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CompacTED: Statistical Significance

Hans Rosling, medical doctor and statistician, gives an excellent TedTalk on the importance of analyzing data in order to get an accurate understanding of the world. His arguments are delightfully surprising and unexpected. Transgressing politics, Rosling tells the tale using numbers.

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In this installment of CompacTED we will explore the compelling nature of statistics and the power they have to tell meaningful and exciting stories.

Hans Rosling, medical doctor and statistician, gives an excellent TEDTalk on the importance of analyzing data in order to get an accurate understanding of the world. Using a technology called Trendalyzer, he has over the years developed a way to gather freely-available data from the world’s databases and translate it into narratives that make sense. His foundation, Gapminder, disseminates the gathered information round the world.

Let me put differently. If you think statistics is boring, think again. Given the right platform, statistics can tell wonderful and exciting stories, and that is exactly what Rosling does.

So here we are, with the state of the world’s economic and social development put into perspective not through dogma or politics but through numbers and facts.

Here are three noteworthy points from this talk.

One, Asia has been the prime location for groundbreaking change for the past fifty years.

Two, human life has improved across the board. Life expectancy has gone up, mortality rates have gone down, and prosperity has risen. Things are far from perfect, but they are much better than they were in the 1960′s.

The improvement of the world must be highly contextualized ~ Hans Rosling

Three, “the improvement of the world must be highly contextualized.” We cannot afford to deal with people in super-chunks anymore. We have to tailor our given approaches, taking into account a number of factors – social, economic, cultural – before addressing any issue. For example, like Rosling argues, the strategy on aiding Africa cannot be standardized. The top quintile of the South African population lives in a very different reality to the bottom quintile of the Niger population. A tailored approach is in order.

What’s more, it’s not reasonable to differentiate only across countries. When zooming in on batches of data i.e. people, even within a single country, there is significant variation within groups, which has to be taken into account if policies are to have an effect.

I interpret this as a hint toward a reorganization of our current model of categories. Nations will soon be displaced from the global scene. Their downgrade from ‘prime category of humanity’ to ‘just another way of organizing life‘ is inevitable. New tiers and categories will rise. What these tiers and categories will be and how they will operate I don’t know yet. But common sense dictates exactly that. Nations are too dated a way to organize the world in.

Bottom line is, we need to understand the data. To do so we need to break them down to meaningful groups.

For those of you who found Rosling’s talk interesting, here is another talk by him on religion and birth rates. It’s a more recent one, given in Qatar.

Rosling’s arguments are once again delightfully surprising and unexpected. Transgressing politics, he tells the tale using numbers, making it hard to get mad at him or refute him. Not that what he is saying is outrageous. It is in fact quite sobering, in a scientific sort of way, QED.

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