Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

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I learned of this book through the blog of Bill Gates, where he temporarily offered to give it away to every college graduate this year. Rosling is famous for his TED talks where he uses graphs and data to show things are better than most people think they are…and yet, people still didn’t believe him, so this book is his last attempt to, in his words, “fight devastating ignorance” (he died as he finished writing this book).

Factfulness is a book designed to help those of us living in the Western world realize how much better things are than we may think. Rosling illustrates our misconceptions by starting the book with 13 multiple-choice questions about the world…and then reveals that a chimpanzee picking randomly would get the right answer significantly more often than most of his readers. An example question is “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? A. 20% B. 40% C. 60%” Only 10% of respondents in wealthy Western countries answer this question correctly, compared to the 33% of the chimpanzees choosing randomly. If you think you can do better, you can try to answer the 13 questions here.

Rosling goes on to examine, as his subtitle explains, “Ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world, and why things are better than you think”. The ten instincts Rosling describes are a combination of innumeracy as well as cognitive biases, and I’ll just list them here, along with Rosling’s recommendations on how to counter the instincts:

  • the Gap instinct – stories about the developing world often emphasize the difference in average conditions (which is heavily influenced by extreme outliers), rather than the majority overlap between the populations. Or the stories describe the extremes e.g. contrasting Manhattan and the poorest of the poor rather than the majority experience. So Rosling says to “look for the majority” to combat the Gap instinct.
  • the Negativity instinct – Bad events are news. “Good news is not news…Gradual improvement is not news.” Rosling notes that humans have a hard time “distinguishing between a level (e.g. bad) and a direction of change (e.g. better). Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad.”
  • the Straight line instinct – Humans tend to assume linear progressions, where trends continue in a straight line, when the world has many other types of curves, including asymptotic growth, S-curves of technology adoption, or exponential growth (really bad when it comes to diseases).
  • the Fear instinct – “The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected – by your own attention filter or by the media – precisely because it is scary.” Note that the actual risk can be very different than your perceived danger due to the rarity of exposure to it e.g. the majority of the US public feels “worried that a family member would become a victim of terrorism”, despite “the risk that your loved one will be killed by a drunk person is nearly 50 times higher than the risk he or she will be killed by a terrorist”. When confronted by scary stories in the news, take the time to calm down and examine the actual facts.
  • the Size instinct – Numbers by themselves can tell a deceiving story – e.g. 4.2 million babies died before the age of 1 in 2016. That is a horribly big number. But in 1950, that number was 14.4 million despite total world population being less than half of 2016 at the time, so the infant mortality rate is six times less than it was in 1950. Whenever you are confronted with a large number, look at the trend, and/or put it in terms of a ratio (e.g. dead babies per total population).
  • the Generalization instinct – Generalization, and putting what we experience into categories, is absolutely necessary to function, but “can also distort our worldview. It can make us mistakenly group together things, or people, or countries that are actually very different.” So “it will be helpful to you if you always assume your categories are misleading”. “Look for differences within groups and similarities across groups.” Beware of “The Majority” and of “exceptional examples”. Assume that other people are not idiots, and be curious to imagine why their behavior might make sense.
  • the Destiny instinct – we sometimes believe that just because things are changing slowly, they are not changing at all, despite the fact that gradual improvements will add up to big changes with enough time. Rosling uses the example of his home country of Sweden, which in the time of his grandmother’s childhood in 1891 was at the equivalent level of development of the poorest African countries today. By his mother’s childhood, Sweden was equivalent to Zambia or other mid-tier African countries. By his own childhood, Sweden was at the level of Egypt today, and by his children’s time, it was entering modern wealth. In other words, though parts of Africa look impossibly far behind today, they are only a couple generations behind even rich countries like Sweden. Things change in the course of a lifetime, so the knowledge of our youth might be outdated e.g. people’s answers to the 13 questions are in line with where the world was…in 1950.
  • the Single Perspective instinct – When all we have is a hammer, we look at everything as nails. Alternatively, beware claiming “expertise beyond your field; be humble about what you don’t know.” Develop a toolbox of perspectives to get a more accurate understanding.
  • the Blame instinct – We prefer to find a scapegoat when things are not what we wish them to be, but “blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future. Look for causes, not villains. Look for systems, not heroes.”
  • the Urgency instinct – When a decision feels urgent, we often act before understanding the situation, and this can make things worse. “Insist on the data” and “Be wary of drastic action” – “take small steps” to fully understand the impact of your actions before committing to large scale change.

The most powerful distinction in the book for me was dividing people based on their income rather than by “developed vs. developing countries” or “West vs. East” (distinctions that illustrate the Gap instinct, the Generalization instinct and the Destiny instinct). Rosling makes the case that income determines lifestyle far more than other distinctions that we think are more meaningful such as country or religion or culture. The income levels that Rosling describes are:

  1. Level 1 – $1/day – ~1 billion people today – extreme poverty where one cooks over an open fire, and the whole day is spent walking to fetch water and collecting firewood to cook one’s porridge.
  2. Level 2 – $4/day – ~3B people today – can afford to buy a bike, a chicken for eggs, and a gas stove, all of which save time (faster water, no firewood gathering), which allows time for kids to go to school instead of work, and enable a brighter future for them.
  3. Level 3 – $16/day – ~2B people today – Still working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, but can now afford a motorcycle, tap water, stable electricity, and to purchase a variety of food.
  4. Level 4 – $64/day and up – ~1B people today – the level of most people reading the book, with at least a high school education, a car, hot and cold water, and the ability to eat out and go on vacation.

Rosling observes that from the perspective of those of us in level 4, levels 1, 2 and 3 all look like crushing poverty, but he says levels 2 and 3 are drastically different than the extreme poverty of level 1; in fact, he says that levels 2 and 3 should be considered middle income (equivalent to the Western standard of living in the 1940s). He invites each of us to explore his Dollar Street site where his team posted photos from around the world of families at each income level.

Rosling’s book is a good introduction to the critical thinking skills necessary to navigate a world increasingly saturated with bad news. It is also an incredibly hopeful book, focusing on the positive trends in the world; I love his mantra that even though some things are bad, they are getting better at the same time. His use of his native Sweden was particularly evocative to describe how living conditions for his family have dramatically improved in just a few generations, and inviting us to imagine what might be possible if we let all countries develop along a similar trajectory. I can see why Bill Gates recommended this book – it’s an easy to read introduction to these concepts and we can all use a reminder that things are generally improving.

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