How to be factful in an age of fear

Factfulness by Hans Rosling - cover

Posted by on November 12, 2019

Hans Rosling’s bestselling book Factfulness is a useful guide to reading well in the era of fake news, but don’t let it stop you from being outraged about climate change

Author Hans Rosling was a medical doctor and TEDTalks star before he died in 2017. He spent his last months on earth, as he was dying of cancer, writing this book. With help from his son, Ola Rosling, and his daughter in law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Rosling described the proposition he’d spent his entire career refining.

His point was basically: Things are not as bad as they seem.

Factfulness was published posthumously in 2017 and quickly became an international bestseller, with publication in more than 40 countries. Bill Gates called it “life-changing” and gifted free e-copies to 2018 college graduates in the United States.

Rules for thinking well

Rosling lays out a set of rules for better analyzing the information we receive from the world, he makes a clear and uplifting case that we could all enjoy a more optimistic world view if only we would see things more clearly.

“Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving,” writes Rosling. “Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.”

Unfortunately, because of certain human tendencies of thought, we aren’t able to spot the progress in our everyday lives. Instead, we see collapse, disaster and decline.

The author writes, “We need to learn to control our drama intake. Uncontrolled, our appetite for the dramatic goes too far, prevents us from seeing the world as it is, and leads us terribly astray.”

The 10 instincts that distort our perception of the world have far-reaching impact on the way we act in the world.

10 flawed ways we think

  1. The gap instinct: We tend to divide things into a binary: two different groups with conflicting properties and goals, with a wide gap between them.
  2. The negativity instinct: We tend to see things as getting worse, rather than getting better.
  3. The straight line instinct: We tend to believe that things move in a straight line, at a steady pace.
  4. The fear instinct: We tend to pay more attention to things that are frightening than we do to things that are not.
  5. The size instinct: We tend to misjudge the size of things.
  6. The generalization instinct: We tend to categorize things into groups, and generalize about the groups.
  7. The destiny instinct: We tend to believe that innate characteristics define inescapable destinies for certain groups, countries, religions and cultures, and that they cannot change.
  8. The single perspective: We tend to believe that problems have a single cause.
  9. The blame instinct: We tend to blame individuals for what we see as willful choices, rather than examine the systems that led them to their choices.
  10. The urgency instinct: We tend to believe that we must take urgent action when we recognize a danger on the horizon.

The author’s systematic way of describing the common ways we engage in flawed thinking is truly helpful. I saw myself and community in his examples. Human attraction to drama acts on me every single day, and I walk around in a frantic, confused fog, thinking I must do something about all the world’s problems immediately.

Thinking factfully in real life

For example, in my son’s school, vaccinations have become a hot-button topic. As I read Factfulness, I recognized how the 10 instincts are influence the debate, which has an emotional flavour.

First, the gap instinct. We think of people who vaccinate and people who don’t vaccinate as entirely different types of people, who disagree profoundly. We don’t tend to think we have common ground, when in fact, there are many shades of gray within our vaccination decisions and we share the common goal of protecting our children.

Then, there’s the blame instinct. People who vaccinate tend to blame the individuals who don’t for reading and believing the false stories on Facebook about the risks and benefits of vaccinations. They do not examine systemic reasons why some people turn to the internet rather than a doctor for health information.

The single perspective is at play as well. I hear the assumption that some people don’t vaccinate because they believe their child will become autistic, even after the science behind that fear has been soundly debunked in recent years. In fact, people who don’t vaccinate may have more than one reason for their choice, and fear of adverse effects may or may not be one of them.

Reading Factfulness does help me see this problem with a bigger perspective, and with a more open mind. And I think that’s Rosling’s point.

We don’t already know everything.

We are wrong about a lot of things.

It’s important to question one’s own assumptions.

Thinking more clearly about an emotional issue like vaccines makes it possible to talk meaningfully about it — without making generalizations and assumptions, and without seeking to lay blame.

Critics of book confuse matters

Reading this book made me feel hopeful.

Unfortunately, after reading responses to the book from scientists and climate activists around the world, negative thoughts are creeping in again.

Critics have accused Rosling of curating his facts a little too aggressively. They say his persistent optimism may have prevented him from seeing the truth — just as persistent negativism prevents the rest of us from seeing the truth.

Particularly on the topics of overpopulation and climate change, Rosling’s point of view has been dismantled since the book was published. Robin Maynard, director of the U.K.-based not-for-profit Population Matters described her organization’s problems with Factfulness in a recent report:

“Professor Roslings’ biggest flaw and failing is in ignoring the scientific evidence of the environmental crisis already confronting us, undermining vital ecosystems and eroding biodiversity — so challenging the well-being of present and future generations.”

Reading this book — and reading about this book — has left me with a sense that the world is completely incomprehensible.

It’s not about whether the future will be dark or light, but rather than that it is utterly unpredictable. Data doesn’t always lead to an obvious conclusion, and we don’t really know what to do about vaccine hesitancy.

Still, Factfulness is a worthy read. Since I read it, I feel like a better thinker, or at least, I recognize when I’m making decisions based on assumptions rather than facts.

But it left me with the sense that there is simply no way of knowing what to expect in the future. Even for experts in the field, it seems that pure data analysis can be a flawed method for decision making.

The upshot for me? When it comes to making meaning, stories are just as important as data. We must lean on both as we make decisions about the future.


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