Carpenter v. United States

Supreme Court

Today, instead of a book review, I’m going to take a plunge into law review. I want to look at the decision of the United States Supreme Court in a case called Carpenter v. United States announced on June 22. This is a very important case about the privacy of your cell phone records.

If you’re interested in reading the full text of the Supreme Court’s decision, you can find it here. They might seem a little intimidating at first, but these legal decisions are really not hard to read. A few years ago I wrote this primer if you’d like an introduction.

The Case

This case is about a fellow named Timothy Carpenter who appears to have been the ring leader in a series of armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio in 2011. Police were able place him at the scenes of these crimes by obtaining phone company records of his mobile phone connecting to nearby cell towers. Based on these location records and other evidence, Carpenter was convicted and sentenced to over 100 years in jail.

Carpenter appealed on the grounds that the phone company location records had been obtained without a search warrant.

The Question

The central question which the Supreme Court had to decide in this case was: Can the Government trace your past movements by getting hold of phone company records collected from cell phone towers without a search warrant?

Legal Background

The requirement to get a search warrant comes from the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. Here it is in full:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Now a search warrant is not always required. The police can search your person (pat you down) and your possessions at the time of arrest, for example, without a warrant. It is only when a search would be considered “unreasonable” that a warrant is required.

The courts have long recognized that the basic purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to “safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials.” Included in this interpretation is that the Fourth Amendment also protects individual’s expectations of privacy in many cases.

To make its decision, the Court reviewed two sets of previous cases involving the expectation of privacy. The first set concerned expectations about the privacy of your physical location and movements. When you take a walk outside, you’re in a public space. You could be seen by your neighbors, by shopkeepers, by passersby, even by police officers on routine patrol. Your walk isn’t private and you should have no expectations of it being private. On the other hand, if someone, especially the police, were to track your every movement for weeks on end, comprehensively recording the starting location, destination, time and duration of each trip, well that seems to cross a line into surveillance. Your expectations now are probably quite different.

The Court thinks so too. The Court has noted that new technologies like GPS have made this kind of surveillance easier, cheaper and far more precise and thus raise serious legal concerns about privacy.

The second line of cases concerns information about yourself that you choose to share with others. In general, if you share information with third parties, the Courts have ruled that you cannot have any expectation of privacy regarding that information.  This is known as the “third party doctrine.”  For example your bank statements, checks and deposit slips are shared with your bank and its employees and you can’t reasonably expect them to be private. So the police can demand these records from your bank with a subpoena, but they don’t need a warrant. In other words, your bank records are not protected by the Fourth Amendment. Similarly, the phone numbers you call are not protected because you have “shared” them with the phone company for purposes such as call routing and billing.

Your cell phone is constantly communicating with the wireless network — several times a minute in fact – to connect to different cell towers when you’re moving around, to check for email, to send and receive text messages, to retrieve social media updates, cat photos, etc. The phone company makes a timestamped record of each of these connections, called a Cell Site Location Information (CSLI) record. Taken together, these CSLI records form a detailed chronological history of your movements.

Do you voluntarily “share” this information with the phone company? After all, using a cell phone, taking it with you everywhere you go, leaving it on all the time, are all your choices. Can you really expect that information to remain private? Or does this kind of comprehensive recording of information constitute something different, something that is entitled to Fourth Amendment protection?

So the question in this case,

Can the Government trace your past movements by getting hold of phone company records collected from cell phone towers without a search warrant?

can be refined into a more precise legal question:

Do you have a reasonable expectation of the privacy of CSLI records collected by the phone company and are those records therefore entitled to protection under the Fourth Amendment?


In a few very quotable pages, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, slices through these knotty issues.  He argues that technological developments now enable effortless, comprehensive collection of detailed and precise information about a person’s location and movements. This requires the Court to carefully consider whether or not to apply legal precedents.

“When confronting new concerns wrought by digital technology, this Court has been careful not to uncritically extend existing precedents.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 20]

In this case,

“A cell phone faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor’s offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 13]

This means,

“… when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 13]


“Whoever the suspect turns out to be, he has effectively been tailed every moment of every day for five years, and the police may—in the Government’s view—call upon the results of that surveillance without regard to the constraints of the Fourth Amendment.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 14]

But this position does not recognize the impact of new technologies.

“The Government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location but also everyone else’s, not for a short period but for years and years. Sprint Corporation and its competitors are not your typical witnesses. Unlike the nosy neighbor who keeps an eye on comings and goings, they are ever alert, and their memory is nearly infallible.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 15]

Furthermore, cell phone users really have no choice about whether or not they share all this data.

“Apart from disconnecting the phone from the network, there is no way to avoid leaving behind a trail of location data. As a result, in no meaningful sense does the user voluntarily “assume[] the risk” of turning over a comprehensive dossier of his physical movements.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 17]

Which leads to this conclusion:

“Before compelling a wireless carrier to turn over a subscriber’s CSLI, the Government’s obligation is a familiar one—get a warrant.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 19]

“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information. In light of the deeply revealing nature of CSLI, its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection, the fact that such information is gathered by a third party does not make it any less deserving of Fourth Amendment protection. The Government’s acquisition of the cell-site records here was a search under that Amendment.” [Opinion of the Court, p. 22]

Decision & Dissents

The Supreme Court reversed the decision of the Appeals Court, and sent the case back to the lower Courts for re-consideration. The cell phone location information collected by the police without a warrant is now inadmissible evidence. I don’t know whether this means Carpenter’s convictions will be thrown out, or if he will be tried again without the cell phone location information being used as evidence against him. Regardless, Carpenter won his appeal.

This case was decided by a 5-4 majority, with Justices Breyer, Ginsberg, Kagan, and Sotomayor supporting Chief Justice Roberts.  Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kennedy and Thomas disagreed and each of them wrote individual dissenting opinions.

Justice Kennedy contends that cell-site records are no different than any other business records which the government already has the right to compel (via subpoena) third parties to release.

Justice Thomas noted that the cell-site records did not belong to Carpenter, they belonged to the wireless carriers. He maintains the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply here because none of Carpenter’s “houses, papers, and effects” were searched.

Justice Alito agrees with Thomas that the records in question belong to the phone company and not to Carpenter. He further argues that there’s a significant distinction between the government sending its agents (i.e. the police) into a person’s house to search through their papers and an order that simply requires a third party to search through and produce some of its own documents.

Justice Gorsuch, the newest member of the Court, makes the most interesting, and the most entertaining dissent. He argues that the legal precedents in this case are a mess and that their conclusions about our expectations of privacy related to Fourth Amendment claims are so flawed and ill-defined as to be useless, resulting in “unpredictable— and sometimes unbelievable—jurisprudence.”

“Take Florida v. Riley, 488 U. S. 445 (1989), which says that a police helicopter hovering 400 feet above a person’s property invades no reasonable expectation of privacy. Try that one out on your neighbors.” [Gorsuch dissent, p. 9]

He also argues that just because a third party holds information about you, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should have no reasonable expectation of privacy, let alone that you have relinquished all Fourth Amendment rights. I get the sense that Gorsuch was sympathetic to Carpenter’s appeal and might have sided with the majority if their rationale had been different, or if Carpenter has made his appeal on different grounds.

Unsolicited Feedback

The judgement in this case is a victory for individual privacy.  (It’s also a bright spot in an otherwise dismal term in which the Supreme Court term upheld President Trump’s travel ban in Trump v. Hawaii.)

You might not like the fact that a convicted felon like Timothy Carpenter could be let off the hook on a “technicality”, but the technicality here involves our precious and rapidly eroding privacy. So much of the information we create and collect, and that is created and collected about us, is now held by third parties. Our “papers and effects” are no longer just physical objects and are very often not in our direct possession. Short of swearing off modern technological advancements like cell phones and GPS, it’s virtually impossible to prevent third parties from accumulating vast amounts of information about us. In my view this means we have a greater interest than ever in the privacy of the data about us that is collected and stored by third parties. Our expectations about the privacy of that information are just as worthy of protection as the physical papers we keep at home.

So I think it’s gratifying and appropriate that the Supreme Court recognizes that technological developments require the courts to re-think previous legal precedents, and not to apply them blindly. It’s good to see the Court grapple with the implication of new technologies and come to novel conclusions.

That said, I think Justice Gorsuch raises some interesting and valid concerns about the muddled state of the legal precedents in this area, especially around the third party doctrine.  It seems the Court has more work to do here.

One final note: I’m starting to think that Chief Justice John Roberts has a special interest in the intersection of technology and privacy. This is the second time I’m aware of where he has written the majority opinion in a case involving cell phones and privacy rights. The first was Riley v. California in which the Supreme Court decided unanimously that the police require a warrant to search the information stored on your cell phone. (My review here.) It will be interesting to see if he continues to take such an active role in future cases in this area

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Seven Books in Seven Days

I recently did one of those social media challenges where you’re supposed to post one thing each day for seven days.  In this case, the “one thing” was the cover of a book you love.

I thought I’d recap my choices here.  So these are seven books I love.

Thomas Jefferson bought most of the western United States from Napoleon for $25-million.  A fortune at the time.  He sent a company led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition to find out what he’d bought.  This is their story.

Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose - cover

Everyone loves One Hundred Years of Solitude, and so do I, but this one is also very good — and the characters’ names aren’t so confusing!

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - cover

I’m a big fan of Tom Friedman. His latest book walks us straight into the whirlwind of accelerating change buffeting us all. Good thing he’s an optimist!

My full review here:

Thank You for Being Late by Thomas Friedman - cover

Shortly before midnight, Louis Wu walked out of his own birthday party and teleported to a city one time zone to the west. He went alone, “jumping ahead of the midnight line, hotly pursued by the new day. Twenty-four hours was not long enough for a man’s two hundredth birthday.”

That’s just the opening teaser in this breathtakingly imaginative story. One of my favorite hard SF novels.

Ringworld by Larry Niven - cover

I admit this one’s a bit esoteric, but much of Havel’s writing is as relevant today, when democracy is under attack or in retreat in many places around the world, as it was when he led Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution and was elected its first post-communist President.

Open Letters by Vaclav Havel - cover

I know we’re saturated these days with Sherlock re-makes, updates and spin-offs, but the original stories, especially with the illustrations and formatting from the Strand Magazine, really are wonderful.

The Original Illustrated Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle - cover

This book provides a brilliant framework for thinking about and taking action on the environment: living within a system of planetary boundaries.  The book warns starkly about the consequence of inaction, yet provides some direction and much needed hope that we can rescue ourselves and our planet.

If you read only one of these seven books, please read this one.

My full review here:

Big World Small Planet by Rockstrom and Klum - cover

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Fascism: A Warning

Fascism: A Warning
By Madeleine Albright
HarperCollins, New York, 2018

When she spoke to an adoring, packed house at Seattle’s Paramount Theater on the evening of April, 24, 2018, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated clearly that she was not accusing President Donald Trump of being a Fascist. But, she said, there are “worrying signs.”

After reading her latest book, Fascism: A Warning, I think we should all be worried. And not just about Donald Trump.

Fascism - Cover

In this book, Albright examines the origins of Fascism in the 1920’s and 30’s with the rise of Mussolini and Hitler. Then she takes us on a round-the-world tour, surveying autocratic or autocratic-leaning countries including Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela and North Korea, looking at the conditions and the leaders driving each of them down the path to Fascism. Her warning is mainly about America. That’s the subject of the final chapters of the book.

What is Fascism?

But first, what exactly is Fascism? This is where the book starts. Albright struggles to come up with an exact definition. Apparently there isn’t one that’s broadly agreed-upon in academic circles. She settles for identifying Fascism’s most important characteristics:

  • Nationalistic, often focused on a single ethnic group or race
  • Authoritarian
  • Anti-democratic
  • Driven by the resentment or humiliation of a group that believes it has been unfairly treated
  • Often violent

Fascism might be hard to define because it doesn’t have a universal end-goal, unlike Communism. Albright even suggests Fascism might be more a set of behaviors for seizing and maintaining dictatorial power than a political ideology.

She does a better job defining a Fascist:

“To my mind, a Fascist is someone who identifies strongly with and claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use whatever means are necessary – including violence – to achieve his or her goals.” [p. 11]

Fascist leaders have often been charismatic, sometimes building a cult-like following. They show no respect for democracy or for democratic institutions like a free press or an independent judiciary. They actively and often violently suppress any opposition.

Fascism in your country?

No matter where you live, the answer is: yes, it’s possible. That’s the clear message of this book. While she is focused on answering this question for the United States, Albright’s survey of the rise of Fascist tendencies around the world reveals disturbing commonalities:

Fascists undermine democracy using democratic means. Hitler and Mussolini both exploited weaknesses in their respective democracies to rise to power. Once in power, they subverted democracy by suppressing and killing opponents, and by destroying competing centers of power like independent media. Albright shows us similar events happening in other countries. You can see it unfolding almost daily in places like Turkey where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first elected democratically in 2002, has become increasingly autocratic, especially since a failed coup in 2016.

Fascist leaders enflame and thrive on resentment. Humiliating defeats in World War I provided receptive audiences for the rhetoric of Mussolini and Hitler. Restoring Russia’s power and influence following the collapse of the Soviet Union has been one of Vladimir Putin’s overriding goals. Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela following two decades of mismanagement that left its economy in ruins. Slobodan Milošević roused Serbian anger at past military defeats by the Ottoman Turks and the Nazis to help him seize power in Yugoslavia.

They claim to speak for a single ethnic, religious or racial group. Whether it’s Aryans in Germany, Magyars in Hungary, or Serbs in Yugoslavia, Fascists elevate one group at the expense of all others, show no respect for minority rights, and make no attempt to collaborate with anyone outside their base.

Many writers have called attention to the ways that globalization, technological change and mass migration are straining western democracies – economically, socially, and politically. Albright’s warning is that these strains can create the conditions for Fascism to take root almost anywhere.

Fascism in America

You don’t need to read this book to see signs and omens of Fascist tendencies in Donald Trump’s behavior. He attacks the media, the FBI and his own Justice Department. He incites resentment against foreigners, claiming immigrants are criminals and trading partners are cheaters. He panders to his white male base.

Albright is highly critical of Trump throughout the book.

“Trump is the first anti-democratic President in modern U.S. history. On too many days, beginning in the early hours, he flaunts his disdain for democratic institutions, the ideals of equality and social justice, civil discourse, civic virtues, and America itself. If transplanted to a country with fewer democratic safeguards, he would audition for dictator because that is where his instincts lead.” [p. 246]

As much as she criticizes Trump for undermining American democracy, Albright is equally concerned with the impact he is having globally. She argues that Trump’s behavior is “catnip” to autocrats and dictators.  If Trump accuses U.S. media of always lying, how can we criticize Vladimir Putin for saying the same thing? If he talks about locking up his political opponents, how can we protest when dictators elsewhere actually do lock up theirs?

At the same time his words and actions diminish America’s reputation and influence around the world.  His “America first” rhetoric and his disparaging views about international agreements and organizations send decidedly mixed signals to our allies and friends, without whom, Albright argues, no important global problems can be solved. We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage constructively with the world.  She says:

“The idea that the United States is a nation of chumps that has spent the past fifty years getting ripped off by wily foreigners is absurd. The suggestion that our country can back away from its responsibilities in an era at least as dangerous as any other is just plain sad.” [p. 245]

Fascism - Albright

Albright offers no concrete solutions to the rise of Fascism in America or around the world. She does encourage us to ask careful, critical questions about prospective leaders in order to identify whether they have autocratic leanings. In the end though,

“This generosity of spirit – this caring about others and about the proposition that we are all created equal – is the single most effective antidote to the self-centered moral numbness that allows Fascism to thrive. It is a capacity that can be found in most people, but it is not always nurtured and it is sometimes, for a period, brutally crushed.” [p. 65-66]

Unsolicited Feedback

Madeleine Albright is first and foremost an American diplomat. She believes that America is the “indispensable” nation, that it has a special role to play in the world, and that its President has a special duty to advance American values at home and abroad. These beliefs permeate her book. They might be old fashioned but in today’s climate I find them refreshing.

I enjoyed the many stories of her own family and career that she’s woven throughout the book. It’s striking how much of her autobiography has been touched by or directly involved in key historical moments of the last eighty years in both Europe and America.

That said, I could have done without the occasional burnishing of her own track record, especially in comparison to the administration of George W. Bush, such as on North Korea.

In person Albright is more engaging, humorous and self-deprecating than in writing. I hope I’m as articulate, clear-headed, and funny at 83 as she was that evening in Seattle. There are hints of this in the book, for example, when she refers to herself as “a former somebody” but overall her tone is far more serious, as the subject demands.

Albright describes herself as “an optimist who worries a lot” and she wrote this book because of the worrying signs she sees around the world. I think Fascism: A Warning is required reading for anyone concerned about what is happening here in the U.S. and anyplace else where democracy and democratic values are under attack.

On one fundamental point, I disagree with her. I think Donald Trump is a Fascist, and I think this book proves it. (Perhaps Albright, ever the diplomat, has tempered her conclusion.) He meets almost all the criteria listed in the book. While he hasn’t used physical violence to suppress his political opponents, he certainly appeared to condone it during several of his 2016 campaign rallies.  And no one is spared from his indiscriminate verbal violence.

The question now is how far will he get? Here I think there’s room for cautious optimism. The U.S. has a deeply rooted democratic culture and strong constitutional safeguards against tyranny. And Trump himself is so undisciplined and mercurial I question whether he could execute a long-term strategy, if he even had one.

However, we must not be complacent. There are indeed worrying signs.

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All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See
By Anthony Doerr
Scribner, New York, 2014

I’m not quite sure what to make of this book. It’s beautifully constructed, like an intricate puzzle box. All the pieces fit together with precision and artistry. But it just didn’t move me.


A blind girl named Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father in 1940 ahead of the advancing German army, taking refuge in the home of her great-uncle in the walled port city of Saint Malo. They carry with them a jewel, the Sea of Flames, a legendary diamond with mythical powers. But are they a blessing or a curse?

Meanwhile in Germany, a young orphan boy named Werner discovers he has a gift for building and repairing radios. Soon he is drafted into a military academy to hone his skills and from there into the army to help the Nazis detect and shut down Resistance radio transmissions.

All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of their lives, how they are swept up and eventually brought together by the great historical torrents of their time.

It’s about people trying to do the right things under excruciating circumstances. For a few, courage and resistance come naturally, instinctively. Others must overcome fears and phobias before they can act. Some just need to survive long enough so they can grow up enough to even recognize what the right thing is. And many more must seek some measure of redemption after the fact for the evil they have committed or through inaction allowed to be committed.

I think the book is also about fate.  Is our fate determined by our actions, or by supernatural forces, or by random chance?  And how can you tell?  There are examples of all three, or at least the possibility of them, throughout the story. The book is inconclusive on this, and maybe that’s the point.

Anthony Doerr shows us a panorama of wartime Europe, from the poverty of German coal miners to the opulent apartments of upper class city-dwellers in Berlin, from the specimen-packed Museum of Natural History in Paris to the snail-encrusted outer walls of Saint Malo, and overshadowing all of it, the brutality and destruction of World War II. His imagery is vivid and evocative without being ostentatiously “great writing,” though there were some scenes I found especially striking.

In the end though I just didn’t connect emotionally with the story or the characters. I’m not sure why. It’s a long novel and I got to the end feeling detached and thinking, “Did I miss something?” Was there some detail I skimmed over that would have pulled me in, or an “aha!” moment that would have caused me to see the story in a completely different light? I kept waiting for something like that to happen but it never did.

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Tom Wolfe: A Tribute

I first encountered Tom Wolfe’s writing, or at least his books, as a young child, when a hardback copy of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby arrived at our house in Oakville, Ontario, about 25 miles west of Toronto. If I recall correctly, it came in the mail, probably as part of my mother’s subscription to the Book of the Month Club, which I’m stunned to discover, still exists. I don’t ever remember my parents actually reading the book, or discussing it at the dinner table, but it stood on top of the bookshelf in the living room for years. The title of course bemused me.

Later, as an adult, I read The Right Stuff when it first came out and then started working my way through Wolfe’s back-catalog which had been republished to capitalize on that book’s spectacular success. Now I have my own copy of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, in paperback, its pages considerably yellowed, along with half a dozen more of his books. I’ve even got a file folder full of magazine articles by and about Wolfe that I’ve collected over the years.

I never read much of his fiction though, just The Bonfire of the Vanities.

He died on May 14, 2018 at the age of 88.

Two things inspired me about his writing, and still do. The first is the sheer exuberance and unapologetic over-the-top-ness of his writing style. That, combined with the sarcastic smirk which was his default literary stance. You could recognize a piece of Wolfe’s writing even without his by-line just from the style, much as you can instantly recognize Glenn Gould at the piano, or Mark Knopfler on guitar. I think his example encourages writers to find their own voice and to be confident about using it.

The second thing is what he wrote about, which was essentially anything and everything. He delved into the nooks and crannies of American culture with seemingly unending curiosity. I learned much of what I know about modern architecture from his book From Bauhaus to Our House, and about post-modern art from The Painted Word. And for anyone interested in the tech industry, his lengthy 1983 Esquire essay, The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce, is probably the definitive origin story of Silicon Valley. He proved you can find interesting, compelling people and stories just about anywhere you look.

In a 1989 article in Harper’s Magazine, Wolfe, reflecting on both these aspects of his writing, pointed out that most people who decide to become writers do so because “they realize they have a certain musical facility with words.” Very soon, though, writers must confront the “damnable problem of material,” of what to write about.

Tom Wolfe wrote mainly in scherzo, with virtuosity and flair, drawing upon the inexhaustible supply of material he found in modern American life.

Related Links

Tom Wolfe, 88, ‘New Journalist’ with Electric Style and Acid Pen, Dies
New York Times, May 15, 2018

Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel
Harper’s Magazine, November 1989

The Tinkerings of Robert Noyce: How the Sun Rose on Silicon Valley
Esquire Magazine, December 1983

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Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why things Are Better Than We Think
By Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
Flatiron Books, New York, 2018

First things first: if you’ve never seen any of Hans Rosling’s TED Talks, please go and watch this one right now.  His talks are way more important than my blog.  (But come right back!)

* * *

Isn’t he fantastic!  Aren’t those bubble charts amazing!  Doesn’t his dataset change your mindset?


Unfortunately, Hans Rosling died on February 7, 2017.  His book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why things Are Better Than We Think, written with his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund, is a guide to thinking carefully and critically. It’s the culmination of his personal mission to fight ignorance with a fact-based worldview he calls “factfulness.”


To see the world more factfully, Rosling wants us overcome ten “instincts” that often get in the way of clear thinking and cause us to jump to the wrong conclusions. For example, there’s the Gap Instinct, our tendency to see things in binary, black and white, rich and poor, and most dangerously of all, us and them. We divide things in two, imagining there’s a large gap in the middle. In fact there’s usually a continuum. Most of the time, most of the things are in the middle.

For each of the ten instincts, Rosling provides interesting, fact-filled examples drawn from his own career as a doctor and international public health researcher and professor. He’s not shy about owning up to his mistakes either; some funny, and some tragic. He gives us tips on how to avoid or overcome these instincts. To avoid the Gap Instinct, he recommends we stay alert for comparisons of extremes and then look for the majority. Insist on seeing data about the middle because that’s where the majority usually is.

One of the themes that runs through the book, and through many of his TED Talks too, is that the gap between the developed and developing worlds no longer exists. He says it’s meaningless to talk about these two categories because they’re obsolete. Instead he uses a framework based on income levels.

Level 1 2 3 4
Population 1 billion 3 billion 2 billion 1 billion
Income $1 / day $4 / day $16 / day $64 / day

People in level 1, about 800 million today, live in extreme poverty on $1/day or less. Many of them live in sub-Saharan Africa or in war-torn places like Syria and Afghanistan. Another billion people live at the opposite extreme in level 4, mainly in Europe and North America. But the majority of the world, 5 of 7 billion, live in the middle.

Throughout the book, Rosling returns to these four levels as a framework for talking about life expectancy, child mortality, education, and other issues in public health and global development. It’s a powerful and eye-opening way to look at them.

Incidentally he echoes the optimistic views about human progress presented in Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress which I reviewed here.

Rosling insists that data be used to tell the truth, and not to advance a particular cause.

In the chapter about the Urgency Instinct, the urge to “take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger”, he describes how former Vice President Al Gore wanted him to present only the most dire scenarios about the impact of global climate change in order to spur action. Rosling refused. He strongly believed that climate change is one of the most urgent threats facing humanity. But he believed even more strongly that presenting a distorted view of the data would inevitably lead to mistrust of both the data and the scientists presenting it.

“Data must be used to tell the truth, not to call to action, no matter how noble the intentions.” [p. 236]

Factfulness gives us three things: We get a fascinating look at Rosling’s life and career from the stories and examples he uses throughout the book. We get a progress report on how the world is doing addressing the problems of public health and human development. And most important, we get a vital toolkit for how to think critically, with both humility and curiosity, to understand our world. Because, as Hans Rosling concludes:

“When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.” [p. 255]


Related Links

Hans Rosling’s TED Talks


Bill and Melinda Gates tribute to Hans Rosling

Bill Gates review of Factfulness

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Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking, New York, 2018

We seem to be living in a time of perpetual crisis. It feels like the whole world is going off the rails. Everything decent seems to be under attack. We’re bombarded daily by reports of mass shootings and terrorist bombings. Large parts of the world are run by vicious idiots. Here in the US, during the Presidency of Donald Trump, respectful political discourse has become a distant memory. Talking heads bellow at each other on television, on social media and in our legislatures. Around the world, democracy itself is under threat with a growing list of counties electing populist, authoritarian leaders. World peace is endangered by endless conflicts in the Middle East and the looming possibility of a nuclear conflict with North Korea. Horrific diseases like Ebola and AIDS threaten us. Globalization, which promised to raise everyone’s standard of living, seems to have delivered nothing but inequality and unemployment. And anyone who hasn’t lost their job to globalization will soon be put out of work by technology. Finally, climate change and environmental degradation are poised to make our world unsuitable for human life.

Facing intractable problems, divided against each other, we live in tense, anxious times.

Enlightenment Now Cover

Steven Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, calls a hearty bullshit! on all this pessimism. In his latest book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science Humanism and Progress, he sets out to prove that this “bleak assessment” is “wrong, wrong, flat-earth wrong.” He makes two central arguments in Enlightenment Now: First, since the Enlightenment, humanity has made astonishing progress on just about every measure of well-being. And second, the ideals that form the basis of the Enlightenment – reason, science and humanism – are under attack and are worth defending.

Steven Pinker

The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age of Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, was a European philosophical movement that began in the early 1700’s and lasted until the start of the French Revolution in 1789. Its main idea is that we can “apply reason and sympathy to enhance human flourishing.” [p. 4] Reason — not God, not religion or faith, not hereditary monarchy — reason is the ultimate source of authority and legitimacy.

Enlightenment thinkers like Kant, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Adam Smith, taught that we should question authority and received knowledge; that we should “dare to know.” The Enlightenment challenged the authority of monarchs and the Church, espousing instead individual liberty and religious tolerance. In the US, Enlightenment ideals influenced Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and are reflected in both the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

Through the application of reason and the scientific method, we can solve problem, improve our lives and make progress. The Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution that arose from it, led to humanity’s “Great Escape from poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy and premature death.” [p. 24]


Is humanity really making progress? Are things getting better or worse? And what are the “things” by which we should measure progress?

Although people might have different values, and thus measure progress with different yardsticks, Pinker argues that the world has largely come to agreement on the most important measures of progress. Most of us, he says, value life, health, sustenance, abundance, peace and safety over death, sickness, hunger, poverty, war and danger. If we’re getting more of the former and less of the latter, that’s progress. These values are reflected in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, targets unanimously adopted in 2000 by the United Nations for the year 2015.

“And here’s a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress on every single measure of human well-being. Here’s a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it.” [p. 52]

Pinker takes us through a frankly joyous survey of human progress roughly following the outline of the Millennium Development Goals, backed by solid publicly-available data. Here are some highlights.

Life: Average life expectancy around the world has doubled from about 35 in the mid-1700’s to 71.4 in 2015. Equally important, inequality in life expectancy had narrowed dramatically: even in Africa life expectancy is above 60 years and would be higher still were it not for the AIDS epidemic there. Child mortality rates – the percentage of children who die before their fifth birthday – has plunged from about 18% in the mid-1960’s to 4% today. 4% is still way too high, but it’s an amazing improvement.

Health: Infections diseases have been eradicated (smallpox), nearly eradicated (polio), or brought under control (malaria, measles, rubella, HIV/AIDS). Child mortality from all these diseases has fallen sharply since 1990.

Sustenance: We’re doing a better job of feeding the hungry. The fraction of undernourished people in developing regions was cut nearly in half from 1990 to 2015. This means that even as their populations were rising, a larger percentage were receiving adequate nutrition. Famine has been virtually eliminated outside of Africa.

Wealth: Extreme poverty is being eradicated and the world is becoming middle class. The number of people living on less than a dollar a day has fallen below one billion (still too high), but billions more in China, India and other parts of the world have been lifted out of poverty and into the middle class by globalization, technology, the decline of communism and the end of the Cold War.

Peace: Pinker’s earlier book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, made the case that in the 21xst Century, every objective measure of violence, including war, is in decline. He does not claim that war has ceased altogether or that Great Powers don’t fight each other through proxies. But the number of wars and the number of deaths due to war have fallen substantially since the end of World War II. War is no longer considered worthy, noble, or glorious. In fact war is illegal; it must be justified morally as well as politically. Consequently there is much less of it.

The Environment: Pinker rejects the radical environmentalist viewpoint that “humans are a vile race of despoilers and plunderers” and instead takes the Enlightenment position that environmental protection is a problem we can solve. Even here, he claims, we’ve made more progress than we think. As technology advances, it allows us to make more stuff with less raw material and less energy. As a result global carbon intensity – the amount of CO2 emissions per dollar of GDP — has been declining for half a century. Even so, we still need to ‘deeply decarbonize” through dramatic changes in policy and technology.

None of this progress is linear, nor is it inevitable since “… progress is not an outcome of magic, but of problem-solving.” [p.55] There will always be ups and downs from one year to the next, and there will be occasional setbacks against historical trends. But Pinker takes the long view and argues that despite present-day turmoil, the long-term progress we have experienced since the Enlightenment is unlikely to be reversed.

Reason, Science & Humanism

In the last few chapters of the book, Pinker mounts a vigorous defense of the ideals of the Enlightenment — reason, science and humanism — which are under attack from both the left and the right. I won’t attempt to summarize his arguments, but here are a few highlights that I found striking.

Reason: In the last few decades there’s been a lot of research in cognitive neuroscience that shows how fallible reason is, or at least how easily humans make errors. People often become more committed to an idea when they are presented with contrary evidence. In many cases holding patently irrational positions, such as belief in conspiracy theories, becomes less about the facts in question and more about the believer’s identity. How can we make reason the foundation of society when we are so error-prone? Pinker responds that just because we’re vulnerable to irrationality, it doesn’t mean we’re incapable of reason. Eventually, he says, reason becomes self-correcting because as contrary evidence builds up, a tipping point is reached. After all,

“We are a cognitive species that depends on explanations of the world. Since the world is the way it is regardless of what people believe about it, there is a strong selection pressure for an ability to develop explanations that are true.” [p. 353]

Science: What distinguishes science from ordinary reason are two principles. First that the world is intelligible: the phenomena we experience in the world can be explained by deeper principles and do not depend on deities or supernatural agents. The second is that “we must allow the world to tell us whether our ideas about it are correct.” In other words, ideas about the world must be tested both for their fit with existing knowledge and for their ability to make correct new predictions about the world. (Side note: Pinker points out that while most scientists would point to Popper for an explanation of how science works, the way science is actually done owes more to Bayes.)

Despite its many triumphs (e.g. the eradication of smallpox mentioned earlier), science is often attacked because it undermines traditional moral and religious teachings. Pinker refutes this, arguing that in fact science forms the basis of morality.

“By exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, science forces us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. … scientific facts militate towards a defensible morality, namely principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings.” [pp. 394-5]

Humanism. I haven’t found a single crisp definition of humanism but it’s usually said to be a philosophy based on reason and compassion that emphasizes human agency and responsibility for leading meaningful, ethical lives that contribute to improved human flourishing. Pinker describes it as “a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God.” He tackles head-on the two main systems of belief that stand in opposition to humanism; traditional religious or theistic morality, and the ideology underlying authoritarianism, populism and nationalism which is often inspired by the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.

Of theistic morality he says (among many other things),

“… even if there were a God, his divine decrees, as conveyed to us through religion, cannot be the source of morality. … Socrates points out that if the gods have good reasons to deem certain acts moral, we can appeal to those reasons directly, skipping the middleman. If they don’t, we should not take their dictates seriously.” [p. 428]

Pinker is unsparing in his criticism of resurgent authoritarianism, populism, and Romantic nationalism. He clearly despises “theoconservatives” who think we need to revert to some glorious past age in which primary allegiance was given to tribe or nation and to supposedly heroic leaders.

“The claim that ethnic uniformity leads to cultural excellence is as wrong as an idea can be. There’s a reason we refer to unsophisticated things as provincial, parochial, and insular, and to sophisticated ones as urbane and cosmopolitan. No one is brilliant enough to dream up anything of value by himself. Individuals and cultures of genius are aggregators, appropriators, greatest-hits collectors. Vibrant cultures sit in vast catchment areas in which people and innovations flow from far and wide. This explains why Eurasia, rather than Australia, Africa or the Americas, was the first continent to give birth to expansive civilizations … It explains why the fountains of culture have always been trading cities on major crossroads and waterways. And it explains why human beings have always been peripatetic, moving to wherever they can make the best lives. Roots are for trees; people have feet.” [pp. 450-1]

That passage made me want to jump up and cheer!

Unsolicited Feedback

Enlightenment Now made me feel both reassured and vindicated. Reassured because despite our very serious problems, humanity has made a great deal of progress. It might seem heartless to talk about improvements in life expectancy and child mortality when too many people are still dying. But rather than taking a snapshot view of a single moment in time, Pinker shows us how the long term picture has developed over centuries. That picture is much brighter. We have come a long way. Life is getting better for most people. This should not obscure the fact that millions are still suffering, nor does past progress absolve us from the responsibility to continue working. But it should encourage us to know that our efforts can and do have positive results.

I also found it reassuring that these trends have been operating for a long time. They’ve persisted in the face of obstacles and setbacks. Yes, we face serious problems, but they are solvable. Decline and catastrophe are not inevitable. While extrapolation is always chancy, the most likely scenario is that present trends will continue.

Enlightenment Now also made me feel vindicated. I wouldn’t call myself a scientist, but I do work in a technical field. My career has been in software and I work at a tech company. I can say that I’m scientifically-minded. So, for example, when I see climate change deniers occupying the White House or destroying the Environmental Protection Agency from within, I’m horrified and disgusted. I was delighted by Pinker’s robust defense of reason and science.

I’m also an atheist, and I’m tired of sanctimonious religious leaders attempting to force their particular brand of morality on the rest of us while at the same time engaging in ludicrous moral contortions to excuse the flagrantly immoral behavior of Donald Trump. So I was gratified to read Pinker’s argument that reason and science form the valid basis for humanistic morality. Yes, you can be good without God.

I’m a city-dweller, and have been all my life. Sure, I love a nice day in the country or a walk along a deserted beach, but my place is in the city. I love how people and ideas come together in cities to create and invent. I’m also an immigrant to this country. I have the great fortune to work with people who, like me, have come from all over the world and I truly love that diversity. I guess I have a cosmopolitan outlook. I find the nationalistic, anti-immigration, and frankly racist views of the American right wing to be abhorrent. Pinker’s critique of those views and their philosophical foundations was thorough and compelling.

I admit, I may be guilty of a huge error of confirmation bias here, but the bulk of what Pinker has written in Enlightenment Now is backed by solid data. And the more philosophical parts of the book are a much needed counterweight to the torrent of “alternative facts” in this “post-truth” era.

Still this book will not please everyone. Pinker aims most of his criticism at the right, but the left doesn’t escape unscathed. On the environment, for example, he thinks we have no chance of restricting global warming to within 2°C without significant adoption of nuclear power. He says that organic farming is neither green nor sustainable because it consumes more land to produce a kilogram of food than conventional farming. He’s contemptuous of opponents of genetically modified crops, essentially accusing them of being indifferent to starvation.

I think he misses the mark in some places too. For example, he reports that poverty and income inequality have been dramatically reduced, which is supported by the available data. But he conflates income, what people earn, with wealth, what assets they own. It’s not clear how the distribution of actual wealth has changed over time. Pinker doesn’t address this at all and his imprecise use of the word “wealth” confuses matters.

Overall though, I hugely enjoyed Enlightenment Now. It is packed full of data and ideas that we just don’t see in our daily news.

Early in the book, Pinker says that the antidote to pessimism, to over-dramatization in the media, and to our own biases is counting. Simply count. Look at the data. Take the long view. Far from turning human beings into dry statistics,

“A quantitative mindset, despite its nerdy aura, is in fact the morally enlightened one, because it treats every human life as having equal value rather than privileging the people who are closest to us or most photogenic.” [p. 43]

And it makes us realize that we have both the responsibility and the capability to look after ourselves, each other and the world.

Related Links

United Nations Millennium Development Goals

Bill Gates’ review of Enlightenment Now

Web sites providing great statistical data:

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