Hans and Ola Rosling on Cherry Picking Data to Tell a Story

Natural Disasters in the world
We have a high statistical chance of being quite wrong about what we think we know. Hans and Ola Rosling demonstrate this with general quizzes and show we are beaten by chimps.

The reason why we do so poorly can be summarized by looking into where we grow up, how we learn, and what we read. Says Ola:

We have all different experiences from communities and people we meet, and on top of this, we start school, and we add the next problem. Well, I like schools, but teachers tend to teach outdated worldviews, because they learned something when they went to school, and now they describe this world to the students without any bad intentions, and those books, of course, that are printed are outdated in a world that changes. And there is really no practice to keep the teaching material up to date. So that's what we are focusing on. So we have these outdated facts added on top of our personal bias.

What happens next is news. An excellent journalist knows how to pick the story that will make headlines, and people will read it because it's sensational. Unusual events are more interesting, no? And they are exaggerated, and especially things we're afraid of.

And those stories and report now get spread widely through social networks, mostly unchecked — and likely unread. How do we solve this problem? First off, we need to measure it. Says Ola, “by measuring it we can understand what is the pattern of ignorance:”

the idea is really to scale it up to all domains or dimensions of global development, such as climate, endangered species, human rights, gender equality, energy, finance.

All different sectors have facts, and there are organizations trying to spread awareness about these facts. So I've started actually contacting some of them, like WWF and Amnesty International and UNICEF, and asking them, what are your favorite facts which you think the public doesn't know?

I gather those facts. Imagine a long list with, say, 250 facts. And then we poll the public and see where they score worst. So we get a shorter list with the terrible results, like some few examples from Hans, and we have no problem finding these kinds of terrible results.

This little shortlist, what are we going to do with it? Well, we turn it into a knowledge certificate, a global knowledge certificate, which you can use, if you're a large organization, a school, a university, or maybe a news agency, to certify yourself as globally knowledgeable.

How are we going to close that gap in learning? We know that memorizing everything is not likely. Ola says we can learn to generalize by turning our intuition into a strength again and turn misconception into rules of thumb:

Let's start with the first misconception. This is very widespread. Everything is getting worse. You heard it. You thought it yourself. The other way to think is, most things improve. So you're sitting with a question in front of you and you're unsure. You should guess "improve." Don't go for the worse. That will help you score better on our tests. That was the first one.

There are rich and poor and the gap is increasing. It's a terrible inequality. Yeah, it's an unequal world, but when you look at the data, it's one hump. Okay? If you feel unsure, go for "most people are in the middle." That's going to help you get the answer right.

Now, the next preconceived idea is first countries and people need to be very, very rich to get the social development like girls in school and be ready for natural disasters. No, no, no. That's wrong. Look: that huge hump in the middle already have girls in school. So if you are unsure, go for the "majority already have this," [or first social, then rich] like electricity and girls in school, these kinds of things. They're only rules of thumb, so of course they don't apply to everything, but this is how you can generalize.

Let's look at the last one. If something, yes, this is a good one, sharks are dangerous. No — well, yes, but they are not so important in the global statistics, that is what I'm saying. I actually, I'm very afraid of sharks. So as soon as I see a question about things I'm afraid of, which might be earthquakes, other religions, maybe I'm afraid of terrorists or sharks, anything that makes me feel, assume you're going to exaggerate the problem. That's a rule of thumb. Of course there are dangerous things that are also great. Sharks kill very, very few. That's how you should think.

With these four rules of thumb, you could probably answer better than the chimps, because the chimps cannot do this. They cannot generalize these kinds of rules.

It's important to put reality in the proper perspective, because then we can also contribute to what is already working. Ola says, “If you have a fact-based worldview of today, you might have a chance to understand what's coming next in the future.”

It is a good idea to learn how to make better decisions. In fact, to improve how we learn overall.

Learning is my number one love and passion, and I started a weekly newsletter a couple of months ago to share links to business, technology, and also philosophy, psychology, and other sciences to help us make learning a habit. Still time to subscribe for tomorrow's issue. Subscribe here.

Watch the video of the talk below.

Hans Rosling has done another talk where he shared simpler ways to design information to help us understand it better. The talk has more than 10 million views between the TED site and YouTube.