Factfulness

By Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

Rating: 10/10

Best Line #1: Get a toolbox, not a hammer.

Best Line #2: Objects in your memory are worse than they appear.

A Life Well-Lived

Let’s start at the end. I was unfamiliar with the work of Hans Rosling prior to this book. And while reading his stories and his point of view, I became a fan. By the latter chapters, I found myself wondering when his next book would arrive. His voice needed to be amplified, needed to continue.

Then I came to the outro and understood this work a little more clearly. Hans Rosling died delivering this book. He had draft chapters next to his hospital bed, notes dictated to his family. Reading about the way he and his co-authors carried the effort to the very end sparks a mix of emotion that no one expects to feel when reading a work such as this. It was a powerful close to an important work that I hope everyone revisits on a regular basis.

Rosling’s legacy makes a positive impact for anyone who reads Factfulness. This book will teach you how to adopt a better worldview and thus make a better world. I can’t do justice to all the beautiful stories and the passion that comes through the pages. Instead, I will try to capture a few core insights with the expressed intent that this compels you to buy the book.

Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World

True to the subtitle of the book, the core of this work is the identification of ten instincts (i.e., biases) that cause us to take what Rosling calls the “overdramatic” worldview. For more explanation,

Think about the world. War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading.

The constant power of media suggestion, to say nothing of the hyperbole we get from our own social media and workplace gossip, creates a warped worldview. The world is terrible. Life is terrible. I’m terrible. Or maybe it’s the other way: everything is so good because we’re dominating the polls, the economy, the <insert thing here> that nothing can go wrong.

Rosling spends the bulk of time helping us understand things are not nearly as bad as they seem. I offer a slightly more balanced message that we can, of course, overestimate how good they are, too. Neither too pessimistic nor too optimistic but a confrontation with fact that takes, as Dr. Drew Pinksy would say, “reality on reality’s terms.” This is the stuff of Thursday’s article about possibilism and the stuff of Factfulness.

To position our worldview accordingly, we must guard against the ten instincts. They can be found here, provided by the fantastic Swedish independent foundation Gapminder, and include the following below. Please do visit the Gapminder site for more information.  

#1. The Gap Instinct

We have 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.

It’s in everyone’s nature. The instant you split large groups into simple binary camps (political parties, anyone?), you’ve created a gap that doesn’t truly exist. In business, I think this is where third-way thinking can allow entrepreneurs to find their customers between the separate consumer poles that we see with something like luxury versus economy vehicles. There was a time that this is all that existed in the automobile market. Today, of course, the segmentation is much richer.

Meanwhile, from a sociological standpoint, the gap instinct is fueled by extremism from either end of a topic. In his latest episode of the Akimbo podcast, Seth Godin said there are three groups in any market: the ones who love things they way they are (don’t change it!), the ones who are hungry for something new, and the vast sea of people in-between who simply want to go where the culture takes them on either end of the pole. There is some truth to that, of course. The Gap Instinct can play tricks on us, though, and can cause us to not fully see the deep, rich, diversity of that majority that rests between the endpoints.

#2. The Negativity Instinct

What drives the negativity instinct? Three things: misremembering of the past, selective reporting by journalists and activists, the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better.

This is where Rosling introduces the possibilist creed. He also makes a terrific insight that I’ve never considered before: bad news is far more capable and more likely to reach our attention. I like this twist of thought because we ordinarily think of the infatuation with bad news from the standpoint of our own attention. As if it is purely our choice to only focus on the negative stuff. The reality is that negative information, as a thing unto itself, is simply more capable of reaching us. It’s interesting to consider information as its own thing, an invisible germ that evolves regularly to be as contagious as possible. This is somewhat true, I think, from an emergence standpoint.

Guard against the highly capable, highly prevalent power of Bad News by taking a longer view. There are always periodic dips, swings of the pendulum, and what is bad news today might not have much indication on the news tomorrow. Stock prices are a fine example of this. A stock decreases in value this week but, as a trend, is up 40% from a year ago. View events in multiple timeframes.

And don’t romanticize the past. South Park and their “member berries” help to put nostalgia in its place.

#3. The Straight Line Instinct

One of my favorite jokes comes at the start of the season. The very first game. The very first at-bat. Invariably, some game for some team involves a player who goes up to bat for the first time in the season and registers a hit. The announcer then delivers the oldie-but-goodie line “And with that hit, Player X is on pace to bat 1.000 this year.”

Any player who achieves a 0.300 batting average in a given season will be considered one of the best hitters of the year. Only once has a player ever hit 0.400 in a year. And no one, absolutely no one, will ever hit 1.000 in a proper season. So the joke is pretty funny to the stat geeks like me. Primarily because it plays to the obvious instinct that we can suffer from when we misread data.

To borrow from Rosling, factfulness is recognizing the assumption that a line will just continue straight and remembering that such lines are rare in reality.

A trend today, going back to the stock market, is not a trend tomorrow. People can’t believe it but housing prices will not continue to go up.

#4. The Fear Instinct

This gets to a misunderstanding about probabilities. We fear shark attacks though we never go into the ocean. We don’t fear swimming pools though more people die in swimming pools by a massive order of magnitude. Or as said by mark @TheCatWhisperer:

[1 of 4 car accidents caused by texting & driving]

PEOPLE: won’t be me

[1 in 292 million chance of winning powerball]

PEOPLE: you never know

But Rosling rightfully points out that we also have an unfamiliarity with risk itself. It isn’t merely about the odds, it’s about a deeper equation. Risk = danger x exposure. Or as Rosling says it, The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but on a combination of two things: how dangerous is it? And how much are you exposed to it?

To me, the operate phrase is how scared it makes you feel. I’ve danced with that fear before and written about it. Negative visualization can be a tremendous help in overcoming the fear instinct.

#5. The Size Instinct

Be forewarned: Rosling provides a powerful lesson on this particular instinct through the use of very difficult information, the sort of information that is hard for anyone to easily stomach. I will borrow a passage to help explain but, again, it’s not an easy thing to read at first.

4.2 million babies died last year. Who can even imagine 4.2 million dead babies? It is so terrible, and even worse when we know that almost all died from easily preventable diseases. And how can anyone argue that 4.2 million is anything other than a huge number? You might think that nobody would even try to argue that, but you would be wrong. That is exactly why I mentioned this number. Because it is not huge; it is beautifully small. The number 4.2 million is for 2016. The year before, the number was 4.4 million. Back in 1950, it was 14.4 million.

A single number on its own can drastically skew our sense of reality. Without a trend, it’s practically impossible to tell if a given number is directionally positive or negative.

Further, consider proportion. Yes, 4.2 million babies died last year. It literally hurts me to type that. But 141 million babies were born. This means the infant mortality rate was an all-time low of 3%. Considering these facts against my emotions makes me realize how the combination of pathos and logos (emotions and logic) makes for difficult processing.

Just think of all the ways this particular instinct can be used to manipulate us when numbers hit the head and the heart. I wrote on Monday about the concept of data as therapy. It remains the case that we can compel action with data that touches pathos and logos. But the type of action? Well, salesmen can point that in very self-serving directions. Which is why the Greeks were so wise to include ethos as the critical third piece of this blessed trinity.

#6. The Generalization Instinct

This instinct touches on stereotypes, sweeping declarations, and the cursed utility of such. We all think in broad groups and categorizations. The world is too complicated for us to not think in this way.

Rosling provides something very useful in the nuance. Yes, we generalize. That’s not the issue. The issue is that the categories we use to house our generalizations are often wrong. Always questions your categories. Many categories are built from exceptional examples. People cherry-pick single examples of behavior or phenomena and say “that’s how it always is.”

I can’t thank Rosling enough for a technique he offers to fight against this. Ask if the opposite example would make one draw the opposite conclusion. Consider climate change. Here’s how this would work:

Me: “It’s cold today, isn’t it? Very cold for a summer day.”

Climate Denier: “Yes, it is cold. And that’s why global warming doesn’t exist.”

Me: “Well, by that logic, a cold day means climate change is a hoax. Doesn’t that also mean that if today was exceptionally warm, would you say global warming does exist?”

Climate Denier: “I guess?”

Another terrific insight of the generalization instinct playing to our worst tendencies regards Africa. I’ll just quote Rosling here. He’s so right:

It makes no sense to talk about African countries and Africa’s problems and yet people do, all the time. It leads to ridiculous outcomes like Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone affecting tourism in Kenya, a 100-hour drive across the continent. That is farther than London to Tehran.

Amazing insight.

#7. The Destiny Instinct

This is a hard one for me. Change is ever-present but not always fast. Nothing is constant. As Rosling so beautifully put it:

Cultures, nations, religions and people are not rocks. They are in constant transformation.

As hard as it can be to imagine, we are evolving as a species. Here and now. We may not see it in the moment but one can see it over the course of 2,000 years. This gets to the core idea of dynamic equilibrium. There is not steady fixed state so much as an ever-shifting balance that changes moment-to-moment depending on the time series.

As Rosling suggests, consider our values. These are the bedrock of our entire paradigm as a country or a family or a society. And yet, if you talk with your grandparents, you’ll learn rather fast how those values change. Not quickly, perhaps, but they still change. Don’t treat everything as a destined, fixed, preordained condition. Glaciers move.

#8. The Single Perspective Instinct

This gets to the oft-remembered but seldom applied adage, “To a person with a hammer, every problem is a nail.” And from this point, Rosling rightfully discusses the need for us all to reconsider the expert. In a Tetlock-ian manner, Rosling talks about the limitations of experts. They can be very good in their own fields but they cannot be expected, or considered, very good outside of those fields. It’s the fox versus the hedgehog.

It’s Munger’s latticework of mental models.

But it’s also a wariness against over-reliance on data. Rosling was a beautiful mind because as much as he loved data, he knew its limitations. Yes, data is at the heart of Factfulness but he warns us that we should be highly skeptical of any data that is, as he says, “derived purely from number crunching.” This is a major caution for AI as we move forward with the science. The best thinkers are already on top of it but it’s the novices and the amatuer interests who will overplay auto-generated data, overplay this new hammer, and turn the rest of us into nails.

#9 – The Blame Instinct

In episode 43 of The Knowledge Project podcast, developmental coach and author Jennifer Garvey Berger talks about the need for us to think in systems and not believe in root causes. There are seldom, if ever, any root causes. Rosling echoes this sentiment with his observation that we are too drawn to the simple, clear, obvious reason why something bad happened.

Even worse, we tend to think that something bad happens because of someone’s bad intentions. I once had my car keys fall out of my pocket while riding a rollercoaster. I didn’t realize it until late that night when, arriving at my car, I couldn’t unlock the door. I had to call a locksmith and pay $400 to get into my car again and drive to a dealership to get a proper key. That was a bad thing that happened. And clearly, it was because of someone’s bad intentions. In this case, it was the theme park. They designed a rollercoaster that would carry enough force, speed, and position to force my keys out of my pocket so that they would land in a collection basin underneath the tracks. Mine and untold thousands of other key sets rest in the hands of that nefarious theme park today.

#10 – The Urgency Instinct

The last instinct and, as Rosling argues, the most dangerous. I’m persuaded by his argument. As he puts it,

The overdramatic worldview in people’s heads creates a constant sense of crisis and stress. The urgent “now or never” feelings it creates leads to stress or apathy. “We must do something drastic. Let’s not analyze.” Or, “It’s all hopeless. There’s nothing we can do. Time to give up.” Either way, we stop thinking, give in to our instincts, and make bad decisions.

I am a city planner by training and have become begrudgingly-aware that incrementalism is the right path forward for practically all systems. No big, urgent, oversized interventions. No massive, artificial, impatient waves of change. Honestly, the truth of this and the power of emergent phenomena makes me a skeptic of just about everything related to the city planning profession. Rosling’s book closes with a great number of insights, admonishments, and recommendations to fight against urgency, dramatization, and take a more cautious approach.

He is right. And as much as this is about fighting against the urgency instinct, I think it’s also about fighting against our broader love of Big Action. We fit things into narratives and, from those narratives, we’re always building to a climax. This doesn’t comport with Rosling’s wisdom. It doesn’t comport with reality, either.

Conclusion

This week introduced the following core ideas:

  1. Data as therapy,
  2. The need to overcome our ego when dancing with reality,
  3. The power of information flows,
  4. The better approach of being an possibilist.

We close with this review of one of 2018’s best works. It’s value is immense. Please buy this book. Please visit the Rosling TED talks. Here’s one from 2006. Another from 2014.

Finally, I offer a challenge. Now that you’ve had the chance to read this week’s information on such an important topic, I ask that you scroll through your newsfeed. Read the headlines. Look for these 10 instincts. You’ll find them in every news article that has any popularity. You’ll find them in your social media. You’ll find them in the conversations you have later today. I don’t ask for anything other than the observation of these instincts in action. Take a look around. It’s everywhere. Once you’ve seen them, you’ll realize that we’re swimming against the tide. We have a lot of work to do, you and I, to instill a better worldview. Best of luck to us both.

Mental Models and Principles

  • If your worldview is wrong, then you will systematically make wrong guesses.
  • Data as therapy
  • To control the gap instinct, look for the majority.
  • Beware comparisons of averages.
  • Beware comparisons of extremes.
  • Statistics as therapy – the world appears to be doing much worse until you put it in its historical context.
  • Practice distinguishing between a level (bad) and a direction (better). Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad.
  • Gradual improvement is not news. When a trend is gradually improving, with periodic dips, you are more likely to notice the dips than the overall improvement.
  • Factfulness is recognizing when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news.
  • Risk = danger x exposure.
  • “In the deepest poverty you should never do anything perfectly. If you do you are stealing resources from where they can be better used.” –Ingegerd Rooth
  • Never, ever leave a number all by itself. Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. It you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more. Something to compare with.
  • Divide. Amounts and rates can tell very different stories. Rates are more meaningful, especially when comparing between different-sized groups.
  • Question your categories.
  • Slow change is still change.
  • Get a toolbox, not a hammer.
  • The blame game often reveals our preferences. We tend to look for bad guys that confirm our existing beliefs.
  • Look for causes, not villains.
  • Look for systems not heroes.
  • Factfulness is recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is. To control urgency, take small steps.
  • Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested.
  • A fact-based worldview will be more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness simply because the dramatic view is so negative and terrifying.