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Get It Right

July 10, 2019 by

In Factfulness Hans Rosling is on a crusade against the widespread and persistent ignorance amongst well-educated people about the world at large. Many people are “devastatingly wrong and systemically wrong”, he writes, about how many girls go to school in low-income countries, where people are living over the world, the level of vaccination, the status of endangered species, how many people have access to electricity. “Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving”, he writes, and most people don’t see it because they can’t get rid of their overly pessimistic views.

Rosling sums up ten biases that prevent people from getting their facts right. The first is the gap instinct: the temptation to divide things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap in between. This kind of binary thinking is too simplistic. For example, it is “simply wrong” to divide the world in a developed and a developing part. “Low-income countries are much more developed than most people think. And vastly fewer people live in them. The idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion.”

The second is the negativity instinct: we tend to notice the bad more than the good and therefore overlook the “secret silent miracle of human progress”.  “The world is much better than you think”, Rosling writes, offering many facts to underpin this statement.

The third is the straight line instinct, extrapolating trends. For example, we tend to overestimate population growth. The poorest ten percent of the world still have five children on average. All other parents have two children on average, also in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Brazil or Turkey, regardless of their religion. “The only proven method for curbing population growth is to eradicate extreme poverty and give people better lives, including education and contraceptives.”

Other instincts are the fear instinct (being afraid of things you will never experience, such as natural disasters or terrorism), the generalization instinct (question your categories) or the blame instinct (resist finding a scapegoat; look for causes, not villains).

The urgency instinct is his final one. It makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger. It makes us stressed, amplifies other instincts and makes them harder to control, blocks us from thinking analytically, tempts us to take drastic actions that we haven’t thought through. And it makes us slothful about future risks, such as pensions.

Factfulness is a joy to read. It is a well-written book that helps you to perceive the world in which we live more optimistically. Not because you want to, but because it is based on solid facts.