Monkey Business: What We Should Worry About


Are you smarter than a chimp? Hans Rosling has been asking this question for many years. He’s found that most people aren’t.

Rosling quizzes people about the state of the world, asking questions about topics like extreme poverty, education attainment by girls, and deaths by natural disasters. He then compares human responses to those a chimp would generate if answers were written on bananas and the chimp chose at random. Nearly everyone quizzed by Rosling does worse than our simian cousins.

Why? Because we have an out-of-date worldview. We think most girls in developing countries become child brides. We think natural disasters are getting deadlier when they’re really killing fewer people. We think poverty’s never been more widespread when in actuality rates are at their lowest ever.

One advantage chimps have is they don’t watch the news, which is full of images that feature humanity at our worst. People see these pictures and unconsciously think that the news is a proxy for the state of the world, when really it reflects our ability to film everything that goes wrong (due in part to the billions of pocket video recorders we carry thanks to human technological progress).

Our survival psychology also plays a role. We pay attention to, think about, and remember things that are frightening, gory, and tragic. This is our negativity bias. It kept us focused on threats in our ancient past, but today it still pulls the strings despite the safety of the modern world.

What is the state of the world? And what should we pay attention to?

In a new book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World, Rosling,* co-authoring with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, uses humor, statistics, and stories from personal experience to show us a different way to see the world. First, the authors make a compelling case that the present is the best time ever. They tell stories about the poverty in Sweden that was widespread just a few generations ago. The speed of progress has accelerated in the rich world and spread to the poor countries, but most people still think the developing world is the same place they learned about back in grade school.

The authors also direct us to turn our attention away from the smoke and toward the fire. Since 9/11, terrorism has been the obsession of policymakers here in the United States. Even though its impact is tiny (though still tragic) when compared to the flu, gun violence, auto accidents, opioid addiction, and dozens of other problems, terrorism gets pushed to the top of the public agenda by a frightened populace and the political class. The Roslings argue that we should focus on five problems that dwarf terrorism, yet get too little attention: global pandemics, financial collapse, world war, extreme poverty, and global warming.

Three of these problems–global pandemic, financial collapse, and world war–have happened before. We know how catastrophic they will be if they return.  Two other problems are happening in slow motion: extreme poverty and climate change. The good news about extreme poverty is that it has been going down. The bad news is that extreme poverty is the handmaiden of terrorism and war. Places that serve as safe havens for terrorism–Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Palestine–are also havens of poverty. If we want to suck the oxygen out of the terrorism ecosystem, we should end global poverty. This will likely happen but it needs to be hurried along. Look at rich countries. They once had terrorism, fueled in part by the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, European terrorist organizations like ETA and the IRA have laid down their arms. Barring renegade individuals, rich countries no longer harbor terror. If we end poverty we will likely suffocate terrorism too.

Unlike poverty, global warming is getting worse. The political will to combat the production of greenhouse gasses is getting stronger, but, barring the participation of the US, turning the corner will be tough. But we have reason to hope. The two other global atmospheric challenges that threatened us–the ozone hole and acid rain–were solved by international cooperation. The United States took a lead on these and the world overcame this catastrophic environmental challenges. Currently the US is not leading the charge against global warming, which means progress is in doubt.

So I encourage you read Factfulness, and check out Rosling’s TED Talks. They are hilarious, insightful, and an optimistic balm in a pessimistic world.

*Hans Rosling died of pancreatic cancer last year, so his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna continue his work at Gapminder.

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