This blog is written by Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Posts appear Monday & Wednesday.
We humans consistently miss the big picture. The world is improving dramatically, but our brains are addicted to worry and fear.
Last week’s edition of Nature includes a highly readable article about Swedish global health professor, Hans Rosling. He makes fantastic videos that help us see the world more clearly. (I’ve written about some of them here and here.)
Embedded in that Nature article is a remarkable TED talk, filmed in Berlin two years ago. The first 10 minutes are eye-popping.
Using multiple choice questions, Rosling demonstrates that most of us are wildly misinformed about big picture trends. Since each multiple choice question has three possible answers, a chimp choosing at random would get the correct answer 33% of the time. But humans routinely score worse than the chimp.
Rosling begins by talking about those who perish due to natural disasters. Over the past century, he asks, has the number of deaths
A. More than doubled
B. Remained about the same
C. Decreased to less than half
The answer is C. If chimps had been canvassed, 33% of them would have chosen correctly. But only 12% of the Swedish public did.
Five out of ten Swedes believe things are twice as bad as they were 100 years ago. Another 4 out of 10 think no progress has been made. This sharp decline in deaths connected to floods, earthquakes, and volcanoes is an incredible success story. Yet most of us have no idea it even happened.
Here’s another question: Over the past 20 years, has the percentage of people living in extreme poverty
A. Almost doubled
B. Remained about the same
C. Almost halved
Once again, the correct answer is the last one. A misery-reducing miracle has occurred over the past 20 years. But we haven’t noticed. A chimp would have chosen the correct answer 33% of the time, but only 5% of the US public did.
In the video, Rosling’s live audience scores better at 32%, but this still means that collectively, those well-educated young people weren’t any more accurate than if they’d thrown darts at a dart board blindfolded.
The world is improving dramatically, but our brains remain addicted to worry and fear. Wondrously positive news barely registers, pessimism continues to dominate our perspective.
This is the opposite of wearing rose-coloured glasses. And it’s a serious problem. It’s difficult to make the world a better place if much of what we believe about that world is spectacularly wrong. It’s difficult to pursue the most successful policies if we don’t recognize success when it actually happens.
We’re not talking about rounding errors, here. The world that exists inside our head is often exactly backwards. Nearly half of Americans and almost seven out of 10 Swedes think that a mere 20% of the world’s 1-year-olds have been vaccinated against measles. In reality, only 20% have not been.
The media bears enormous responsibility for this distressing state of affairs. When Rosling asked journalists the measles question, they too were significantly dumber than chimps. Only 6% of European Union journalists and only 20% of American answered correctly:
That sound you hear is the wailing of alarm bells. People who get paid to document and interpret current events inhabit an imaginary world. The vast majority of their analysis is, therefore, outrageously flawed.
Athough he doesn’t talk about it in this particular video, the Nature article tells us that when Rosling poses these kinds of questions to scientists, that group also performs abysmally:
at a Nobel-laureate meeting in Lindau, Germany, in 2014, he quizzed the audience of leading scientists on the average life expectancy in the world today. Out of three choices, just over one-quarter of the crowd picked the correct answer of 70. That’s less than would be expected by chance.
Meghan Azad, who attended the Lindau event, reports elsewhere that the exercise revealed that the 37 Nobel laureates and 600 young scientists in attendance were woefully ignorant about these big picture trends.
Let that sink in for a moment. Whether we’re an ordinary person, a journalist, a promising young scientist, or a Nobel laureate all of our years of education and all of our exposure to TV newscasts, newspapers, and books has had the perverse effect of rendering us dumber than chimps.
Here are a few more Rosling quotes from the Nature article:
…Scientists want to do good, but the problem is that they don’t understand the world.
…Campuses are full of siloed people who do advocacy about things they don’t understand.
…To me it was horrific to realize that business leaders had a more fact-based world view than activists and university professors.
Surrounded, as we are, by what Rosling calls ‘megamisconceptions,’ we all need to be more humble. Before we pursue dramatic changes that will diminish other people’s choices and lives, we need to remember that the world we think we’re fixing may not even exist.
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This post has been slightly edited. Minor changes have been made in the interests of clarity..