President Obama’s Factfulness and the Death of Expertise

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I hear President Obama is reading Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling.

When asked simple questions about global trends?what percentage of the world’s population live in poverty; why the world’s population is increasing; how many girls finish school?we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers.

In Factfulness, Professor of International Health and global TED phenomenon Hans Rosling, together with his two long-time collaborators, Anna and Ola, offers a radical new explanation of why this happens. They reveal the ten instincts that distort our perspective?from our tendency to divide the world into two camps (usually some version of us and them) to the way we consume media (where fear rules) to how we perceive progress (believing that most things are getting worse).

Our problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and even our guesses are informed by unconscious and predictable biases.

It turns out that the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most.

Meanwhile, Mike Haubrich and I just recorded the next Ikonokast Podcast and our guest recommended The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols.

Technology and increasing levels of education have exposed people to more information than ever before. These societal gains, however, have also helped fuel a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism that has crippled informed debates on any number of issues. Today, everyone knows everything: with only a quick trip through WebMD or Wikipedia, average citizens believe themselves to be on an equal intellectual footing with doctors and diplomats. All voices, even the most ridiculous, demand to be taken with equal seriousness, and any claim to the contrary is dismissed as undemocratic elitism.

Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise shows how this rejection of experts has occurred: the openness of the internet, the emergence of a customer satisfaction model in higher education, and the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine, among other reasons. Paradoxically, the increasingly democratic dissemination of information, rather than producing an educated public, has instead created an army of ill-informed and angry citizens who denounce intellectual achievement. When ordinary citizens believe that no one knows more than anyone else, democratic institutions themselves are in danger of falling either to populism or to technocracy or, in the worst case, a combination of both. An update to the 2017breakout hit, the paperback edition of The Death of Expertise provides a new foreword to cover the alarming exacerbation of these trends in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Judging from events on the ground since it first published, The Death of Expertise issues a warning about the stability and survival of modern democracy in the Information Age that is even more important today.

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6 thoughts on “President Obama’s Factfulness and the Death of Expertise

  1. Rosling’s analyses would barely pass kindergarten level because, like most contrarians, he believes that the material economy is independent of the natural economy. The recent Bioscience paper (World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity 25 Years After the Rio Biodiversity Summit) lays bare why Rosling and his myopic tribe are wrong. Actually the world, if we factor in the state of ecosystems across the biosphere, is in a much worse state than we are led to believe.

    Insect populations are collapsing across large parts of the world. Pollinators are in serious trouble. So are those of birds, bats, snakes, amphibians, and a myriad of other organisms that are part of the natural economy. Even the ubiquitous hedgehog has seen its population reduced by over 90% in the U.K. Over the past three decades. Something us clearly going wrong. This summer has seen unprecedented events linked with climate change manifesting themselves across the northern hemisphere. Nafeez Ahmed said that we are beginning to see the unraveling of our industrial civilization as the effects of warming kick in.

    Against this background emerge the sycophantic army of optimists led by Bjorn Lomborg, Matt Ridley and now Rosling’s latest screed. All of these clowns believe that himans are exempt from the laws of nature, that somehow we can continue with a slash-and-burn approach to nature, while embracing rapaciously destructive neoliberal capitalism and live happily ever after.

    That Obama reads such utter piffle tells me how embedded in the corporate culture he and the political establishment are in the U.S.

    1. That Obama reads such utter piffle tells me how embedded in the corporate culture he and the political establishment are in the U.S.

      There is a chance that, unlike the right, Obama is open to reading things he does not agree with, in order to gain some insight into the thoughts behind them.

      I don’t know what percentage I’d put on that chance.

  2. One final point. Hans Rosling, in my honest opinion, truly cared about the future. It is very sad that he passec away last year. However, this does not ignore the fact that he overrelied on selective use of statistics that largely ignored the natural economy. The UN Living Planet Index reveals clearly that we as a species are living off of capital rather than income. Improvements in technology have thus far exceedec the growing ecological deficit. However, at some point there will not be enough natural capital left to make up for this imbalance. Dr. Rosling did not appear to factor either the growing ecological debt or indeed the importance of nature in his calculations. This is why he is wrong.

  3. Well, Jeff – who knows whereof he speaks – has beaten me to the punch. The only thing I will venture is that it is quite possible that Obama does not agree with some or even most of Rosling’s conclusions.

  4. If that Nichols book dosnt have appropriate statistics in it to back up the claims made, ( and I’m betting it dosnt, even though I’ve never seen it ) may I suggest it’s a pile of positive reinforcing bullshit. I can smell the bias the author has and the bias the author assumes the reader has ( and hes likely correct ) across the Pacific.
    I get the bloody bias because it’s so immediatly appealing. Of one thinks Brexiteers are thick as shit, and I most certainly do, this book is seemingly just what the doctor ordered to validate further my perception. Uh Uh. That’s a sales gimmick not
    reality. If I see a copy I might see if it’s got stats. I can’t honestly see the author having time or inclination to do the nessessary field work and analysis.

  5. One thing did just get better: the US just sent Jakiw Palij , a Nazi who was a guard at Treblinka, to Germany. The (now) old man came here, lied about his service, and has been here since 1949.

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