Summary of “Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling: a major book that teaches you how to see the world more objectively and avoid being taken in by fake news and prophets of doom. So if you want to get back into the healthy habit of forming your own opinion about the facts, this is the place to start!
Hans Rosling, 2019, 397 p.
Chronicle and summary of the book “Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.”
This book was written by one person, Hans Rosling — but it was inspired by three people: the author, his son, Ola Rosling, and his daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund.
Ola Rosling is a statistician. Anna Rosling Rönnlund is a sociologist, photographer and designer. Hans Rosling (who died in 2017) was a doctor and researcher, then an advisor to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He also founded the Swedish branch of Doctors Without Borders. Together, they created the Mindgaper Foundation and statistical information software called Trendalyzer that Google acquired in 2007.
In terms of communication, Hans Rosling is no novice. As the back cover of the book reminds us:
“With over 35 million views, his TED talks put him on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world.”
Bill Gates and Barak Obama praised this book, as did major international media outlets like The Times and Le Monde. So why was the book so successful? Two reasons, undoubtedly: the strength of the hypothesis — if we base ourselves on the facts, the world is doing much better that we often believe — and the writing style — clear, dramatic and humorous.
Chapter 1. The Gap Instinct
Where it all started
Figures tell us something about the lives that are hidden behind them. Take the example of the infant mortality rate. Not only does it tell us how many children die or survive (out of 1000), it also tells us about the overall quality of the society in question. One fact appears, and the author summarises it as follows:
“Just so you know,[…] you won’t find any countries where child mortality has increased. Because the world in general is getting better.” (Factfulness, p. 39)
The mega misconception that “the world is divided in two”
According to the author, ten instincts — or if you prefer 10 forms of cognitive bias — prevent us from seeing reality as it is. These ten “dramatic” instincts tend to make us more pessimistic than we should be, if we base things on facts alone.
The first one is the gap instinct. It is tempting to divide reality in two, and put an enormous gap between each side (for example, North versus South, rich versus or the “West” versus the rest of the world).
It has gigantic influence and that is why we can call it a mega misconception. Its effect is to distort the scale, in other words the infinite variability, of the world.
Hunting down the first mega misconception
The simplistic pairings given above: North/South, Rich/Poor, West/Rest of the world can be broken down. There are other labels (such as the developed and developing world, etc.). The problem once again is that these representations are simplistic and do not stand up to scrutiny when they are confronted with data, which is far more colourful.
This vision of a two-sided reality may have been founded in facts in 1965 (Hans Rosling has a graph to show this), but by the time the book was published, this was no longer the case. In 2017, “Eighty-five per cent of mankind are already inside the box that used to be named “developed world.”(Factfulness, p. 45).
So, the world is no longer divided in two between rich and poor countries, developing countries and developed countries. The truth is somewhere in between. Nowadays, many more countries are located somewhere between a situation of extreme poverty and great wealth. The gap has been narrowed, and sometimes it does not even exist.
And yet, the misconception endures.
Capturing the beast
Let’s take another example: not infant mortality this time, but the level of education of young girls (in other words, the number of girls who complete primary school education in the world). Just 2% do not complete it!
And if you are wondering how many people live in countries with low income, the answer may also surprise you. It is 9% of the worldwide population. Yes, some people live in very difficult conditions (in Afghanistan, Somalia or Central Africa, but it is not the case everywhere, even in countries with low income).
Help! The majority is missing.
In fact, the majority of the world’s population — 75 % of humanity — lives in countries with average income.
“Combining middle- and high-income countries, that makes 91 per cent of humanity, most of whom have integrated into the global market and made great progress toward decent lives. This is a happy realization for humanitarians and a crucial realization for global businesses. There are 5 billion potential consumers out there, improving their lives in the middle, and wanting to consume shampoo, motorcycles, menstrual pads, and smartphones. You can easily miss them if you go around thinking they are “poor.”” (Factfulness, p. 50)
The four levels
There is no longer “us” and “them”. Let’s stop with that. It doesn’t help anyone. We can, however, do some sorting in order to make sense of the world. Rosling suggests four income levels:
- With just $2 per day;
- Up to $8 of income per day;
- From $8 to $32 daily income;
- Above $32.
If there are around 1 billion people at level 1 and one billion people at level 4, most people are at level 2 or 3, making three billion people at level 2 and two billion people at level 3. This 4-way split helps us to think about worldwide phenomena in a more appropriate way than the binary split we had in mind previously.
Generally, a single individual cannot climb from level 1 to level 4. It is the story of several generations. The whole point of this scale is to show that it is possible to evolve from one level to another one.
In addition to this, thanks to different criteria (access to water, type of transport, cooking technique, food), we can become aware of the actual lifestyle that a person has depending on their level.
The Gap Instinct
The World Bank opted for this model of four income levels, but other international institutions are still on the fence. Why is it so hard to eradicate the Them/Us prejudice?
Because we love to “dichotomise”, or separate things into just two hemispheres. Good versus Evil is simply the most obvious example.
Happily, you have now learned to resist expressions such as “the broad gap” between North and South, that many journalists and other storytellers like to present.
How to control the gap instinct
There are three signs that someone is telling you a gap story:
- Comparison of averages;
- Comparison of extremes;
- The view from up here.
While averages are often useful, they can also mask the expanse hiding behind them and create artificial gaps. By changing the calculation method, we sometimes get very different results that can considerably refine our knowledge and fill in the gaps we thought we had found.
Comparison of extremes hides, once again, the whole range of what lies in the middle. By engaging with extremes (rich versus poor), we dramatise the situation with a goal in mind – often a political one.
Let’s take the example of Brazil: swift comparison reveals a broad disparity between the highest and the lowest revenue. But if we analyse further using the four income levels seen above, we note that the extremes are under-represented, compared to levels 2 and 3.
When it comes to the view from up here, the defect is that it evens out the perspectives. Typically, you are part of level 4. For you, anyone who does not enjoy the same advantages as you must be “poor”. In short, from your lofty position, you neutralise the differences that exist above you. But it makes sense to distinguish between people walking around barefoot and people who can buy a bicycle or even a motorbike.
“Factfulness is … recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be.” (Factfulness, p. 67)
Chapter 2. The negativity instinct
The mega misconception that “the world is getting worse”
Why see the world in a negative, rather than a positive light? This is the second instinct that we need to fight. When you ask people about the way the world is going, they often tend to think that it is getting worse and worse.
Statistics as therapy
“It is easy to be aware of all the bad things happening in the world. It’s harder to know about the good things: billions of improvements that are never reported. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not talking about some trivial positive news to supposedly balance out the negative. I am talking about fundamental improvements that are world-changing but are too slow, too fragmented, or too small one-by-one to ever qualify as news. I’m talking about the secret silent miracle of human progress.” (Factfulness, p. 73)
So what are these forms of progress that Hans Rosling points out?
Point one: extreme poverty. According to the data presented, extreme poverty was halved between 1800 and 2017. In twenty years, the share of the world population suffering under extreme poverty dropped from 29% to 9%. Fewer than 10% of people know this.
Analysis 2: Life expectancy. It continues to increase, from 31 years in 1800 to 72 years in 2017. Disasters continue to happen, of course, but history allows us to understand what we can do to prevent a repeat of the errors of the past and see the progress that has been achieved.
Study 3: the evolution of Sweden over the past 200 years. Today Sweden is a level 4 country (most individuals live at this level). Health is better and wealth is also increasing. It is, however, interesting to note that it was at level 1 in 1800 and at level 2 around 1920.
32 other improvements, some more surprising than others, are introduced by the author.
Among the negative phenomena that are decreasing, we can mention: less legal slavery and oil slicks, fewer plane crash deaths, less child labour, fewer nuclear weapons, fewer HIV infections, fewer deaths caused by war and smog, etc.
Among positive phenomena on the rise are: more new music and new films, better infant survival rates for cancer, more protected species, more access to electricity, better access to water, more democracy and internet access, better literacy levels and vaccines, etc.
The negativity instinct
The author points out three phenomena that he believes make the negativity instinct worse:
- Misremembering the past;
- Selective reporting by journalists and activists;
- The feeling that as long as things are bad, it is heartless to say they are getting better.
The first phenomenon is related to the old saying: “Things ain’t what they used to be”. But this is not true! What was better in the past? These days, more people live in decent housing, there is better transport and clothing than before.
Of course, new problems have turned up (for example problems of immorality or the high price of certain products), but the problem is that these new concerns hide the overall underlying improvement.
Hans Rosling believes that selective information is another worrying phenomenon. The constant flow of news from the media gives us the strong feeling that the overall situation in the world is deteriorating. New means of communication have aggravated this phenomenon. Activists and lobbyists also exaggerate certain stories to defend the causes that are dear to them.
There is a paradox here:
“The news constantly alerts us to bad events in the present. The doom-laden feeling that this creates in us is then intensified by our inability to remember the past.” (Factfulness, p. 92)
The third and final point is that feelings are often stronger than thought. We are touched by negative events and they make us feel – rather than objectively know – that things are bad. But we have to dissociate the worry that we can feel about one thing from the actual state of the world.
“This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a world view that is constructive and useful. […] I see no conflict between celebrating this progress and continuing to fight for more.” (Factfulness, p. 94- 95)
How to control the negativity instinct
To balance out this pessimistic bias, the author makes three suggestions:
- Bad and better There are negative things happening in the world, but overall improvement is taking place;
- Expect bad news. As we have seen, the media tend to deliver bad news more often than good news. You need to find relevant information for yourself about how things are improving in the world.
- Don’t censor History. Keep a lucid eye on the progress that happens over time, even if the current period has its fair share of worrisome problems.
Factfulness is … recognizing when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful. To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news. (Factfulness, p. 100)
Chapter 3. The straight line instinct
The most frightening graph I ever saw
Graphs with figures that double (2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc.) exponentially are terrifying. They can hide genuine disasters, like the Ebola epidemic that ravaged Liberia in the early 2000s.
It is important to quickly become aware of what these figures mean to act as soon as possible. Hans Rosling tried to do just that by intervening in Liberia. Unfortunately, he feels he was too late.
The mega misconception by which the “world population is JUST increasing and increasing”.
The word “just” is capital here to debunk the third bias, that of the straight line: many people think that the world population is “just” increasing non-stop, in a straight line. But this is not true.
To get a correct idea of how the world population is increasing — a key question in sustainable development — you need to have an idea of how many children will be living in the year 2100. Official UN figures predict that there will be two billion children on earth by that date. In other words: they do not predict any increase in the line! Why?
Firstly, because the growth line of the world population is not “just” straight and continuing into infinity. It will flatten.
“The world population today is 7.6 billion people, and yes, it’s growing fast. Still, the growth has already started to slow down, and the UN experts are pretty sure it will keep slowing down over the next few decades. They think the curve will flatten out at somewhere between 10 and 12 billion people by the end of the century.” (Factfulness, p. 110)
The shape of the population curve
To understand this point, you have to question the causes behind the population increase. In fact, there will not be more children, or even old people, but more adults. In other words, fewer new children, and ultimately the flattening of the curve, but – between these two things – an increase in the adult population.
The drop in fertility that can be seen in many parts of the world implies fewer children and a slowing of the increase in the world population by the end of the century. This is connected to the fact that many people are leaving poverty. Fewer children are “needed” for each family unit to survive.
“The large increase in population is going to happen not because there are more children. And not, in the main, because old folks are living longer. In fact the UN experts do predict that by 2100, world life expectancy will have increased by roughly 11 years, adding 1 billion old people to the total and taking it to around 11 billion. The large increase in population will happen mainly because the children who already exist today are going to grow up and “fill up” the diagram with 3 billion more adults. This “fill-up effect” takes three generations, and then it is done.” (Factfulness, p. 115)
Previously, the balance between human presence on earth and preservation of the planet was achieved through the deaths of large numbers of infants. Moving forward, the balance will be achieved because parents will not want to have more than two children and they can control fertility using contraceptive techniques.
How to control the straight line instinct
Not all lines are straight! Remember this when you picture the future based on a graph.
The author shows some straight lines (link between time spent in school and income levels, for example), along with other types of graphs with S-shaped lines and slides. These two kinds of lines are particular in that they stabilise after a while, in particular when the threshold of 100% of the population in question is reached.
We also find humps that indicate phenomena where the extremes are less strong or under-represented.
For example, when we study tooth decay among children aged 12, we notice that it is infrequent among level 1 individuals (with little access to sugar) and also infrequent among level 4 individuals (who take good care of their teeth). In contrast, levels 2 and 3 are more affected.
“Factfulness is … recognizing the assumption that a line will just continue straight, and remembering that such lines are rare in reality. To control the straight line instinct, remember that curves come in different shapes.” (Factfulness, p. 132)
Chapter 4. The fear instinct
Fear makes us see things that do not exist. We are tempted to see the things we fear everywhere, but this is not the case. Our mind becomes fuzzy and we are unable to operate sound judgement.
Unfortunately, we tend to see the world through small keyholes: our negative instincts or judgement bias, of which fear is a part (with the straight line, the gap, etc.). These filters select the information we retain. We end up seeing nothing else, without realising that we are limiting our attention to a very small number of elements that are quite often unverified. The media often use the fear instinct to capture our attention.
The fear instinct
Hans Rosling points out a paradox:
“The image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.” (Factfulness, p. 139)
Fear is a useful instinct that historically allows humans to survive (this continues to be the case for many individuals with level 1 or 2 incomes). However, when this fear is exploited by the media, it systematically deforms our judgement and damages our understanding of how the world works.
Natural disasters: times of crisis
There have always been earthquakes, cyclones and pandemics. In fact, the number of victims of natural disasters has fallen by more than half over the course of the last century. Why? Because we are better prepared and overall less poor than before.
Unfortunately, people at level 1 are those most likely to suffer from natural disasters. But Rosling points out that their numbers are also falling. 31 people per million were affected between 1991 and 2016 against 59 between 1965 and 1990.
“The huge reduction in deaths from natural disasters is yet another trend to add to the pile of mankind’s ignored, unknown success stories.” (Factfulness, p. 143)
Of course, when disaster strikes, the priority is to help and to do one’s best to prevent it happening again. But it is worth bearing in mind that things are not getting worse. They are getting better and that is why we must continue to fight.
40 million invisible planes
Another example: it is safer to fly by plane than ever before! There has been a dramatic decrease in deaths related to plane accidents in the world. Thanks to the minute work of the administrations that report on and analyse accidents, great progress has been made.
War and conflict
You are living in the most peaceful decades in human history. It’s hard to believe, I know, when you watch the news and worry – and rightly so – about the horrors that wars continue to create. But it’s true.
“Remember: things can be bad, and getting better. Getting better, but still bad.” (Factfulness, p. 148)
DDT, nuclear contamination, questionable vaccines: the past has given us its fair share of contaminations. They traumatised us to the point where many people today are afraid of chemicals and overly sceptical about science in general.
However, while scepticism and a critical mind should be maintained, they should limit themselves to the facts. All chemical products have advantages and disadvantages. Reports from important organisations — WHO in particular — show the advantages of using certain products (such as DDT itself) in certain situations.
Unfortunately, fear prevents some governments from resorting to techniques that could be genuine solutions. They do this to avoid damaging public opinion that is wrongly scared.
Here is a figure that is on the rise: that of the number of people killed by terrorists in the world. But it affects fewer people living in countries with level 4 income. It is even one of the lowest causes of mortality (compared, for example, with alcohol).
“But dramatic terrorist incidents in countries on Level 4 receive widespread media coverage that is denied to most victims of alcohol. And the very visible security controls at airports, which make the risk lower than ever, might give an impression of increased danger.” (Factfulness, p. 158)
Fear vs. danger: being afraid of the right things
You should know how to repress fear to avoid making erroneous judgements and therefore – especially – avoid taking the wrong action. Put differently, you need to learn to differentiate between perceived risk and actual risk.
Something can seem scary without necessarily being dangerous. Instead of scaring ourselves, we need to focus our attention on tangible perils threatening us today (for example, diarrhoea continues to kill many children worldwide).
Factfulness is … recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks. To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.” (Factfulness, p. 160)
Chapter 5. The size instinct
The deaths I do not see
Make a choice: put all your resources into saving one child or try to save more children by offering them less care? Hans Rosling faced this dilemma during his years working a doctor in Mozambique. For him — and against the opinion of some people around him — he had to take care of as many people as possible, and sometimes he had to make painful sacrifices to do this.
It can seem callous to talk about figures and savings, especially when it comes to counting dead children. But it is important to see beyond that to deep realities about evolution thanks to statistics.
The size instinct
“You tend to get things out of proportion. I do not mean to sound rude. Getting things out of proportion, or misjudging the size of things, is something that we humans do naturally. It is instinctive to look at a lonely number and misjudge its importance. It is also instinctive—like in the hospital in Nacala —to misjudge the importance of a single instance or an identifiable victim. These two tendencies are the two key aspects of the size instinct.” (Factfulness, p. 166)
We are impressed by large numbers and we often overestimate certain figures when our thoughts are not clear.
How to control the size instinct
Two instruments allow us to keep a cool head when faced with large numbers: comparison and division!
First, compare the numbers. This avoids talking about figures in isolation. In 2016, 4.2 million babies died. This is a UNICEF figure. It’s horrible. But is this figure enormous? Not for Rosling. It is small when compared with others. In 2015, it was 4.4 million, and in 2014, 4.5 million. In 1950? 14.4 million.
The 80/20 principle
The 80/20 principle is simple: in a list of calculations, look for the 20 % of numbers that represent 80 % of the total and handle them (compare and divide them) first. The big figures have the most to teach us.
The PIN code of the world
Where does the largest portion of the world population live today? Where will it live tomorrow? Today: 1 billion in America, 1 billion in Europe, 1 billion in Africa, 4 billion in Asia (today the PIN code is 1-1-1-4). In 2100? 1 billion in America, 1 billion in Europe, 4 billion in Africa, 5 billion in Asia (new PIN code: 1-1-4-5).
“We […] misjudge our importance in the future global marketplace. Many of us forget to behave properly with those who will control the future trade deals.” (Factfulness, p. 177)
Divide the numbers
Dividing one number by another number (for example the number of children in a town by the number of children per school in the town) can create a rate. Rates are often significant.
For example: does it make sense to say that China pollutes more than the USA? Perhaps we should calculate the rate of CO2 emissions per person? If we do, we will see that we should not accuse China or India more than Western countries!
“Factfulness is … recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive (small or large), and remembering that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number.
To control the size instinct, get things in proportion.” To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks.” (Factfulness, p. 184)
Chapter 6. The generalization instinct
The generalization instinct
Generalisation is necessary: we all do it and we are right to do so. We cannot offer up reasoning and judgement without using categories that unify the phenomena. However, it can work against us and stop us from noticing important differences or it may encourage us to leap to hasty conclusions.
Stereotypes and prejudices are “intellectual blockers” that stop us from thinking properly. For example, rich bankers at a big investment bank think — incorrectly if Hans Rosling’s data is to be believed — that just 20 % of children in the world are vaccinated. In fact it is 80%!
What does the author make of this? The investors miss opportunities to make considerable profits, because they misjudge these populations. Why is that? Because we are drowning in information that encourages us to believe that there is a gigantic gap between “them” and “us”.
“Be cautious about generalizing from Level 4 experiences to the rest of the world. Especially if it leads you to the conclusion that other people are idiots.” (Factfulness, p. 190)
We must not forget that the majority of the world’s population is in the process of improving its standard of living. More and more people are moving up to income levels 2 and 3, offering them the opportunity to purchase consumer goods.
Manufacturers of consumer goods, strategic planners and sales people should get this into their heads, instead of searching for ways to create niche products for level 4 consumers whose basic needs are already satisfied.
Travelling and getting to know other cultures is the best way to avoid misguided generalisations Of course we all make mistakes. We generalise based on bite-sized pieces of reality that are merely fragments: our experience in our country appears to be valid for other countries. Or conversely, we feel that things are extremely different, whereas they are quite similar.
Generalisation can be dangerous, because it leads us to act in an inadequate manner that is not appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves. When we travel, we learn about cultural differences. We also learn to be more cautious and flexible.
How to control the generalization instinct
Solution number 1 (apart from travel) is to find better categories. It can be useful to compare concrete things: how do people live in different places. How and where do they sleep? The website Dollar Street contains more than 40,000 photos that teach us about how people live in countries at income level 1, 2, 3 and 4.
We notice that income levels bring together people with very diverse backgrounds. By way of illustration: food is generally cooked the same way when you are a level 2 Chinese or Nigerian individual.
In short, income level is a category that can bring numbers together in a different way than ethnicity or religion for example.
Solution number 2 (complementary): question your categories. To do this:
- Question the differences in each category;
- Find similarities between different groups;
- Doubt the “majority”;
- Beware of exceptional examples;
- Rid yourself of the notion that you are “normal”;
- Avoid generalisations between respective groups.
“Factfulness is … recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can’t stop generalization and we shouldn’t even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalizing incorrectly. To control the generalization instinct, question your categories.” (Factfulness, p. 210)
Chapter 7. The destiny instinct
“Destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change.” (Factfulness, p. 213)
Finding regularities is very useful to survival. We all do it and we are right to do this. But this preservation instinct pushes us to limit our actions in relation to knowledge that we consider to be acquired once and for all and this is prejudicial.
Like every living being, societies and cultures change and evolve. Non-western societies evolve rapidly, but we are not very aware of this.
To say that Africa is in a desperate situation or that the Muslim world is fundamentally different to the Christian world are two examples of prejudice related to the destiny instinct.
How rocks move
Take the case of Africa. Certainly, North Africa fares better. But even in Sub-Saharan Africa, progress is enormous, despite poverty remaining very visible and very problematic. For example, 50 Sub-Saharan African countries have reduced infant mortality faster than Sweden in its time.
We need to stop thinking that the West will keep making progress and stop thinking that Africa cannot transform! This harms international investments— especially when the prejudices are passed on by large organisations like the IMF — and does not resolve crises like the one in 2008.
Another case: Iran. Progress in matters of health, education and contraception, in particular, led to a dramatic fall in the number of babies born to each woman. Richer and better educated, Iranian women decide to have fewer children. This is despite religion being a big part of everyday life.
In other words: religion is not the factor that determines the choice of the number of children. Level of income has a far deeper influence.
How to control the destiny instinct
We need to first become aware that slow change is nevertheless change. The lines move, little by little, even if it appears to be imperceptible at first glance.
Remember to update your knowledge, instead of taking things for granted. Be curious and open to new data that presents itself to you.
Look at your own story. Talk to your grandparents. How did your own country transform? What were/are their values?
I have no vision.
What is the central idea here? Are we expecting Africa to become identical to a European country, for example? Hans Rosling talks about how surprised he was at the response from the President of the African Union Commission when she told him that he had no “vision” for Africa. This is how the author puts it:
“As a finishing remark you said that you hoped your grandchildren would come as tourists to Africa and travel on the new high-speed trains we plan to build. What kind of a vision is that? It is the same old European vision. Nkosazana looked me straight in my eyes. It is my grandchildren who are going to visit your continent and travel on your high-speed trains and visit that exotic ice hotel I’ve heard you have up in northern Sweden. It is going to take a long time, we know that. And it is going to take lots of wise decisions and large investments. But my 50-year vision is that Africans will be welcome tourists in Europe and not unwanted refugees.” (Factfulness, p. 231)
The colonial spirit is well-rooted, even in people who are used to making efforts, people who are familiar with Africa, as is the case with Hans Rosling. Much remains to be done, and we can all learn and evolve.
“Factfulness is … recognizing that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes. To control the destiny instinct, remember slow change is still change.” (Factfulness, p. 234)
Chapter 8. The single perspective instinct
Who can we trust?
The media do not lie, but they offer an incomplete “snapshot” of the world. If you only use the media to build your world vision, then it will be limited and truncated.
It is good to talk to experts who have devoted their lives to a single theme. But you must also be on your guard in this case.
The single perspective instinct
It has the charm of simplicity, but it can be deceptive. There is no single cause for any problem. So be careful not to slip from beautiful simplicity into being simplistic.
Contradiction is essential Do not be afraid to roll up your sleeves and test your ideas about the world. Do not remain inside your bubble, with the same opinions and the same friends.
Why are we so often stuck in a simplistic view of things? Because of political ideology on one hand, and professional bias on the other.
That is why you should be wary of what experts have to say, while relying on them when the data is guaranteed. Demographic experts or history experts do wonderful work, but this does not prevent them from being wrong. They tend to see everything through one single prism.
The same applies to activists: they can play a crucial role in changing things, but they are sometimes ignorant about essential data. They may exaggerate or deform the problems to which they devote their time, whether consciously or unconsciously.
There has been progress in human rights, animal protection, women’s education, climate awareness, catastrophe relief, and many other areas where activists raise awareness by saying that things are getting worse That progress is often largely thanks to these activists. Maybe they could achieve even more, though, if they did not have such a singular perspective—if they
had a better understanding themselves of the progress that had been made, and a greater willingness to communicate it to those they seek to engage.” (Factfulness, p. 241)
Hammers and nails
There is no one turnkey solution to all problems. Thousands of solutions adapt to each singular problem. Because experts have invested a lot of time in their knowledge (which is a solution), sometimes they want to solve every problem in the same way.
Numbers, for example, are not the only solution. Talking leads to drafting hypotheses, not just interpreting data. Direct observation is also crucial.
Another false unique solution is medicine. Sometimes prevention is better than the cure. This requires thinking about a series of elements that the doctor does not usually take into account (education, access to water and electricity, road transport, etc.).
Liberal democracy and social security come from ideology. It is vital to have goals and dreams. But beware that they do not become simplistic set ideas.
Take two examples: health in Cuba and in the USA. Cuba is a level 3 country, and it does quite well in terms of the health of its population, despite relatively high poverty. The United States is a rich country where – despite considerable investment – life expectancy is not very high.
There is a single way of thinking on both sides: the idea that the government can fix everything (Cuba), and the idea that the market can fix everything (USA).
But democracy is not the be-all and end-all of progress that can be made in terms of health, education and improved revenue. In truth, and it is hard to accept, countries with the biggest economic and social growth are not always countries that have a strong democratic political culture.
“Factfulness is … recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions. To control the single perspective instinct, get a toolbox, not a hammer.” (Factfulness, p. 256)
Chapter 9. The blame instinct
The blame instinct
We want to blame someone! The pharmaceutical industry favours research into ‘rich people’ illnesses. Is it the fault of the chairperson, the board of directors, the shareholders, or the people who invest in pension funds? The “fault”, the “cause” of something negative is often diffuse. In any case, it is rarely simplistic.
But this way of thinking is bad for us: we cannot resolve a problem by accusing a single individual or group. The reasonable approach is to study the system that produced the problem.
Play the blame game
Businessmen, journalists, foreigners – there is no shortage of candidates to blame.
- For example, businessmen are not simply the “bad guys” compared to international humanitarian organisations.;
- Journalists are themselves fallible people who are subject to their instincts and professional pressure;
- Refugees and foreigners are not the cause of our problems.
The role of important leaders, political and moral, should also be minimised. For example, the Pope does not decide solely about the sexual behaviour of a billion people.
Other possible suspects
Systems are more to blame than people. But things can also go well, and that is also because certain systems are in place and heroes keep them going. Hans Rosling praises institutions and technology.
Institutions such as education, health, the police and professions in general do invisible yet fundamental world to improve living conditions. Instead of hating them, we should pay tribute to the professional and all the structures we rely on every day.
Technology often comes under attack for the dangers it poses. But life has become much better thanks to technology. Let’s not be too hasty in accusing industrial development of being responsible for all the woes on Earth. On the contrary, think about the technology of tomorrow.
“We must put our efforts into inventing new technologies that will enable 11 billion people to live the life that we should expect all of them to strive for. The life we are living now on Level 4, but with smarter solutions.” (Factfulness, p. 279)
Who should you blame?
There is no point in punching whomever you think is to blame when you want to change the world. In fact, pointing the finger of blame stops us from thinking and acting effectively.
“Factfulness is … recognizing when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future. To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat.” (Factfulness, p. 281)
Chapter 10. The urgency instinct
Some people and institutions use the urgency instinct. “Now or never!” they say. But this can be a mistake. Yes, when faced with imminent danger, you have to act fast. That is where this instinct comes from.
Be careful not to get overwhelmed: too much stress, too little thinking (amplification of the other instincts we saw previously) can be the consequences of an excessive and unhelpful sense of urgency.
On the other hand, we are less responsive in the face of distant threats. Think about how many people save for their retirement or a rainy day, or how difficult it is for activists to get people to recognise climate change. But the solution does not involve activating and feeding the urgency instinct (Now or never! Tomorrow will be too late!).
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“Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought-through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.” (Factfulness, p. 291)
Figures should not serve fear. Hans Rosling refused to help Al Gore, a man he respected and admired enormously for his crusade to prevent climate change, when he asked him to come up with some terrifying graphs to raise fear in the population (and force people to act).
The author does not believe that you should mobilise public opinion using exaggeration and worst case scenarios. On the contrary, this can be counterproductive. It is better to present different scenarios, more or less serious ones, and make an average prediction. This protects the expert’s credibility and is more honest.
The serious problem of climate change requires a serious approach. Not one that falls prey to the words of the prophets of doom.
The five global risks we should worry about
Here are 5 (or even 6) fundamental problems chosen by the author.
- Global pandemic: the dangers of a new type of flu are real and well-documented (this is back in 2017).
- Financial collapse: financial bubbles and crashes seen in the past could happen again.
- New world war: we need to get to know one another better and not despise one another.
- Climate change: without looking for scapegoats, we have to show global solidarity and act in a reasoned manner.
- Extreme poverty: less of a risk than an ongoing reality, but one that creates a chain reaction of risks.
- Unknown risk: by definition, we don’t know what it is and cannot predict it, but we have to remain vigilant when faced with new risks.
“Factfulness is … recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is. To control the urgency instinct, take small steps.” (Factfulness, p. 307)
Chapter 11. Factfulness in practice
Factfulness in practice
You do not need to spend years studying to be able to practice factfulness. You need courage. And you need to be able to resist the instincts that cloud your judgement and lead you to the point of no return.
As an individual living in an educated, level 4 country, you — the reader of this book or article — may be wondering how to put it into practice in your life as a journalist, activist or citizen.
Education is key
We should be teaching our children the basic up-to-date, fact-based framework—life on the four levels and in the four regions—and training them to use Factfulness rules of thumb […] This would enable them to put the news from around the world in context and spot when the media, activists, or salespeople are triggering their dramatic instincts with overdramatic stories. These skills are part of the critical thinking that is already taught in many schools. They would protect the next generation from a lot of ignorance. (Factfulness, p. 315)
Businesses have work to do to understand that the Asian and African markets are the markets of the future. They have to change to become more international and less geographically branded to be “accepted” by other cultures. Spade work that aims to undo negative prejudice about Africa and Asia will be necessary.
Journalists, activists and politicians need to update their world view and present it in a neutral way. It is completely normal that they should have a point of view. However, they need to check that their world vision is up to date, developing factual ways of thinking. For example, they can put events back into their historic context. Focus on the common, the slow, the invisible, rather than the urgent, the sensational and the exceptional. These are some ideas about how to improve their practice.
What about you? What can you do in your area of expertise to develop a factual attitude. There is infinite ignorance, things that demand to be tested, questioned and discovered. What are the most important facts that concern your organisation and your profession? Do not be afraid that you will bore or annoy people. In contrast, most people love to learn!
Conclusion about the book “Factfulness”
A book that considers the glass to be half full and offers keys to understanding the world.
It is better to base your life on reliable data. This prevents errors of judgement and ineffective or dangerous actions. Also, it is more psychologically comfortable.
“When we have a fact-based world view, 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.” (Factfulness, p. 324)
What to take away from the book “Factfulness”
In order to become more factual, do not forget to learn to control the following instincts:
- Gap > Start by looking for what makes the majority;
- Negativity > Expect bad news;
- Straight line > Lines can bend;
- Fear > Calculate the risks;
- Size > Put things in perspective;
- Generalization > Ask yourself whether your categories are relevant;
- Destiny > Slow change is nevertheless change;
- Single perspective > Diversify your approaches;
- Blame > Seek causes instead of scapegoats;
- Urgency > Take small steps.
Strengths and weak point of the book Factfulness
- An interesting book that tackles key questions about our shared future;
- The tone is humorous, relatable and touching (the author talks about his experience around the world);
- Strong desire to clarify the important messages and offer a didactic framework.
- You may not agree with all of the author’s points of view (how to suppress wealth or the best path to take for the future of the world). But is inviting discussion really a weak point?
My rating :
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Practical guide to the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling
The main theme tackled by Hans Rosling in his book Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” :
Hans Rosling’s book, ‘’Factfulness’’, encourages readers to adopt a factual mindset and to rid themselves of prejudice to better understand the world and its positive trends.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ about the book “Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.”
1. What was public reaction to the book “Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.”?
The book was well received by the public and received positive criticism for its capacity to provide a positive perspective based on facts about the state of the world. It became an international best-seller.
2. What was the impact of the book Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” by Hans Rosling?
The book had an important impact by educating readers about the importance of critical thinking and the use of factual data to combat false ideas and stereotypes.
3. Who is the book “Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think”’’ by Hans Rosling intended for?
The book “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling is intended for a wide public of curious citizens, healthcare professionals, educators, business people and politicians, anyone who wants to better understand the world.
4. Why should we care about the facts and data according to Hans Rosling?
According to the author, prejudice and false ideas can lead to catastrophic decisions. The facts help us to understand the world and make enlightened decisions.
5. How can we overcome our own cognitive bias?
The author recommends using techniques such as division into categories, data research, questioning hypotheses and practising critical thinking to overcome cognitive bias.
Overestimate of the level of poverty or Underestimate of the level of poverty
|Overestimate of the level of poverty||Underestimate of the level of poverty|
|Stereotypical images||Erroneous poverty indicators|
|Incorrect generalisations||Complex economic situation|
|Lack of diversity||Economic and social inequality|
|Economic growth||Economic and political difficulties|
|Emergence of the middle classes||Extreme poverty and famine|
|Perception of poverty as increasing||Structural and systemic problems|
Who is Hans Rosling?
Hans Rosling (1948-2017) was a doctor, statistician and teacher from Sweden, known for his work on world health and demographic data. He was a founder of the non-profit organisation Gapminder that aims to promote better understanding of worldwide data using interactive visualisations. Rosling was also a public speaker and gave some very popular TED talks on topics such as world health, demographics and poverty.
He is the author of several books including “Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think”. Hans Rosling died in 2017, but his heritage as an educator and defender of factual and rational thinking continues to influence work in the fields of health, education and politics.