1st October 2019 0 Comments Human Insight

Data literacy for human understanding

A photo of code in coloured font against a black backgroundAnna Rosling is the co-author of Factfulness and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, a digital hub dedicated to addressing misconceptions about global development by taking statistical data and interpreting them in a visual context that is creative and easy to understand. It strives to promote data literacy for anyone with an internet connection using global development statistics from the United Nations.

At her Thinkers50 European Business Forum talk she took the audience through a quick survey to test our knowledge of the world. The questions seemed easy, for instance: how many babies are immunised around the world? At what rate will the climate heat up by 2020? What percentage of the globe’s population has access to electricity? The results? Collectively, we scored slightly higher than a chimpanzee, who, according to Rosling, would make random selections and on average score about 30% — that is almost a one in three chance in getting the answer right.

“We need more statistical thinking because the world around us is data-based”

As a species, human beings are hard-wired to think fast and slow and on top of that brain processing, we love a good story, especially dramatic ones that confirm our own biases. “It’s a human thing,” says Rosling “we need to do this to understand the world around us. But we need more statistical thinking because the world around us is data-based so without that we’re pretty lost.”

Data and human understanding

Three schoolgirls smiling in a classroom with school books in front of themIn a business context, leaders make decisions that can have a large impact on shareholder value and perhaps more importantly, on society at large. But they are human and with that comes a world-view that is skewed by preconceived notions and flawed heuristics about what the ‘truth’ is. Data is one way to access the facts that can help inform and shape a fuller picture.

Rosling says that in her own conversations with business leaders she’s noticed they are open to seeing the flaws in their thinking. “They tend to be practical people and they want to make good decisions so if they get tools to make better decisions that are fast and easy, I hope that they are going to start using them,”.

“I do think our business leaders are going to start implementing while other groups start the thinking”

“They seem to be the ones [who are] eager to change,” she continues “when we talk with people in other layers of the industry — academics, journalists — they usually seem to have a harder time to accept they are wrong and it feels like a harder struggle to change. I do think our business leaders are going to start implementing while other groups start the thinking”.

Rosling agrees that change needs to go beyond realising one’s thinking is flawed. Action, in the form of data literacy, needs to follow up the reframing of outdated ideas.

“It’s one thing to accept that you’re wrong and want to relearn, but it will be a slow process to get whole societies to change. It needs to happen because we need a data-literate society —otherwise I think we’re going to be screwed. But, I do think that the business leader will be ahead”.


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