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The Future Belongs to Women Scientists and CEOs

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Hans Rosling talks about future population Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

For the first time in its 64-year history, a prestigious, invitation-only meeting of young scientists and Nobel Laureates is made up of more women than men. Between 3,000 and 4,000 graduate and post-graduate students in science applied to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, held every year in a picturesque Bavarian town near the southern tip of Lake Constance in Germany. “This year, for the first time, more young women than men have qualified” for the coveted 600 spots, Countess Bettina Bernadotte told participants at the opening ceremony in Lindau, Germany.

But that was probably not the most surprising thing most people learned this afternoon. More surprising was that even this highly educated group did not do so well on a pop quiz about some basic facts about global health. Before you make any snide remarks, realize that their answers were in line with those given by citizens of the U.S., U.K. and Sweden as well as some of Rosling’s fellow professors. In fact, the only group that scored better were a bunch of chimpanzees at a Swedish zoo, who, because they answered randomly, were not influenced by preconceived ideas of what the world is like.

Hans Rosling, the always entertaining and informative professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, posed four questions of the audience. Thanks to the interactive clickers available to all participants, we quickly discovered that less than 10% of the dignitaries, scientists and budding scientists knew that 80 percent of all children around the world are vaccinated against measles (most guessed either 20 percent or 50 percent) or that the number of children that will be born in the coming decades is actually not expected to grow significantly beyond the number that are currently born. (It’s the number of adults that is going to shoot up, boosting world population to 9 billion by 2050, up from 7 billion now.) A greater number of participants came up with the correct answer for the other two questions, but the gap between perception and reality was greatest for measles vaccination and projected number of children.

The point, as Rosling explained, was not to embarrass a bunch of scientists, but to help them to realize some of the very strong cognitive biases that still hold sway whenever we talk about the next 50 to 100 years of life on earth.  “If you score worse than random, then the problem is not lack of knowledge,” Rosling told the audience. The problem, he says, is the perception of the world divided between “developed” and “developing” countries–which might have been true once upon a time–but is no longer. And why that false perception refuses to budge from so many smart people’s fundamental understanding of so much evidence to the contrary.

Who do you think scores better than the chimpanzees when Rosling’s performs this pop quiz? The CEOs of international companies.

You can read more about Rosling’s quizzes in this BBC News article.





About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Ygyzys 7:22 pm 06/29/2014

    I fail to see how the title relates to the article, unless it’s going for non-sequiturs or click baits. Either way, try something more creative next time, like “The Future Belongs to Platypuses and Leprechauns”.

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  2. 2. Laroquod 8:47 am 06/30/2014

    The future belongs equally to all, and should not be reserved for any one race or gender or creed. Anyone who announces triumphantly that the future ‘belongs’ to his or her own gender is, simply put, a bigot, and not worth reading.

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  3. 3. Christine Gorman 9:07 am 06/30/2014

    Ygyzys and Laroquod:

    I concede that I maybe should have written “The future belongs to CEOS and women scientists” so everyone would immediately understand that the CEOS could be of either gender but, as befits a blog. I was writing fast.

    But surely you get the point that if the young scientists who attend a major conference are majority women, then there there may be an increase in mid-career women scientists in a few years, followed by an increase in women scientists at the peak of their careers in a generation from now?

    Similarly, Rosling’s point was that of all the groups of people he has tested on global health issues, CEOs fared best — better even than his fellow professors at the Karolinska Institute. Therefore they can make the investments and position their companies at greater advantage with respect to future demographic changes.

    Hence, the future belongs to CEOs (of whatever gender) and women scientists.

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  4. 4. Ygyzys 3:38 pm 06/30/2014

    Are you seriously trying to justify your title with the inexplicit number of female attendees in one meeting—in particular an invitation-only meeting with undisclosed selection criteria? I guess feminists striving towards equity in science can now stand down, mission accomplished, your services will no longer be required.
    As for a future belonging to CEOs, I’ll agree that is not much of a stretch, considering that the present already belongs to them. And what a wonderful job they’ve been doing, what great strides have been made towards greater equity—we’re already at 99%. I’m sure the selfless pursuit of improved margins and strong moral sense of fiduciary duty to the shareholders and investors will guarantee a bright and boundless future for science. Too bad that the ape revolution of 1991 did not come to fruition, otherwise the CEOs would enjoy even greater success, seeing as they score higher than chimpanzees.
    As for Laroquod’s assertion, I’ll respectfully disagree with his imputation of bigotry. I think some sort of modified Hanlon’s razor should be applied, and not attribute to bias that which is adequately explained by shameless click-baiting and link-mongering.

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  5. 5. rshoff2 11:08 am 07/1/2014

    After years, decades, centuries, of women trying to contribute to humanity through the sciences, it’s unfortunate that someone tries to claim ownership of the future in their name. Even if all scientists would happen to be women tommorow, women are people, and therefore tomorrow belongs to people.

    Please reconsider the competitive nature of claiming victory. We are all in this together. And we should all support each other.

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  6. 6. laurensilverman 7:58 pm 09/2/2014

    I liked this article even though the title has little to do with the content itself. I understand that there were mostly women at the meeting, but there isn’t much more said about it than that. Whether people like it or not, women ARE the future of science because we are finally being encouraged to join previously male-dominated fields and taking a stand against sexism.
    Besides that, the article itself is intriguing. I wasn’t expecting the answers to those questions either.

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