“One of the most important books I’ve ever read—an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” – Bill Gates
Factfulness, published in April 2018, is an incredible book written by Hans Rosling. I first encountered Rosling’s work by watching his TED talks, which are among the best I’ve watched in terms of practical and entertainment value. Bottom line: I highly recommend this book, especially to those whoses job depends on having a correct world view (investors, policy makers, executives, etc). My notes are below, which generalizes my key takeaways from the book and should not serve as a substitute for reading the book (i.e. please support the author by buying the book). Given the beautiful charts and important footnotes in the book, I recommend getting the print or Kindle version of Factfulness rather than the audio version.
“This book is about the world, and how to understand it.” The introduction contains a 13-question, multiple-choice social science test covering demogrphic trends, human development, and humanity’s impact on the world. Hans gave these tests to people all across the world and found that people systematically get these questions wrong — worse than random guessing — regardless of education, income or social status.
Hans found that people from all walks of life systematically hold a “over dramatic worldview”, which is “stressful and misleading.” Hans hypothesises that it is difficult to shift from this worldview since it is hardwired in our brains.
“This book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devasting global ignorance.”
Chapter 1: The Instinct Gap
“This chapter is about the first of our ten dramatic instincts, the gap instinct. I’m talking about that irresistible temptatin we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicicting groups, with an imagined gap — a huge chasm of injustice — in between. It is about how the gap instinct cretes a picture in people’s heads of a world split into two kinds of countries or two kinds of people: rich versus poor.”
Hans argues that the “us vs. them” mentality made more sense in 1965 when there was a clear seperation between developing countries and developed countries when looking at statistics such as children mortality & babies per woman. However, “the world has completely changed… the wordl used to be divided into two but isn’t any longer. Today, most people are in the middle. There is no gap between the West and the rest, between developed and developing, between rich and poor.”
”On average just 7 percent picked the correct answer, C: 60 percent of girls finished primary school in low-income countries… A majority of people “guessed” that it was just 20 percent.”
“Low-income countries are much more developed than most people think. And vastly fewer people ive in them.”
This is key to the rest of the book: instead of thinking in terms of developed and developing, Hans introduces 4 income levels (income per person in dollars per day adjusted for price differences):
Level 1: less than $2 per day. Your children fetch water from a mud hole and gather firewood on barefoot. You cook the same porridge, if you have anything at all, on open fire. You cant afford medicine for your children. ~1 billion people live here.
Level 2: $2-$8 a day. You have money to buy food you don’t grow yourself and can afford protiens like chicken and eggs. You saved enough to buy sandals for your children and a bike to fetch water. You guy a gas stove so your children can attend school rather than fetch firewood. You save enough to sleep on a mattress rather than on a muddy floor. A single illness and you would have to sell most of your possessions to buy medicine. ~3 billion people live here.
Level 3: $8-$32 a day. You install cold-water tap so no more fetching water. You have a stable electric line so your children’s homework improves and you can buy a fridge thats you store food and serve different dishes each day. You buy a motorcycle, which means you can travel further for better paying jobs. You have enough savings to pay for your children’s education and normal medical bills. ~2 billion people live here.
Level 4: above $32 per day. Hans’s example uses $64 per day. (Thought: $64 that is quiet a lot. For a family of 4, that means $93,440 per year. You need to earn $46,720 a year for a family of 4 to enter this level.) “You are a rich consumer…” If you are reading this, you are very likely on level 4 — it should be very familar. ~1 billion people live here.
”Human history started with everyone on Level 1… Just 200 years ago, 85 percent of the world population was still on Level 1, in extreme poverty.”
”There are three common warnings sings that someone might be telling you (or you might be telling yourself) an overdramatic gap story and triggering your gap instinct.”
1) Comparison of Averages — this should be a familar concept. Look at the distribution and overlap rather than just the averages. Examples used is women and men’s math scores, and the US and Mexico’s income levels.
2) Comparison of Extremes and 3) The View from Up Here. “Your most important challenge in developing a fact-based worldview is to realize that most of your firsthand experiences are from Level 4; and that your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves non representative extraordinary events and shuns normality.”
Chatpter 2: The Negativity Instinct
“This chapter is about the negativity instinct: our tendency to notice the bad more than the good. This instinct is behind the second mega misconception.“
“… over the last 20 years, the porportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved. But in our online polls, in most countries, less than 10 percent knew this.”
Chart on % of global population in extreme poverty rate from 1800 to today shows 85% in 1800, 50% in 1966 and 9% in 2017.
“Back in 1800, when Swdes starved to death and British children worked in coal mines, life expectancy was roughly 30 years everywhere in the world. That was what it had been throughout history. Among all babies who were ever born, roughly half died during their childhood. Most of the other half died between the ages of 50 and 70. So the average was around 30.“ Today the average life expectancy is 72. Graph shows mostly steady increases over the past century.
Graph “Sweden’s Health and Wealth From 1800 to Today” compares Sweden’s income and life expectancy to countries today (2017 levels). Cool example: people in Malaysia today are compmarable to the Swedes in 1975.
Amazing chart “16 Bad Things Decreasing”: legal slavery, oil spills, solar paenel cost, HIV infections, children dying before 5th birthday (44% in 1800, 4% in 2016), battle deaths, death penalty, leaded gasoline, plane crash deaths per 10 billion passsenger miles (2,100 in 1929-33 to ONE! in 2012-16), child labor age 5-14 who work full time under bad conditions (28% in 1950 to 10% in 2012), death from disaster (971K average 1930’s to 72K average 2010-16), nuclear arms, small pox, smoke particles, ozone depletion, undernorished people (28% 1970 to 11% 2015).
“16 Good Things Incraeasing”: new movies (lots of shitty ones I must add), protected nature, women’s right to vote, new music (ditto), science, harvest, share of adults 15+ with basic skills to read and write (10% in 1800 to 86% in 2016), share od humanity living in democracy (one of the more uneven growth charts in the book, showing the fragility of democracy — gotta be careful to perserve it. 1% in 1816 to 56% in 2015), child cancer survival, girls in schooool, monitored species, electricity coverage (72% 1991 to 85% 2014), mobile phones, share of peole with water from protected source (58% 1980 to 88% 2015), internet, immunization.
Problem with selective reporting: the press, activist and lobbyist distort the reality of the world. They are incentivized to.
“What are people really thinking when they say the world is getting worse? My guess is they are not thinking. They are feeling.”
To combate the negativity instinct, think in terms of trends and not just good or bad. Expect that bad news will be selectively repoted.
“When you hear about something terrible, calm yourself by asking, If there had been an equally large positive improvement, would I have heard about that?“
“Good news is always never reported… Gradual improvement is not news… More news does not equal more suffering…”
”Below of rosy pasts. People often glority their early experiences, and nations often glority their histories.”
Chapter 3: The Straight Line Instinct
This chapter starts by combating the misperception that the world’s population is “just increasing”. Hans argues that global population is reaching a peak, or a balance, and that the forecasted growth is driven by more adults (living longer), not more children.
“For thousands of years up to 1800 the population curve was almost flat… Until 1800, women gave birth to six children on average. So the population should have increased with each generation. Instead, it stayed more or less stable…. On average four out of six children died before becoming parents themselves, leaving just two surviving children to parent the next generation. There was a balance.“
“Today, humanity is once again reaching a balance. The number of parents is no longer increasing… The new balance is nice: the typical parents have two children, and neither of them dies.”
“Factfulness is … recognizing the assumption that a line will just continue straight, and remembering that such lines are rare in reality. To control the straight line instinct, remember that curves come in different shapes. Don’t assume straight lines.”
Chapter 4: The Fear Instinct
At this point, many of the key concepts from previous chapters are recurring through the rest of the book, so less notes. For example, the media filters for negative information, including information that causes fear.
“Factfulness is … recognizing when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks.”
”Get calm before you carry on. When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.”
Chapter 5: The Size Instinct
“Just as I have urged you to look behind the statistics at the individual stories, I also urge you to look behind the individual stories at the statistics. The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.”
“You tend to get things out of proportion… Getting things out of proportion, or misjudging the size of things, is something that we humans do naturally.”
“Factfulness is … recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive (small or large), and remembering that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number.”
Chapter 6: The Generalization Instinct
I really enjoyed this chapter. It shows that a lot stereotypes we have of cultures and categories of people are really due to income differences, and that many seemingly idiotic behaviors we observe actually have a rational explanation.
“Categories are absolutely necessary for us to function. They give structure to our thoughts.“ However, “like all the other instincts in this book, can also distort our worldview.”
”Country stereotypes simply fall apart when you look at the huge differences within countries and the equally huge similarities between countries on the same income level, independent of culture or religion.”
”When someone says that an individual did something because they belong to some group—a nation, a culture, a religion—take care. Are there examples of different behavior in the same group? Or of the same behavior in other groups?”
”Factfulness is … recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation, and remembering that categories can be misleading.”
”Assume people are not idiots. When something looks strange, be curious and humble, and think, in what way is this a smart solution?“
Chapter 7: The Destiny Instinct
“The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change. This instinct makes us believe that our false generalizations from chapter 6, or the tempting gaps from chapter 1, are not only true, but fated: unchanging and unchangeable.”
“Cultures, nations, religions, and people are not rocks. They are in constant transformation.”
”Exaggerated claims that people from this religion or that religion have bigger families are one example of how people tend to claim that certain values or behaviors are culture-specific, unchanging and unchangeable.”
”If you are tempted to claim that values are unchanging, try comparing your own with those of your parents, or your grandparents—or your children or your grandchildren. Try getting hold of public opinion polls for your country from 30 years ago. You will almost certainly see radical change.”
“Factfulness is … recognizing 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.”
Chapter 8: The Sigle Perspective Instinct
”We find simple ideas very attractive. We enjoy that moment of insight, we enjoy feeling we really understand or know something.” Han’s message: too bad the world is not so simple.
Be aware of the limitations of “experts”: “Highly educated people (like the readers of Nature, one of the world’s finest scientific journals) score just as badly on our fact questions as everyone else, and often even worse.”
”I don’t love numbers. I am a huge, huge fan of data, but I don’t love it. It has its limits. I love data only when it helps me to understand the reality behind the numbers, i.e., people’s lives.”
”Factfulness is… recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions.“
”Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis.”
Chapter 9: The Blame Instinct
“The blame instinct makes us exaggerate the importance of individuals or of particular groups. This instinct to find a guilty party derails our ability to develop a true, fact-based understanding of the world…”
“The blame game often reveals our preferences. We tend to look for bad guys who confirm our existing beliefs.”
”Factfulness is … recognizing when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future.”
”Look for causes, not villians…”
”Look for systems, not heroes. When someone claims to have caused something good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give the system some credit.“
Chapter 10: The Urgency Instinct
“Factfulness is … recognizing when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is. To control the urgency instinct, take small steps. Take a breath… Ask for more time and more information. It’s rarely now or never and it’s rarely either/or. Insist on data. If something is urgent and important, i tshould be measured… Only revelant and accurate data is useful. Beware of fortue-tellers… Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested. Step-by-step practial improvements, and evaluation of their impact, are less dramatic but usually more effective.”
Chapter 11: Factfulness in Practice
Factfulness rules of thumb:
1) Gap: look for the majority
2) Negativity: expect bad news
3) Straight line: lines might bend
4) Fear: Calculate the risks
5) Size: get things in proportion
6) Generalization: question your categories
7) Destiny: slow changes is still change
8) Single (tool): get a tool box
9) Blame: resist pointing your finger
10) Urgency: take small steps