Factfulness begins with a pop quiz of thirteen questions about the state of the world. Each question has three possible answers, labeled A, B, and C. For example
- In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
- A: almost doubled
- B: remained more or less the same
- C: almost halved
Hans Rosling has posed questions such as this to audiences worldwide for the last two decades. Invariably, audiences perform worse than chimpanzees randomly picking bananas marked A, B, and C. There’s a tendency to audiences’ bad performances, however. They tend to assume that things are getting worse in the world, when actually, things are getting better.
For example, the correct to question 3 above is C. In the last twenty years, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has almost halved. As a rule, if you select the most positive answer to Rosling’s questions, you’re likely to be correct. When we’re talking about trends in female education rates, life expectancy, deaths from natural disasters, infant vaccination, access to electricity, and the like, that’s good news.
So why do people think things are getting worse? Rosling and his coauthors finger ten instincts that mislead us.
- The Gap Instinct
- The Negativity Instinct
- The Straight Line Instinct
- The Fear Instinct
- The Size Instinct
- The Generalization Instinct
- The Destiny Instinct
- The Single Perspective Instinct
- The Blame Instinct
- The Urgency Instinct
These instincts can be useful in certain contexts, but they also have a tendency to mislead our thinking. Take the fear instinct, for example. Certainly there are things to be afraid of in life. But Rosling notes, “Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.” The way to overcome this instinct is to “calculate the risks.”
Rosling doesn’t deny that bad things happen, but he insists that “things can be both bad and better.” He is not some Panglossian optimist, in other words, thinking that this is the best of all possible worlds. Rather, based on facts about material improvement in the human condition, he is a “possibilist.”
I highly recommend reading Factfulness. Learning about material improvements to the human condition is exciting. But I also recommend it because it offers sound guidance about how to interpret the barrage of information presented to us daily. Knowing how to read, interpret, and filter out the noise in trends is a necessary component of a contemporary worldview, leading to better informed—and hence more productive—action.
Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (New York: Flatiron Books, 2018).
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