Sunday, November 14, 2021


Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You ThinkFactfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book chiefly by the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling is written in his voice but the effort of three individuals, including his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund. The main author begins by explaining why he loved the circus, mainly because he loved seeing the seemingly-impossible, and when studying medicine, a lecture on how the throat worked inspired him to become a sword swallower. The author posed several fact-based questions to different groups, with most answering incorrectly, in fact with chimpanzees actually scoring better, along with random answering.

The author notes that extreme poverty has halved during the past twenty years, that politicians tend to make policy based on outdated, incorrect facts, with the media not responsible for distorted worldviews. World leaders at a United Nations conference also had mixed results on answering fact-based questions. Rosling indicates that most of the world population lives in middle-income countries, and that the world improves yearly. He uses pictures to illustrate several points, and indicates that the human brain is the product of millions of years of evolution. The book is the author’s last resort to battle global ignorance, to form views based on a fact-based perspective.

The author started his battle against global misconceptions in October 1995, using the child mortality rate to illustrate a point, and indicates how many see the world as being divided into two, how people tend to see things in black and white. He notes that the child mortality rate is at its highest in tribal societies and traditional farmers in remote rural areas, although fewer now live in such conditions. He indicates that the world is not nearly as divided into two as it was twenty years ago, and that low-income countries are more developed than we think, using a basis on four different income levels.

He indicates he had a near-death experience when he was four years old, and battles the misconception that the world is getting worse, that people tend to notice the bad more than the good. There are indeed many things wrong with the world, and notes how one can use statistics as therapy, indicating that there are many improvements that rarely get reported, such as the extreme poverty rate around the world has been falling since 1800. The average life expectancy around the world today is 70, and he indicates that every country world around the world has improved theirs in the past two centuries.

The author battles the mega misconception that the world population is just “increasing and increasing,” and notes that there will be the same number of children in 2100 as in 2000, with the world population eventually slowing down, and that the growing population is because there will be more adults. Since 1800, world population remained stable, with most children dying before becoming adults. He indicates that the connection between religion and babies per woman is not terribly impressive, and indicates that more survivors will lead to fewer people. He indicates things such as Bangladeshi children can expect to live 73 years, with the number rising since the country’s independence.

The author discusses a 1975 plane crash, and thought it was a Soviet invasion. He notes that negative news is the kind people tend to process, that plane crashes are today far less common than people think, with negative news tending to be more reported today than positive news. He indicates that life on Levels 3 and 4 are less physically demanding and people can afford to protect themselves against nature, although such biological memories tend to do more harm than good. He notes that the death rate is always higher when disasters hit countries on Level 1 such as Nepal, due to poorly-constructed buildings, poor infrastructure, and poor medical facilities.

The author indicates how he counted the death of children in Mozambique in the early 1980s, and indicates that people tend to get things out of proportion. He indicates that to control the size instinct, people need to use two main tools, comparing and dividing. He notes that to avoid misjudging something’s importance, to avoid lonely numbers, since they tend to get reactions, and talks about a hospital bombing during the Vietnam War. He further talks about deaths caused by axe and a bear attack, along with the major coverage of the swine flu despite the relative low death toll.

Rosling talks about an experience with African poverty and how they had served gross food, indicating that everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes all the time. He notes how it is better to use the four levels rather than “developing” and “developed”, noting a project called Dollar Street as an alternative to visiting poor nations. He notes five ways to keep questioning your favorite categories: looking for differences within and similarities across groups, beware of the “majority” (which just means more than half), beware of exceptional examples, assume you are not “normal”, and beware of generalizing from one group to another.

The author indicates that Africa has been making steady progress, that cultures, nations, religions, and people are in constant transformation. One of the things that I largely disagree with the author about is his total failure to mention abstinence as a perfectly legitimate form of birth control, although he does make some good points, noting that slow change is not no change, that societies and cultures are in constant movement. He notes that knowledge has no sell-by date, to constantly refresh your knowledge. He also suggests talking with grandparents to compare your life with how theirs was.

Rosling has a humorous anecdote that forming an opinion through the media alone would be like judging him based on a picture of just his foot, that people find simple ideas attractive. He notes that experts and activists have limitations, with some of the former even scoring badly on fact-based questions. He notes that numbers are not the single solution, that we should be highly skeptical of conclusions derived purely from number crunching. He indicates that medical professionals can become very single-minded about medicine, or even a particular kind of medicine.

The author discusses the blame instinct, which involves finding a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened, that to understand most of the world’s significant problems, we have to look beyond a guilty individual and to systems instead. When something goes well, we’re also quick to give credit to individuals or simple causes, when again the reasons tend to be more complicated. Blame games often reveal our preferences, and that businesses can sometimes be “the good guys”. Journalists too take blame for not reporting “the truth”, although Rosling notes that journalists and filmmakers know no more than the general public.

Rosling talks about the urgency instinct, how some things make us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived dangers. He notes five global risks of which were should have genuine worry, including global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change, and extreme poverty. He indicates that people need to recognize when decisions feel urgent and remembering that they rarely are. The book was written before COVID struck, although much of what the author says definitely rings true, that we need things like the Olympics, international trade, and educational exchange programs.

The author talks about how the concept of factfulness saved his life when he and a teacher faced angry villagers in the Democratic Republic on Congo were misunderstanding about his investigation of the disease konzo, that he just needed to test blood. He indicates that one can practice factfulness in education, in business, in journalism, in our organizations or communities, and as individual citizens. He notes that children need to learn about life on the four different income levels, that most Western employees in large multinationals and financial institutions still operate to deeply rooted, outdated, and distorted worldviews. Journalists, activists, and politicians also suffer from dramatic worldviews, and that people are ignorant of facts on a global level.

The book began in September 2015, with the author getting pancreatic cancer and dying in 2017, his son and daughter-in-law continuing his work. All in all, it was definitely an illuminating read that definitely gives me a more optimistic view of the world, despite some kinks that we genuinely need to work out, and while there are things that I definitely disagree with the author about, he definitely does make valid points, and that we very much need to develop fact-based viewpoints. As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Every man is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts”.

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