Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling (1948-2017) was a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute and Cofounder of Gapminder (2005). Part of Rosling’s life work can be summarized in Gapminder’s mission which is to fight devastating misconceptions with a fact-based worldview everyone can understand. Many of his TED Talks are famous for his stunning way of presenting data and facts about the world.

Through the years, Rosling found again and again that when asked simple questions about global trends, people systematically get the answers so wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess them. Rosling began to write Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. It summarizes his life’s research and his quest to teach others the importance of relying on accurate data.

The most important insight from this book is how many people truly believe the world is in a worse state than it was decades ago despite objective facts stating the contrary, The author explains ten “instincts” or biases that lead us to those false interpretations about the world and of any situation in general:

  • The Gap Instinct is “the irresistible temptation to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap—a huge chasm of injustice—in between.” To control the gap instinct, beware of comparison of averages, and comparison of extremes.

  • The Negativity Instinct leads us to notice the bad more than the good. This includes misremembering the past and forgetting the fact that good news and gradual improvements don’t make the news. Also, people tend to glorify early experiences, which seem rosier than our present situation.

  • The Straight Line Instinct implies assuming that the relevant variables in a situation will continue their current tendency.

  • The Fear Instinct. “Critical thinking is always difficult, but it’s almost impossible when we are scared. There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.” To control the fear instinct, we should remember that risk is a function not only of danger but also of exposure.

  • The Size Instinct by which we tend to get things out of proportion. “We either look at the lonely number or misjudge the importance of a single instance of an identifiable victim.”

  • The Generalization Instinct. “Everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes all the time. Un consciously. (…) The necessary and useful instinct to generalize (…) can distort our world.”

    When many people become aware of a problematic generalization it is called a stereotype. Most commonly, people talk about race and gender stereotyping. These cause many very important problems, but they are not the only problems caused by wrong generalizations. Wrong generalizations are mind-blockers for all kinds of understanding.

    The gap instinct divides the world into “us” and “them,” and the generalization instinct makes “us” think of “them” as all the same.

  • The Destiny Instinct is “the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change.” The reality is that many things appear to be constant just because they change slowly. If we talked to our grandparents about their childhood, we would realize their lives were very different from ours. Other times, we need to update our knowledge because we the idea we have in our minds about a certain reality is completely outdated.

  • The Single Perspective Instinct is the attractiveness of explaining a complex reality with just a single cause or a beautiful, simple idea.

    Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective. This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality.

    We need to recognize that a single perspective can limit our imagination. We need to test our ideas. We shouldn’t claim expertise beyond our actual field of expertise. And to paraphrase the great Charlie Munger, we should be aware of the Man-with-Hammer Syndrome.

  • The Blame Instinct is “the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened. (…) It makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups.” The Blame instinct “obstructs our ability to develop a true, fact-based understanding of the world. (…) When we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations.” We should look for causes, not villains. We should look for systems, not heroes. It’s wise to spend our energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or systems, that created the particular situation.

  • The Urgency Instinct “makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger.” From another point of view, “we don’t seem to have a similar instinct to act when faced with risks that are far off in the future.” We should realize that when a situation feels urgent, it rarely is. Take a break and ask for more information. Insist on relevant and accurate data, which is the only kind of data that is useful. Beware of fortune-tellers and advocates of drastic actions who don’t stop to consider side effects.

Rosling’s examples are relevant, vivid, and many times personal. The book is highly accessible, it does not pretend to go very deep, and maybe it’s a little bit repetitive. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading it and I think many people would benefit from reading it precisely for it’s straightforward and optimist style.

thinking biases data objectivity

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