Gavin's Reviews > Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Factfulness by Hans Rosling
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it was amazing
bookshelves: worldview-in-five-books, the-long-term, econ

1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
2. Where does the majority of the world population live?
3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
4. What is the life expectancy of the world today?
5. There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations?
6. The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason?
7. How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?

Only 10% of people scored better than random guessing on these questions, the most important trends of the last hundred years. How can it be that we are both 1) a rabidly overconfident species and 2) an extremely pessimistic species that generally gets these simple, objective questions very wrong (doing far worse than random)? Sure, we could just be dogmatic nihilists or idiots, but that doesn't fit that well.
A stunning 15% of humans managed to pick the wrong answer on all twelve questions. That’s almost impossible for a monkey to achieve. It requires systematic misconceptions. The problem here is not the lack of correct knowledge. The problem is the presence of wrong “knowledge”. To score this bad requires a false perception of the world, that make you pick the wrong answer systematically.

Rosling explains it in terms of cognitive biases: we suffer from a dramatic worldview, binarised, conflict-obsessed, and blamey.

People seem to find Development - the completely unprecedented explosion of survival, freedom, and dignity for the larger part of the entire world! - boring. (You could blame the media, but Rosling persuasively argues that they too are an epiphenomenon of our evolved fear and narrowness.)
Your most important challenge in developing a fact-based worldview is to realize that most of your firsthand experiences are from Level 4 [the top 10% of global income]; and that your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves nonrepresentative extraordinary events and shuns normality.

When you live on Level 4, everyone on Levels 3, 2, and 1 can look equally poor, and the word poor can lose any specific meaning... Anyone who has looked down from the top of a tall building knows that it is difficult to assess from there the differences in height of the buildings nearer the ground. They all look kind of small... It is natural to miss the distinctions between the people with cars, the people with motorbikes and bicycles, the people with sandals, and the people with no shoes at all.

On the shocking lack of empiricism even in the most important places like medicine and policy:
In the 1960s, the success of the recovery position inspired new public health advice, against most traditional practices, to put babies to sleep on their tummies... Even though the data showed that sudden infant deaths went up, not down, it wasn’t until 1985 that a group of pediatricians in Hong Kong actually suggested that the prone position might be the cause. Even then, doctors in Europe didn’t pay much attention. It took Swedish authorities another seven years to accept their mistake and reverse the policy...

With my own hands, over a decade or so, I turned many babies from back to tummy to prevent
suffocation and save lives. So did many other doctors and parents throughout Europe and the United
States, until the advice was finally reversed, 18 months after the Hong Kong study was published.
Thousands of babies died because of a sweeping generalization, including some during the months
when the evidence was already available.

Two hundred ninety-two brave young feminists had traveled to Stockholm from across the world to coordinate their struggle to improve women's access to education. But only 8 percent knew that 30-year-old women have spent on average only one year less in school than 30-year-old men.

Bad incentives and noble lies are another reason for the stubborn gloom of intellectuals:
There has been progress in human rights, animal protection, women's education, climate awareness, catastrophe relief, and many other areas where activists raise awareness by saying that things are getting worse.

Relentlessly sensible:
resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it’s almost always more complicated than that. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes—a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.

I've been studying Development for years and this still taught me plenty. It should shock you into awareness and hopefully more.
Paying too much attention to the individual visible victim rather than to the numbers can lead us to spend all our resources on a fraction of the problem, and therefore save many fewer lives. This principle applies anywhere we are prioritizing scarce resources. It is hard for people to talk about resources when it comes to saving lives, or prolonging or improving them Doing so is often taken for heartlessness. Yet so long as resources are not infinite—and they never are infinite—it is the most compassionate thing to do to use your brain and work out how to do the most good with what you have.

One of the "five books that represent my worldview": moral passion, strict empiricism, psychological depth, existential hope. I picked this rather than Enlightenment Now or Rational Optimist or Doing Good Better or Our World In Data or Whole Earth Discipline (out of the contemporary literature of progress) because it also covers heuristics and biases - and so substitutes / complements Kahneman, Taleb, Hanson, and Yudkowsky, without (what people insist on seeing as) their self-superior wonkishness.

Thank you industrialization, thank you steel mill, thank you power station, thank you chemical-processing industry, for giving us the time to read books.

In a sense he stays on the surface - this isn't the full radical evolutionary account of Elephant in the Brain , instead just noting some bad epistemic practices and gesturing at evolutionary theory. But that said, there's a "charity is not about helping" bit:
If I check the World Wildlife Fund I can see how, despite declines in some local populations, the total wild populations of tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos have all increased over the past years. It was worth paying for all those pandas stickers on the doors all around Stockholm. Yet only 6% of the Swedish public knows that their support has had any effect.

But despite all the suffering and error and backfiring efforts he describes, he is trying to make you realise how good things could be:
Could everyone have a fact-based worldview one day? Big change is always difficult to imagine. But it is definitely possible, and I think it will happen, for two simple reasons. First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying.

When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems— and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.

This, then, is the same message as Sagan, 25 years ago: the emotional gain of reason.


Misc notes

- Binary categories are often unhelpful because they obscure continuum. Rosling ranted against "developed" / "developing" for 20 years. The World Bank has caught on but the UN haven't.

- He is a better messenger for the cognitive bias alarm, for activists anyway, because of his deep credibility: he mucked in to anti-poverty measures for decades. Some of his anecdotes are chilling.
I could tell you countless stories of the nonsense I saw in Cuba: the local moonshine, a toxic fluorescent concoction brewed inside TV tubes using water, sugar, and babies’ poopy diapers to provide the yeast required for fermentation; the hotels that hadn’t planned for any guests and so had no food, a problem we solved by driving to an old people’s home and eating their leftovers from the standard adult food rations; my Cuban colleague who knew his children would be expelled from
university if he sent a Christmas card to his cousin in Miami; the fact that I had to explain my research methods to Fidel Castro personally to get approval. I will restrain myself and just tell you why I was there and what I discovered.

- "I do not believe that fake news is the major culprit for our distorted worldview: we haven’t only just started to get the world wrong, I think we have always gotten it wrong."

- "In the car industry, cars are recalled when a mistake is discovered. You get a letter from the manufacturer saying, “We would like to recall your vehicle and replace the brakes.” When the facts about the world that you were taught in schools and universities become out of date, you should get a letter too: “Sorry, what we taught you is no longer true. Please return your brain for a free upgrade.” "
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Reading Progress

June 17, 2018 – Shelved
June 17, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
August 29, 2018 – Started Reading
September 10, 2018 – Shelved as: worldview-in-five-books
December 27, 2018 – Finished Reading
February 8, 2019 – Shelved as: the-long-term
February 8, 2019 – Shelved as: econ

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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James Ford Have you read Thinking Fast and Slow? Would be interested in reading your review of that book!

Gavin Yes! I liked it, but it is already in need of a second edition because of the statistical frailty of the rest of the field. (His research is fine, but...)

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