Factfulness

Ten Reasons We're Wrong About The World - And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

by Hans Rosling

353 pages, ★★★★★
Finished on 20th of March, buy here.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. The worldview us ‘Westerners’ have is incredibly outdated and much too negative. We are full of biases and unaware of the slow changes and overarching trends happening in the world.
  2. Humankind’s main goal should be to raise the wealth and improve the health of every single person on earth so we can combat problems in a cooperative instead of a competitive way.
  3. There are ten distinct major ways in which we misjudge humankind’s situation:
    1. The Gap Instinct: We wrongly assume that there is the rich world and the poor world with a gap in between.
    2. The Negativity Instinct: We wrongly assume everything is bad and the world is doomed.
    3. The Straight Line Instinct: We wrongly assume trends to continue the same way as they have.
    4. The Fear Instinct: We wrongly assume the world to be a scarier place than it is because of our own attention filter.
    5. The Size Instinct: We wrongly assume impressive numbers to be meaningful even without context or comparison.
    6. The Generalization Instinct: We wrongly assume that groups of people contain no internal differences or varieties.
    7. The Destiny Instinct: We wrongly assume slow changing societies, cultures, economies to be constant.
    8. The Single Perspective Instinct: We wrongly assume looking at a problem from just one angle will give us all the information necessary.
    9. The Blame Instinct: We wrongly assume that the world’s problems have bad actors with bad intentions behind them and blaming them will stop their behaviors.
    10. The Urgency Instinct: We wrongly assume important decisions to be urgent and fail to consult the data and analyze them first.

🎨 Impressions

Factfulness appeared on my radar because of its mention by Bill Gates in his book “How to Avoid a Climate Disaster” and has been recommended by Barack Obama, too. The author, Hans Rosling, is a remarkable person who spend his life in an extraordinarily helpful way to humanity. He started as a Swedish physician with an interest in public health, traveled the world to help improve the health of poorer people and subsequently moved towards research and lecturing about how to improve the world in the big picture. He arrived at the conclusion that information and knowledge about the world’s state is very weak among most people and therefore wrote this book explaining the common misconceptions. In the most rational way, he enlightens us using simple categories and enriches it all with personal anecdotes taken from his interesting life.

This is another case of a book which you can’t go wrong with. It broadens your horizon and helps to get the big picture right, which is extremely helpful especially if you’re struggling with how to make an optimal impact in the world.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • I learned that hope for humanity is justified due to the continued but mainly invisible progress in the poorer parts of the world. It’s very helpful to understand the author’s system of four income levels (Level 1: <2 USD per day, Level 2: 2-8 USD per day, Level 3: 8-32 USD per day, Level 4: >32 USD per day) which categorize the world in a much more graspable way.
  • There are so many things about the world we’re regularly getting wrong, so that it makes a lot of sense and should be required to spend more time learning about it before making decisions or judgments.
  • Reading the book made me realize it’s even more important and more justified to help people on Levels 1-3 move up the income ladder if we would like the whole world to improve. My future decisions will be influenced by that.

✍️ My Top 3 Quotes

  1. If you really want to change the world you have to understand it. Following your blame instinct isn’t going to help.
  2. Knowing that some things are enormously important is, for me, relaxing. These five big risks [Global Pandemic, Financial Collapse, World War III, Climate Change, Extreme Poverty] are where we must direct our energy. These risks need to be approached with cool heads and robust, independent data.
  3. Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought-through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.

📔 Summary & Notes

Introduction

  • Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is.

The Gap Instinct

  • Low-income countries are much more developed than most people think. And vastly fewer people live in them.
  • The gap instinct makes us imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.
  • We almost always get a more accurate picture by digging a little deeper and looking not just at the averages, but at the spread.
  • In reality, even in one of the world’s most unequal countries, there is no gap. Most people are in the middle.
  • The four-level framework, the replacement for the overdramatic “divided” worldview, is the first and most important part of the fact-based framework you will learn in this book.
  • The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where is the gap is supposed to be.

The Negativity Instinct

  • Culture and freedom, the goals of development, can be hard to measure, but guitars per capita is a good proxy. And boy, has that improved. (200 in 1962, 11,000 in 2014)
  • There are three things going on here: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better.
  • This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.
  • Now the girls have almost caught up: 90 percent of girls of primary school age attend school. For boys, the figure is 92 percent. There’s almost no difference.
  • I see no conflict between celebrating this progress and continuing to fight for more. I am a possibilist.
  • The loss of hope is probably the most devastating consequence of the negativity instinct and the ignorance it causes.
  • Is it helpful to have to choose between bad and improving? Definitely not. It’s both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time.
  • Keep in mind that the positive changes may be more common, but they don’t find you. You need to find them.
  • Recognize when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us.
  • Beware of rosy pasts. People often glorify their early experiences, and nations often glorify their histories.

The Straight Line Instinct

  • Still, the [world population] growth has already started to slow down, and the UN experts are pretty sure it will keep slowing down over the next few decades.
  • the typical parents have two children, and neither of them dies. For the first time in human history, we live in balance. [..] When combining all the parents living on Levels 2, 3, and 4, from every region of the world, and of every religion or no religion, together they have on average two children. No kidding!
  • “Saving poor children just increases the population” sounds correct, but the opposite is true. Delaying the escape from extreme poverty just increases the population.
  • The argument that we must save the planet for future people, not yet born, is difficult for me to hear when people are suffering today.
  • The child survival rate [in Bangladesh] is now 97 percent – up from less than 80 percent at independence [1972]. Now that the parents have reason to expect that all their children will survive, a major reason for having big families is gone.
  • Don’t assume straight lines. May trends do not follow straight lines but are S-bends, slides, humps, or doubling lines.

The Fear Instinct

  • So we end up paying attention to information that fits our dramatic instincts, and ignoring that does not. The media can’t waste time on stories that won’t pass our attention filters.
  • It isn’t the journalists’ fault and we shouldn’t expect them to change. It isn’t driven by “media logic” among the producers so much as by “attention logic” in the heads of consumers.
  • recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky.
  • The world seems scarier that 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.
  • When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.

The Size Instinct

  • Paying too much attention to the individual visible victim rather than to the numbers can lead us to spend all our resources on a fraction of the problem, and therefore save many fewer lives. This principle applies anywhere we are prioritizing scarce resources.
  • Over a period of two weeks, 31 people had died from swine flu, and a news search on Google brought up 253,442 articles about it. That was 8,176 articles per death.
  • 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.

The Generalization Instinct

  • The fact that 88 percent [children under 1 worldwide] are vaccinated but major financial investors believe it is only 20 percent indicates that there is a big chance they are failing at their jobs by missing out on huge investment opportunities.
  • “Oh, that’s how they heat water in China. In an iron pot on a tripod over a fire. That’s their culture.” No. It is a common way to heat water on Level 2, all over the world.
  • When someone says that an individual did something because they belong to some group – a nation, a culture, a religion – take care.
  • Or flip it over: i.e., ask whether an opposite example would make you draw the opposite conclusion. If you are happy to conclude that all chemicals are unsafe on the basis of one unsafe chemical, would you be prepared to conclude that all chemicals are safe on the basis of one safe chemical?
  • Look for differences within groups. Especially when the groups are large, look for ways to split them into smaller, more precise categories.
  • Look for similarities across groups. If you find striking similarities between different groups, consider whether your categories are relevant.
  • Look for differences across groups. Do not assume that what applies for one group (e.g., you and other people living on Level 4 or unconscious soldiers) applies for another (e.g. people living on Level 4 or sleeping babies)
  • Assume people are not idiots. When something looks strange, be curious and humble, and think, In what way is this a smart solution?

The Destiny Instinct

  • Societies and cultures are not like rocks, unchanging and unchangeable. The move. Western societies and cultures move, and non-Western societies and cultures move – often much faster.
  • The same destiny instinct also seems to make us take continuing Western progress for granted, with the West’s current economic stagnation portrayed as a temporary accident from which it will soon recover.
  • The macho values that are found today in many Asian and African countries, these are not Asian values, or African values. They are not Muslim values. They are not Eastern values. They are patriarchal values like those found in Sweden only 60 years ago, and with social and economic progress they will vanish, just as they did in Sweden. They are not unchangeable.
  • To control the destiny instinct, don’t confuse slow change with no change. Don’t dismiss an annual change – even an annual change of only 1 percent – because it seems too small and slow.
  • “[..] I want Nacala to be like Rostock. I want all children to go to the beach on a Sunday instead of working in their parents’ fields or sitting in the slums. It will take a long time, but that is what I want.”
  • recognizing that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly
  • Update your knowledge. Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing.
  • Collect examples of cultural change. Challenge the idea that today’s culture must also have been yesterday’s, and will also be tomorrow’s.

The Single Perspective Instinct

  • Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective.
  • A wise prime minister looks at the numbers, but not only at the numbers. And of course some of the most valued and important aspects of human development cannot be measured in numbers at all.
  • 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.
  • Don’t claim expertise beyond your field: be humble about what you don’t know. Be aware too of the limits of the expertise of others.
  • History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity.

The Blame Instinct

  • It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide that when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions.
  • If you really want to change the world you have to understand it. Following your blame instinct isn’t going to help.
  • understand why journalists have a distorted worldview (answer: because they are human beings, with dramatic instincts) and what systemic factors encourage them to produce skewed and overdramatic news
  • I think smart and kind people often fail to reach the terrible, guilt-inducing conclusion that our own immigration policies are responsible for the drownings of refugees.
  • Most of the human-emitted CO2 accumulated in the atmosphere was emitted over the last 50 years by countries that are now on Level 4 Canada’s per capita CO2 emissions are still twice as high as China’s and eight times as high as India’s.
  • It’s not the boss or the board or the shareholders who are to blame for the tragic lack of research into the diseases of the poorest. What do we gain from pointing our fingers at them?
  • the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it’s almost always more complicated than that.
  • To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat.
  • Look for causes, not villains.

The Urgency Instinct

  • When we are afraid and under time pressure and thinking of worst-case scenarios, we tend to make really stupid decisions.
  • Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought-through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation.
  • If we have to round the numbers we should round to our own disadvantage. This protects our reputations and means we never give people a reason to stop listening.
  • So, what is the solution? Well, it’s easy. Anyone emitting lots of greenhouse gas must stop doing that as soon as possible. We know who that is: the people on Level 4 who have by far the highest levels of CO2 emissions, so let’s get on with it.
  • The concept of climate refugees is mostly a deliberate exaggeration, designed to turn fear of refugees into fear of climate change.
  • People who are serious about climate change must keep two thoughts in their heads at once: they must continue to care about the problem but not become victims of their own frustrated, alarmist messages.
  • Knowing that some things are enormously important is, for me, relaxing. These five big risks [Global Pandemic, Financial Collapse, World War III, Climate Change, Extreme Poverty] are where we must direct our energy. These risks need to be approached with cool heads and robust, independent data.
  • I tell you to stay coolheaded and support the global collaborations we need to reduce these risks.
  • recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is.

Factfulness in Practice

  • We should be teaching them that the world will keep changing and they will have to update their knowledge and worldview throughout their lives.
  • Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity.
  • is up to us as consumers to learn how to consume the news more factfully, and to realize that the news is not very useful for understanding the world.
  • First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying.

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