26 May 2012

Would you take your grandmother into a London night club and expect her to like it? (Rosling, part 2)

This somewhat eye catching blog headline was offered by Klaus von Grebmer at IFPRI in response to my Rosling? Eh... post a couple of days ago.

Klaus used to be the Director of Communications at IFPRI and knows a thing or two about this topic.  Apart from the fact that I wouldn't be going to London nightclubs these days, let alone taking my grandmother (yes, Duncan Green is right, I can be grumpy), his point is that Hans Rosling is communicating to people who are not researchers.

Klaus writes:

"I think that Hans' presentation addresses a totally different audience. The TED audience is usually not attended by researchers and by people that know as much about population growth as the Pope knows about yodeling. Agreed, Lant does only take 2 minutes, but - contrary to Hans -what he says will not stick in the minds of non-researchers."

My colleague David O'Brien at IDRC (IDS Alum and one of our Board members) said:

"Don't forget what education psychologists tell us: we all learn and absorb messages differently. Some, and I guess you are in this camp, like the talking heads!! Others are more visual learners. Put your kids in front of the Rosling and Lant presentations and ask them the next day what each person said."

So first my grandmother, then the Pope, and now my kids have been brought into the debate.  

But I think I conceded the different audience point in the previous blog--although not easily.

For example, the Pritchett video is directed to non researchers.  It says simply that aid is not as effective as it could be because we take models that work in one place and blindly assume they can be transplanted elsewhere.  Trees transferred without their roots.  Pretty visual even without the image.  Function follows Form, when Form should follow Function.  I think that is pretty simple, profound and memorable.

A post I wrote a year or two back on Heath and Heath's "Made to Stick" is all about this topic, about how researchers can hear the music of the research in their heads and they often assume the music is blaring out to everyone, when of course they are the only listeners.  This makes the art of communication vital if evidence is to contribute to change.  And we all have to improve in this domain. 

Another domain in which I have been asked to up my game is controversy.  I am too sedate (see Simon in comments on previous post).  In general I like to think I don't shy away from controversy when I feel I am on solid ground (e.g. the MVP debate--see letter published in Lancet yesterday).  But controversy to pump up the stats?  Not for me.   But I will see if I can be more edgy within the evidence limits I set for myself.  

As always, thanks for the feedback.  It's ironic that this post created so much buzz when the one on the 2 Hoddinott papers took 10 times as much time to write and is much more important--just goes to show how much work I have to do to improve my own communication!


  1. Interesting how many defenders of Rosling you have stirred up. My own view, for what it's worth, is that the question about Rosling's worth is not that he speaks differently to a non-specialist audience. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, and one does not have to be an
    education psychologist to understand this! The question is how badly he oversimplifies. Surely, this is the nub of the dilemma in presentations aimed at mobilizing support and presenting upbeat narratives and hopeful possibilities about development issues to non-specialist audiences.

    Some people think, honorably, that it is better to always present the glass as being half-full lest support weaken. Others (I count myself among them) believe that this may make sense in the short run but that in the long run it is actually self-defeating because it will engender cynicism, etc.

  2. I'm sure your MVP letter will impress the academic establishment but the MVP stinks of huge Western funding going to a project favored by a powerful and influential Westerner, without reference to how disproportionate the level of funding is, how slick (and probably expensive) the PR is and how little of the solid data those involved seem willing to hand over for careful scrutiny.

    Other forums similar to yours have debated about the methodology used in a paper criticizing MVP, but whether development has benefited or lost out as a result of yet another media friendly charade doesn't seem to be discussed by 'development professionals'.

    You know how much value Rosling has in a developing country? None. His insipid videos, that make some people in the West feel so concerned (like you and your colleagues are 'concerned' about MVP), take up too much bandwidth for most people ever to bother watching them.

    Your blog could be just the kind of forum that people in a developing country could get involved in, learn from and could perhaps inform. It's HTML, they could get an email newsletter, no flashy downloads. But you just politely acknowledge whatever catches your eye and add some detached criticism every now and then. It is possible to be 'concerned' in The Lancet and downright pissed off on your blog; surely that's the point of blogs, or one of them?

  3. Yeah, surely everyone have their own interpretations on what they've seen, heard and read. You know, most of the people speculate and give out their own version of meanings on the said passages. But regarding on what you said here whether a grandmother will care to go to some night clubs and play pokers in some casinos, well, that, I don't know. People have their own characteristic on liking something there maybe people wanted it that way but there will always people who'll like it the other way.

  4. To make things light, I'll just answer your question. No I wouldn't take my grandmother to a night club because she is in a chiropractic therapy. I'm sure she'd prefer to rest at night.