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Rosling on a global population shift
01:31 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Hans Rosling is co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation in Stockholm. Anders Bolling is a journalist. The views expressed are their own. For more, watch Rosling on Fareed Zakaria GPS this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.

Story highlights

Hans Rosling: Media is built on conflict and a black-and-white model of explanation

The reality of the world is different, and often better, than most assume, he says

CNN  — 

The world is spinning so fast that it can be hard to keep track of everything that is going on. Yet despite the fact that we can feel like we are being increasingly overloaded with information, it’s not clear that we’re doing a very good job of making sense of all that data we’re receiving.

Don’t believe me? Well, try answering these three questions on major global trends:

1) What percent of 1-year-olds in the world are vaccinated against measles? Is it 20, 50 or 80%?

2) Young adult men today have, on average, eight years of schooling, globally. How many years of school do you think the world’s women of the same age have attended? Is it 3 years, 5 years or 7 years?

3) How has the proportion of people living in extreme poverty around the world changed over the past 25 years? Has it doubled, stayed about the same, or been halved?

So, here are the answers: Around 83 percent of the world’s 1-year-olds are vaccinated against measles; 25-year-old women have, on average, been to school almost as long as males the same age, having attended for about seven years; and extreme poverty has been more than halved since 1990.

Did you get those right? You probably didn’t. And you’re very far from alone. In fact, when the Gapminder Foundation partnered with polling firms around the world to ask members of the public in Europe and the United States these and similar questions, what we found was a depressing lack of awareness about some of the most basic facts about our world. In fact, less than a fifth of Americans, Swedes, Germans and Britons answered these three questions correctly.

One of the biggest misconceptions about the world we live in is about global population growth. The number of children in the world has actually stopped increasing, because 80 percent of us live in societies where the two-child family is the norm. And how many people would have guessed that women in Brazil, Iran and Vietnam today have fewer babies, on average, than women in the United States?

On GPS, Hans Rosling asks how many children there will be in 2100.

In a way, this lack of knowledge shouldn’t come as much of a surprise because there is something that actively skews our thought process: Preconceived ideas.

We all have them. Even those of us who think we keep abreast of what is going on in the world have personal biases because we have been taught a mountain of facts that are now outdated, whether we learned them in school or at work. And then there is our news media, which is built upon conflict and a black-and-white model of explanation (hence our susceptibility to negative headlines).

All this means that if you went to the zoo with the questions posed earlier written down on piece of cardboard, placed a banana beside each of the three alternatives and let some chimps have a go at picking the answers, they could be expected to get one in three questions correct, beating most humans in the process.

Does our ignorance of strong positive trends, which makes us believe that the world is a sicker, worse place than it is, really matter?

Yes, because as a result we are more likely to make the wrong decisions. Indeed, a world view based on outdated facts can have severe consequences – from not investing where we will get the best returns, to allocating aid where it might have little impact.

With this in mind, the director of Gapminder, Ola Rosling, has launched The Ignorance Project in an effort to identify where our collective knowledge is weakest, and therefore where we might be likely to make the biggest mistakes. We will be formulating 250 questions on major aspects of global development and the state of the world and, over five years, will gradually identify the 25 least known but important global facts through surveys across 130 countries.

With luck, by highlighting just how little we know about the world, we will be able to encourage fact-based teaching of the world in our schools. And in an effort to upgrade the level of global knowledge among adults, we will provide employers with a certificate - a kind of driver’s license for global knowledge - if their staff passes our fact test. We’d argue that no major company or other organization should be hiring those who don’t have even this basic awareness of the world.

Some might argue that we are tested enough, and that they simply don’t have time to digest the information contained in the countless reports and papers that are released every year. But there are actually ways to shortcut some of the biases that give us a blinkered view of the world. In fact, by simply remembering Ola Rosling’s four rules of thumb, you will likely do just fine the next time someone quizzes you.

1) Most things improve over time. Opt for the “better” alternative whenever you are expected to know something about some aspect of global development.

2) There’s only one hump. Most people in the world find themselves in the middle of the income scale. There are extremely poor people, and there are extremely rich people, but those groups are minorities. So an income chart looks like the back of a one-humped camel.

3) First social, then rich. One might intuitively think that countries have to be rich to be able to improve health care and put more girls in school. That is a common, preconceived idea in the West because Europe, North America and Japan have followed that trajectory. But while some economic development is of course needed, the health and literacy revolutions in low and middle income countries since the 1970s show that this view is no longer self-evident.

4) Sharks don’t kill many people. As scary as shark attacks may be, they are extremely rare. But it is their gruesomeness combined with their rarity that is precisely why they get disproportionate attention in the media (as do other spectacular, violent events). Always remember that while the press thrives on drama, the news is not a full summary of the world; it’s a tiny sample of information that fits specific needs.

So, good luck with the quiz. And try to keep an open mind!

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