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A review of the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Am I Safe?

If you talk to the people who run TV newsrooms about how they decide which stories run first, they’ll tell you that they lead with reports that deal with the safety of the audience.  They know that those are the pieces most likely to grab our attention.  Our minds constantly scan the sensory information we receive, searching for any indication that danger lurks nearby.  As soon as we sense danger, our attention shifts from whatever we were doing to assess the level of risk and the possible responses.

This instinct has proven very helpful.  Humans have survived for thousands of years because we have constantly improved our ability to notice and respond to danger before it kills us.  But, like many behaviors that evolve over the years, we can overuse this capability.  We can become so focused on potential danger that we miss potential benefits.  We can let our fears lead us into bad decisions that leave us worse off in the long run.

In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling, the late Swedish professor of international health and sword-swallower, addresses the Fear Instinct as one of ten propensities that lead us into ignoring facts that are all around us. Both Bill Gates and Barack Obama found Rosling’s analysis so important that they included Factfulness on their lists of best books of the year.

Do World Leaders Outscore Chimpanzees?

Last week in this blog I gave a quiz that comes from Rosling’s book.  The challenge was to see if you could do better than the random choices a chimpanzee would make, which would give it an average score of 33%.  I’ve talked with some of you since then about your results.  Most of you did score better than the chimps but were still surprised by how many you got wrong.  And the way the quiz is set up, if you got a question wrong it was because you thought situations in the world are worse than they actually are.

You’re in good company though.  The business, political and academic glitterati that attend Davos got similar scores.  In fact, Rosling has given this quiz to audiences throughout the world and finds that most people cannot outscore their simian relatives.

All this led Rosling to begin investigating why humans get these questions systematically wrong, that is, why humans the world over favor negative beliefs about world trends over positive facts.  He found some basic human instincts that can lead us to wrong conclusions, such as:

Generally Accepted
Wisdom
Facts
The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer Most of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale
The number of people living in poverty just keeps increasing The proportion and the number of people living in extreme
poverty has decreased dramatically over the last 40 years
Religion and cultural values lead some parts of the world to have more children, which causes over-populationPeople of all religions and ethnicities have less children as their economic status improves

Mind the Gaps, Not the Extremes

Rosling defines the Gap Instinct as “the irresistible urge to divide all things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap – a huge chasm of injustice – in between.”  Think of the opposing pairs we often use to describe our society and or world – rich and poor, the West and the rest, educated and uneducated, urban and rural.  This focus on the two extreme ends misses the continuum in between, where most people can be found.  It also missed the movement over time that takes place between the extremes. 

Rosling first came to global notoriety with a 2006 TED Talk (14 million views) he gave showing the fallacy of gap thinking with moving bubble graphs: 

To avoid seeing the world as two extremes, Rosling has divided the world into four income groups.

The point-in-time graphic shows how most of the world lives in the middle two levels.  The continuum hints at movement between the levels.  Put the levels on an animated graph that shows movement since 1900 and you see one of the most important under-reported stories of the last century.

(The x-axis on the graph is population, the y axis is dollars per day of consumption. The area to the left of the dotted line shows those in extreme poverty. Pink = Asia, Blue = Africa, Yellow = Europe, Green = the Americas.)

Showing the data within the gap, rather than looking just at the extremes on either end, presents a much different picture, an ongoing journey of human progress.  In 1900 70% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty.  Today less than 10% live in extreme poverty.

To avoid the Gap Instinct, Rosling recommends looking for the majority.  He calls us to:

  • Beware of averages, since they do not show the spread of data around the average;
  • Beware of comparisons of extremes, since the majority is usually somewhere in between; and
  • Beware of the distortions that come from our perspective.  For those living higher up on the income ladder (Level 4), all forms of poverty may look the same.  We can miss all the movement that happens below us from Levels 1 to 3.

Fear vs. Danger

What type of death do you fear most?  Natural disaster, plane crash, murder, terrorist attack?  If you watch the news, these would probably be high on your list, yet none of them accounts for even 1% of all deaths.   We fear the sudden, the quick, the uncontrolled, yet it is the ongoing, slow and often controllable diseases that most often fell us.

Take a closer look at the chart of the causes of death, especially the bottom four or five.  Consider how much mental energy and how many news headlines focus on the least likely causes of death.

Because the Fear Instinct focuses our attention, it also can drive our priorities.  Decision-making bodies from families to national governments spend inordinate time and resources addressing fears that are unlikely to materialize while ignoring much more common and controllable threats.  And as we see in the political world, demagogues the world over use fear to manipulate the populace.  As Rosling says, “There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.”

How do we manage this Fear Instinct?  Rosling says that we first need to recognize when fear has grabbed our attention.  Then we must do a most unnatural thing – calculate the risks.  The risk we face depends not on our level of fear, but by the level of danger times the frequency of exposure.

Rules of Thumb

I have discussed two of the ten instincts that Rosling says lead to our overly dramatic view of the world.  Below is a poster that reviews the ten instincts and rules of thumbs we can apply to keep these instincts in proper perspective.

What, Me Worry?

In urging us to take a more fact-based view of the world, Rosling is not trying to say that everything is fine and we have nothing to worry about.  Instead, he is saying that our overly dramatic view of our current position can cause us to miss the truly dangerous trends occurring in the world, and also may lead us to be cynical about humanity’s ability to address these challenges.  We have made remarkable progress in the last hundred years on issues like global poverty, health and life expectancy.  We still have work to do in those areas, but the trends have moved in the right direction.  We also have challenges around climate change, political polarization and racial inequities that will take concerted effort to make right.  The hope that Factfulness gives us is that positive change has occurred in dramatic ways in our lifetimes, and can occur again, if we balance our dramatic instincts with some facts.

8 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Ashe says:

    Larry,

    Terrific posting. I think I will use this for my class. One factor I would like to see factored in is the relationship between development and remittances, given that immigrants send more than half a trillion dollars back home directly impacting families and communities. My guess is that this massive wealth transfer is behind much of the decese in extreme poverty around the world/

    The graphics really the change process clear,

    Jeff

  2. Jeffrey Ashe says:

    Larry,

    Terrific posting. I think I will use this for my class. One factor I would like to see factored in is the relationship between development and remittances, given that immigrants send more than half a trillion dollars back home directly impacting families and communities. My guess is that this massive wealth transfer is behind much of the decese in extreme poverty around the world.

    The graphics really the change process clear,

    Jeff

    • Larry Reed says:

      Thanks, Jeff. I think you’re right about remittances, and I think that immigrants probably send as much back in knowledge as they do in money. Plus they enrich the countries they move to by bringing new knowledge with them.

  3. While I generally agree with Rosling, I have taken issue with some of his conclusions – especially those related to extreme poverty and illiteracy, in a Medium article I published in 2017. You can find it here: https://medium.com/@bretthmatthews/our-world-in-data-2a948a15b8ed (and below). I don’t believe we have scientifically adequate tools for measuring extreme poverty, and our current monetary proxy (the International Poverty Line or IPL) is profoundly misleading.

    The IPL can’t work even when we adjust for the fact that in-kind income (but not assets) are partially monetized in the data collection process. Rosling’s protege Max Roser has repeatedly rejected my argument on Twitter by insisting that the IPL data collection process adequately adjusts monetary income into an appropriate proxy for ‘extreme poverty’. But he has never addressed my central point, which is that in partially monetized contexts – that is, precisely the contexts where extreme poverty is greatest – much of the increase in average income is simply an increase in monetization, not an improvement in economic well-being.

    The absurdity of this argument is revealed in the most common poverty chart on this topic, circulated by Roser’s group, Our World in Data. It shows the percentage of the population in ‘extreme poverty’ in 1800 to be over 90%, in spite of the fact that cash scarcely existed in those days, and almost no one relied on it for their wealth. Today most people can’t survive without money. If a person lived on several hectares of land in 1800 but had no income, and their descendants today are landless but make $1.90 a day, which is likely to be better off? I don’t deny that infant mortality has gone way down, and life expectancy has increased. But these are not captured in the monetary proxy. In fact the monetary proxy is so muddled with monetization itself, that it is very hard to know where the one starts, and the other leaves off.

    • Larry Reed says:

      Thanks, Brett. An important point. When we say that the great majority of people lived in poverty in 1900, we are using today’s definitions of poverty, as inadequate as they may be. If we had the data, it would be much better to compare using the Multidimensional Poverty Index, which could compare levels of deprivation in various areas like health, housing, nutrition and education. Even then, what people considered a good life in 1900 we may consider poverty today.

      • Agreed. Something like the Multidimensional Poverty Index is far more useful. But it is quite complex, and alas doesn’t have the ‘punch’ of something like the Our World in Data meme. I for one am looking for something better (and I feel I am close to finding it, though not yet ready to discuss it publicly).

        • Larry says:

          Let me know when you get a better measure ready to publish.

          I think this is a good discussion because in some ways it gets to the heart of our work. Are conditions for people living in extreme poverty getting better or not? Rosling and others use the World Bank numbers to make their case. The main point Rosling tried to make was that the world is improving in many areas, and that we need not be so cynical about the power of humanity to make things better.

          At least until you come up with something better, any single number we use to measure progress over a century will have limitations. So let’s look in other areas, like basic human needs. If we look at things like childhood death rates, life expectancy, shelter and nutrition I think we see progress over the last 100 years. Would you agree?

  4. We have clearly made enormous progress on infant mortality, life expectancy, the eradication of disease and even illiteracy. These are very important matters. This is why I find it so disappointing that some ‘experts’ (including of course Stephen Pinker in his recent book ‘Enlightenment Now’) feel the need to pad the results further in ways that can’t be empirically validated. When it comes to poverty, there seems to be a chronic inability accept uncertainty; we have to know the exact situation and know it now – whether our evidence supports or stance of certainty or not.

    As for future directions, I highly recommend James Flynn’s book ‘What is Intelligence?’ I’ve written somewhat on this already here.
    https://medium.com/@bretthmatthews/the-heart-of-abstraction-1299f671317a

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