Do you know less about the world than a chimpanzee?

Updated Friday, 17th January 2014
The world is probably in better shape than you think, writes Dick Skellington.

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A chimp wearing a mortarboard Last summer Louis, the chimp known to millions as Brooke Bond, the suave face of the PG Tips adverts parodying James Bond movies, passed peacefully away at Twycross Zoo at the grand old age of 37 leaving his bereaved companion Choppers, aged 42, as the last surviving PG Tips chimp star. 

PG Tips first began using an anthropomorphic chimp family in its adverts in 1956, where they were voiced by stars including Bob Monkhouse and Peter Sellers. As well as Bond, they made appearances as removal men, housewives and evenTour de France cyclists. I particularly enjoyed the infamous episode when as removal men, they tried to get a piano down the stairs. Louis played the bowler hat-wearing Mr Shifter and the advert's punchline went: "Dad, do you know the piano's on my foot?" "You hum it, son, I'll play it!", quipped the resourceful Louis.

Not only did these wonderful creatures convey a range of fascinating emotions on screen, just to sell tea, we empathised with their haphazard circumstance and felt their pain and joy. Now we learn Louis and his mates were much cleverer than perhaps we thought. Indeed cleverer than we humans: research published just before Christmas indicates that we may know less about the world than Louis and Chopper! 

With the population of the world at seven billion and rising, many fear a shortage of resources as well as a shortage of space. Swedish professor Hans Rosling, however, says it's time for a reality check. When pollsters got 1,000 British people to take Rosling's "ignorance survey" last year, the results suggested they knew "less about the world than chimpanzees".

Questions were devised to test knowledge about the world we live in, such as: How does our global population break down?  How have the numbers of people living in extreme poverty changed? And what is the average number of babies born per woman? 

"For each question I wrote each of the possible alternatives on bananas, and asked chimpanzees in the zoo to pick the right answers, and by picking the right bananas, they'd just pick answers at random.  But the Brits did even worse," explained Rosling.

To be fair, so did the Swedes, the only other nation to have been polled so far. Rosling points out that he also put the questions to some fellow professors, and they were on a par with chimpanzees, too. 

The fact that humans do worse than chimps shows the problem is not a lack of knowledge, but the result of having preconceived ideas, Rosling says – ideas that are years, or sometimes decades out of date. It seems that more of us are ignorant about the world we live in than we think, even those who profess to understand it. The problem isn’t so much that we Brits lack knowledge, but that what we think about the state of the world is often years or even decades out of date. Strangely, university graduates tend to do even worse at Rosling’s test than everyone else.

As it happens, the world is in much better shape than we think, which is a relief. Population growth is slowing down, the divide between the developed and developing worlds is shrinking, and our health is dramatically improving. So don’t listen to all the doom and gloom you always hear on the news, or read in this blog, because things might be looking up. The world isn’t going to end from overpopulation leading to starvation, it’s going to end because of the inevitable monkey revolution. They’re smarter than we are, science says so. Prepare yourselves.

I am not sure what score the PG Tips chimpanzees would have achieved on the test but I am sure it would have been higher than my miserly 4 out of 9!

Why not take a version of the test in this quiz?  Then compare your results with the British respondents and read Rosling's explanations of why the world is in a better shape than we think. Please have a go!

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
Want to know more about studying social sciences with The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.

Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.




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