Stats guru says life is far better than we think

General ignorance: Hans Rosling says humans know ‘less about the world than chimpanzees’.

When Hans Rosling gave top students a questionnaire about the state of the world, their answers were less accurate than a chimpanzee’s. Why? Because they were far too pessimistic.

What is the global life expectancy? Are rates of extreme poverty rising, falling or staying roughly the same? And what percentage of the world’s population are literate? If you are like the average British person, your answers to each of these questions will have been gloomy – and also wildly wrong.

When asked about the lifespan of the average person, most people guess 60 years or below. The actual answer is close to 70. Just one in ten people correctly believe that poverty has decreased in the past thirty years, when in fact it has almost halved. And only 8% put the adult literacy rate at its real level: a relatively healthy 80% of adults worldwide.

This according to a survey by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor whose striking statistical animations and geeky charisma have made him an internet phenomenon. Now Rosling is on a crusade to hunt down and exterminate misconceptions about the state of the world. And last night he targeted some common myths in a programme on BBC Two.

According to Rosling, a chimp picking answers at random would perform better in a quiz about global statistics than the average British person. University graduates fail at least as miserably as the general population, if not worse. So this is not a question of uneducated ignorance: it simply shows that our conception of the state of the world is vastly out of date.

For instance, many believe that the world population is rocketing upward uncontrollably. In fact, thanks to growing prosperity and education, birth rates are declining fast. By 2100 the number of people in the world will have stopped growing altogether. As Rosling puts it, we live in the age of ‘Peak Child’.

We tend to divide the world into ‘developing’ countries (with large families, high death rates and widespread poverty) and ‘developed’ regions like Western Europe and the USA. That was true 50 years ago, Rosling says – but in many ‘poor’ countries like Vietnam and Bangladesh, life is rapidly getting better. Nations are no longer split into haves and have nots. ‘The end of extreme poverty is in sight.’

Fact of the land

Most people will find this news extremely cheering. The depressing old narrative of misery and decline is an outdated myth. The facts speak for themselves: life on Planet Earth is getting better all the time.

Maybe so, say less optimistic types. But data doesn’t tell the whole story. For every bouncing bubble on Hans Rosling’s upbeat chart, there are hundreds of millions of people who still struggle to feed themselves and their families each day. It’s great that things are getting better, but let’s not celebrate just yet.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel as though the world is getting better or worse? Why?
  2. ‘Statistics are the best tool we have for understanding the world around us.’ Do you agree?

Activities

  1. As a class, list as many factors as you can think of that would lead to lower rates of poverty and child mortality. Which do you think is the most important?
  2. Find some surprising statistics and turn them into a test for your classmates. Can they outperform a randomly guessing chimpanzee?

Some People Say...

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Does this mean life will keep getting better for everyone?
No. The world as a whole is improving in terms of health and wealth, but the story varies from place to place. The biggest gains over the past 30 years have been made by Asian countries like China and Bangladesh; in coming decades, experts predict it will be Africa’s turn to blossom. If you live in a country like Britain or Australia this boost may pass you by – but then, you are already hugely privileged by global standards.
What’s causing all these improvements?
Oh, a whole range of things: education, good governance, healthcare, trade. Development economists debate this question constantly, and the short answer is: it’s complicated! But giving to the right charity can certainly help – why not make a small donation yourself?

Word Watch

Almost halved
If someone doesn’t have enough money to reliably feed themselves and their family every day, they are recognised as living in absolute poverty. According to the World Bank, this means having less than $1.25 to live on each day. In 1980 about two billion people fell below the line. Today it is a little over one billion.
Hans Rosling
Rosling is trained as both a physician and a statistician. While working in a hospital in Mozambique he became fascinated by international development, and today he runs a project that uses data to help people understand and change the world.
Programme on BBC Two
Don’t Panic – The Truth About Population.
Peak Child
There are currently around two billion children in the world. But while the population will carry on growing, falling birth rates mean that a smaller proportion will be children. In 2100 the world population is expected to stabilise at roughly 11 billion – but the number of children will be roughly the same as it is today.

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