OP-ED The Professor, the Chimp, and Chicken Little

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. – A sword-swallowing medical doctor who dualed as a liberal Swedish professor of International Health had much to say before he died in 2017.  Among his last words etched in his book titled, “Factfulness,” Dr. Hans Rosling explained his decades-long mission to systematically measure ignorance and defeat its devastating impact on the world.  Some of you will know him.  Many won’t.  But Dr. Rosling, a liberal against some of my conservative values, nonetheless had matters of significance to share with humankind, among them his independence from the liberal herd mentality.

A critical thinker and lover of unadulterated statistics, Dr. Rosling was a popular TED Conference presenter, delivering showmanship as he operated software, popped up graphics, and used a variety of props that made facts and trends more entertaining than usual.

Dr. Rosling was a popular TED Conference presenter

In “Factfulness,” he tells the story of a chimpanzee’s random superiority over bright homo sapiens – Nobel laureates, former U.N. officials, multi-national corporate leaders, investment bankers, journalists and the like – when asked to choose the right answers to questions on world poverty, healthcare and population growth.  The chimp, acing the human noodles on the latter two subjects by simply pushing an answer button – any answer button – began to prove almost none among us are as knowledgeable as we think.  In the United States, only 5% of people quizzed on facts about world extreme poverty picked the right answers. In the past twenty years, 50% of world poverty has been eradicated. But most think the problem has gotten worse.  Browsing through Dr. Rosling’s charts showing how countries fared in accurately understanding changes in the world, it is clear that ignorance is vast and it is wide.

But for me, his candor about his experience with Al Gore was appreciated, as he made no bones about his disapproval of alarmist activism.  When they first met, Gore was straightforward.  Dr. Rosling wrote:

            ‘“We need to create fear!”

That’s what Al Gore said to me at the start of our first conversation about how to teach climate change…Al Gore asked me to help him use my Gapfinder’s bubble graphs (a Gapminder Foundation analytical tool called Trendalyzer that was purchased by Google), to show the worst-case future impact of a continued increase in CO2 emissions.”’

Dr. Rosling continued that he didn’t like fear, exaggeration, or pressure-cooker urgency tactics because they make for “stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects.”

Rosling instead wanted “efficient and effective use of the human noodle, thought-through decisions, incremental action, and careful evaluation.”

Gore didn’t want that.

Rosling didn’t budge.

No bubbles.  No numbers.

AOC (U.S. House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) is Chicken Little’s twin, with her alarmist-activist ranting about how the sky is falling over climate change.  Is she sincerely concerned?  Is she brainwashed from bad professors who pushed her buttons of fear and drama like crazed pinball wizards until she was intellectually deafened and mentally despaired?  Is she bad at graphs?  Or is she a leading liberal’s protégé who wasn’t told about the chimps? 

Dr. Rosling’s students often doubted his declaration that the world is getting better, not worse – even scorned him with their disbelief.  He tried to teach them over and over, battling against the deception of groupthink and politicians and fear-mongering media until one day, he created a new Show-and-Tell in the classroom filled with entertaining graphics, a plethora of data and clearly concluded facts and Voila! – overtime, many of his Chicken Littles became productive human noodles. 

Finally, the chimp had some competition.


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