Star statistician Ola Rosling schools Czechs on democratising data, systematic misconceptions

Ola Rosling, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Swedish statistician Ola Rosling is co-founder of Gapminder, a foundation that aims to chart trends and use data to fight what it calls “devastating ignorance” using “fact-based worldviews everyone can understand.” On the invitation of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, he recently visited the Czech Republic to share his vision with local politicians and decision-makers. His message to them in part was to reexamine their assumptions about the world – because the Left and Right are “equally wrong” – and embrace nuance over binary thinking.

Ola Rosling,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Ola Rosling is co-author of the international bestseller “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think”. The book, begun by his late father, himself a celebrity statistician, includes quizzes that aim to show readers just how many of our assumptions are outdated and formed by fear, rather than objective fact.

In an interview with Czech Radio journalist Lenka Kabrhelová, he explained why the average monkey would do better on the multiple choice A-B-C questions contained therein on hot button issues such as migration and global poverty that a modern human being – Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš included. He began by explaining why, he thinks, he was invited to Prague in the first place.

“I think his media strategist found it interesting to promote the book ‘Factfulness’ because it is talking about all the misconceptions in the world. I doubt that Andrej Babiš himself has read the book, based on the questions he was asking about the first chapter. It was kind of clear to me that he might not even have opened the book. But I’m very glad that the rest of the government was there, along with people working with the government.”

LK: So, what was your message to Prime Minister Babiš?

“I didn’t really talk to him. I was more concerned with showing the rest of the audience what the world looks like. Because I think many other people in the room will probably stay in politics for a long time, and it’s important for them to realise how the world is changing, which is our core message.

“The main problem that we are working on is the ignorance about ignorance – the fact that people don’t know that they are wrong, and they think they are right. So, in our book we are asking 13 fact questions, which are very tricky for human beings to score correctly on. On average, 12 on the questions are really tricky. On average, humans score 2.2 out of those 12.

Andrej Babiš,  photo: ČTK/Jakub Dospiva
“All of the questions are A-B-C questions. So, I tested the friends of the prime minister here today, and the prime minister also. The A-B-C questions are fascinating because if you ‘ask’ monkeys these questions – if you write, A-B-C on three bananas, for example, the monkey would pick the right banana every third time, meaning 33 percent of them would score the correct answer.

“While when we ask human beings these questions, they read them and – based on their world view – they pick the wrong banana. A lot. Like in the US, for example, 95 percent of people think that the extreme poverty rate is staying the same or increasing, which are the wrong two alternatives. The correct alternative on that question is that the extreme poverty rate in the world has dropped to less than half during the past 20 years. Hardly anybody in the US knows it.

“So, my message to the Czech politicians here was, ‘You should be aware of your own ignorance – and not only the public ignorance – and be very humble when it comes to facts. Look at these data!’ And I show the results from many countries.

“Basically, I show that if 95 percent of American public are wrong about something, that includes all voters of Donald Trump and all voters of Hillary Clinton. Ninety-five percent of the people! It means that the Left and the Right are equally wrong about the world they live in.

“And this pattern we see in all the rich countries, systematically. So don’t take it personally when you score wrong on our questions. Instead, my message is we should be curious about this systematic misconception. Across the whole political spectrum, the illusion of how the world looks seems to be the same.”

Europe’s biggest integration problem? It’s not refugees

Photo: Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Ola Rosling has taken that message about misconceptions to the World Economic Forum in Davos and to the world’s biggest banks in London, where, for example, only 8 percent of financial bigwigs knew that 88 percent of the world’s children are vaccinated and have access to basic health care.

“But the bankers in London thought that 20 percent were vaccinated. This means they believe modernisation hasn’t happened in the rest of the world. And this is the European, or Western, mind-set. We fail to realise the progress that the rest of the world has made because we think we are so good; we think we are ahead of everyone else.

“Meanwhile, the rest of the world is catching up, and I’m showing the forecast to the politicians and decision-makers, saying, ‘If this trend continues in the rest of the world – this trend we haven’t even realises is happening – very soon, in 10 years, the world market will be outside the Western countries; outside Europe and the US. Fifty percent of the high-income consumers will be outside of the West. That’s where production and consumption will happen.

“This biggest integration problem, Europe’s integration problem – I told the friends of the [Czech] prime minister – is not how to integrate a few refugees into Europe. No. The challenge is how we can integrate Europe into the world economy because the rest of the world is developing at such a high speed, and we are stuck in a sentimental picture of Europe, which keeps us outside the world market. And if we don’t start behaving nicer to other people in the rest of the world, we’re probably not going to be invited to the world trade meetings in the future.”

‘I’m not trying to neglect the negative trends in the world – the opposite’

Photo: Pixabay,  Public Domain
Ola Rosling argues that when thinking about the biggest challenges facing the planet, it is essential that politicians, decision-makers and ordinary people realise how much better nations are at working together to tackle them than in past centuries.

It will be easier to combat the world’s five or so biggest threats, he says, if people don’t get side tracked by the smaller ones – or perceive smaller problems as being bigger than they actually are.

“Fortunately, we’ve never been so good at collaborating as we are now. We’ve had a 60-year period of world peace – with no major world war; it’s the longest period in centuries. We have a United Nations; we need to make work much better – there are huge problems with the UN.

“We need everyone to keep track of the big challenges and not lose track of them because we think everything is getting worse. I’m not trying to neglect the negative trends in the world – the opposite. By knowing that many things actually are getting better, I want to invoke a hope that we can collaborate also to solve the big remaining problems ahead of us that nobody can neglect.

“The risk of a third world war, I think, is the worst, right? The risk of climate change, of course. The risk of a global pandemic that could kill half of us if we don’t have any protection. And the risk of a financial collapse. The financial system is very fragile. If it collapses, we lose a lot of money and everyone has to stop the great development work they are doing. And the fifth one is the risk that people remain in extreme poverty…

“Those global risks are so important that we cannot let ourselves get deluded by all the bad things, the small things, which we see in the media every day, which give the illusion that everything is getting worse. That’s wrong! There are five big things, or maybe more, huge things, which we can never look away from. But when people lose hope, that’s exactly what happens. They stop believing we can change. They stop believing things can improve.”

Photo: UNmigration via / CC BY-NC-ND
“So, that’s my whole mission. I’m not trying to be an optimist. We used to call it a ‘possiblist’. I don’t want a pilot in my airplane who is an optimist, who tells me, ‘Oh, this will probably work. Don’t worry.’ A pilot saying ‘Don’t worry’ is the scariest thing on the planet. A ‘possiblist’ pilot, saying, ‘I’ve checked all the functions on the engine and I’m convinced this is possible, we just have to concentrate on our targets and make it happen.’ That’s the way we can run the planet. And today we have [big] data.”

LK: But it looks as if governments in many countries, including the Czech government, are often using scaremongering tactics, emphasizing negative things. For example, many governments in central Europe came to power on the wave of the fear from the refugee crisis in 2015. Do you think politicians are willing to listen to the ‘possibilist’ message?

“Politicians need to get attention, and they get it from negative news, yes. I do believe that some leaders use the fear mechanism to get power. Absolutely true. There was one interesting moment when I asked Andrej Babiš another fact question, which is actually not in the book. It’s a question that I’d also like to ask you now. The first time I heard the question, I also was wrong, just like the prime minister.

“It’s an A-B-C question, so 33 percent of monkeys pick the right answer. Humans score much worse. Here’s the question: of all the people in the world, what share live in a different country than they were born in? Basically, they are migrants, for whatever reason. A-B-C – is it 3 percent, 13 percent or 23 percent? What do you think?”

LK: 3, 13 or 23 percent, globally, living in different countries than they were born… 3 percent?

“Ah! You are better than the prime minister! (laughs) Andrej Babiš said 23 percent, just like me – I was also wrong. So this is the humility that I’m trying to spread; that we are so wrong, systematically. Saying 23 percent is basically exaggerating migration by 2 billion people. The correct answer is 3 percent of people live in a different country than they were born in.

Photo: Filip Jandourek / Czech Radio
“Ninety-seven percent of humanity stay where they were born and don’t want to go anywhere else, even if they have the option. Well, they may want to go to a richer country, of course, for some time, if they have that option. But then they want to move home because that’s where they have their friends and family. But when we see a lot about migration in the news, it gets exaggerated in our brains.

“A similar question about what share of the population is older than 65. We hear a lot about the ageing population. I asked this question at the European Commission last month, and they scored really wrong. What share of Europeans is older than 65? The correct answer is 20 percent. And they guessed 30 or 40 percent. Which is absolutely an illusion of a kind of minority explosion!

“If you feel that a group in society is a burden, assume you are exaggerating the percentage by a zero – if it’s 3 percent, you think it’s 30 percent, right? That’s how the human brain works. When we think about the problem, it grows in our heads. And this is systematic. So, Andrej Babiš is not special in this sense…”

The cost of ignorance, in lives and lost opportunities

Ola Rosling argues that basing migration and refugee policy on such misperceptions is enormously costly, in terms of lives affected and lost opportunities for economic growth.

“Migrants – we are so happy in Stockholm when we manage to capture one of the brains from Prague and move them to work at the Spotify office, right? We grab the brains from your education system. That’s migration! Yes, it’s beneficial to the Swedish economy.

Photo: CDC Global,  Flickr,  CC BY 2.0
“So, we need to start talking about ‘migration’ in very different terms. If we’re talking about an illiterate father running from a war in Somalia or something, that’s a very different kind of migrant compared to the highly educated tech engineer from Prague moving to Stockholm.

“So the template discussion about migration – are you for or against – I would say is plain bullshit. One is highly beneficial for our economy, the other, the most extreme one, where illiterate people move from extreme poverty right into the richest countries is very hard to integrate into our modern economies. Very, very difficult.

“The majority of migrants, though, are in between these extremes. And this was one of my main messages to the [Czech] politicians here today: you need to stop thinking of the world as the ‘poor and rich’ because the majority are in the middle.”

“You see extreme poverty – people walking around without shoes – and then you have billionaires, like the prime minister. But most people are somewhere in between. They have a bike, a motorcycle, have gone to school for 6 or maybe 10 years and want to work in a factory and educate themselves. That’s where 5 billion people are today.

“And the refugees from Syria, yes, they come with an iPhone. Why? Because it’s a highly educated [country], and so many of them can easily integrate into the European economy. Very quickly. They may be Muslims or Christians or whatever, but they are not fanatics. Those immigrants are easily integrated within a few years.

“But talking about ‘immigrants’ with one word, and trying to show if you are for or against, are you ‘a racist’ or not, I think that kind of dialogue is really, really dangerous because it leads our societies – the rich countries’ – into a polarised debate, which leads nowhere. Trying to point fingers saying who is bad and who is good.

“So, our project tries to solve that by proving that on the Left and Right sides of this polarisation, people are equally wrong about global facts. And I try to create a third position say, if you’re equally wrong, maybe you should stop pointing fingers at each other”

The need to ‘democratise data’

Illustrative photo: Gerd Altmann,  Pixabay,  CC0 1.0 DEED
Part of Ola Rosling’s mission is to “democratise data”, something he worked on in the private sector and when a product manager on Google’s public data team. He says the world is in a funny spot, at the moment, where the analysis of big data has not kept pace with its collection.

“‘Times like these’ – it’s an expression you hear again and again, supposed to evoke a sense of fear and urgency. For me, ‘Times like these’ means that for the first time in human history we’ve got statistics and data about pretty much everything, which means the debate about the meaning of these numbers is larger than ever before. And we’re not equipped with skills to deal with these numbers. It’s a temporary problem and we definitely need to solve by learning to use data, learning to scrutinise our own claims, be ready to be questioned with all the facts.

“We don’t have the machines for doing this – that’s what I’m trying to build. I was the head of the Google public data team to make public statistics immediately searchable, to democratise access to public data, so that at a press conference anybody in the room can immediately question the ministers.

“We don’t yet have that technology. Data is still trapped in governmental institutions, not just in the Czech Republic but across the world. And we don’t have this clear legislation about disclosure of data and measurements. But for a few things, we do have that.”