Author: Hans Rosling
APA Style Citation
Rosling, H. (2018). Factfulness: ten reasons we`re wrong about the world-and why things are better than you think. Flatiron books.
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Factfulnessis Hans Rosling’s last effort to dissolve misconceptions about the current state of the world using data to demonstrate how confirmation bias, expectations, media, and ethnocentrism can blind us to the realities of the world in which we live. Before you continue reading, move to the activity for Factfulness and take the 12-question quiz. Once you are done and have checked your results, come back and read more about the results of others who took the quiz and how Rosling uses data to demonstrate how conditions around the world continue to improve and how we often fool ourselves into thinking that things are worse than they actually are.
In 2017, Rosling asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer the questions in the quiz. He also asked chimps to answer the questions, and the chimps chose correctly 1/3rd of the time earning an average of 4 correct which is what we would expect from blind guessing. College-educated adult humans from all over the globe faired far worse. People on average scored 2 of the 12 questions correct. Not a single person got all of the questions correct, one person in Sweden earned 11 of the 12 correct, and 15% of respondents did not get a single question correct. The educational level, age career, or political affiliation of the audience did not seem to matter. Even the experts at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland did worse than the chimps.
The reality is that the world has been steadily improving and while this improvement still needs to continue, we are inundated with images of poverty, disease and other sensationalist stories which often focus on the negative. Much of this recent change for the better has been happening in Asia and Africa. Those in Europe and the United States often do not see those changes and make negative assumptions about other parts of the world about which they have little data. Rosling wants to help people understand these changes to better understand the current state of the world. Students of psychology are often hesitant to learn about research and statistics, however, one of the most important lessons students of science can learn is that they should let the data lead them to a conclusion, not their intuition. Researchers should look for reasons to reject what they believe, rather than looking for support for preexisting presumptions. Rosling describes data as therapy, which can confirm or in many cases disconfirm what we think we know. When we have the facts, we can adjust our thinking to align with reality.
Rosling demonstrates how much the world has changed in his lifetime, and he describes how his grandmother spent many days doing laundry on a washboard. His mother got a machine washer, and instead of doing laundry in the afternoon, she took Hans to the library. Hans credits the washing machine to his interest and ability to spend time reading and pursuing academics. These changes are not limited to wealthy countries which Rosling describes as level 4 countries(wealthy and healthy countries). As an example, in Saudi Arabia in 1960, 242 babies out of every 1,000 died before their fifth birthday. Today, that number is 35. In Malaysia, the number was 93 in 1960 and is 14 today. Europeans and Americans tend to look at the world using what Rosling refers to as the gap instinct, in their mind, they split the world into two groups of countries, rich or poor and assume that there are massive differences in the way people live in these countries.
The reality is that most people today live in middle-income countries and have lives that have improved dramatically in the past few decades. Some of these changes include significantly increasing access to electricity, refrigeration, and mechanisms for cooking or heating food. Rosling also explains the problem with using the terms “developing” and “developed” to describe countries around the world. Eighty five percent of people living on the planet would fall into the bucket for the “developed” world. Only 13 countries would fall in the “developing” world (representing 6% of the population), and all others would be in-between. In the past 20 years, 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty, today that number is 9%. Billions of people have moved from levels 1 to levels 2 and 3, but often the media focuses on the worst stories distorting the reality of this improving situation. Rosling provides data for other phenomena that are improving, but from listening to the news, it would be difficult to identify this positive trend. The death penalty, battle deaths, oil spills, legal slavery, child labor, smallpox and deaths from disasters have all been dramatically decreasing over the past 30 years. Rosling acknowledges that even one hungry child is a problem that needs to be addressed but we also need to understand that as a whole things are getting better.
Rosling describes an instance as a young doctor when he believed a Russian pilot with an expensive jumpsuit had just come into the emergency room and was bleeding profusely. He was about to cut off the jumpsuit when the head nurse came in, and she explained that this was a Swedish pilot in shock which was why he could not speak properly and Rosling was standing on the ink cartridge from the life jacket he was wearing, making the entire floor red. The jumpsuit Rosling was about the cut unnecessarily cut off, cost tens of thousands of dollars. Rosling uses this story to explain how the fear instinct can make us jump to erroneous conclusions. Critical thinking is almost always difficult, but it becomes even more so when we are afraid. The media feeds on this fear instinct by reporting on stories that will catch our attention even if these reports do not represent the trends in behavior. Psychologists know this as the availability heuristic. In 2016, 40 million commercial passenger flights landed safely at their destinations, we heard about the ten that did not.
Terrorism is a concern for those all over the world, despite media coverage, acts of terrorism are on the decline. For those in level 4, from 2007-2016 a total of 1,439 people were killed by terrorists, during the ten years before that 4,358 people were killed. This includes the 9-11 attacks that killed 2,996 people. In the past 20 years in the United States, an average of 159 people were killed by terrorists each year. Alcohol, on the other hand, killed 69,000 people per year during the same time period. The chances that someone in the United States will be killed by a drunk driver is 50 times higher than being killed by a terrorist. Frightening and dangerous are not necessarily the same.
Rosling talks about the time he spent in a rural African district with an extraordinarily high childhood death rate. He explained that as the only doctor in the district he could not spend hours saving the life of a child who came to the hospital because he could save far more lives by vaccinating hundreds of children in the same amount of time decrease the likelihood that they got sick. While this may seem cruel, in reality, it is far more humane. We hear about shark attacks and bear attacks that happened once in a rare while, but rarely hear about cases of domestic abuse which are far more fatal, in Sweden this occurs once every 30 days. Rosling likens relying on the media to form your worldview to looking at a picture of his foot to get an idea of what he looks like. It gives you part of the story, but it is certainly not complete.
While Hans uses data to bring people`s thinking in line with reality, he also emphasizes the human factor to his work. His hypothesis and questions come from talking to others and in his openness for data to be interpreted differently. At a conference on climate change, a European leader discussed the rapid growth in the use of fuels by India and China and indicated that they were going to have to find a way to slow down this use. When he had finished speaking, the representative from India indicated that it was not only India and China that would need to change. He argued that they were using more fuels because there were far more people living there and that usage should be considered on a per capita basis not country by country. Those is the West had been using massive amounts of fuels for decades and are often unwilling to change any of their own behaviors. These individuals had the same data but a very different interpretation of what that data meant and how to move forward. Rosling indicates that the world cannot be understood without numbers, but we cannot understand the world through numbers alone. Rosling nearly finished Factfulnessbefore his death (his daughter and son-in-law also contributed much to the book and completed the project after Rosling`s death). Rosling leaves a legacy of service to public health and the desire to improve the lives of people all over the world while simultaneously informing us about those factors that are improving and those that needed direct attention, for this we should be eternally thankful.
Other Related Resources
All data in the book (as well as much more) can be found on this website. The data can be manipulated by country and is quite interactive. There are handouts, posters, complete lesson plans and great information related to health, lifespan, disease prevention and much more.
Hans Rosling TED Talk: How not to be ignorant about the world
Hans Rosling TED Talk: The best stats you`ve ever seen
Hans Rosling Obituary
Psychological Figures and Concepts