The late rockstar statistician Hans Rosling, who wrote the book Factfulness, inspired the Herald's Keith Ng to become a data journalist. He talks to his daughter-in-law and co-author, Ana Rosling Ronnlund.
"Are you smarter than a chimpanzee?" was a question frequently asked by professor of international health and rockstar statistician Hans Rosling.
Just as frequently, the answer was "no".
Over his career, Rosling sought to up-end our assumptions about the world by showing that chimpanzees choosing answers at random could answer quizzes about global statistics better than students, academics, even world leaders at the World Economic Forum. His last book, Factfulness, was written shortly before his death with long-time collaborators Anna and Ola (his daughter-in-law and his son) to explore why we get it so wrong.
The book identifies 10 "instincts", or ways in which we make assumptions about the world. For example, the "gap instinct" leads us to assume the world is composed of rich countries and poor countries, while forgetting that the majority of countries are in between.
What's a fact that you didn't know before you wrote the book?
The one thing that pops into my mind would be [the chart showing the decline in the global use of] leaded petrol. I had no idea that it's something that's almost gone. When I was young, there was a lot of discussion about that, but then it hasn't been anything I had been thinking about at all.
I get this feeling around most of those charts [showing positive trends]: It goes unnoticed, even though it's a huge thing. It's a bit sad, I think.
When it came to the data or to Hans' stories, I knew most of it already. Do you remember the story where they put a roadblock in Mozambique?
[Rosling was the sole doctor for a poor area of Mozambique in 1981. In response to a mysterious illness - which he suspected was not contagious - he agreed with the mayor that a roadblock was a good idea. "You have to do something", he said. The next day, he came upon the bodies of around 20 women and children who drowned while trying to get around the roadblock by boat.]
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That story was heartbreaking. Many of the stories in the book he has told so many times, but that's a story I hadn't heard. It was pretty hard to bear as a human. That trying to do the right thing can have unexpected consequences that you don't think about.
Did Hans tell those stories all the time?
Not all the time. But he was very much a storyteller. He was looking at the world around him and in different way than most researchers would.
When we sat down and started writing the book, that was when Hans got his diagnosis [of pancreatic cancer]. And the diagnosis was pretty bad. We knew that he had a few weeks, or if we were lucky up to a year, but not beyond that. So Ola spent almost a month just interviewing Hans and collecting all these stories.
How did those stories fit in to the wider aims of the book?
Since we have been testing what people know – and we know they knew ridiculously little – it had to be stories that would reveal shortcomings of Hans, rather than his coolest success.
He understood perfectly and he agreed. But when he was a brainstorming with us, he quite often he came up with heroic stories, ending with things like "so that's why everyone are so happy today". I'm exaggerating, but that is of course what you want, right? You're not interested in in picking the worst stories.
But for the book, that was very important because otherwise you would have the bragging professor who had been living an extraordinary life telling you that you answered these questions wrongly, and you behave wrongly on top of that, while I the professor managed both. The overall idea is how important it is to be humble and curious.
How do we switch away from the negative instincts you describe in the book to being humble and curious about the world?
One of the reasons we started to define these instincts was the frustration the all three of us had: even though we visualised something and we teach in ways people can understand, it feels like it doesn't stick. And we started to think, why doesn't it stick?
We realised that people were ignorant about their own ignorance. How do you get that person to open up? By asking the questions and having them see their own horrible results. But it was not enough.
On a bigger scale it's about changing the knowledge culture, and thinking about information more like children. Children are wrong so often but when you tell them that they are wrong (not when they're teens maybe but before that) they are pretty happy to change. They know that they're going to be wrong on a lot of things. So if you tell them no, that's wrong, this is how it works. They say okay and then they start using the new information.
If we would be more humble and curious, we could have a completely different culture. It's extremely basic, but we have to start somewhere there.
So how do we change the learning culture?
At schools today, in many countries, children are pretty good at learning to be critical of sources. "Who wrote this? What are their intentions?" We know that pretty well, but we should complement that with being self-critical.
Even if the source is good, my brain will most likely just remember a few of the things I read or totally misinterpret it. Even if I remember exactly what I read, it doesn't give me a context, so I don't really know whether it's important or not.
The book focuses on the instincts because they're the easiest to change. Engaged people who want to function better can at least adopt a few of these thinking habits themselves.
The book talks about the media quite a lot, as something that's driven by those negative instincts you described and also something that feeds them. Do you think there is a role for media in changing how people think?
We're not trying to say anything bad about journalism, it's more to teach people that for something to be become a news story, most often it will need some ingredients that make it stand out.
First, the most important thing is that just by being a news story, it's most likely an extraordinary event. Second, it's very uncommon that we get the whole picture because that would be too big of a story. Third, often we hear about conflicts between extreme groups, while most people are actually in between. Finally, most of the stories would be negative because we forget to mention when something gets better.
The way we do that paints a picture in the the reader's head. Even if each of these snippets is correct, the sum of them will give us an incorrect image. That is because of how we save them and process them in our brains.
In promoting the book, you've described this way of thinking as relaxing and less stressful. Are you more relaxed since thinking in these ways?
When we tested what people know, they tended to have an overdramatic worldview, and to be overly negative about the world as a whole. We do have a lot of issues and we have environmental issues that are big but there are a lot of things that actually have become better. And people don't see that. People get a lot of stress from living in a world that they feel is even worse than it than it is.
I think it works at this moment because we have a lot of trends that have actually been positive. But if we are rewriting this book, let's say 20 years from now, the world could look much worse.
We are now and then actually laughing at ourselves writing this book, because personally, I would say none of the three of us have been very calm and stress-released. We are overly active and stressed humans. Maybe that's why we tried to figure out how you can find ways of actually getting some stress relief. So in that sense that's probably the goal we are looking for.
Anna Rosling Ronnlund is a guest at Auckland Writers Festival, see writersfestival.co.nz