The Positive Power of Stats

Chances are there aren’t many blog posts out there on the brilliance of stats (it’s not a subject that I, for one, have shown a particular passion for in recent years) but I was recently given a book called Factfulness which has really convinced me of the importance of statistics. You may well have heard of Hans Rosling, the Swedish doctor whose software Gapminder has animated the world’s development. If you haven’t seen his 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes video then I would definitely recommend it. His book emphasised the importance of looking at the actual figures in context when forming our worldview, because there is a lot of information out there but much of it is from secondary sources such as the media, and it is all too easy to form an image of the world that is far more pessimistic than it needs to be.

One thing that particularly struck me was that in focusing solely on a cause (which is in many cases very admirable) people can become so fixated on one idea and one goal that they don’t see the actual state of their subject. Rosling uses the example of a women’s rights conference in Stockholm that he attended, where just 8% of the audience knew (in a multiple-choice question) that 30 year-old-women spend on average just one year less than their male counterparts in education. Until reading this book, my own estimate would have been nowhere near as positive. In fact, Rosling found that for the questions that make up the basis of the book, people (be they ordinary or incredibly high-flying) scored systematically worse than chimpanzees, who picked at random and got the answer correct a third of the time.

The thing that I found incredibly uplifting about this book was its evidence (not merely belief) that the world is so much better than we are led to believe. The roles played not just by the media but also our own inherent biases lead us more often than not to focus solely on the negatives, and not to appreciate the extraordinary progress that our race is making.

In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost halved. 80% of the world’s children today have been vaccinated against some disease. The slow but undeniable progress that has been made in areas such as these means that it doesn’t often hit the press, but that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t being made.

The world isn’t perfect. Climate change is a huge issue that we should be addressing as much as possible, but in all things we should seek to see the facts and look at them in a frame of time, not just a single instant. It may seem like a ludicrously optimistic outlook, but this is reality, and holding an overly pessimistic view of the world is the state that so many of us are in. So please, update your worldview to the 21st century, and look for the evidence that supports the brilliant world around you.

Georgia, Head Girl (2019-2020)


Photo Credit:
Lawrence Migdale / Photo Researchers / Universal Images Group