Dec 21, 2012

Posted by in Visualizations | 25 Comments

How educated are world leaders? Motivation.

The education levels of world leaders

An anthropological phenomenon that one observes when looking at the progression of people and societies is their tendency to ultimately free themselves from the shackles of servitude and achieve some form of self-governance.  Due to overcompensation, perhaps, the process may end up becoming cyclical, an effect that in its worst incarnations results in inhuman expressions of anger such as genocide.  That’s a question that I’ve been thinking about lately.

One of the threads in that trail of thought that I hadn’t seen visualized anywhere is political longevity, a staple of autocracies.  While thinking about this, I came across several studies that investigated the question of whether the education level of political leaders, among other factors, is a good predictor of positive effects such as economic growth.  Looking at these two questions seemed like a worthwhile and insightful project.

Collecting data began with sources like Britannica, Profiles of People in Power and Wikipedia.  After doing fifty or so countries, there were quite a few leaders about whose education level there was no information.  This was particularly the case with distant leaders in autocratic countries.  For those, I relied on LSE professor Timothy Besley’s dataset.  Note that I only consider academic degrees, which means that military academies that do not teach courses beyond basic military training are excluded.  Academies such as West Point and Saint-Cyr, for example, are considered, but Sandhurst isn’t.

The visualization got about 50,000 views and close to 2,000 shares on social media websites in the first few days of it going live.  It was great seeing people getting the take-away message, and tweeting things like “Oh, I didn’t know such and such country has only ever had this many heads of state” or “Today I learned that such and such country is the only country not to have a head of state who completed school”.  Being descriptive rather than suggestive, that was the whole idea of the project.  I received a few emails from people who pointed out that I had mistakenly noted down the education level of their president and provided me references as evidence.  In all such cases, I went back and fixed the data, citing those references.  The data file is .json and freely available for anyone to peruse, reuse and adapt.

I got into a discussion with someone online who criticized the topic as one that confuses education and schooling.  I mention this hear because it is an important point to keep in mind.  A political leader’s education level does not necessarily imply positive economic growth; put differently, it does not necessarily imply causation.  That is an argument that can easily be falsified by pointing to any number of countries, such as Zimbabwe, where 100 billion dollars gets you three eggs.  Education level as a variable has been shown, statistically, to have predictive power.  That is all.  Were this scientific inquiry, one would get into this further, but it’s not.

Here is a link to the project:

  1. For me the interesting thing is the extreme countries i.e. the countries that you point out as not having any leaders who went to school or having leaders who all went to graduate school. They were the most intriguing.

    That it is “interesting” and “intriguing” is to me reason enough to make this a great piece of work.

    Thank you.

  2. I stumbled on this this morning. Awesome work. Perhaps a future update could have all world countries?

    • Ali Almossawi says:

      Yes, indeed. The width was an artificial constraint, though there’s no reason why it has to exist. Feel free to work on it if you like; the code and data are available for free in the github repo linked in the footer.

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