The Ignorance Olympics

Fascinating results from an effort by the Gapminder Foundation called ‘The Ignorance Project‘. Gapminder provides a software tool for studying global health statistics and the foundation’s Dr. Hans Rosling speaks widely on related topics, like demographics and economic development.

Gapminder has conducted a survey in the US, UK and Sweden probing adults’ knowledge of the state of global health.

For example, the survey asked “In the last 30 years the proportion of the World population living in extreme poverty has…” and then gave three options: ‘almost doubled‘, ‘more or less stayed the same‘, and ‘almost halved‘. (Actually, in the UK the options were ‘increased’ and ‘decreased’ instead of ‘almost doubled’ and ‘almost halved’.)

23% of the people in Sweden knew that global poverty has decreased dramatically. In the UK, 10% of people knew that (12% of UK university graduates). And in the US, only 5% of people knew that. Results like these were the basis for new articles like: ‘United States Scores Poorly on Global Ignorance Test‘.

But on questions like ‘What is the life expectancy in the world as a whole today?‘, the results were the opposite. In that case, 56% of Americans knew that the answer was about 70 years. 30% of Brits knew that. And 22% of Swedes knew.

Interestingly, the percentage of university-educated Brits who knew the world average life expectancy was only 20%, lower than the British population as a whole.

With the Olympics starting soon, I thought it would be fun to compare the results to see which of these three countries is actually the best informed and which is the least. Unfortunately, the survey did not ask all the same questions, or offer the same choice of responses, in all three countries. But five questions were the same, including the two above. Another was, ‘What % of adults in the world today are literate, i.e. can read and write?

OK, first of all, I think if you need the interviewer to define the word ‘literate’ for you, maybe you are not the best person to ask about statistical trends in global demographics. For this question, the Swedes and Americans were given three options: 40%, 60% or 80%. The Brits were also given the choice of 20%. Twenty-two percent of Americans chose the correct answer (80% literacy). 20% of Swedes did, and only 8% of Brits did (with only 4% of university-educated Brits knowing the right answer).

Two things to note here: One is that the survey did not talk to every Swede and every Brit – it only asked a little over 1000 of each (including 400 Brits with university educations). So, we do not know if slightly more Americans actually knew the correct answer than Swedes. With a sample size of about 1000 people, the margin of error is somewhere around 3%. So, it is not fair to give the US the ‘gold medal’ for this question since, statistically speaking, the Swedes did just as well.

Secondly, the Brits were given 4 options instead of three, so it is understandable that people did not do as well. Nevertheless, a 4% correct response rate from university-educated Brits to me seems appalling. Even the proverbial chimpanzees throwing darts at a dartboard would select the right answer from four choices 25% of the time.

So, I think it’s fair to compare countries’ responses to Chimpanzees (that is, to how choosing randomly would have performed). For this question, the Chimps would get the Gold medal, the US and Sweden (who answered about the same) shared a Silver medal, and the UK got the Bronze.

For the questions about Literacy and Extreme Poverty, the Chimps also win the gold medal. And the US wins the gold for the question about Life Expectancy. The other two questions were ‘How many [babies] do UN experts estimate there will be by the year 2100?‘ where 11% of Swedes (and 33% of Chimps) knew the answer was 2 billion, and ‘What % of total world energy generated comes from solar and wind power?‘ In that case, 56% of Swedes, 46% of Americans, and 33% of Chimps knew the right answer. (Again, the UK was given more options, so the comparison is not entirely fair, but 30% of Brits and 37% of university-educated Brits knew the right answer, so I said that Brits and Chimps shared the Bronze on this one.)

Additionally, Americans and Swedes were asked 5 questions that were not posed to the Brits.

One asked how many babies are born to each woman, worldwide, on average. 49% of Americans knew the answer was 2.5, but only 29% of Swedes did. When asked to choose which population distribution was correct from a set of maps, Americans, Swedes and Chimps all answered about the same.

On the last three questions, How many years of formal education women get worldwide, the percentage of children vaccinated against measles, and the worldwide income distribution, the Chimps all win, with Americans coming in second place and Swedes last.

Of these ten questions (of which the UK only participated in 5 and were generally given more options than the Americans or Swedes) the finally tally of results looks like:

Ignorance-Olympics(click to enlarge)

It turns out that Chimps answered best on 7 of the 10 questions. I would say that the performance in the US and Sweden was essentially the same. And the UK seems to lag, though to be fair they only participated in half the questions and, even then, had more options to choose from.

Most surprising to me was that, in questions that were posed to Brits, the general population performed better than university graduates on most of them, which makes me think that maybe we should all be sending our children to Monkey College instead.

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  1. Brian

    This study is flawed as it assumes that chimps would answer randomly.

    • Brian,

      It does not assume that chimps answer randomly, only that they answer correctly 1/N fraction of the time (where N is the number of options for each question).

      Answering randomly is one way to be right 1/N, on average. But maybe the chimps actually studied really hard, did their best on the test, and still only got 25% of the answers right. That sounds a lot like the organic chemistry classes I have taken, and I don’t think everyone was just answering randomly on those.

      Even so, for people it sounds like answering randomly is a better strategy than answering what your gut tells you.




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