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  • Writer's pictureBy Zaldy Dandan

We're wrong; that's how we know we're alive

Saipan — New Zealand’s left-leaning prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who is beloved by the mostly left-leaning international media, says we should “stamp out violent extremism online” by “understanding social media algorithms that drive content.”

Of course. If only left-leaning intellectuals and leaders had focused on social media algorithms, they could have prevented the rise of Hitler and his Nazi party in the early 1930s. What’s that? No one knew what social media algorithms were in those days because they still didn’t exist?

Well, someone, especially those in government, could have always done something — anything — anyway.

Human history says otherwise but many of us believe that if we or government would just identify the “root causes,” and then do this to “address” that then voila! Government is just like flicking the light on, so all we need are leaders who know where to find the switch.

Humanity can solve humanity’s problems!

But here’s the, well, problem. To paraphrase the Filipino national hero José Rizal, not a lot of us are aware that we suffer from the “defects and weaknesses” we want to fix.

Human existence, to quote Philip Roth’s fictional character Nathan Zuckerman, is about getting people “wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive; we’re wrong.”

How wrong?

In a democracy, voters choose their leaders and have a say on what policies to propose and/or implement.

But in the U.S., the world’s greatest democracy, economist and author Bryan Caplan noted: “About half of Americans do not know that each state has two senators, and three-quarters do not know the length of their terms…. Over half cannot name their congressman, and 40 percent cannot name either of their senators. Slightly lower percentages know their representatives’ party affiliations. Furthermore, these low knowledge levels have been stable since the dawn of polling, and international comparisons reveal Americans’ overall political knowledge to be no more than moderately below average.”

Not surprisingly, in the U.S. and other democracies around the world, whenever the intellectuals and the experts are unhappy about a particular election result, they will usually blame the misinformed (i.e., stupid) electorate.


But as the late great Hans Rosling, M.D., has pointed out in his 2018 book “Factfulness,” so many people, including intellectuals and even experts, are so wrong about so much. And it isn’t because people lack knowledge, Rosling said.

In January 2015, he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The participants included the world’s “most powerful and influential political and business leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, activists, journalists, and even many high-ranking [United Nations] officials….”

These were people who supposedly knew more than the general public. “Here,” Rosling noted, “were people who had access to all the latest data and to advisers who could continuously update them.”

But when he asked them questions about global poverty and wealth, population growth, births, deaths, education, health, gender, violence, energy, and the environment — subjects that these leaders and experts loved to talk about — Rosling realized that they, too, didn’t know squat.

“It is not a question of intelligence,” he said. “Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong.”

How wrong?

“Imagine I decide to head down to the zoo to test out my questions [about basic global patterns and trends] on the chimpanzees. Imagine I take with me huge armfuls of bananas, each marked either A, B, or C, and throw them into the chimpanzee enclosure," Rosling said.

"Then I stand outside the enclosure, read out each question in a loud, clear voice, and note down, as each chimpanzee’s ‘answer,’ the letter on the banana she next chooses to eat. If I did this…the chimps, by picking randomly, would do consistently better than the well-educated but deluded human beings who take my tests."


Through pure luck, he added, "the troop of chimps would score 33 percent on each three-answer question, or four out of the first 12 on the whole test. [The] humans I have tested get on average just two out of 12 on the same test. What’s more, the chimps’ errors would be equally shared between the two wrong answers, whereas the human errors all tend to be in one direction.”

“How,” Rosling asked, “can so many people be so wrong about so much? How is it even possible that the majority of people score worse than chimpanzees? Worse than random!”

I’m so upset right now I want to eat a banana.

Zaldy Dandan is editor of the NMI’s oldest newspaper, Marianas Variety, and author of three books available on Send feedback to

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