I recently completed Factualness. It was written by Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician. It is an absolute must read.[i] Rosling worked for decades on world health issues, personally traveling to hot spots of epidemic outbreaks, like the Ebola virus. Through his work he became a much sought-after lecturer. Rosling began asking his audiences some basic questions about the state of the world, and world health in particular. He was stunned how often his affluent, well-educated audiences got the answers wrong. His questions were multiple choice questions with three possible answers. He found over and over that his audiences did no better than random chance (getting 1 in 3 right), or as he likes to describe it, no better than chimpanzees would have done. Here’s one of his questions:
How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?
A - 20%B - 50%C- 80%
The correct answer is C, 80%. The answer given most frequently by Rosling’s audiences was 20%. In the introduction there are 13 questions like this one. I will not embarrass myself by telling you how many I got wrong, but apparently, I am only slightly brighter than the average chimpanzee. The book’s subtitle, Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things are Better Than You Think, describes the balance of Factualness, in which Rosling masterfully lays out an explanation about why we generally think the world is worse off than it actually is and, importantly, how to resist the urge to fall into that trap.
Much like Steven Pinker did in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Rosling meticulously documents how the state of human existence has dramatically improved across the world, especially since WWII. But Rosling was no Pollyanna. Quite to the contrary, he was an advocate for aggressive actions to continue the progress on poverty, disease, climate change and a host of other issues. But he recognized that exaggerating the extent of a problem and being too Cassandran is actually counterproductive.
“I don’t like exaggeration. Exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data . . . Exaggeration, once discovered, makes people tune out altogether.”
There is much wisdom packed into Factfulness’s 341 pages. I leave you with a couple of typical excerpts.
On confirmation bias:
”Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to the information that doesn’t fit your perspective. . . . Instead, constantly test your favorite ideas for weaknesses. Be humble about the extent of your expertise. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit, and information from other fields. And rather than talking only to people who agree with you, or collecting examples that fit your ideas, seek people who contradict you, disagree with you, and put forward different ideas as a great resource for understanding the world.”
On how to react to the stories in the media:
“. . . your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves nonrepresentative, extraordinary events and shuns normality.”
Or as I like to say, if it is in the news, it is not normal.
These are just a couple of teasers. As I said at the outset, this is a must read. It will make you simultaneously feel better about the world, but also more frustrated at how skewed our worldview is. But most importantly, it will help you resist the temptation to jump to conclusions based on partial information or preconceived opinions.
And Lord knows, we need more of that today.