Hans Rosling’s FACTFULNESS – A Case against Dramatic Instincts & Overdramatic Worldview

With Anna Rosling Ronnlund and Ola Rosling (2018)

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With his clever 13-queston quiz , Hans Rosling establishes early on in the book that there is all-pervasive devastating ignorance about the world. 90 percent of those who attempt the quiz , people from all possible profiles, get less than 4 correct answers on innocuous questions pertaining to global demographics, health, education and diseases. Hans attributes this poor performance to our dramatic instincts and overdramatic worldview, wherein we tend to assume the worst and ignore the progress made in the past 50 years.

 

Hans Rosling argues that this not just a problem of upgradation of knowledge that can be easily remedied, rather there is something fundamentally wrong in how we perceive the world . This failure to comprehend the state of global health, education and demographics has high cost attached to it in terms of smart investments, aid and global policy-making and cooperation against hunger, disease, death, violence and ignorance.

 

Six kinds of disasters always loom large on horizon. A lot of planning, investment and research are required to keep pandemics, World War III, financial collapse, poverty, climate change-related and unknown disasters at bay. It is only by properly looking at the data in front of us, arriving at better understanding and prioritizing allocations can the world keep progressing.

 

This is easier said than done . How can this be achieved?

Hans Rosling proposes four continuous income groups and lists ten dramatic instincts, which we must guard against, if we are to develop Factfulness, which uses data as therapy and diagnosis as ameliorative-

  1. The Gap instinct-The urge to divide everything into two broad categories like developing /developed, rich/poor, North/South , west/rest, low/high income countries and so on is innate and convenient. This is an outdated ,inaccurate worldview because things exist in a continuum .Old textbooks unfortunately don’t address the progress that has taken place in our immediate past. There are no hard and fast boundaries. Averages mislead by hiding the spread. Please avoid extremes and averages, if data is to make more sense.
  2. The straight line instinct- Straight lines are rare , rather curves are the norm. We cannot project present growth onto the future. Global population is a case in point. It shall not keep increasing as expected , but shall stabilize at 11 billion. Interplay of various factors shall ensure that.
  3. The negativity instinct- It is human nature (especially of media, opposition and civil society) to notice and highlight the bad and ignore the good happening around them. Three things

happen routinely around us – misremembrance of the past, selective reporting by vested interests and feeling that as long as things are bad it is heartless to say they are getting better. Surveillance of suffering has led to rise in negativity. We can control negative instinct by expecting bad news and not being surprized by it,understanding that bad & better can co-exist and being measured in our responses.

4.The fear instinct- Hans Rosling differentiates between the frightening and the dangerous.  Road accidents, cancer , TB, heart-liver-kidney ailments, measles and flu cause much more deaths than murders, terrorist attacks,  nuclear leaks, plane crashes, hijackings and wars, but get less footage and policymakers’ attention . Even during natural disasters, sensational items like miraculous rescues in an earthquake,floods or famines get more attention than regular victims. Fear generates panic , which resulted in most deaths (not nuclear radiation) when tsunami hit Fukushima . Fear of violence, captivity and contamination drive human responses, but risk can only be projected as danger multiplied by exposure.

  1. The size instinct –A large number in itself means nothing as an indicator. An individual visible victim might influence priorities, whereas faceless millions might go without help. It is only by comparing and dividing that a particular number makes sense. A case in the point is pollution data which is relevant only if per capital emissions are compared.
  2. The generalization instinct –one should look for differences within and similarities across groups. It does not pay to generalise. One should look where the majority is, and should be vary of exceptional examples.
  3. The destiny instinct – progressive change can be very slow and hence frustrating. It can also lead to illusions of changelessness, attributing it to the destiny of a particular community or group. There is no white man’s burden, or Arab handicap. Rising incomes and good policies can tide over any belief.

8.The single perspective instinct – Cuba could be considered the healthiest among poor countries, or poorest among healthy ones. US could be considered unhealthiest among the rich nations, or richest among the unhealthy ones. This is how perspectives matter. One should have a whole toolbox at his disposal, just a hammer won’t do.

9.The blame instinct- The default blame for continued decadence and slow growth lies with immigrants and minorities. It is vital to spot scapegoats and look for causes not villains, systems not heroes.

10.The urgency instinct- Most situations rarely demand urgent decisions. Considered actions, generally small and firm steps, result in sustainable growth. Drastic decisions only result in wasteful allocations.

 

Hans Rosling claims Al Gore asked him to spice/ sex up climate data to gain eyeballs and goad people and policymakers into action, but that Rosling refused to do so since this hurts the cause in the long run. Any expose or counter data which refutes the original claims of hyper-shrill activists ends up permanently denting the credibility of the cause.

 

Institutions and technology have resulted in major gains for humanity. It is just that well-offs don’t get the proper feedback , nor are they able to properly decipher the data on offer.Hans Rosling was a Swedish medical doctor who gradually got into data analytics and problem solving. He made use of UN data and represented them though moving, interactive graphs.  He developed the method of Factfulness. His son Ola developed Trendalyzer, and the trio also founded the Gapminder Foundation to further interactive data. This book, published one year after his death, in 2018 is a collaborative work with his son and daughter-in-law. Factfulness is a wonderful legacy of a public intellectual who spent his life challenging conventional way of thinking.

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