How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite know about human progress? That's a question I've been stewing about for the past few weeks, ever since...
How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite know about human progress?
That’s a question I’ve been stewing about for the past few weeks, ever since reading the results from a quiz (at http://www.nature.com/…/three-minutes-with-hans-rosling-wil… ) in the scientific journal Nature, from Hans Rosling.
The quiz contains 8 fundamental questions about the state of the world: questions about poverty, life expectancy, wealth, population, and so on. All big, important questions.
What has me stewing is that respondents to the quiz – I presume, nature.com’s readers – do far worse than chance. That is, they would have done much better overall if they’d simply guessed their answers at random (the questions are multiple choice). Only on 2 of 8 questions do respondents do appreciably better than chance. On most questions they do worse than chance, sometimes much worse than chance. A chimpanzee pushing buttons at random would have done better than nature.com’s readers.
(By the way, I’m not certain the response data is from nature.com’s readers. It may be separate data, perhaps from Rosling’s audiences. If that’s the case, it weakens my argument below.)
I’m not usually bothered by this kind of thing. Media love to bemoan surveys showing lack of basic scientific knowledge among the general population. That kind of thing doesn’t alarm me. We’re a society in which most people specialize, and it’s not surprising if most of us are ignorant in major areas; collectively we can still do pretty well.
But this data from Rosling – the Nature survey – really got under my skin. It’s a survey of a group (one I’m part of, I guess) that often seems to think it has special knowledge of solutions to big, important problems – things like climate change, energy, development, and so on. And what I take from Rosling’s data is that that group isn’t just ignorant about the state of the world in some fundamental ways. They’re actually anti-informed.
So, why does this matter?
On Twitter, I regularly see people like Rosling, Max Roser, Steven Pinker, and Dina Pomeranz post graphs showing changes in the state of the world. Often, those graphs are extremely positive, like Roser’s wonderful graphs on poverty, education, literacy etc over the last 200 years:
(See the images below, or: https://twitter.com/MaxCRoser/status/811587302065602560… )
It is absolutely astonishing to read the responses to such tweets. Many people are furious at the idea that some things in the world are getting better. Many responses boil down to “Nah, nah, can’t be true”, or “I’ll bet [irrelevant thing] is getting worse, why don’t you focus on that, you tool of the capitalist conspiracy.”
Of course, while those responses are irritating, & illustrate a certain kind of wilful ignorance, they don’t really much matter. What bothers me more is that some of the most common responses are variants on “It doesn’t matter, climate change is more important than all your graphs”; “Where are your climate graphs?”; “Nukes are going to kill us all”; etc.
This type of comment seems wrongheaded for more interesting reasons.
First, appreciating Roser’s (and similar) graphs does not mean failing to acknowledge climate change, nuclear security, and other problems. Roser, for instance, has repeatedly acknowledged that the challenges of climate are huge and critical.
But I think the more significant thing is that graphs like Roser’s don’t happen by accident. They are extraordinary human achievements – the outcome of remarkable technical, social and organizational invention. If you don’t know of these facts, in detail, or if you underplay their importance, then you cannot hope to understand the underlying technical, social, and organizational invention in any depth. And it seems to me that that kind of understanding may well be crucial to solving problems like climate, etc.
To put it another way, the anti-Pollyannas, including much of our intellectual elite who think they have “the solutions”, have actually cut themselves off from understanding the basis for much of the most important human progress.
What’s the solution? I’m not sure. But this line of thinking is deepening my appreciation for the work done by people such as Roser, Rosling et al. And it’s making me think about how it can be scaled up & incorporated more broadly into our institutions.