SWEDISH physician Hans Rosling (1948-2017) was included on Time magazine’s list of the world's 100 most influential people in 2012. He was also known for his TED talks and swallowing a sword at the end of his lectures. As a child, he said, his dream was to become a circus artist. “My parents’ dream, though,” he said, “was for me to get the good education they never had.” So he studied medicine and became a doctor. A year after he passed away (pancreatic cancer), his book, which he co-authored with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, was published to international acclaim:  “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” Among its admirers are Bill and Melinda Gates and former President Barack Obama.

Factfulness

“Factfulness” should be on the reading list of policy-makers, politicians, businesspeople and those who would like to know more about the world we live in.

As Rosling and other wise persons have pointed out before, depending solely on the media — mainstream, alternative, underground or social media — will not make us truly informed. “Forming your worldview by relying on the media,” Rosling wrote, “would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot. Sure, my foot is part of me, but it’s a pretty ugly part. I have better parts. My arms are unremarkable but quite fine. My face is OK. It isn’t that the picture of my foot is deliberately lying about me. But it isn’t showing you the whole of me.”

We’re basically like the blind men in the Indian parable. They attempted to learn what an elephant is by touching the animal. However, each  blind man touched a different part, and each of them believed that he knew just how an elephant looked. Like a “wall,” said the blind man who put his hand on the elephant’s side. Like a spear, said another blind man who touched the elephant’s tusk. No, like a snake. Like a tree. Like a fan. Like a rope. The blind men ended up arguing bitterly, endlessly.

The parable’s main point, of course, is that people who can see are just as foolish.

“Over the past decades,” Rosling wrote, “I have posed hundreds of fact questions…about poverty and wealth, population growth, births, deaths, education, health, gender, violence, energy, and the environment — basic global patterns and trends — to thousands of people across the world.” These included “medical students, teachers, university lecturers, eminent scientists, investment bankers, executives in multinational companies, journalists, activists, and even senior political decision makers. These are highly educated people who take an interest in the world.”

Most of them, Rosling added, “a stunning majority of them — get most of the answers wrong. Some of these groups even score worse than the general public; some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers.”

He said over the past 20 years, “the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has halved. This is absolutely revolutionary. I consider it to be the most important change that has happened in the world in my lifetime. It is also a pretty basic fact to know about life on Earth. But people do not know it. On average only 7 percent — less than one in ten! — get it right.”

It is not a question of intelligence, Rosling added. “Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong. Not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong.”

How wrong?

“Imagine I decide to head down to the zoo to test out my questions on the chimpanzees. Imagine I take with me huge armfuls of bananas, each marked either A, B, or C, and throw them into the chimpanzee enclosure. Then I stand outside the enclosure, read out each question in a loud, clear voice, and note down, as each chimpanzee’s ‘answer,’ the letter on the banana she next chooses to eat. If I did this (and I wouldn’t ever actually do this, but just imagine), the chimps, by picking randomly, would do consistently better than the well-educated but deluded human beings who take my tests. Through pure luck, the troop of chimps would score 33 percent on each three-answer question, or four out of the first 12 on the whole test. Remember that the humans I have tested get on average just two out of 12 on the same test. What’s more, the chimps’ errors would be equally shared between the two wrong answers, whereas the human errors all tend to be in one direction.”

“How,” Rosling asked, “can so many people be so wrong about so much? How is it even possible that the majority of people score worse than chimpanzees? Worse than random!”

To be continued

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Editor

Zaldy Dandan is the recipient of the Best Editorial Writer Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the CNMI Humanities Award for Outstanding Contributions to Journalism. His three books are available on amazon.com

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