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Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think Hardcover – April 3, 2018
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“One of the most important books I’ve ever read―an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” – Bill Gates
“Hans Rosling tells the story of ‘the secret silent miracle of human progress’ as only he can. But Factfulness does much more than that. It also explains why progress is so often secret and silent and teaches readers how to see it clearly.” ―Melinda Gates
"Factfulness by Hans Rosling, an outstanding international public health expert, is a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases." - Former U.S. President Barack Obama
“Wonderful… a passionate and erudite message that is all more moving because it comes from beyond the grave… His knack for presentation and delight in statistics come across on every page. Who else would choose a chart of 'guitars per capita' as a proxy for human progress?” ―The Financial Times
“[Factfulness] throws down a gauntlet to doom-and-gloomers in global health by challenging preconceptions and misconceptions [and] is a fabulous read, succinct and lively… This magnificent book ends with a plea for a factual world view. Rosling was optimistic that this outlook will spread, because it is a useful navigational tool in a complex world, and a genuine antidote to negativity and hopelessness.” ―Nature
"Like any good statistician, Rosling uses the tools of his trade (namely, graphs, charts and lots of questionnaires) to argue we're doing too much feeling and not enough thinking when it comes to assessing the world…His goal is to change the way we see the world." ―Business Insider
“In an accessible, almost folksy prose, Rosling identifies various reasons why so many of us have ended up with so many faulty ideas about our world.” ―Booklist
"In Hans Rosling’s hands, data sings. Global trends in health and economics come to vivid life. And the big picture of global development―with some surprisingly good news―snaps into sharp focus." ―TED
"Three minutes with Hans Rosling will change your mind about the world." ―Nature
“If you need a break from the mainstream media message about how the world is falling apart, I can highly recommend this fact-filled and super fun book. In fact, I might even suggest that this book should be the starting place for any kind of discussion about economics, politics, and the state of the world in general.” ―Seeking Alpha
About the Author
Hans Rosling was a medical doctor, professor of international health and renowned public educator. He was an adviser to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, and co-founded Médecins sans Frontières in Sweden and the Gapminder Foundation. His TED talks have been viewed more than 35 million times, and he was listed as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. Hans died in 2017, having devoted the last years of his life to writing Factfulness.
Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Hans's son and daughter-in-law, were co-founders of the Gapminder Foundation, and Ola its director from 2005 to 2007 and from 2010 to the present day. After Google acquired the bubble-chart tool called Trendalyzer, invented and designed by Anna and Ola, Ola became head of Google's Public Data Team and Anna the team’s senior user experience (UX) designer. They have both received international awards for their work.
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After reading this tedious book that could be summarized in a couple of charts, or 17” TED talk, I think if I were seated next to Hans Rosling on an airplane [FIRST CLASS, OF COURSE!], I’d be searching for an empty seat in tourist class, next to the bathrooms. Or a parachute. Or maybe just jump.
It ought to be required reading at the high school level IMHO.
It's very well written and readable (the author is famous for his Ted talks on the subject). He really wants to help everyone understand and learn how to better evaluate what they hear about the world.
A couple notes: you can download a whole chapter of the book from Bill Gates web site if you want to read more of it in advance. The Kindle version is currently broken on some devices (at least my Chromebook running the Android Kindle app) where it won't render any page contents properly unless you tap to zoom out to the page browsing mode where it does look correct.
This book is a treasure trove of evidence based reasoning, global statistics and myth busting! I read it just after finishing Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. These books have a lot in common, both in goal and tone, but I enjoyed Rosling's book much more.
Unless you have watched Roslings famous lectures (available on TED and Youtube), this book will forever change the way you understand global health, demography and development.
Dr. Rosling’s stories of working as a medical doctor in some of the countries that many Westerners would lump under the stereotype of an impoverished “Third World” are as real as it gets. His stories from the field illustrate the devastating results that our ignorance and biases can create. But others so clearly show the progress we, as a species, have made as a result of our better understanding of the facts.
I would definitely recommend reading both Enlightenment Now, for a more academic and research-based perspective, and Factfulness, for its memorable stories that drive home the need for fact-based thinking.
Top international reviews
The book literally begins with a tone of “Why I am right and everyone is wrong” – because I gave simple questions to a lot of people and they all got it wrong. Well, people got it wrong because they have been conditioned to it, it’s the failure of our education and society in general, nothing wrong with that. The whole premise of the book is that we need to open up our eyes to the wide array of positive changes that are taking place in the world, and the world is getting better at most of the metrics be it child mortality, per capita income, healthcare, deaths to due to diseases, children being vaccinated, literacy levels, gender equality and what not. On the face of it, yes, mostly the world is getting better and it can be proved with data and statistics.
What did I like about the book?
1. Rosling tells you to believe that world is getting better (and he proves so with the use of data), and at the same time keep an eye out for the bad things (because they need to be improved too). I think this is a realistic world view, where you celebrate the progress and keep working on improving the things that need attention.
2. Every statement is supported by facts, figures, charts and a lot of data (simple to understand).
3. The book basically imbibes a more realistic (if positive is too strong a word here) outlook towards the world.
4. You learn to look at data cautiously, trying to overcome your bias and instincts.
5. You learn to look at media publications, news etc with a pinch of salt and would know better than they prefer showing ‘bad’ stuff rather than ‘good’ stuff. The media blows everything out of proportion and unfortunately, most people believe it.
6. Finally, you learn about your 10 instincts and would be more aware of them whenever you hear any news or information that talks about how bad the world has become. You learn to look at things from multiple perspectives, suppress these instincts, and eventually be more rational.
What I did not like about the book?
1. The book is based on figures and statistics to prove the point. But as it’s true with statistics, there’s more to it than what meets the eye. For example, Rosling says there’s no such thing as a ‘Developed’ and ‘Developing’ country anymore, a majority of the countries are now ‘Middle Income’ countries. He’s right, no doubt about that. But what makes up a ‘Middle Income’ country. If you make more than $2 a day, you are in the middle-income group. But does that ensure a good living? What is the meaning of $2 in the context of living standards? Isn’t this progress so slow that many generations will not even witness the progress?
2. Rosling has used averages to convey the point of progress while cautioning the user against them at the same time. As compared to maybe a few decades ago, there are only 1 Billion people living at Level 1 (Extreme Poverty) and trends show you that this number has decreased drastically. But if you look at it in absolute terms, we are talking about 1 Billion people on this planet who don’t get enough food to eat on a daily basis! That’s a huge number.
3. Rosling has underplayed suffering and lack of resources, and covered it with the statistically correct ‘progress’. It’s like saying, so what if your food lacks nutrition and variety, at least you’re getting better than what you were getting a decade back. It’s funny really and seems such a farce at times. Definitely, he’s not wrong when he says progress has happened, but the meaning of ‘progress’ would differ for different people. His overall thesis, that we live in a much better world than we imagine, is comforting, but “better” might still be “terrible” in some cases.
Let’s look at the book summary now! Rosling talks about our ten ‘Dramatic Instincts’ (and 10 reasons why we are wrong about the world). Here they are –
1. The Gap Instinct - We tend to divide the things into 2 distinct groups and imagine a gap between them. To control gap instinct, look for the majority. Beware of the averages, if you look at the spread, the majority will overlap. Beware comparisons of extremes (Media loves to do it).
2. The Negativity Instinct - We tend to instinctively notice the bad more than the good. We need to learn to acknowledge the fact that things can be both ‘better’ and ‘bad’ at the same time. Example, education levels have improved over time, but still, 10% of the children don’t get any education, that’s bad. We also need to know that good news is never reported, media would hype the bad stuff always. Subsequently, gradual improvement isn’t reported either. Countries, government, media often try to glorify the past, so we need to be beware of these rosy pasts.
3. The Straight Line Instinct - When we see a line going up steadily, we tend to assume the line will continue to go up in the foreseeable future. To control this instinct, remember that curves come in different shapes. Finally, don’t assume straight lines if data doesn’t show it.
4. The Fear Instinct - We tend to perceive the world to be scarier than it really is. We overestimate the risks associated with violence, captivity, contamination etc. The world seems scarier because what you hear has been carefully selected to be told. Remember, Risk = Danger x Exposure, and act accordingly. Make decisions only when you’re calm, not when you are afraid.
5. The Size Instinct - We tend to see things out of proportion, over-estimating the importance of a single event/person that’s visible to us, and the scale of an issue based on a standalone number. A lonely number may seem impressive in isolation, but can be trivial in comparison to something else. Hence, always look for comparisons. Use the 80/20 rule. When comparing countries, look for rates per person.
6. The Generalization Instinct - We tend to wrongly assume that everything or everyone in a category is similar. Hence, we must look for differences within a group, look for similarities across groups and look for differences across groups. We should beware of the term ‘Majority’ – it can mean 51% or 99% or anything in between. Beware of vivid images, which are easier to recall but can be exceptions than the general norm.
7. The Destiny Instinct - We tend to assume that the destinies of people, cultures, countries etc. are predetermined by certain factors, and such factors are fixed and unchanging, i.e. their destinies are fixed. To control this, we must keep track of gradual changes and improvements. We should update our knowledge on different subjects, and look for examples of cultural changes.
8. The Single Perspective Instinct - We tend to focus on single causes or solutions, which are easier to grasp and make our problems seem easier to solve. It is better to look at problems from multiple perspectives. To control this, always test your ideas and allow people to find weaknesses. Don’t claim to be an expert at all times, be humble about your limited expertise in different areas.
9. The Blame Instinct - When something goes wrong, we instinctively blame it on someone or something. To control this, resist finding a scapegoat. Look for causes, not villains. Finally, look for systems and processes, not heroes.
10. The Urgency Instinct - We tend to rush into a problem or opportunity for fear that there’s no time and we may be too late. To control this, take small steps. Always insist on data rather than making hunch based hasty decisions. Always be aware of the side effects of your hasty decision to avoid making the same.
Favorite Quotes from the Book:
- “The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.”
- “Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective. This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality.”
- “Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot. Sure, my foot is part of me, but it’s a pretty ugly part. I have better parts.”
To sum up, Factfulness is a good book that explains how our instincts sometimes distort our understanding of our world and why it's crucial to learn established facts that are now reliably and readily available. Our instincts might help in certain situations, but in others, critical thinking beyond emotions is necessary. However, we must learn to look beyond the displayed ‘progress’ also, because even lesser suffering can mean ‘progress’ statistically.
However, the book format allows him to move way beyond this and Factfulness is by far the best book about developing sound real-world thinking and practical judgment that I have ever read. It ranks way up there on this hard-to-teach topic alongside studying the lives and words of people like Lee Kuan Yew, Charlie Munger and Charles Darwin.
The book entertainingly spans evidence-based reasoning, statistical thinking (as opposed to its more common cousin - anecdotal outrage), psychological cognitive biases, self-awareness, looking through media biases (usually towards sensationalist, fear-mongering bad news) and thinking through effective, actionable solutions to material real-world problems including non-intuitive, indirect ones. Rosling is unusual in his ability to abstract out a range of conceptual tools that we can use across situations, while using examples from his experience to keep such concepts relatable and grounded.
Rosling's day job was as a medical doctor specialising in controlling epidemics around the world. He has witnessed gut-wrenching tragedy first-hand. However, rather than despair or be guided by emotions, he objectively looks for the most effective solutions that can help do most good even if it worsens the situation immediately confronting him. As an illustration, the most effective tool to limit high population growth in poor countries isn't family planning propaganda but better sanitation (infant mortality is disproportionately caused by contamination of water with sewage and reducing this automatically causes parents to try for fewer children). This then has spillover benefits for family health, women's empowerment and fewer children getting more attention and resources, making it far more likely that the family will escape from abject poverty over a generation.
Rosling is a nuanced thinker, able to convey seemingly contradictory thoughts in a way that allows the reader to navigate a grey, messy world rather than a neat, binary one popularised by academics and journalists. As an illustration, he paints a nuanced picture of how things can be both bad and better at the same time. Often, activists are so outraged by things being bad (all we have to do in a place like India is to look around) that they deny any notion that things are actually getting better in many ways. In reality, acknowledging, appreciating and understanding how things are getting better is the way to fix what is still clearly bad.
This is the kind of book that all of us should read, as a great starting point towards being lesser idiots in whatever we have set out to do.
Truly inspirational and life affirming - read it now!
If you've ever felt that you're being spun by a politician or a journalist, this easy-to-read book will set you straight.
The entire world will appear different after reading this - big claim I know, but before reading Hans Rosling my global view was more confused than that of a troop of chimpanzees.
What's more, the facts in this book should be on every school curriculum so that the next generation is not as misled as the current one is!
It is dangerous to put a book out there with dubious statistics, deceiving people who cannot see through the figures. It is avoiding actual figures regarding global warming, quality of life and biodiversity.
It seems to play into the rhetoric that the "poor" in highly developed, industrialized counties (those who earn slightly more than $32 a day), shouldn't complain, even though they cannot afford to live in the counties they were born in and their own countries define them as living below the poverty line.
This misleading definition seems to perpetuate the very serious issue of distain for the poor in wealthy countries too or the erroneous belief that they don't want to work or are lazy (you can work full-time in the USA and still only earn $300 a week - not enough to cover even the most basic of costs). His very limited and agenda driven income levels does little to improve their prospects of earning a living wage too. This flawed assertion alone, calls into question all of the commentary by the author - which given his nationality and credentials, is certainly earning far and above the poverty line in his country and seems oblivious to the very real poverty issues (and their associated social costs) in highly developed, industrialized countries outside of Scandinavia (where there are socialized safety nets for the poor - other wealthy counties are not so lucky).
I had hoped this book would provide facts, but it seems it is just presenting a flawed belief system that continues to ignore a large group of already frustrated people - people who are now embracing nationalistic ideologies that may result in damaging the precarious peaceful picture this book is trying to present.
Rosling, a doctor originally, illustrates some of the points he makes with personal experience, particularly examples where an incorrect assumption about facts he has made has led to potentially disastrous circumstances. But the core of the book makes use of a series of 12 multiple choice questions on the state of the world which, on the whole, we answer worse that choosing randomly - because almost universally we think the world is far worse than it really is.
Although Rosling claims not to be an optimist, making it clear that he isn't saying everything is rosy - there's still a lot to improve - the fact is that most of our ideas of, for example, how bad world poverty is, education of girls, size of families and far more reflects what the world was like 50 years or more ago - where in practice it is now much better.
One essential point that Rosling makes is that our division of the world into developing and developed gives a hugely misleading picture - because in reality (like most distributions) the majority of countries aren't in the very worst or very best part of the distribution, but somewhere in the middle. He advocates moving from the either/or split of developed/developing to four levels, based on average earnings, which gives a much better picture of the reality. Apparently the World Bank has adopted this approach but the UN and others still haven't got the message.
In Factfulness, Rosling looks at a set of ways we have a biased view of reality and what we can do to modify this. So, for example, he talks about our urge to divide populations into two ('the gap instinct') - rich or poor, privileged or not etc, etc. - where the reality is almost always a continuum with no gap. Elsewhere he takes on our tendency to extrapolate into the future with a straight line, where many trends are, for example S-shaped, the danger of always looking for someone to blame and much more.
This is a very powerful piece of work that should be required reading for any politician, businessperson, educator and administrator. The whole thing is presented in a light, approachable fashion with lots of graphs and bubble charts. It's an easy read practically speaking, but a difficult one in the sense that the reader is encouraged to face their own misconceptions (and we almost all will have them - I certainly did).
It's a shame there isn't a bit more on implications. For example, how we target aid would perhaps change if we took note (in the UK, for example, our biggest aid recipient is not a Level 1 country). I also occasionally felt that (for all the right reasons) the wording of the questions used to evaluate our views was a little manipulative to get the required results. And although Rosling warns of the danger of lone numbers without context, he has a tendency to use percentages without context - which is also potentially highly misleading. (For example, if violent crime rises 100% in a year it's terrifying. But if you know there was 1 incident the previous year and 2 this year, it's not so dramartic.)
Just one example of the slightly weighted questions: one reads 'In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?' The options are 20, 40 or 60 percent. Rosling's 'right' answer is 60 percent, then later he tells us 'there are only a very few countries in the world' where fewer than 20 percent of girls finish primary school. The trouble is, that word 'all' in the question. I'd argue the logical answer is 20, because that's the only number that applies to all countries - if larger numbers complete primary school, then 20 percent certainly do. It can't be true that 60 percent finish in all countries if under 20 percent do so in some.
These are, however, minor concerns - Rosling and his associates have a powerful message that needs shouting from the rooftops.
This is the a last effort from Hans Rowling, and him long time contributors (family). It contains real stories and new ways of looking at world data as well as new ways of thinking.
The message I really took away from this book is the world is not perfect. We have a lot of work to do, but to not forget all we have achieved, to take encouragement from this, to continue to improve.