I had the pleasure of attending a special TED event in 2014. TEDSalon Berlin was just a one day affair, yet it featured a number of compelling talks that served as examples of impactful stories on global issues. This post is an analysis of a talk given by Hans Rosling & Ola Rosling on how knowledge, or a lack of knowledge, shapes our view of the world. For a better future, we need to understand today.
Watch Hans and Ola Rosling’s TED Talk. The numbers that are being presented represent serious topics, yet the focus in not on digging into the trends, but to highlight how our perceptions about these trends are so often wrong. It’s a fun talk to watch, which doesn’t often happen with statistics, yet inspires us to use caution before jumping to conclusions.
(my notes in red)
Hans Rosling: I’m going to ask you three multiple choice questions. Use this device. Use this device to answer. The first question is, how did the number of deaths per year from natural disaster, how did that change during the last century? Did it more than double, did it remain about the same in the world as a whole, or did it decrease to less than half? Please answer A, B or C. I see lots of answers. This is much faster than I do it at universities. They are so slow. They keep thinking, thinking, thinking. Oh, very, very good.
Quite different from the reserved style of most TED speakers, Hans brings the energy level up immediately with the tone, volume, and passion in his voice. The digital interaction with the audience also differentiates this talk from a simple narration and makes the audience a character within the narration.
And we go to the next question. So how long did women 30 years old in the world go to school: seven years, five years or three years? A, B or C? Please answer.
And we go to the next question. In the last 20 years, how did the percentage of people in the world who live in extreme poverty change? Extreme poverty — not having enough food for the day. Did it almost double, did it remain more or less the same, or did it halve? A, B or C?
Now, answers. You see, deaths from natural disasters in the world, you can see it from this graph here, from 1900 to 2000. In 1900, there was about half a million people who died every year from natural disasters: floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruption, whatever, droughts. And then, how did that change?
Gapminder asked the public in Sweden. This is how they answered. The Swedish public answered like this: Fifty percent thought it had doubled, 38 percent said it’s more or less the same, 12 said it had halved.
This is the best data from the disaster researchers, and it goes up and down, and it goes to the Second World War, and after that it starts to fall and it keeps falling and it’s down to much less than half. The world has been much, much more capable as the decades go by to protect people from this, you know. So only 12 percent of the Swedes know this.
Hans uses a chart to map the answers for the first question based on a research study, then displays the actual answer as a line which proceeds across the chart along the time axis. It’s a powerful way to overlay a statistical answer in conjunction with a prediction of the answer.
So I went to the zoo and I asked the chimps. The chimps don’t watch the evening news, so the chimps, they choose by random, so the Swedes answer worse than random. Now how did you do? That’s you. You were beaten by the chimps. But it was close. You were three times better than the Swedes, but that’s not enough. You shouldn’t compare yourself to Swedes. You must have higher ambitions in the world.
Adding humor to a statistical story block isn’t the easiest thing to do, but Hans is a natural comedian alongside his talent at following the science. Can you insert a lighthearted comedic moment while sharing data? Some topics don’t lend themselves to humor, so be mindful.
Let’s look at the next answer here: women in school. Here, you can see men went eight years. How long did women go to school? Well, we asked the Swedes like this, and that gives you a hint, doesn’t it? The right answer is probably the one the fewest Swedes picked, isn’t it? Let’s see, let’s see. Here we come. Yes, yes, yes, women have almost caught up. This is the U.S. public. And this is you. Here you come. Ooh. Well, congratulations, you’re twice as good as the Swedes, but you don’t need me —
So how come? I think it’s like this, that everyone is aware that there are countries and there are areas where girls have great difficulties. They are stopped when they go to school, and it’s disgusting. But in the majority of the world, where most people in the world live, most countries, girls today go to school as long as boys, more or less. That doesn’t mean that gender equity is achieved, not at all. They still are confined to terrible, terrible limitations, but schooling is there in the world today. Now, we miss the majority. When you answer, you answer according to the worst places, and there you are right, but you miss the majority.
Beyond the numbers themselves, and how different groups faired when predicting, Hans offers an insight as to why so many people got the answer wrong. We tend to be more aware of where problems exist, not successes. He doesn’t mention it, but in my experience that’s because the news focuses on problems over successes. I’d like to see that topic analyzed in parallel, but that would make for a much longer talk.
What about poverty? Well, it’s very clear that poverty here was almost halved, and in U.S., when we asked the public, only five percent got it right. And you? Ah, you almost made it to the chimps. That little, just a few of you! There must be preconceived ideas, you know. And many in the rich countries, they think that oh, we can never end extreme poverty. Of course they think so, because they don’t even know what has happened. The first thing to think about the future is to know about the present.
This last line is a fundamental perspective that Hans is bringing into this talk – that we need to know about the present and understand what is really going on now in order to consider what the future might look like.
These questions were a few of the first ones in the pilot phase of the Ignorance Project in Gapminder Foundation that we run, and it was started, this project, last year by my boss, and also my son, Ola Rosling. He’s cofounder and director, and he wanted, Ola told me we have to be more systematic when we fight devastating ignorance. So already the pilots reveal this, that so many in the public score worse than random, so we have to think about preconceived ideas, and one of the main preconceived ideas is about world income distribution.
Look here. This is how it was in 1975. It’s the number of people on each income, from one dollar a day. See, there was one hump here, around one dollar a day, and then there was one hump here somewhere between 10 and 100 dollars. The world was two groups. It was a camel world, like a camel with two humps, the poor ones and the rich ones, and there were fewer in between.
Continuing with his fun approach to numbers, Hans uses a prop to not only point at the graph behind him, but to elicit a laugh from the audience. Props are an old trick, but you don’t see them so often anymore, so it’s a refreshing change.
But look how this has changed: As I go forward, what has changed, the world population has grown, and the humps start to merge. The lower humps merged with the upper hump, and the camel dies and we have a dromedary world with one hump only. The percent in poverty has decreased. Still it’s appalling that so many remain in extreme poverty. We still have this group, almost a billion, over there, but that can be ended now.
The challenge we have now is to get away from that, understand where the majority is, and that is very clearly shown in this question. We asked, what is the percentage of the world’s one-year-old children who have got those basic vaccines against measles and other things that we have had for many years: 20, 50 or 80 percent?
Now, this is what the U.S. public and the Swedish answered. Look at the Swedish result: you know what the right answer is. Who the heck is a professor of global health in that country? Well, it’s me. It’s me. It’s very difficult, this. It’s very difficult.
However, Ola’s approach to really measure what we know made headlines, and CNN published these results on their web and they had the questions there, millions answered, and I think there were about 2,000 comments, and this was one of the comments. “I bet no member of the media passed the test,” he said.
So Ola told me, “Take these devices. You are invited to media conferences. Give it to them and measure what the media know.” And ladies and gentlemen, for the first time, the informal results from a conference with U.S. media. And then, lately, from the European Union media. You see, the problem is not that people don’t read and listen to the media. The problem is that the media doesn’t know themselves. What shall we do about this, Ola? Do we have any ideas?
Ola Rosling: Yes, I have an idea, but first, I’m so sorry that you were beaten by the chimps. Fortunately, I will be able to comfort you by showing why it was not your fault, actually. Then, I will equip you with some tricks for beating the chimps in the future. That’s basically what I will do.
But first, let’s look at why are we so ignorant, and it all starts in this place. It’s Hudiksvall. It’s a city in northern Sweden. It’s a neighborhood where I grew up, and it’s a neighborhood with a large problem. Actually, it has exactly the same problem which existed in all the neighborhoods where you grew up as well. It was not representative. Okay? It gave me a very biased view of how life is on this planet. So this is the first piece of the ignorance puzzle. We have a personal bias.
The talk pivots in two respects at this point. Hans give the floor to his son, Ola, and it shifts from demonstrating that the public and media has a lack of awareness when it comes to important statistics, to explaining why that is and what can be done about it.
It’s pretty much at the half way mark, which is common in a problem / solution style talk. It’s important that your audience have a solid understanding of your topic before you present your idea for creating better outcomes in the future.
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, okay? 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. A shark attack on a Swedish person will get headlines for weeks in Sweden. So these three skewed sources of information were really hard to get away from.
Having presented the reasons for our general lack of knowledge, Ola uses a slide to help focus the audience’s mind on those three topics – Personal bias, Outdated facts, and News bias. The subject is far more complex than this, but for a talk under 20 minutes, it’s important to direct your narrative to the most important ideas. See if you can do that in three or less.
They kind of bombard us and equip our mind with a lot of strange ideas, and on top of it we put the very thing that makes us humans, our human intuition. It was good in evolution. It helped us generalize and jump to conclusions very, very fast. It helped us exaggerate what we were afraid of, and we seek causality where there is none, and we then get an illusion of confidence where we believe that we are the best car drivers, above the average. Everybody answered that question, “Yeah, I drive cars better.”
Okay, this was good evolutionarily, but now when it comes to the worldview, it is the exact reason why it’s upside down. The trends that are increasing are instead falling, and the other way around, and in this case, the chimps use our intuition against us, and it becomes our weakness instead of our strength. It was supposed to be our strength, wasn’t it?
So how do we solve such problems? First, we need to measure it, and then we need to cure it. So by measuring it we can understand what is the pattern of ignorance. We started the pilot last year, and now we’re pretty sure that we will encounter a lot of ignorance across the whole world, and 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?
Okay, 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. Okay, 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. Basically meaning, we don’t hire people who score like chimpanzees. Of course you shouldn’t. So maybe 10 years from now, if this project succeeds, you will be sitting in an interview having to fill out this crazy global knowledge.
Part one of the solution is to create a knowledge certificate…
So now we come to the practical tricks. How are you going to succeed? There is, of course, one way, which is to sit down late nights and learn all the facts by heart by reading all these reports. That will never happen, actually. Not even Hans thinks that’s going to happen. People don’t have that time. People like shortcuts, and here are the shortcuts. We need to turn our intuition into strength again. We need to be able to generalize. So now I’m going to show you some tricks where the misconceptions are turned around into rules of thumb.
Part two of the solution is how to achieve that knowledge…
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.” Okay? 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 “the 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 “the majority already have this,” 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. And hopefully we can turn your world around and we’re going to beat the chimps. Okay? That’s a systematic approach.
Ola provides four methods of improving your odds when it comes to guessing trend lines, but are you convinced they will work? I’m not speculating either way. I’m simply asking the question because if you’re creating a problem / solution, idea-driven narrative, what will matter most is whether the audience buys into your idea.
Now the question, is this important? Yeah, it’s important to understand poverty, extreme poverty and how to fight it, and how to bring girls in school. When we realize that actually it’s succeeding, we can understand it. But is it important for everyone else who cares about the rich end of this scale? I would say yes, extremely important, for the same reason. If you have a fact-based worldview of today, you might have a chance to understand what’s coming next in the future.
We’re going back to these two humps in 1975. That’s when I was born, and I selected the West. That’s the current EU countries and North America. Let’s now see how the rest and the West compares in terms of how rich you are. These are the people who can afford to fly abroad with an airplane for a vacation. In 1975, only 30 percent of them lived outside EU and North America. But this has changed, okay?
So first, let’s look at the change up till today, 2014. Today it’s 50/50. The Western domination is over, as of today. That’s nice. So what’s going to happen next? Do you see the big hump? Did you see how it moved? I did a little experiment. I went to the IMF, International Monetary Fund, website. They have a forecast for the next five years of GDP per capita. So I can use that to go five years into the future, assuming the income inequality of each country is the same.
I did that, but I went even further. I used those five years for the next 20 years with the same speed, just as an experiment what might actually happen. Let’s move into the future. In 2020, it’s 57 percent in the rest. In 2025, 63 percent. 2030, 68.
And in 2035, the West is outnumbered in the rich consumer market. These are just projections of GDP per capita into the future. Seventy-three percent of the rich consumers are going to live outside North America and Europe. So yes, I think it’s a good idea for a company to use this certificate to make sure to make fact-based decisions in the future.
It gets a bit heavy with the rapid fire numbers towards the end, and while I come away with the impression that, once again, my assumptions were wrong, I’m not sure that I come away with the feeling that the certificate is a good idea. That’s largely due to the fact that the certificate itself was not fully explained.
One of the challenges that you’ll deal with in presenting an idea with impact is getting the audience to understand both the problem and solution in a short period of time. In this case, my view is that accomplishing that task would need twice the amount of time.
This is where rehearsing in front of other people becomes extremely valuable. Without telling your audience what your talk is about, just present it, then ask them what they thought the talk was about and ask for their opinion as to whether your talk shifted their perception. If people are unclear at the end, another editing cycle is called for.
Thank you very much.
[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]
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