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BOOK REVIEW: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

| 1 October 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

Hodder & Stoughton
April 2018
Hardcover, $26.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Self-Help & Personal Development / Popular Psychology

8/10

The late researcher, lecturer and statistician, Dr Hans Rosling was a proponent of critical thinking. His book, Factfulness proves that this approach doesn’t necessarily mean that one has to be critical or negative in order to consider things thoughtfully. This swansong is co-authored by Rosling along with his son and daughter-in-law. It is a highly readable exploration of unconscious biases and the drawbacks that can come with possessing such outdated views. This is really fascinating stuff and Bill Gates calls himself a fan. He is even giving away copies of this title to American graduate students.

This is a book about the world and how it really is. It is also a book about you, and why you (and almost everyone I have ever met) does not see the world as it really is. It is about what you can do about it, and how this will make you feel more positive, less stressed, and more hopeful as you walk out of the circus tent and back into the world.
So, if you are more interested in being right than in continuing to live in your bubble; if you are willing to change your worldview; if you are ready for critical thinking to replace instinctive reaction; and if you are feeling humble, curious, and ready to be amazed—then please read on.

Rosling has worked in a number of different disciplines over the years. His pet project has been the Gapminder and Dollar Street websites where he and his co-authors have used data from official sources as well as their own photographs to capture and graph information about the living conditions of individuals from different income and wealth levels throughout the world. The official data was obtained from sources like the World Bank, IMF and the UN and these are used to dispel some myths about the progress that has taken place in recent decades. It is this idea that while some things may be bad, others have certainly changed for the better that forms the basis of this at times contentious book.

To summarize: low-income countries are much more developed than most people think. And vastly fewer people live in them. The idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion. A complete misconception. Simply wrong.

The authors have a test of 13 questions about topics like worldwide education, life expectancy, extreme poverty, population, endangered species and vaccination rates. The researchers found that the vast majority of people are ignorant about these facts and actually get most of the answers wrong. Many individuals perform so poorly on this test that they select more incorrect answers than a group of chimpanzees picking responses at random. The Roslings argue that our poor performance on these questions is due to ten different biases we all possess. Here is a selection summarising two of these prejudices:

Factfulness is…recognizing when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful.

Factfulness is…recognising that many things (including people, countries, religions, and cultures) appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes.

There is an entire chapter devoted to each instinct/bias. Rosling uses a combination of charts, graphs, scientific commentary and humorous personal anecdotes to describe each phenomena. He does this in a way that is very easy to consume and digest. He does an excellent job of describing quite complex and technical things in a simple manner. This includes how we evolved to possess such traits, how these skills are useful at present and also how they can be working to our detriments.

The urgency instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger. It must have served us humans well in the distant past. If we thought there might be a lion in the grass, it wasn’t sensible to do too much analysis. Those who stopped and carefully analzyed the probabilities are not our ancestors. We are the offspring of those who decided and acted quickly with insufficient information. Today, we still need the urgency instinct—for example, when a car comes out of nowhere and we need to take evasive action. But now that we have eliminated most immediate dangers and are left with more complex and often more abstract problems, the urgency instinct can also lead us astray when it comes to our understanding the world around us.

Rosling argues that we tend to have an overly-dramatic world view and that this is causing us unnecessary stress and allowing people to make bad decisions. Rosling advocates approaching things with openness and curiosity. He offers a series of practical thinking tools to combat against these innate flaws. This results in a very powerful reminder of the importance of facts and information, something that is especially relevant in our post-truth world where there is an over-abundance of misinformation and all-round ignorance.

Some of the key takeaways from Factfulness are that things are not as bad as you think. This is in part due to the fact that our media don’t report on slow, gradual progress because this isn’t newsworthy. We also need to be mindful that while the ability to categorise things can be useful, we should be weary of being overly simplistic (for instance, only dividing things into two distinct groups) because this discounts both the differences that occur within groups and the similarities that are prevalent across different ones.

Everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes all the time. Unconsciously. It is not a question of being prejudiced or enlightened. Categories are absolutely necessary for us to function. They give structure to our thoughts. Imagine if we saw every item and every scenario as truly unique—we would not even have a language to describe the world around us.
The necessary and useful instinct to generalize, like all the other instincts in this book, can also distort our world view. It can make us mistakenly group together things, or people, or countries that are actually very different. It can make us assume everything or everyone in one category is similar. And maybe most unfortunate of all, it can make us jump to conclusions about a whole category based on a few, or even just one, unusual example.

Factfulness is some interesting brain food that will challenge your overall thinking. Dr Hans Rosling provides some rational arguments to explain our tendency towards biased thinking and flawed perceptions. Factfulness proves that most things aren’t pure and simple and that our world can be simultaneously bad and better on a range of different fronts. We need to walk away from seeing things in black and white and instead appreciate the spectrum of different shades, colours and textures that abound in our wonderfully complex and multifaceted society. Factfulness and the world are beautiful, no?

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her websites are: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com and www.myshitdate.com

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