Posted: 07 Feb 2020
DATA STORIES 3
Is there an optimism cartel?
[TRANSCRIPTION – Ep 3] Today I want to talk to you about the problem of reckless optimism, particularly in the domain of statistical data. Critics claim that there’s a positive outlook, or an overly optimistic presentation of data which simply ignores the real-world problems facing the world; this optimism thwarts, or diminishes a desire to take action; to solve really massive global problems. We’ve seen consequences of this; we’ve been riding a wave of optimism for quite a while, and now we’re seeing rioting ﬂaring up globally, like viruses; such as France’s Gilet Jaunes, the Yellow Vests; we’ve had election meddling through massive data targeting, and not ignoring the militancy of school girl Greta Thunberg, her incantations are forcing more and more public debate around the Green Deal. So, what has caused the backlash against optimism? Episode 3 of UpYourEnglish; we’ll look at this crisis of optimism, have we had enough of it?
To explore the possible reasons for this change in attitude let’s look at the domain of statistical data interpretation. Easily visualised as graphs, pie charts, in fact, all manner of visual interpretations are possible, these ‘Information Graphics’, can over-generalise. They can overgeneralise to the extent that things look binary; everything either looks great or conversely, everything comes across as, disastrous. And more and more, the world’s data is getting squeezed and presented to us through a lens of information graphics. The categories being used ranging from health to wealth; growth to decline; if you can think of a category, you can guarantee it is being measured.
So then, what has sparked this fury against optimism; this extreme reaction? One such info graphic comes to my mind, and hopefully it will help me more fully explain this increasing distrust of optimism. It’s concerning a visualisation basically plots our history, our story, our economic story, spanning the period of 100 years; revealing that as a global population of 7 billion, approximately; collectively we are living healthier, and wealthier, lives than ever before. Access to health, and improved access to jobs, has, systematically improved.
But this ‘optimism’ has a nemesis; and this nemesis comes in the form of stories, you know, the ones in your newsfeed, stories in the news-cycle: be it about, employment and zero-hour contracts; how plastic is polluting the ocean’s ﬁsh stocks; that bush ﬁres are destroying biodiversity in both Australia but also in Brazil’s Amazon Rainforest; an increase in mortality rates from excessive drug, and, alcohol use; but also injustice from ﬁnancial corruption and the rise of political populism. The list is endless. And consequently, the prevalence of such cataclysmic events are, quite correctly, diverting our attention away from facts that the world had actually improved.
So, this week’s proposition to consider is: in the midst of all the stuﬀ that is going down, in all the really bad stuﬀ that’s going on, is optimism actually dead? Even if the facts show health and income have collectively improved, have we actually just become ‘fact resistant’? I’ll touch on the ideas of resistance to facts a little later.
But ﬁrstly, onto looking at the role of data analysts. Through applying their expertise, they are the ones presenting, and making representative models of the world. Their vocabulary of choice visual, rather than verbal, and look like, charts, and graphs; basically, information graphics. It’s a form of editing, a means of being selective with data. And the data they choose to amplify, or simply discard; or omit; this act of amplifying certain data whilst ignoring other data suggests a ‘bias’; and to be biased, is like a kind of, taking sides; a kind of like, let’s say ‘this is good data, we should only show that’. The other data, let’s keep it aside for a while.
Consequentially, ignoring some data over to their data obviously presents a one-sided perspective. It is, you might say, ‘a hazard of the job’ a problem which is inherent in the analysts’ job. Data analysts therefore attract quite a few critics of their work. Though, they’re not being accused of really, lying, just simply shaping the truth.
The reasoning behind this accusation of, well, a slight dishonesty I will touch on later. In short though, the use of data, then, no matter how objective and factual, once envisaged in its visual form, will get totally criticized, for failing, to be an objective measure, an objective view the world. Data it is assumed, equals objectivity. And if it’s not presenting objectivity; then, these info graphics require classiﬁcation. These two classiﬁcations of info graphic then are maybe optimism versus pessimism. So one of them can be said to be visualizing insights optimistically and the other can be said to be visualizing insights pessimistically. How do you, like, your data then? Do you prefer it dosed up with optimism or pessimism?
Maybe an unfair question there. But being pessimistic or optimistic; let’s consider the inherent bias in a data analyst’s job. They are the people who use data to interpret the world. Their job is to put results, data, ﬁgures, statistics into a form which can easily be read. Their tasks include presenting to us, the public; but to companies too; a vision of how the world functions. And we many accept these results, these data, these ﬁgures, statistics or, really, dismiss them. Evidently then, some interpretations of data will show optimism, ‘hey isn’t everything great, isn’t everything looking rosy’; and on the ﬂip side comes pessimism, ‘yes, woah, well this is looking so terrible, everything is bad, everything is bleak’.
Data analysts, then; are susceptible to being accused for being over-optimistic or on the opposite side, over-pessimistic. Their critics claim they hold distorted lenses to the world, actually misrepresenting the data. And to interrogate this we’re going to look at that one speciﬁc case; it’s a health versus income info graphic which I mentioned at the beginning. It’s from well-known and, let me add, well-respected, Swedish physician; called Hans Rosling. Additionally to being known for his work as a physician, Rosling is also an author, presenter and most importantly, he’s a data analyst. And his ﬁercest critic has called Rosling himself a ‘self-serving optimist’.
Let’s just look at this idea, this expression of being ‘self-serving’. Is it such a bad thing to be selfserving, then? So, Rosling presents data in an entertaining way. He uses animated graphics to chart the improvement that the world has seen over the last 100 years. In short, he presents a ‘factual’ optimism view of the world, that over the last 100 years, of collected data, the result is that the health and wealth of the world has gotten better, it had collectively improved. The data proves this, the data shows this. Though Rosling’s ﬁerce critics say his view of the world is reckless, problematic; they call this ‘over-optimism’. Basically that data-analysts must not ignore the pessimistic data when presenting the data which reveals real measured progress.
It’s as if they are claiming there’s an ‘optimist cartel’ out there, you know, who are there to beneﬁt from presenting only ‘optimistic data’, optimism that the world’s wealth and health is improving. To use an analogy: what if optimism was seen as an illicit, illegal drug, a drug with a street value? Is Rosling then a ‘dealer’ in optimism. And are we consuming all this ‘optimism’ so, so much, that we got addicted to it? So maybe, now, we are on a collective detox. The pessimistic slide. But I am not ready to give it up yet?! Neither maybe are you?!
Yet, before looking at the eﬀect optimism has on perceiving the world, I want to take a pause, just to further deﬁne the ‘Information Graphic’; also my interest in ‘Information Graphics’ as a form of communication and maybe look at its limitations. My interest begins with my Bachelors degree, my BA which was in, at the time, a new discipline. This new discipline oﬀered by Coventry University in the UK was called Technical Writing. The degree had been set-up as a vocational degree in collaboration with Rolls Royce, the luxury car manufacturer, and its purpose to train
writers in the art of communicating technical data, and cutting through complicated and, engineering speciﬁcations which, well, could be too diﬃcult for the public to even try to comprehend.
My training then consisted in learning to interpret complex units of engineering information and re-communicate it to non-technical people. Users; the end-users of, possibly, consumer products. Yes, the course had, in the end, very little connection with Rolls Royce, the luxury car manufacturer but instead focused on writing, editing and producing documentation such as the ‘instruction manuals’, you’ll know this as the little folded paper document which gets shipped with a new stereo, a microwave, a toaster. And I was actually writing these. Very dull work indeed, boring, I thought. Boring… Ah hmmmmmm!
Anyway, here’s a language tip: Do you read the instructions, or just pick up and press the buttons on any new device you buy; anything you purchase? In terms of functionality, do instructions serve a purpose? But also, it can be a fantastic language learning resource. So, for a spot of language acquisition read the instructions in at the language you’re learning. I have to admit that I actually do so. Maybe I’m baking a pizza even, so reading the pizza box. You know, I make an eﬀort to read the French instructions ﬁrst and then I verify any unfamiliar words, the words or expressions that seem odd, or I don’t understand and so verify these by reading, or casting an eye over the English version.
Eventually though producing instructions for music stereos, microwaves and toasters, ah hmmmmmm, seemed like a really dull job, though I really did enjoy tinkering about with stuﬀ, with objects to ﬁgure out, to workout how to best explain its functionalities, to the consumer: into easy digestible units that anyone could quickly and easily understand. But a career in technical writing? Technical! Writing! The two words together Technical Writing sounded so, so boring. What was I doing? Where would I even end up working? The only choices at the time were either IBM, Microsoft or Hewlett Packard. The prospect was a depressing one.
Little did I imagine though, well I think non of us could have predicted how the discipline of technical writing would blossom, would bloom into something of a more colourful and diverse job, a more diverse profession. Today we have Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft (GAFAMs) all rely on the skills of technical writers. There’s even the gaming industry, music platforms, and VoIP (Voice Over Internet protocols) such as WhatsApp. And dare I say, if I had been more optimistic and stuck with it, today I’d be producing documentation on the uses of let’s say, the ‘connected’ kitchen appliances, these appliances which function as part of the Internet of Things. But would that have been a less boring prospect. The Internet of Things, kitchens, I’d still be writing about toasters, hmmm, anyway.
So, this University story. I was harbouring a love of graphic design, I soon started merging the two disciplines, technical writing and graphic design. Eventually moving into, what you might call, ‘Information Design’; not quite Technical Communications or writing and not quite Graphic Design and layout, but you can see Information Design as requiring both visual and written elements. And this discipline today was evolved as ‘Information Graphics’. And there’s books written on the subject, titled ‘Information is beautiful’ by David McCandless being one of the most well-known.
Information graphics then, what are they? How can we deﬁne them? Well, they are smaller units of information or data, visualised in colourful ways, using icons, symbols. The icons and symbols can signify data in a variety of ways: to illustrate quantities, volumes, amounts etc. In the form of a typical graph, not a graphic, but a graph, this basic form of info graphic quickly reveals correlations and clusters. Can you picture it? There’s two axis.
The x-axis travels along the bottom horizontally, below, and has a category labelled with the keyword ‘Lifespan’, and the y-axis, rides up the page vertically, let’s say this has a category label ‘Income’. In the simplicity of this visual data the plotted data-lines overlap, and intersect; and signify ‘correlations’, some extremely obvious and others less so; and then there are ‘clusters’ of data, nodes, which are literally colliding, bumping into each other, exposing obvious trends.
Caution though, is required when reading them. I mean, even if this graph reveals obvious correlations and exposes obvious trends, it’s important to not be hypnotised, duped, fooled by this data; this is dressed-up data, to its extreme they can be considered as presenting an ‘illusion of reality’, and so as something, as something to be distrustful of. Check out the work of contemporary Italian philosopher Federico Campagna. Campagna dedicates a chapter of his 2018 book Technic & Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality to talking about ‘optimism’ as this thing. This thing of an illusion of a reality.
Basically, what’s the upshot? Well, be wary of data that is shaped and diﬀused as an information graphic. I’m sure though, that everyone listening to this episode is skeptical of information, like, you take time to consider its authenticity. And more generally, more and more of us, are more and more, skeptical. By skeptical, I mean that as consumers, especially scrolling through new stories on our phones we have to ﬁlter the good stuﬀ from the bad stuﬀ.
In short, we are more educated and ready to call into question info and knowledge. And by asking a few simple questions, speciﬁc questions we can choose to either trust, or dismiss, what’s being presented. On the roster, the list, of questions you might ask is (1) one, who funded the original research? (This being a question from the Aaron Swartz episode that I touched-on in episode 2). Then, (2) the second one, what’s the aﬃliation of the researcher? and (3) third and ﬁnally, what is the political bias, point-of-view of where you are seeing the research?
And now to you! What about you? What’s your experience of dealing with the idea of optimism? Before moving on, I would like to invite you to reﬂect on your own experience; maybe, let’s say; thinking optimistically. Say, for instance, you’re presented with a problem – at work with your boss, in the oﬃce between colleagues, at home, a family issue, a situation between friends; there is something, a problem, which needs resolving.
Are you then, the type of person who sees the bigger picture? Or do you get stuck on the little details? And if you don’t quickly ﬁnd a solution to the problem, do you simply optimistically ignore it because, as we all know, and as the expression goes, ‘everything works out ok in the end’. But does it? For you then, are you the type of person to quickly resolve problems or do you hope such problems will eventually resolve themselves and ﬁzzle out?
Either way, acting to resolve a problem or even simply ignoring a problem; how do you categorise, how do you label yourself? Are you likely to be more receptive when data gets presented with an optimistic outcome; or, are you likely to be receptive to the more pessimistic clickbaity stuﬀ that passes through facebook?
Ok, so for the sake of argument let’s say there are two options. That your values are aligned with the ‘optimists camp’, basically ‘seeing the bright side of things’, the sunny, the shiny side, we can call these ‘the upsides or the pros’; and at all costs, your superpower is in your ability to block, to avoid, to override any of the negatives, you use your magic powers to positively ensure this. Or in contrast, you maybe align yourself to the ‘pessimist’s camp’, eager to expose the weaknesses, the more bleak side, the negatives; we can call these, ‘the downsides or the cons’. Either optimist or pessimist, is being optimistic such a problem? I mean, if the historical or predicted data is actually showing an optimistic trajectory, and showing things are systematically improving,
systematically getting better and better, then why is optimism under attack and attracting ﬁerce critics?
Where has this ferocious reaction to optimism come from then? And why be so suspicious of optimism? It is as if being optimistic is being seen as an infection; a disease; something to eradicate. And the antidote; the medicine we can swallow to protect us against optimism is, in fact, pessimism. Or is it simply that we need to strike a balance of the two? We see the spread of pessimism, it all over Facebook, it’s like an infectious virus. Post after repost, comments, trolls, those friends who are constantly angry and reposting and commenting on issues of injustice and equality, in between of course posting cute pictures of cats. Didn’t sociologist Marshall McCluen once say, ‘the message is the medium’, the message here is ‘Facebook is stupid’.
Injustice and inequality are real problems, and without any doubt, they require realistic practical solutions. So maybe optimism has been eclipsed by the pessimistic wave. So much so, that when it’s presented to us, we ignore it, dismiss it as being honest, and we are keen to relegate it to the depths of being fake, fake news. This mentality comes with serious consequences though. Yes. Since, if facts are positive, then maybe we are becoming resistant to them. It’s not fair to be positive when such bad stuﬀ is going on. Fact resistance has become a thing. And looking at this phenomenon of ‘fact resistance’ oﬀers a a start towards seeing where this, backlash, against optimism stems.
It’s our physician and data analyst Rosling whose info graphics have come under ﬁre, majorly criticized for being dishonest, who actually helped tackle the problem of ‘fact resistance’ in his book called Factfulness. Factfulness being is a totally invented zeitgeist word, one which you will ﬁnd only lurking around in online Urban Dictionary.
And additionally a digression just to tell you how I found out about Hans Rosling’s work. Well, it all comes down to Louis, one of the many socially curiously-minded students at EPITA information science school in Paris. Louis lent me his copy of the book and that’s where my fascination to discover more on Rosling evolved. So thanks Louis.
And this connection with society is a salient quality I see often in the minds of information science students. They are as much connected to societal issues as they are into coding and inventing and problem solving. Geeks you could say are possibly as adept at commenting on societal issues are their sociological student counterparts. The beneﬁt they have over the pure humanities subjects though is their technical nowse, in other words, they possess a useful technical ability to put their ideas into action; to act on ideas. They are technologically enabled. (For more on that idea, let me signpost you to the Aaron Swartz story on Episode 2).
Ok, so Factfulness then. The suﬃx -ness and the words ‘Fact’ and ‘full’ glued or stuck together; the title suggests that today people use facts ‘to their own ends’. It is like, you simply choose a fact which proves your point. And there you go! Factfulness! A corrupt use of published data, maybe, published facts. A fact taken out of context, can easily prove a point, no matter how weak. It’s a kind of ‘self-serving’ of facts then. You serve up these units of info to convince people you are right. Oh, the humiliation of being possibly proved wrong. Maybe today’s episode isn’t so much a crisis of optimism then, but more it is about a crisis of ego. There’s just a thought.
So, earlier I mentioned this idea of the ‘self-serving optimists’. It’s was in an article ‘Why You Should Not Listen To Self-Serving Optimists Like Rosling and Pinker; the article referring to Steven Pinker, a Canadian guy who champions ‘reason, science, humanism and progress’. The article warns against optimism, written from the Swedish sociologist Roland Paulsen. Paulsen throws shade at Rosling too, in particular by suggesting there’s an ‘optimism agenda’. Paulsen qualiﬁes there is such a thing as an ‘optimism agenda’ by connecting the data analyst Rosling with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates; claiming that ‘There is a reason Bill Gates loves Rosling, and Pinker – their analyses obscure inequality’. Let’s look at that.
Basically, if billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates are championing the work of Rosling, then it must considered that there’s an ‘optimism agenda’ which ultimately is about making proﬁt. Optimism has become a tool and a platform which can help powerful people maintain their grip on the power structures in which they already thrive.
Ok, so, later this year, 2020, a posthumously titled Hans Rosling Center for Population Heath opens. The construction of the research facility is costing 230$ million, with nearly all the money being stumped-up by, and invested by, wait for it, The Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation. Bill Gates is a massive fan of Roslings and on Gate’s YouTube channel he reviews Rosling’s book Factfulness with graphics to that its message eﬀectively penetrates. And that message is that, there’s no problem with over population. The point is that with a seismic shift in mentally about how we see how the world is organized, then we can see that the global population of 7.8 billion inhabitants have higher lifespans and increased incomes than ever in the last 100 years.
Billionaire philanthropy then, at least the aspect of Bill Gate’s 210$ million donation, it seems has found a home in the realm of promoting optimism. Rosling died 3 years ago, and so February 7th 2020 marks the 3rd anniversary of his passing. On one hand then, Gate’s decision to have the Center for Population Health named after his good friend Rosling is a sentimental one. It will be called The Hans Rosling Center for Population Health; a place of research in all aspects of health: medically, economically and socially.
Strategically, let’s pull back a bit. On the one hand then we’ve seen that Rosling’s name is linked to, and associated with optimism, for all his work as a physician, presenter, author and advocate of reasoned and critical thinking. On the other hand: with Melinda and Bill Gate’s major investment in the construction of this new institution: how would this alternative name sound? Wait for it, The Melinda & Bill Gates Center for Population Health? Any good?
So there we have it. Optimism. It’s led to the construction of a new multi-million dollar institution which can hopefully tackle the major population health issues of recent times. What’s your take on optimism then? Is optimism bias a problem?
On the perceived success of the Hans Rosling Center for Population Heath; I wonder, will it become a roaring success or a dreadful failure? Is it simply going to pedal optimistic ﬁndings, or solve the massive urgent issues of the day? Only time will tell. No doubt though, this institution will attract its critics. Though criticism is a great and good thing! After all, criticism and challenge encourages debate.
But ultimately, what about a life void of optimism, a society void of optimism? Big ideas and grand initiatives would most likely get stiﬂed. And big ideas are necessary. Society needs that. So let’s get peddling that mindset of optimism, to stand its ground against the pessimists. But a ﬁnal word of caution; to do it with a measure of critical analysis; weigh-up the pros and cons, its ﬂaws and shortcomings alongside the possibilities and beneﬁts it presents.
That’s it, so that’s it, that’s the end of this podcast. Thank you very much for listening again. I hope it interested you discovering the work of Rosling. Also do leave a comment on YouTube if you listen there: is optimism in crisis? If you’ve any comments. Otherwise, don’t hesitate to write to me and tell me about what you think.
As usual I would like to remind you that if you like this podcast and want to help me, you can leave an evaluation on iTunes (if you listen to podcasts on iTunes) or on the other Apps like Spotify. That way, I can reach more and more listeners and help more and more people up their English.
Of course there will be a new podcast episode soon, and during that we’ll talk about the infamous OK Cupid experiment. Hmm, I wonder when that episode will be out then? The clue is obviously related to that episode’s theme.
Thanks then, I’m out of here! Buﬀ. I had better get writing and recording.