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InfernoContributorUser avatarPosts: 2298Joined: Thu Apr 30, 2009 7:36 pmLocation: Vienna, Austria Gender: Cake

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Before I begin, here's a funny talk by Randall Munroe (XKCD) at TED. If the Google story at the end is true, I forgive them for Google+. Almost.

OK, so here's the real thing I want to talk about: Hans and Ola Rosling on "How not to be ignorant about the world".

Hans Rosling has been an idol of mine for quite some time. I've used GapMinder in my lessons and it was a great success. I've used GapMinder to check some ideas I've had. I've listened to his talks and I think they were great. His son Ola is shaping up to be quite as good as Hans.

Look at the three questions he poses and answer them. Then watch the clip. Only then continue reading, I don't want to spoil it for you.

OK, you've watched the clip. I admit that I am very pessimistic about the world; I think every-thing's going to shit. Turns out I'm wrong, things are improving. Can't it be both? I'm worried that, even though things are arguably improving, they're improving at too slow a pace and we're faced with some pretty hefty challenges. I hope to discuss that soon, but not now.

I spend a lot of time browsing the Internet for information I might need and I guess so do many of you. The Internet's great, you can find so much information. However, I believe there's a pretty big flaw. Not with the Internet, but with the way it's being used. Well, with the way information is being used, I should say. Take any problem at all in the world today. It can be "how do we fix the economic crisis" or "how do we combat climate change" or anything like that. For the sake of argument, I'll choose "Is a comprehensive school system (like the Finnish) better than a tiered one (like the German)?"

There is a wealth of information out there on most subjects, but it's disjointed pieces of information. Performance in country X given conditions Y, perhaps even comparison of countries X, Y and Z (even though they have completely different conditions and, in my opinion, can't be compared) and trend changes over time. This is typically what we find in science articles.

What's more rare is information presented in a way that you can make sense of it. I'm not talking about individual articles, but I'm talking about collecting information and making it accessible to lay people. GapMinder does that, but it only visualizes a few specific things.

What's extremely rare, or at least I'm not coming by it a lot, is a platform or book that uses all (or most of) the available data to form an argument.
There are two obvious problems:
1) The available data doesn't exist, is hid behind a pay-wall or otherwise accessible. To an extent, this can be fixed by making information open access, but that's not going to fix everything. A lot of data is being hogged by countries simply because it's "classified material". I'm not going to go into aspects of that, but just from a decision-making point of view, this can present problems.

In my specific problem, the data simply doesn't exist, with the exception of one book in 2003 and a few articles before 1975.

2) Ideology can and will get in the way. When assessing a particular question, the pre-conceived notions one has can ruin the picture before you even start. I don't really need to explain that.

In my specific problem, people from the political left tend to unquestioningly push for a comprehensive school while people from the political right tend to oppose it equally unquestioningly.

3) There seems to be a monopoly on decision making. This monopoly is in the hands of the state, with a few notable exceptions. Generally speaking, states want to tell you what the result of a given question is. I happen to think that they're probably not the best ones to do this sort of work, but I may be wrong.

As I said, there are some exceptions to that last bit. ThinkTanks as a whole should do that kind of work, but very few of them actually produce anything worthwhile. A few NGO's go in the direction of data aggregation, but they're not going all the way. I happen to be a fan of the "Club of Rome" and think they did a good job on the 30 year update, but even here they're omitting a lot. The only real exception may be the IPCC and I believe they're doing a fantastic job.

Long story short...
I believe the biggest problem we have right now is not that we don't have enough information to tackle problems. In some cases that is still true, but in most cases we have the raw data. The problem is that nobody's (well, too few people are) pooling the data and making sense out of it, at least not in a real, organized manner.

I believe people like Hans and Ola Rosling are doing an excellent job in data pooling and this is a very necessary first step. However, I also think it's only the first step. Their aim isn't to influence decision making, it's to influence how we see the world.

Third, I believe if we are to really venture into the "information age", we'll need these information agencies. I'm not entirely opposed to supranational organisations doing that kind of work, I think they're good at that. However, that also means we'd have one agency for pretty much every big question.
"Sometimes people don't want to hear the truth because they don't want their illusions destroyed." ― Friedrich Nietzsche

"I shall achieve my objectives through the power... of Science!" --LessWrong
Tue Sep 23, 2014 8:36 pm
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