Factfulness by Hans Rosling

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This book introduces a new way of looking at our world and how to understand it. It presents global patterns and trends in poverty, wealth, population growth, births, deaths, education, health, gender, violence, energy and the environment. Many people think that the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless today than in the past. But actually, the world is improving. Our brains evolved to crave drama and it causes misconceptions and an overly dramatic worldview. Instead, we should base our worldview on facts. 

In this summary you’ll learn ten human instincts that cause erroneous thinking and how we can learn to separate fact from fiction when forming opinions. 

The Gap Instinct 

We have an instinct to divide things into two distinct and often conflicting groups with an imagined gap in between, such as good vs. bad or rich vs. poor.  We often talk about ‘them’ and ‘us’ or ‘the West’ and ‘the rest.’  It may have been easy to label countries as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ in the 1960s, but this method is outdated today. The world has changed, but the worldview hasn’t. 

Today, most people live in the middle. There is no gap between developed and developing, between rich and poor. We can’t simplify the entire world into two categories. Instead, we should put them on 4 different levels – 1 being the most extreme poverty, and 4 being the most developed. 

The gap instinct is strong, but there are three common warning signs that trigger our gap instinct:

  • Comparison of averages often show big gaps, when in reality, the groups overlap instead. 
  • Comparison of extremes does not show the (often) majority of people that are in the middle. 
  • And when you live on Level 4, everyone looks much further beneath you. 

The Negativity Instinct 

We also have an instinct to notice the bad more than the good. Most people think that the world is getting worse. This happens for three reasons: the misremembering of the past, selective reporting by journalists and activists, and tendency to respond with feelings instead of facts. People generally feel uncomfortable saying that the world is getting better because there are still bad things going on.

The solution to the negativity bias is to hold two truths at the same time – the world can improve and still have problems. Things can be both bad and better. Another thing that helps is to constantly expect bad news. Media and activists rely on drama to grab your attention. Remember that dramatic stories get reported more frequently. Finally, look at the past without rose-colored glasses. The evidence of the past is unpleasant, but we can’t ignore how things really were. 

In reality, things often improve gradually, which means it is less noticeable and less noteworthy. You don’t always hear about the improvements.

The Straight Line Instinct

This misconception is that a line will continue in a straight, linear direction without changing. In reality, there are many factors that affect an overall trend. For example, if a baby grows seven inches in its first sixth months of life, you can’t assume that it will continue growing seven inches every sixth months for the rest of its life. Trends don’t just continue along straight lines. 

The best way to control the straight line instinct is to remember that curves come in all shapes and sizes. Remember that straight lines are much less common than we think. Any two connected points look like a straight line, but when you add a third point you can draw accurate conclusions. 

The Fear Instinct

When we are afraid, we don’t see clearly. We tend to generate worst-case scenarios. Critical thinking is quite difficult when we are afraid. Our fears are hardwired in our brains for evolutionary reasons. Fears of physical harm, captivity and poison once helped our ancestors survive so perceptions of these dangers trigger our fear instinct. This makes us systematically overestimate these risks. 

The media knows this and uses it to grab our attention. Although the news often broadcasts the dangers of our world, the truth is that the world has never been less violent and more safe. Natural disasters still occur, but they kill so many fewer people today because people can afford to be prepared. Plane crashes, murders, nuclear leaks and terrorism kill less than 1% of the people who die each year. 

40 million commercial passenger flights landed safely in 2016. Only ten ended in fatal accidents. But those were the ones that journalists wrote about – a mere .000025% of the total. Remember that what you hear about has been selected precisely because it is scary. When something scares you, ask yourself how dangerous it actually is and how much you are exposed to it. 

The Size Instinct

We tend to get things out of proportion. We overestimate the importance of a single event/person that is visible to us and we overestimate the scale of an issue based on a standalone number. For example, it is easy to assume that doctors and hospitals save children’s’ lives because that is what we see. However, data shows that almost all the increases in child survival rates are achieved through preventative measures outside hospitals. More children now survive because they don’t get ill in the first place.

Like most instincts, the media uses the size instinct to their advantage. They make any given event, fact or number sound more important than it is. 

To control the size instinct, you must compare. Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. You can use the 80/20 rule to keep things in proportion. Another tool for controlling size instinct is division. Often the best thing we can do to make a large number more meaningful is to divide it by a total, such as total population.

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