+ to philanthropy, but why they give the way they give. Thompson is basing his claim on a study done by Paul Slovic of Decision Research on how numeracy affects the way we make decisions.*

Thompson compares the Gates' focus on saving millions of lives - of millions of people they obviously don't know - to the average (non-geek) Joe's focus on helping those nearby and known. First things first, the numbers that matter here are not financial resources. Its not just that Gates saves millions of people because he can give millions (oops, billions) of dollars. Its because:
"...[the average non-geek is] very good at processing the plight of tiny groups of people but horrific at conceptualizing the suffering of large ones."
The study looked at examples of decision making about numbers. Asked to give an imaginary sum of money to save one child, study volunteers picked a generous amount. When the option was giving enough money to save two children, the amount per child dropped by 15%. When the group of children to be saved grew to eight, the average donation dropped to 50% of the first offer.

Its not a matter of resources, its that "...geeks are incredibly good at thinking concretely about giant numbers" says Thompson. They are trained "to think in powers of ten - mega, giga, tera, peta" - and so can expand their problem solving decisions appropriately.

Thompson seems to want to relegate empathy to the wastebasket and rely on numeracy as a prompt to philanthropy. Geeks can save millions of people, non-geeks can't get past eight.

Well, if nothing else, its a good excuse to invest in math and science education.

* Peters, E., Västfjäll, D., Slovic, P., Mertz, C. K., Mazzocco, K., & Dickert, S. (2006). Numeracy and decision making. Psychological Science, 17, 407-413.

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