This piece by the normally sane Economist was nominated to me via Twitter for a place in the Junk Charts hall of fame (This HOF was also a suggestion, it doesn't exist yet). While the chart is indeed quite shocking, the quantitative reasoning behind this piece, ironically titled "Quantifying history", is what deserves ignomity. So, I am posting it on Numbers Rule Your World instead.
The entire chart can be summarized in one sentence: human population has exploded in the 20th century. Any other commentary can be interpreted as a different way of stating this fact.
I said I wouldn't comment on the graph but I can't resist: the "21st century" is represented, with proper seriousness as befits a footnote, by the decade 2000-2010. You could be let off on probation in ordinary situations but when the chart presents the data (economic output and years lived) as proportions of the total sum, then the failure to either project to 2100 or to omit the 21st century is an offense that shocks the conscience.
The accompanying text posits a "democratic view" that "one person's life is just as much a part of mankind's story as another's."
In statistical terms, this is stamping out diversity, and treating every individual as the average. As I pointed out in Chapter 1, ignoring variability is a horrible thing. Lots of individuals have disporportionately large influence on the course of history. To name a few that comes to mind, George Washington, Nobel, Newton, Einstein, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Lenin, Hitler, Mao, etc. etc. cannot be replaced by any randomly selected person. Today, in the US, we have a special day in celebration of selected few individuals who have changed the course of history.
History is the stories of outliers, and certainly not the story of the average. So, the entire concept behind the chart is rotten.
I also reckon that while the population has exploded in the 20th century, what has also exploded is the number of poor people. Again, one must pay attention to the distribution of people, not just the average person.
Finally, what is "economic output (1990 $)"? This metric is a recent human invention, and it measures specific conditions that are deemed important to measure by the current consensus opinion of economists and politicians. I think at least some explanation is on order before using this metric to compare people across centuries.