Junkfood Science: “The problem is not ignorance, but preconceived ideas.”

February 12, 2008

“The problem is not ignorance, but preconceived ideas.”

Prepare to have some preconceived ideas blown away. Dr. Hans Rosling gave a fascinating animated talk last summer about our changing world that debunks some of the most common myths people hold about each other. Using international statistics, he illustrates what actually improves the health of people and reduces child mortalities.

Dr. Hans Rosling is a professor of international health at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden. He has worked for twenty years in research on hunger and epidemics in Africa. He also founded Gapminder.org, which converts international statistics into understandable and usable interactive graphics. While everyone may not agree on the solutions, its goal is to promote a fact-based world.

In his talk [watch here], he describes a test he gave the top academic students at the Institutet to see how well they understood basic data and health. He gave them a series of countries he’d paired, with one having twice the child mortality of the other — far beyond any uncertainty in the data, to see if they knew which country in each pair had the highest child mortality rates.

He found that these top students “understood less about the world than a chimpanzee.” A chimp would have guessed and gotten half right, he said. He performed the same test among the professors of the Karolinska Institutet, which gives out the Nobel Prizes for Medicine, and found they were only on par with chimps. “The problem is not ignorance, but preconceived ideas,” he said.

The most common misbelief he found among the students and professors at the Institutet, was an “us and them” view of peoples who were poor and suffering ill-health from those who weren’t. There are also a lot of misconceptions about people in developing countries as different from those in developed countries. These preconceived beliefs, however, carried over into ineffective health programs — by ineffective, that means needless numbers of people suffer and children die — all because of the failure to use facts.

Most students didn’t understand the role of social change and market-driven economic development for bringing peoples out of poverty, he found. As incomes rise, more children have enough to eat and enjoy better health ... and survive. Hunger and poverty are what hurts, not having enough to eat. More food and better health, in turn, speed advancements of countries and improve the lives of children and life expectancies.

The world has changed dramatically since the 1960s, as he showed in a moving animation of United Nations statistics.

No longer, can we look at entire countries as undeveloped, he said, because we are all more alike than different. Most people in the world now fall in the middle and enjoy similar life expectancies. Different and more highly contextualized health strategies, not based on popular beliefs, are needed today to help those in the lower extremes.

As he wrote on his blog, fragmented health aid based on what is "sexy" in the media of the rich, and focused on individual disease agendas, needs to be replaced by health aid, food and medicine, focusing on what is actually needed by the world’s poor and will actually improve their health.

Thanks Peter!

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