Friday, 7 November 2014

How not to be ignorant about the world



None of us is ignorant, right? I mean, just ask us.
Unfortunately, every single one of us thinks this and almost all of us are wrong about it. The reason for this has evolutionary roots: intuition was the best tool we had available before science, statistics, and physically verifiable evidence. We tend to draw our understanding of the world from our personal experience and our memory, which means each and every one of us is ignoring mounds of evidence we simply didn’t bother to look for or simply didn’t notice.
Before any of us feels bad about this, we have to think about the fact that Hans Rosling has gone around the world talking to university students, journalists, even TED participants, and in every instance the test-takers were wrong more often than if the choice had been picked by blind chance! Hans refers to these chance statistics as “the chimps,” to further drove home the point that an outside evaluator, with no “knowledge” of the circumstances, actually has a better chance of answering them correct… but why is this?
The answer is that every single one of us is, without research into a topic, biased by our personal experience and the attitudes of our friends, family, and whatever media most rubs off on our worldview. Unfortunately, these attitudes rarely reflect the actual state of affairs and leave many, even those who are supposed to be informing us (the media), with false impressions of how the world works.
How do we get around this beyond fact-checking and reading up on whatever topic is in question? Well, Rosling has developed a few rules of thumb which generally apply (and of course have few exceptions). These rules of thumb are:
1. Most things improve, and are not “getting worse” as most of us believe based on our intuition. Of course, this rule is not applicable to our current environmental situation.
2. The gap between rich and poor is not widening: most people are in the middle. Of course, the gap between the top-tier super-rich and the huge hump in the middle is widening.
3. First social, then rich. This means that countries do not need to be very rich to have social programs or provide education to children. In fact, it is this investment in social programs that tends to lead nations in financial success. Despite the fact that most people think the average women has about 1/3 the education of the average man: this no longer holds true.
4. Dangers are generally overestimated. If you watch the news then you probably think the murder rate is increasing (and is increasing most where guns are available) and that sharks are a major threat to your survival when you go swimming. Both of these assumptions are tendentially wrong: sharks are largely ambivalent or harmless towards you, and the murder rates are actually sinking in the face of increasing gun ownership.
Of course, there are exceptions to every single one of these rules. The fact remains that in more cases than not: these 4 rules of thumb will help you make more educated assumptions and avoid being ignorant. Still, real research trumps assumptions (and even trumps these rules of thumb). Trusting our intuition was, and in some cases remains, a very useful tool. Still, gathering up the data and related studies cannot be beat by any rules of thumb.