The world is going to hell in a hand basket, right? Of course right. We know that because we watch and read the news and we know, at least intuitively, that things are getting worse. If your politics lean to the right, this is because the left is making the world a bad place. If you lean to the left, you are probably convinced it’s the righties who are at fault.
But what if we are wrong? That’s just what Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling began to wonder years ago.
“Our brains often make swift conclusions without much thinking, which used to help us to avoid immediate dangers,” Rosling said. “We are interested in dramatic stories, which used to be the only source of news and useful information. Our quick-thinking brains and cravings for drama are causing misconceptions.
“We still need these dramatic instincts to give meaning to our world and get us through the day. If we sifted every input and analysed every decision rationally, a normal life would be impossible. But we need to learn to control our drama intake. Uncontrolled, it goes too far, prevents us from seeing the world as it is, and leads us terribly astray.”
To test his theory, Rosling created a series of multiple choice questions that he distributed widely. The short quiz included 13 questions like “In the last 20 years, the proportion living in extreme poverty has…A. almost doubled, B. remained more or less the same, C: almost halved” and “How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease? A: 20 per cent, B: 50 per cent, C: 80 per cent” stumped a large proportion of those who took the test. Inevitably, it seemed, people opted for the most pessimist answers. And they were wrong. (Rosling used his statistical training to syphon through countless United Nations reports to gather his data. The answers to the two questions above are both C.)
Prior to his death last year, Rosling was a popular Ted Talks contributor, but I learned about him from a story on the on-line newspaper, The Tyee. The excellent writer Crawford Killian wrote it, and commented on his own experience with Rosling’s take on things:
“Here’s an example: in 1941, the year I was born, Chinese average life expectancy was 33.4 years and income was $783. In 1983, the year I taught in China, life expectancy was 65.7 and income was $1,460. (And this doubling was despite years of civil war, political upheaval and famine.) In 2018, Chinese average life expectancy is 76.9 years and income is $16,000. That’s a doubling of life expectancy and a twenty-fold increase in income, most of it in the last 30 years.”
Change has come up on us so quickly, relatively speaking, that it has barely had time to sink in. And the information we were taught as kids tends to remain as our knowledge base.
I did well on the quiz, not because I knew the info, but because I knew that Rosling was using it to prove a point—that we are natural pessimists. So I simply chose the most optimistic answers.
Killian wrote: “Rosling knows better than most of us how bad this world can be despite its progress; his point is that it can progress even faster if we can just ditch our stupid instincts, like urgency. ‘When you are called to action,’ he says, ‘sometimes the most useful action you can take is to improve the data.’”
Rosling played a role in creating www.gapminder.org, a web site that allows the reader to explore data on individual countries or on the globe in its entirely. It makes for some fascinating reading. He also co-wrote the recently released book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think.