Book Review: Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think

Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. New York, 2018, 342 pp. By Rosling, Hans.
Reviewed by Shazia Humayun, Louisiana State University

As teacher educators, we struggle to make sense of things that happen around us in our lives and in the lives of the teachers who look up to us for guidance. Teachers are usually facing the situations directly and are effected by them and no matter how good the understanding of that situation is made by us as teacher trainers, there still remains some angles of the situations that the teachers can make sense off.

Factfulness by Hans Rosling has produced a book which is applicable in all situations if the written content is applied in the mind to the situation that one finds himself in. His focus is on the constant changing dynamics of the situation of the world around us and our constant practice of looking at the world from the same lens that we used so many years ago. Although it is considered as a book generally looking at different situation by collecting data of the people’s responses to certain set of standard questions that are used by him to assess the approach that people have to look at their surroundings.

He is able to very cleverly send the message across his audience of the book that although people were attending his talks and listening to his lectures they were not hearing. “The new ideas just wouldn’t take”. People in his audience were found still believing about the facts that he had proven wrong in his just concluded talk.

His book is exceptional in the sense that it talks to us about the facts of life and wants us to decide by cleverly analyzing the facts as to what is the truth and the truth must not be twisted but on the other hand in the same breath he asks us to “learn to control our drama intake” as this leads us terribly astray.

Factfulness gives the tools to the readers to apply when faced with a situation where they are supposed to apply their mind and find a way on which to travel and reach conclusion. The book changes the use of overdramatic worldview with the worldview based on facts.

So where it all started? It all started for him way back in 1995 when he started his lifelong fight against global misconceptions by bringing the data in the classroom to prove to his students that the world is not how we know it without first looking at and understand the data. It didn’t matter if the students who were given the UNICEF year book analysed statistics or were given the book itself to find out, they were still thinking that either he cheated on them or picked up the exceptional countries where the child mortality had not increased. The only useful way was to be able to test the opinion against the data, and that’s what he did with the students on the misconceptions of “child mortality” (p.19) (Pelletier, Schroeder, Frongillo (1995) or “the world is divided into two”(p.21). But fact of the matter was “world in general is a better place” is only our misconception and we want to continue to hang on to it. He emphasis the need to use the current data to interpret the situation. The world is not divided into two i.e. developed world and developing world. The world has completely changed. Eight-five percent of mankind are already in the box that was marked as the developed countries in 1965. But while the world has changed the worldview has not, at least not in the heads of the “Westerners” (p.27) ( Hoshino-Browne, Zanna, Spencer (2005).

Rosling, is shocked throughout the first chapter how the young people in his classes wanted to make the world a better place but were caring the 30-year-old worldview in their heads? He is shocked with their blunt ignorance of the most basic facts about the world which has lead them to though there were two groups, “us” and “them” (p.25).

To make his student find a different way of understanding the: “developing countries”, he says that these old label are wrong! So to replace them, he has divided them into four income levels, born out of fact-based framework. These are the tools to guess better about the world. Level 1 Is the hardest to come out of to move to other levels.

Level 1 starts with $1 per day. Roughly 1 billion people live like this today.
Level 2 starts with $4 a day. Roughly 3 billion people live like this today.
Level 3 starts with $16 a day. Roughly 2 billion people live like this today.
Level 4 starts with $32 a day. Roughly 1 billion people live like this today.

Rosling emphasis that in human history everyone started on Level 1. For more than 100,000 years nobody moved from level and the children didn’t survive to become parents. Just 200 years ago, 85 percent of the world population was still on level 1, in extreme poverty. But today the vast majority of this population is spread on the middle level. Therefore, he emphasis the need to control the gap instinct and look for the majority as when looking for averages they overlap, when comparing the extremes majority is somewhere in the middle and when looking from the top everything looks equally short and that’s not a fair comparison of the world.

Chapter two opens with negativity instinct where we have a tendency to notice bad more than the good. Instead of looking at the data and making sense of it we generalize the situation with a statement “things are getting worse” (p.48). The data must never be trusted 10) percent as billions of good things happening around the world never get reported because of “selective reporting” (p.66). There is a need to stop “feeling” and start “thinking” (p.68). He says to control this negative instinct, expect bad news. The need is to practice distinguishing between a level (e.g., bad) and a direction of change (e.g., better).

Chapter three talks in the details on statistics being “terrifying” (p.75)( Roberts, Saxe ,1982). It takes the example of Ebola data and talks about the “doubling” effect in detail and the mega misconception that “the world population is just increasing and Increasing (p.77). The chapter talks about the straight line, Curves, S-Bends, Slides, Humps, doubling lines, all in relation to statistics of the word population and how to read between the lines. The chapter emphasis the need that to assume that lines will run straight is wrong and does not happen in reality (p.100) and the situation is actually correct when reported/represented by curves, S-bends, slides, humps, or doubling, as no child will ever kept growing at the same rate as it was growing the first six-months and luckily no parents have to face it (p.100).

Chapter four is about fear vs reality. He emphasis on the fact that when we are afraid, we do not see clearly. Critical thinking is difficult but it is almost impossible when we are afraid. When afraid, fact is the last thing our brain registers. People on level 1 and level 2 have the fear out of their experiences e.g. fear of snakes, spiders, heights and being trapped in small spaces. This is what they experience and this is what they have information about. People on level 3 and level 4 where the people are able to protect themselves against nature, there are memories of these experiences which cause harm and fear. Only 3 percent on level 4 have phobias and the rest are harmed by this fear instinct as it distorts our world view. There are different fears that people have and suffer from them e.g. natural disaster, war and conflict, contamination, terrorism, to understand what thing should cause fear for us and how we can truly protect our loved ones we should suppress our fear instinct and stop the drainage of energy as a result of it (p.122). 

Chapter five emphasis the importance of the world that cannot be understood without numbers but it cannot be understood with numbers alone (p.128) he says that we get things out of proportion and thus misjudge the actual size of things. The size instinct couple with the negativity instinct make us systematically underestimate the progress that has been made in the world. (p. 128). Other the other hand we overestimate other proportions e.g. the proportion of immigrants in our countries. The interpretations in these cases are more “dramatic than the realty” (p.129). There are ways mentioned in the chapter as to how to control the size instinct e.g. compare the numbers, 80/20 rule, divide the numbers, compare and divide.

Chapter six takes note on the generalization instinct. This instinct can distort our worldview as this can make us group and categorize things with each other on the basis of our understanding about them. This can lead to assumptions and jumping to conclusions about a category with the limited or one sided stories that we consider are sufficient for the declaration to be made. This instinct may be unfortunate of all. The gap instinct divides the world into “us” and “them” and the generalization instinct makes “us” think about “them” as all the same(pg.147). There are questions mentioned in the chapter to ask questions about the generalized categories, e.g. look for differences within groups, look for similarities across groups, look for differences across groups, beware of ‘the majority”, beware of vivid examples, assume people are not idiots (p.165). Whenever we find new evidence, new data, we must be ready to question our previous assumption and reevaluate and admit if we were wrong (p. 164).

Chapter seven is about the destiny instinct which has its understanding embedded in the survival in the evolutionary ages. Historically, human lived in surroundings that didn’t changed much (p.168). Therefore, reevaluating the surroundings was not required. This also helped in keeping the groups and tribes together to reach a certain predetermined destiny as much was not changing around them. In today’s world, things are happening much faster and requires us to be aware of our surroundings and be prepared for the future. There is revolutionary transformation taking place around us in the societies and we must stay abreast with the situation by re-evaluating it. Cultures nations, religions, and people are not rocks. They are in constant transformation. (p. 170). Change is still a change no matter how slow, the chapter gives hints at how to control destiny instinct, by e.g. keeping track of gradual improvements, by updating our knowledge, taking in account our grandparents’ values and by collecting examples of cultural changes (p. 184).

Chapter eight about single perspective instinct. This chapter very simply explains that we like the idea that we understand and start following it e.g. idea of free market.it saves a lot of time and is easier as we don’t have to find out by going after things as we understand things the way they appear. So where do we find answers from? From media that is very dangerous, professional this is dangerous too as experts are experts in their own area and they usually look at things under the microscope but of their own field. To control the single perspective instinct, the solution would be to, get a tool box and not a hammer, be humble about what you don’t know, hammer and nails, refer to numbers but not just numbers, beware of simple ideas and simple solutions.

Chapter nine is about the blame instinct. This is the instinct to find a simple, clear solution to a problem (p.206) we like to believe that something has gone wrong because somebody wanted it to happen that way, that it is because of a power play or some agency working on an agenda: otherwise the “world feels uncomfortable, confusing, and frightening” (p. 207). This instinct points out the nature of the individuals where we try to claim or blame things so that the things get settled and answers are found so that we can move on. We must develop the habit of finding the situations when scapegoats are being used. We must resist finding scape goats and getting involved in the blame/claim game by looking for causes, not villains, look for the systems not heroes (p.222).

Chapter ten is about the urgency instinct and deals in detail about the “now or never”( Sadler-Smith, Shefy, (2004) instinct that block our roads and our minds. There are steps that must be taken to control the urgency instinct e.g. take a breath, insist on the data, beware of fortune tellers, be wary of drastic actions.

Last chapter eleven talks about the practical application of Factfulness in Practice through education, business, journalism, in our own organisation and community, and as an individual citizen?

Finally, Hans Rosling has communicated to the world the importance of taking a realistic worldview to understand the world as it is now as it is represented by others. It is more like fight your own fight do not let others make the understanding for you of the world that you are breathing in. How? This is what this book is all about.

References:

Pelletier, D., Schroeder, D., Frongillo, E. (1995). The effects of malnutrition on child mortality in developing countries. Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, 73(4), 443-448

Hoshino-Browne, E., Zanna, A., Spencer, S. (2005). On the cultural guises of cognitivedissonance: The case of Easterners and Westerners. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(3), 294-310

Sadler-Smith, E., Shefy, E. (2004). The intuitive executive: Understanding and applying ‘gut feel’ in decision making. Academy of Management Executive. 18 (4), 76-91

Roberts, D., Saxe, J. (1982). Validity of a statistics attitude survey: A Follow-up study. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 42, 907- 912