The Ignorance Project

igmo_ignorance_project_mediumAbout

The mission of Gapminder Foundation is to fight devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We started the Ignorance Project to investigate what the public know and don’t know about basic global patterns and macro-trends. We use surveys to ask representative groups of people simple questions about key-aspects of global development.

When we find large knowledge-gaps, we know what teaching materials we should develop. The first results from surveys in UK and Sweden were published in 2013. As the project evolves we will investigate many more countries. The test questions and results will be made freely available under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Background

The Gapminder Foundation started as a spin-off from Professor Hans Rosling’s teaching at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. He encountered broad ignorance about the rapid health improvement in Asia. He started measuring the ignorance among students and professors and the surprising results from the so called “Chimpanzee Test” were presented in his first TED-talk in 2006.

In the test question Hans combined 5 pairs of countries. Each pair had one Asian country and one European country. He asked the students to pick the country in each pair which had twice the child mortality of the other country. If the country names had been written on 5 pairs of bananas, on average the chimpanzee would score 2.5 correct answers. To Hans’s great surprise his Global Health Students performed worse than the chimps, i.e. worse than random.  Therefore the wrong answers could not be the results of guessing. They must be due to preconceived ideas that  in a systematic way created and maintained ignorance. Only preconceived ideas can make us perform worse than random. When he replicated the test with the professors at the university, he found their results to be equivalent with those of the chimpanzees.

Since then, Gapminder has visualized lots of different data and presented it to lots of different people. During that work we have encountered all kinds of pre-conceived ideas and outdated concepts about our contemporary world. Our priorities have been guided by such ignorance-encounters. With the Ignorance Project we have now decided to start a systematic search for widespread ignorance about the world.

Why is there so much ignorance?

Statistical facts don’t come to people naturally. Quite the opposite. Most people understand the world by generalizing personal experiences which are very biased. In the media the “news-worthy” events exaggerate the unusual and put the focus on swift changes. Slow and steady changes in major trends don’t get much attention. Unintentionally, people end-up carrying around a sack of outdated facts that you got in school (including knowledge that often was outdated when acquired in school).

What Gapminder does

With the Ignorance Project we identify the specific global statistical trends that have not reached a broad public audience. We ask people questions about major trends and patterns. The questions cover major aspects of global development such as: Environment, Health, Energy, Gender, Economy, Demography and Governance. The most time-consuming part in this work is to write and design the questions and the response alternatives. They need to be precise and clear and yet not complicated. The question need to be about a well-documented fact of great importance, and still be concrete so that there is just one correct response alternative. The questions and the response alternatives need to be understandable to anyone, especially to those with no particular interest in the topic. In Sweden and UK, we have done the initial surveys in close collaboration with a leading survey company, Novus Group International AB.

When we encounter ignorance, we want to find a cure. Sometimes the facts just have to be delivered. But in many cases the facts may be hard to accept, as they don’t fit with other misunderstandings. They seem counterintuitive. In these cases we need to invent new simple ways to explain them. Those new explanations are the essence of Gapminder’s new free teaching material that make it fun and easy to teach and learn a fact-based worldview.

In addition to spreading the explanations and data, we also give away the facts about the ignorance itself, and the questionnaires and the references to our data sources. In this way we hope to enable others to measure the knowledge about the world among their students, colleagues, employees, applicants or website visitors, without having to look up the data-sources and write the questions from scratch.

A typical question is:

What is the Life expectancy of the world population?

A.   50 years
B.   60 years
C.   70 years

The right answer is C. The life expectancy of the world population is 70 years.