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Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Factfulness Hans Rosling PDF

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Book Reviews:

I talk about the developed and developing world all the time, but I shouldn’t.

My late friend Hans Rosling called the labels “outdated” and “meaningless.” Any categorization that lumps together China and the Democratic Republic of Congo is too broad to be useful. But I’ve continued to use “developed” and “developing” in public (and on this blog) because there wasn’t a more accurate, easily understandable alternative—until now.

I recently read Hans’ new book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. In it, he offers a new framework for how to think about the world. Hans proposes four income groups (with the largest number of people living on level 2).

This was a breakthrough to me. The framework Hans enunciates is one that took me decades of working in global development to create for myself, and I could have never expressed it in such a clear way. I’m going to try to use this model moving forward.

Why does it matter? It’s hard to pick up on progress if you divide the world into rich countries and poor countries. When those are the only two options, you’re more likely to think anyone who doesn’t have a certain quality of life is “poor.”

Hans compares this instinct to standing on top of a skyscraper and looking down at a city. All of the other buildings will look short to you whether they’re ten stories or 50 stories high. It’s the same with income. Life is significantly better for those on level 2 than level 1, but it’s hard to see that from level 4 unless you know to look for it.

The four levels are just one of many insights in Factfulness that will help you better understand the world. I’m excited that Hans’ publisher Flatiron Books plans to donate 5,000 copies to Books for Africa and Reader to Reader—two organizations that encourage reading in underserved communities. Hans worked on the book until his last days (even bringing several chapters with him in the ambulance to the hospital), and his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna helped finish it after he passed.

The bulk of the book is devoted to ten instincts that keep us from seeing the world factfully. These range from the fear instinct (we pay more attention to scary things) to the size instinct (standalone numbers often look more impressive than they really are) to the gap instinct (most people fall between two extremes). With each one, he offers practical advice about how to overcome our innate biases. Gates Notes Insiders can get a free preview of the gap instinct chapter.

Hans argues that these instincts make it difficult to put events in perspective. Imagine news coverage about a natural disaster—say, a tornado that kills 10 people in a small town. If you look at only the headlines, you’ll view the event as an unbearable tragedy (which it is). But if you put it in the context of history, you’ll also know that tornadoes today are a lot less deadly than they used to be, thanks to advanced warning systems. That’s no consolation to the loved ones of those who died, but it matters a great deal to everyone who survived the tornado.

In other words, the world can be both bad and better. That idea drives the work Melinda and I do every day, and Hans articulates it beautifully in Factfulness. It’s a great companion to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now (although Hans is a little less academic than Pinker is). With rare exceptions, most of the miracles of humankind are long-term, constructed things. Progress comes bit by bit. We’ve cut the number of people living in extreme poverty by half over the last twenty years, but there was never a morning when “POVERTY RATES DROP INCREMENTALLY” dominated newspaper headlines.

Another remarkable thing about Factfulness—and about Hans himself—is that he refuses to judge anyone for their misconceptions. Most writers would beat people up for their ignorance, but he doesn’t. Hans even resists going after the media. Instead, he tells you about the history of his own ignorance. He explains that these instincts make us human, and that overcoming them isn’t easy.

That’s classic Hans. He was always kind, often patient, and never judgmental. He spent his life not only understanding how global health was improving but sharing what he learned in a fun, clear way with a broad set of people. If you never met Hans or watched one of his many TED talks, Factfulness will help you get a sense of why he was so special. I wish I could tell Hans how much I liked it. Factfulness is a fantastic book, and I hope a lot of people read it.

This is probably one of the most important books available today. Why? Because our world is desperately in need of a shared sense of reality, and it’s very important that this reality has a solid grounding in science and reason. The book is not without its controversy. The charts and graphs mostly come from UN and World Bank statistics. Many people will argue about the “factfulness” of the various datasets presented in this book– after all, your faith in the science and facts of these books also assumes your faith in the institutions collecting data (over and above other institutions like your local church).

But if you do have faith in these institutions, then you’ll see that just because the institutions and the data aren’t perfect (just like many other things in modern life) they are improving. The relentless pursuit of progress also extends to our statistical understanding of the things around us. For my part, one of the most striking things about the book is how uncontroversial its assertions are…and how simple the statistical facts of the world can be rendered.

At one point in the book, the author asks harder epistemological questions. For those who have a more mystical understanding of vaccinations, chemicals, and even modern science, the author asks “What evidence would make you change your mind?”. Regrettably, for most of the world, the answer is this: “If the answer benefits my tribe and its particular world-view, then yes, easily accepted….oh, and by the way, I’ll use the open-mindedness of non-tribal people against themselves by sewing the seeds of skepticism while continuing to build walls to protect my tribe’s worldview.”

Will you ever be able to convince a climate change skeptic to accept climate change? My own very controversial answer is this: Only if you can co-opt their tribe. That is very different than getting a tribe to buy into the shared world of factfulness.

My best guess is that this method of argument works within a worldview of competing tribes: Your tribe will have beneficial treatment, jobs, and prestige within this world and protection from other tribes. (Notice how the language of shared humanism is absent and the language hierarchy of tribes is emphasized).

A true understanding of science requires that we always regard truths as provisional and that we look for falsifying evidence. My fear is that eventually the world will become so polluted by tribal world-views that all forms of shared factfulness will become polluted by tribalism. Zero-sum competition will lay waste to the public utility that is a shared fact-based world.

There is one very controversial assertion in this book that I would like to reflect on. At several points, the author asserts that our current methods of pursuing progress are working. Child mortality rates are falling, crime is falling, battle deaths are falling, and national economies are rising out of poverty. I don’t doubt the assertion within the framework of the book, but I do wonder about our current moment in history. A time when:

1- populism
2- social media enhanced sectarianism
3- the displacement of localisms by globalization
4- and discontent with the vast changes in technology
are leading to the most difficult problem of our time: tribalism.

As tribalism increases, our modern scientific tools for tackling climate change, political violence, disaster relief, and the fragility of the global economy deteriorate. As they deteriorate, zero-sum competition between tribes looks more logical. The tools of tribalism are becoming more visible: demonization and humiliation of enemies, the hoarding of resources, and the use of conflict over cooperation.

This is not a problem I’m ready to answer right now, but Rosling’s thesis that public education may restore our confidence in these tools and roll back tribalism does provide some hope if not a sufficient political answer to our current moment in history.

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