Hans Rosling: FACTFULNESS (2018)

This is a book that explores why most people are wrong on key facts about the world, thinking it worse than it is, e.g. concerning poverty, life expectancy, etc. In a sense it’s a modern-day counterpart to Steven Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, which explains how violence has declined over the centuries, despite the impression of many that the world is still such a violent place. (Notes on that still to be posted.)

Hans Rosling, FACTFULNESS: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2018)

Author was a medical doctor and public educator, a worldwide speaker, has done TED talks. (He died in 2017.) He notes the book is cowritten with his son and daughter-in-law.

Brief Summary:

  • In surveys around the world, (e.g. the one at https://www.gapminder.org/) most people think the world is worse than in is, along measures of life expectancy, poverty, etc. This is due to various ‘instincts’ the people have; the 10 chapters of this book explore these. Handily, each chapter ends with a 1 or 2 page summary (indicated).
  • Gap Instinct: People reflexively divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’; the split of the world into developed nations and developing ones is no longer valid. Author proposes a divide instead of four levels of income, from $2/day to over $32/day. Of the world’s 7 billion people, the divide is roughly 1, 3, 2, and 1 billion in those four levels. (p46)
  • Negativity. In fact, the world is getting better, overall. There will always be bad news, and these days we hear all of it. (p74)
  • Straight Line. In fact, things don’t always continue as they have before, e.g. the world population increase, for various reasons. (p100)
  • Fear: People tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion; the effectiveness of modern media makes the world seem dangerous, even though the world has ever been less violent or more safe. (p123) [[ cf. Pinker 2011 ]]
  • Size: Keep things in proportion; look at rates, not absolute numbers. (p143)
  • Generalization: Don’t suppose everyone thinks the same as you; don’t think other people are idiots for behaving differently. (p165)
  • Destiny: Don’t assume people have innate characteristics and can never change. Sweden used to be much different. Africa will catch up. (p184)
  • Single Perspective. Beware simple either/or solutions; test your favorite ideas; have a few opinions that are right, rather than many that are wrong. Look at the results. (p202)
  • Blame. People look for clearcut bad guys or heroes, or suspect those they don’t like. Understand the system before assigning blame. Examples of pharma, refugees, foreigners. (p222)
  • Urgency. Rash decisions are often bad decisions. The world is complex; it’s usually better to wait and reconsider. Floating worst-case scenarios can backfire. Five global risks to worry about: global pandemic; financial collapse; world war III; climate change; extreme poverty. (p242)
  • Finally, Factfuless in Practice. The key is education. Teach children humility and curiosity. Business need to become global. Be aware that journalists will always focus on the unusual, not the common. A fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, and leads to less stress and hopelessness.

With many appendices and notes. The book’s endpapers show color charts and photos of several key concepts: the four levels of income; the distribution of people across the world.

Rosling uses very plain language when he might, for example, explain the “availability heuristic” or discuss rates and proportions in chapter 5; he’s trying to reach a broad audience.

Detailed Summary:


Author presents a 13-question test about the state of world, concerning life expectancy, portion of people in poverty, and so on, pp3-5, and discusses how poorly almost everyone does on the test. (The test, and much else, is at https://www.gapminder.org/ ) Most everyone knew that the climate is warming, but on average people got only 2 of the other 12 right. This is because they think the world is worse than it is; or perhaps, they reflect what they learned decades ago, and their knowledge simply needs upgrading.

We maintain an overdramatic worldview, not one that’s fact-based. This is understandable from evolution; we’re wired to be on the alert for dangers, for things that are scarce p15t. But we can overcome this tendency, learn to get the world right. “So, if you are more interested in being right than in continuing to live in your bubble…. Then please read on.” 17.

Ch1, The Gap Instinct

Recalls discussing child mortality, and how students reflexively think that ‘those’ countries can never live like ‘us.’ People split the world into us and them. We still speak of the developed nations and the developing ones, as if there is an actual difference, chart p25 – this was true, in 1965! But it’s not true now, chart p26, when only 9% of the world’s population live in truly poor countries.

Author proposes a different kind of divide: four income levels, Level 1 thru Level 4, representing up to $2/day to over $32/day. Of the world’s 7 billion population, the divide is roughly 1, 3, 2, and 1 in those four levels. The World Bank made the change; the UN still hasn’t. This kind of binary thinking pervades journalism, and stories.

Beware: don’t compare averages; look at spreads, or change the scales. Compare extremes; beware the ‘view from up here’ when, from a tall building, distinctions among smaller ones disappear. Mass media love extraordinary events and shuns normality.

Ch2, The Negativity Instinct

Everyone thinks the world is getting worse. And it is, in parts, like Syria, or with species die-offs, or the US economy. But overall, the world is getting better. Extreme poverty has dropped to 9%, from 85% in 1800 and 50% in 1966. [[ Note -! P52, that in 1800, “One-fifth of the entire Swedish population… fled starvation to the United States…” – could this explain the Swedes in Illinois? Note Bishop Hill wasn’t founded until 1846. ]] Life expectancy was 31 in 1800 [on *average* since so many children died; adults still often lived to 50 or 70] and is 72 now. Sweden itself has changed, from 1800 to now, in health and wealth, p57.

Four pages of charts, bad things decreasing and good things increasing, p60-63.

This happens because we think old times were better than they were; we forget the bad parts. Selective reporting by the media ironically makes the world seem worse, since press freedom is greater now and every atrocity is reported; in the past many went unknown.

Author says he’s not an optimist; he’s a ‘possibilist,’ who sees progress and hopes that further progress is possible. The skewed view of the world is dangerous because it may cause people to give up hope, 69m.

How to control: remember that things can be better, yet still partly bad. Expect that there will always be bad news. And don’t censor history.

Ch3, The Straight Line Instinct

Recalls Ebola outbreak, doubling every three weeks. The misconception here is that things simply keep increasing as they’ve done, as he says the world population is ‘just’ increasing. Thus people assume world population will be much higher by 2100 than estimates make it, p81. In fact it will ease off to about 11 billion in 2100, and this is because the number of children will remain steady – an effect of women having fewer children as they rise out of extreme poverty. The average number of babies per woman has fallen from about 6 in 1800, to 2.5 today. As this rate sustains, the population will grow into higher age groups, p86.

Humanity was ‘in balance’ with nature – humans *died* in balance with nature because so many children died young. Now we’re moving to a new balance where most children survive.

But don’t some cultures, and the religious, have more children anyway? Maybe, but poverty is till the overwhelming factor.

So: some lines are straight. Others are S-shaped, and like slides, or with humps, depending on the phenomenon, p94-97. And some are ‘doubling’ lines [he means exponential] p98-99.

Ch4, The Fear Instinct

Anecdote about a patient author thought was bleeding; he wasn’t, it was a color marker from his life jacket. We tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion. Our attention filter is alert for dangers: physical harm, captivity, contamination.

A paradox (as mentioned above) is that the media makes the world seem as dangerous as ever, even though the world has never been less violent or more safe. Thus, deaths from natural disasters are far lower than 100 years ago. Because countries are wealthier and better able to react. We never think about the 40 million planes that land safely – only the handful that don’t. (Recalls 1944 standard form for recording crash data.)

Yes, Syria; but battle deaths have fallen over history. We are so concerned with contamination, that more people died fleeing Fukushima than were ever imperiled by the radiation itself. The relatively minor risks of DDT have made us all fearful of chemicals, and contamination in general. Thus, fear of vaccinations.

And terrorism; again, the number of actual incidents is small. (Note that Wikipedia is far from complete about incidents in the non-West.)

Ch5, The Size Instinct

Author recalls treating children in Mozambique, and applying a harsh sort of relative effort: it’s not worth setting up a drip in a child when the same time could be spent saving many other children. Trying to do the best every time was out of proportion. As in other cases, the most effective strategy is to apply low-level methods, e.g. sanitation, rather than building hospitals.

To realize this, think compare and divide. Avoid lonely numbers. Maybe 4.2 million babies died last year – but compare than to the 14m that died in 1950. Consider how in Vietnam their memorial to the war with the US is incidental. Consider that one man being killed by a bear in Sweden got more press than the women killed by their partners, once a month. Don’t treat rare diseases when common ones still prevail.

Recall where people live: mostly in Asia. The PIN code is 1 1 1 4, p136, about where most the world population lives. (Billions of people in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia respectively.) Don’t look at absolute numbers; look at rates. Don’t worry about everything ‘out there’

Ch6, The Generalization Instinct

Anecdote about being served dinner in a region near the Congo river—rats, and larva. His friend saved him from the latter by explaining that his ‘tribe’ had different customs. Don’t suppose everyone thinks the same…

Genralizations and stereotypes are necessary and useful. But businesses wrongly think the ‘developing’ world isn’t a market for their products, and are losing out. The solution is to travel, experience the world first-hand. Anecdote about a Swedish student sticking her foot in the elevator door.

Develop better categories, e.g. the four income levels. Five ways to counter this instinct, p158, among them, don’t assume other people are idiots, they may have good reasons for doing strange things. Example of half-built house in Tunisia, p161. And don’t generalize from one group to another – example of advice about not letting babies sleep on their backs.

Ch7, The Destiny Instinct

We tend to assume people have innate characteristics and can never change. This bias can be simply self-serving, as to confirm the superiority of one’s own group, e.g. Europeans against the Islamic world.

In fact, Africa can catch up, and has already made great progress doing so. For that matter, continued Western progress cannot be taken for granted; thus assumptions of 4% annual growth have been tempered. P172. How women in Iran have greatly reduced their birthrate. (Again, number of children tied to income, not religion.) And values can change. Recalls how the Swedish weren’t always so liberal about sex. Used to be patriarchal.

Tools: realize that slow change is not no change, e.g. how nature preserves have expanded. How knowledge needs updating, especially in the social sciences. Recalls speech in Africa in which he missed the point – soon *they* will be the tourists to our countries.

Ch8, The Single Perspective Instinct

Who do we trust? Beware simple single solutions, whether it’s government control or the free market, equality via distribution of resources, etc. Test your favorite ideas. Have fewer opinions that are right, rather than many that are wrong. Even experts have limitations, e.g. beyond their own fields. Activists tend to exaggerate, to promote their own causes.

There is no one solution, like the proverbial hammer where everything looks like a nail. Even numbers are not a single solution, example 192. Nor is medicine. Or ideologies; compare Cuba and US. The latter is the sickest of the rich, spending more on health care for less, because of absence of public health insurance, p199b.

Nor is democracy a single solution; it doesn’t always correlate with other positive outcomes. The answer is to look at results.

Ch9, The Blame Instinct

Example of story about pharma not investing in drugs for certain diseases. Angry? Punch the CEO? The shareholders? Who? Maybe grandma, the retirees who depend on stable pharma stock for their retirements.

People look for clear, simple reasons; a bad guy; or a hero to claim success. 206b. And we tend to blame those we don’t like. Author recalls investigating an extraordinarily low bid from a pharma firm, being suspicious, then discovering they’d hit on a scheme no one else had to make money with cheap prices.

It’s not that the media is misleading you. Journalists do no better on the test than anyone else; they have the same misconceptions. But it’s their job to portray the world as it is; they are competing for consumers’ attentions.

Another example: refugees. Why are they stuck in shabby rubber rafts? Because the airlines require visas; even though many of these refugees have plenty of money to buy plane tickets. And authorities confiscate the boats—so there’s no reason to use good boats. The situation is one of unintended consequences.

Similarly the tendency to blame foreigners – especially India and China – for climate change. But they’re not to blame, if you look at *rates*. By that measure, the rich nations like the US and Canada still produce the most CO2. Leaders like to think they are powerful, but they are less than they think; Mao; the pope (i.e. so many Catholics use contraception anyway). The actual heroes are institutions – e.g. those on the ground who enforce health practices – and technology – e.g. simple machines like washing machines to free up women’s time to read.

Understand the system, before assigning blame. P222.

Ch10, The Urgency Instinct

Story about studying a strange disease, and an impulsive decision to cancel a bus and block the road; so the locals took a boat, which overturned, drowning many. Later stories similar: the instinct is to block the roads. But these are rash decision made under time pressure, and these are usually bad decisions.

Act now! This is your last chance! This is almost never true, 227.7. It’s actually better to wait, return to the subject later, and consider it again.

The urge to action might have made sense in our evolutionary past, when the environment was mostly stable, and any perceived danger required emergency action. But the world is more complex now.

Example: author met with Al Gore, who wanted data emphasizing the worst case. Author tried to explain why this wouldn’t be effective, and declined. It’s counterproductive to raise alarms; in the long run it risks credibility. This is a problem with activists, who have a motivation to exaggerate problems, or to blame everything on climate change. Author insisted on following the data. Example: data on the Ebola outbreak showed it had already peaked, two weeks before, and so the measures already taken were working.

Author admits five global risks we should worry about: global pandemic; financial collapse; world war iii; climate change; extreme poverty. Summary: take a breath; insist on data; beware of fortune-tellers; be wary of drastic action.

Ch11, Factfulness in Practice

Another story, about taking blood samples to diagnose a disease in Zaire, in 1989, how the villagers rose up against him, and about how one brave woman, who somehow understood, spoke passionately and drove them off.

The key to factfulness is education – a list of key ideas to teach children p248 – and teaching children humility and curiosity. Acquiring these traits becomes relaxing, 249.4, “because it means you can stop feeling pressured to have a view about everything, and stop feeling you must be ready to defend your views all the time.”

Businesses need to learn to become global. Journalists might add context, but author acknowledges “Ultimately, it is not journalists’ role, and it is not the goal of activists or politicians, to present the world as it really is. They will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. They will always focus on the unusual rather than they common, and on the new or temporary rather than slowly changing patterns.” P253t

Can everyone do this? P255. Author thinks it will happen, for two reasons: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life; and it creates less stress and hopelessness, since the dramatic worldview is so negative and terrifying.

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