Ecologist, professor quantifies the ‘world’s worst problems’ in new book

Walter Dodds, professor of biology, in his office holding his book "The World's Worst Problems." (Sreenikhil Keshamoni | Collegian Media Group)

Walter Dodds, university distinguished professor of biology, recently published his evaluation of what he has discovered to be life’s most threatening challenges in his book, “The World’s Worst Problems.” The book was published on Dec. 2, 2019.

In it, Dodds lists and elaborates on problems that the world is facing, the severity of those problems and why those problems can be identified as “the worst.”

Dodds had a realization that inspired him to look at the world in an objective and quantitative way after writing his first book, “Humanity’s Footprint.” The book explores environmental issues and solutions to them. He wrote the book with the assumption that environmental issues were some of the world’s worst problems, but would soon discover that he had no tangible evidence for his idea.

This lead to his next adventure.

“I started giving seminars and asking people what they thought the world’s worst problems were,” Dodds said. “Then I used data to — based on the assumptions people make — see if a problem is bad, and try to calculate the relative severity of those.”

Once Dodds collected opinions and input from students throughout the United States and beyond, he would begin his process of evaluating the number of people the issue touched.

“The book ranks the problems,” Dodds said. “It goes through a whole series of different potential problems. Things like an asteroid slamming into the earth or super volcanoes. Where I can, I make probability calculations as to how many people that affects, either by death or suffering.”

The most notable problems, Dodds said, were often related to disease. Many current diseases and potential future pandemics have a large effect on communities. Other large problems include the possibility of nuclear war and world hunger.

Dodds emphasized that his evaluation of the world’s worst problems had to rely on fact and not emotions.

“People are really bad at risk analysis and what they think are really bad problems,” Dodds said. “We can take the example of school shootings. People are really worried about that, and it’s a really horrible thing, but the number of people who die in school shootings are low compared to the overall rates of gun violence. People don’t necessarily rely on facts; we often rely on emotions. So my hope would be to bring some of the facts forward.”

Through the process of relying on facts and evaluating the world objectively, he would discover that the reality of many issues are quite daunting.

“I’m confronting the enormity of the problems,” Dodds said. “You know, the fact that so many millions of children under the age of five die from diseases that are completely preventable because they are starving, or malnourished — that kind of thing is very difficult.”

Despite the difficulty, the process of evaluating the world’s worst problems also had a positive side. Dodds said that the beginning stages of the book, where he would travel and talk to students about what they may have considered to be significant problems was very interesting.

“I didn’t really know how it was going to come out in the end until I started crunching numbers,” Dodds said. “My goal is that with pointing out some of the problems and causes, it might help people find solutions if they accept the need for solutions.”