Factfulness

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why things Are Better Than We Think
By Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
Flatiron Books, New York, 2018

First things first: if you’ve never seen any of Hans Rosling’s TED Talks, please go and watch this one right now.  His talks are way more important than my blog.  (But come right back!)

* * *

Isn’t he fantastic!  Aren’t those bubble charts amazing!  Doesn’t his dataset change your mindset?

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Unfortunately, Hans Rosling died on February 7, 2017.  His book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why things Are Better Than We Think, written with his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund, is a guide to thinking carefully and critically. It’s the culmination of his personal mission to fight ignorance with a fact-based worldview he calls “factfulness.”

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To see the world more factfully, Rosling wants us overcome ten “instincts” that often get in the way of clear thinking and cause us to jump to the wrong conclusions. For example, there’s the Gap Instinct, our tendency to see things in binary, black and white, rich and poor, and most dangerously of all, us and them. We divide things in two, imagining there’s a large gap in the middle. In fact there’s usually a continuum. Most of the time, most of the things are in the middle.

For each of the ten instincts, Rosling provides interesting, fact-filled examples drawn from his own career as a doctor and international public health researcher and professor. He’s not shy about owning up to his mistakes either; some funny, and some tragic. He gives us tips on how to avoid or overcome these instincts. To avoid the Gap Instinct, he recommends we stay alert for comparisons of extremes and then look for the majority. Insist on seeing data about the middle because that’s where the majority usually is.

One of the themes that runs through the book, and through many of his TED Talks too, is that the gap between the developed and developing worlds no longer exists. He says it’s meaningless to talk about these two categories because they’re obsolete. Instead he uses a framework based on income levels.

Level 1 2 3 4
Population 1 billion 3 billion 2 billion 1 billion
Income $1 / day $4 / day $16 / day $64 / day

People in level 1, about 800 million today, live in extreme poverty on $1/day or less. Many of them live in sub-Saharan Africa or in war-torn places like Syria and Afghanistan. Another billion people live at the opposite extreme in level 4, mainly in Europe and North America. But the majority of the world, 5 of 7 billion, live in the middle.

Throughout the book, Rosling returns to these four levels as a framework for talking about life expectancy, child mortality, education, and other issues in public health and global development. It’s a powerful and eye-opening way to look at them.

Incidentally he echoes the optimistic views about human progress presented in Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress which I reviewed here.

Rosling insists that data be used to tell the truth, and not to advance a particular cause.

In the chapter about the Urgency Instinct, the urge to “take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger”, he describes how former Vice President Al Gore wanted him to present only the most dire scenarios about the impact of global climate change in order to spur action. Rosling refused. He strongly believed that climate change is one of the most urgent threats facing humanity. But he believed even more strongly that presenting a distorted view of the data would inevitably lead to mistrust of both the data and the scientists presenting it.

“Data must be used to tell the truth, not to call to action, no matter how noble the intentions.” [p. 236]

Factfulness gives us three things: We get a fascinating look at Rosling’s life and career from the stories and examples he uses throughout the book. We get a progress report on how the world is doing addressing the problems of public health and human development. And most important, we get a vital toolkit for how to think critically, with both humility and curiosity, to understand our world. Because, as Hans Rosling concludes:

“When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.” [p. 255]

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Related Links

Hans Rosling’s TED Talks
https://www.ted.com/speakers/hans_rosling

Gapmider
https://www.gapminder.org/

Bill and Melinda Gates tribute to Hans Rosling
https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Remembering-Hans-Rosling

Bill Gates review of Factfulness
https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Factfulness

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