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  • Writer's pictureJessyca Stoepker

Factfulness by Hans Rosling (Book Review)

Updated: Jun 27

Global Challenges, Part II

This post is the second of four that I aim to publish as revisions of my integration essay for my Fort Hays State University fall 2020 graduate class IDS 805: Global Challenges, instructed by my advisor Darrell Hamlin. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), there are seven "revolutions” that will shape our world by the year 2035: population, resources, technology, information, economies, conflict, and governance. These drivers of change compose the academic framework for this class, which is also the core class for the university's MLS Global Studies concentration. The key texts examined—2052: A Forecast for the Next Forty Years, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, and Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs—discuss these and other global issues through various lenses, identifying startling realities and possibilities for change. In this four-part essay, I critique these works, dissect the authors’ conclusions, and make inferences of my own with both the seven revolutions and the current COVID-19 pandemic in mind.


Back cover description:

When asked simple questions about global trends—what percentage of the world's population lives in poverty; why the world's population is increasing; how many girls finish school—we systematically get the answers wrong. So wrong that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, journalists, Nobel laureates, and investment bankers. In Factfulness, professor of international health and global TED phenomenon Hans Rosling—together with his two longtime collaborates, Anna and Ola—offers a radical new explanation of why this happens and reveals the ten instincts that distort our perspective. Inspiring and revelatory, filled with lively anecdotes and moving stories, Factfulness is an urgent and essential book that will change the way you see the world and empower you to respond to the crises and opportunities of the future.

These are not easy times—or are they? That answer would depend on what era we are comparing them to and what we are labeling as "easy." Are more people fed, clothed, housed, and healthy now than a hundred years ago? Yes. Are more people literate and employed than in previous generations, or able to marry someone of the same sex? Also yes. Are there still vast economic and racial inequalities, globalization shortcomings, social unrest, media misinformation campaigns, wrongful and preventable deaths, and injustices happening on the daily? Definitely yes.

Author Hans Rosling and his son and daughter-in-law, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, reiterate throughout their 2018 book Factfulness that yes, the world is bad—but it's also better, statistically speaking, across the board than it has ever been.

How can that be, we ask ourselves, when all I ever hear is how terrible everything is?

If you are grabbling with that question, you are not alone. In his introduction, Rosling shows how mega-level misconceptions--similar to but distinct from misinformation—are a systemic problem that plague even PhD candidates and diplomats. In repeated studies, he found that, when answering questions about poverty rates, childhood deaths, world hunger, war fatalities, or global health, most people would have scored better if they had closed their eyes and chose at random. Regardless of background, academic achievement, or access to data, the vast majority of people across the globe believe that humanity is doing worse than it actually is.

So, what gives? It's not just "the media," although journalists and global communications do play a role. In a nutshell, it comes down to evolutionary psychology: humans are predisposed to pick up on the doom and gloom more than anything else. It's easier to be aware of the alarm bells and other scary-bad happenings in the world, but the "secret silent miracle of human progress" often occurs without any media coverage or commentary. Even fundamental improvements, like dramatic milestones achieved in disease elimination, are underreported, and random polls around the world tell us they go unnoticed. With so many new technological advancements to measure change and so much more data at our disposal than we've ever had, we still believe things are bad, just bad.

But Rosling says this is not what the world really looks like. As part of his life-long mission to fight systemic misconceptions, he teaches us how to recognize and avoid the most common ways information gets misinterpreted.

The first step on this path of adopting a more fact-based mindset is understanding that we are incapable of processing all there is to know—and that our brains naturally filter phenomena that grabs our attention. We are evolutionarily drawn to drama; things that are novel, threatening, controversial, or mysterious draw our attention because things that are novel, threatening, controversial, or mysterious in the wild can kill us. This "dramatic attention filter" can save our life, but it also can make the world appear more menacing than it is.

Rosling then walks us through the major story types we see in the news that can trigger this natural reaction, and the ten main human "drama" instincts that cause these problematic interpretations:

  1. The Gap Instinct

  2. The Negativity Instinct

  3. The Straight Line Instinct

  4. The Fear Instinct

  5. The Size Instinct

  6. The Generalization Instinct

  7. The Destiny Instinct

  8. The Single Perspective Instinct

  9. The Blame Instinct

  10. The Urgency Instinct

The Rosling family specializes in statistics but are quick to point out that statistics alone can be frightening. News stories often start out with some startling statistic to grab attention—in undergraduate news reporting and media relations coursework, the "startling statistic" lead is taught as one of the tried-and-true methods to gain readership. The problem is not that the statistic is false or incorrect; it's that numbers are easily manipulated or misused, especially when the full context is not provided, resulting in half-truths, misleading reports, and emotional influence.

10 Rules of Thumb - Rosling, Factfulness - Gapminder graphic poster
Simplified, these 10 Rules of Thumb provide us with practical mental exercises to help control our brain's dramatic instincts.

This is why, in addition to building our agency to identify the instincts, Rosling provides us with basic methods to keep them under control. His recommendations rely on the reader's ability to reason and orchestrate both self- and situational-awareness. If the story appeals to our gap instinct—painting a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between--we should look where the majority falls in place. We should also look twice at comparisons of both averages and extremes; the world much more complex than what could ever be contained accurately on paper, and relying on averages or hyper-fixating on polarized ends of the spectrum can distort the view.

Preparing ourselves with a strong arsenal of critical thinking tools and a fact-over-fear foundation makes the news easier to swallow. It prevents us from emotional overwhelm, which can ultimately lead to disengagement. And, while it's not healthy to always live within the newsroom atmosphere, the last thing we want is for the majority of citizens to completely disengage, plug their ears, and turn their backs on global issues.

A classmate of mine put it this way:

"Factfulness expanded my way of thinking, but even more importantly my way of taking in media. For most of my life, I have avoided the news. Who wants to feel down about everything, all the time--and feel like there is little to nothing you can do to change? Factfulness was a breath of fresh air to my news-avoiding self. After reading this book, I have greater desire to engage in news, not because it is not at times very depressing, but because Factfulness gave me the tools to keep my feelings in check by understanding the facts being presented (or not being presented) and then how to analyze the information."

I tend to be very critical of what I see and experience, often fixating on terms or phrases that suggest potential animosity. In literature, I take advantage of a book's physical properties as I keep my eyes peeled for mistakes: underlining, making notes in the margins, and circling areas of potential argument flaws. It's easier to find errors when you look for and expect them. Critiquing is always needed in academia, of course--especially for the works of the historically privileged, like Western white males--but reading and re-reading the second chapter, "The Negativity Instinct," made me aware of how pervasive the habit had become: I was focusing more on people's mistakes and less on their contributions. Couple the negativity instinct with today's high information consumption and empathy levels, and it’s no wonder I feel tired and deflated about the state of the world. All the "bad" things are Bad with a capital B—loud, painful, and everywhere. Readers may find themselves feeling more justified in their internal dialogue after learning these dramatic instincts are normal.

It's ironic how Rosling uses so much hyperbole and dramatic humor in each chapter to illustrate his points about data interpretation and accuracy. Perhaps strategic, appealing to our dramatic nature that he goes on so much about. This book would be arguably harder for the average reader to get through if it didn’t have the humor and heartfelt anecdotes, and therefore not reach as wide an audience and contribute to his mission of spreading the “factfulness” ideal. The clarity and visual approach of his communication style is also worth noting. Most people will find Rosling's data visualization and writing style welcoming and digestible. Infographics that combine text, data, and visual elements, like shapes, illustrations, timelines, or simple graphs, are more effective at getting messages across diverse audiences than text alone. It's particularly smart of the authors and editors to provide small executive summaries at the end of each chapter as well. This is appreciated even by experienced readers and assiduous notetakers. The summaries further reinforce earlier points for better retention and serve students well in review.

Factfulness introduces a four-tiered approach to income classification, which seeks to lead the public away from previous "develop vs. developing" or "first- vs. third-world" categories. This new economic taxonomy has significant potential and could help eliminate the implicit racist and xenophobic bias that often comes with the previous denominations. However, the way he presents the framework seems shallow. With the language he uses, he fails to explicitly state the reason for historical uses of "we" vs. "them" comparisons and why we must get away from them. Imperialism and systemic racism, the persistence of which are the root causes of "the gap" misconception, are not mentioned in the chapter but danced around. I would not say it is a coincidence that, when we look at a map, the vast majority of Level 3 and 4 countries (more or less, the previous “developed countries") like the US, Canada, UK, and Nordic countries have a white or light-skinned population majority and the Level 1 and 2 countries (previously “developing”) like many African, East Asian, and Latin American nations have a majority of darker-skinned inhabitants and long histories of colonization. It is good and true that the noticeable development gap once visible between these two groupings is now a nonbinary spectrum, but that does not detract from the historical causes contributing to the binary in the first place. One can assume Rosling’s strategy here may be to make sure (white) citizens in the US and Europe are not offended (and then, consequently, unreceptive of his ideas) by the “developed vs. developing” details. Rosling proved his points successfully nevertheless, but one can sense how carefully the sentences were crafted to avoid those heavy topics. It is doubtful this passage would read the same if written by a Person of Color. Then again, if historical privilege rings true, it may not have reached and educated as many people.

I fully support spreading the message of rational, factful thinking strategies that would change our perspectives to be more positive. As Rosling says, we are making so much progress that goes unnoticed. I particularly like the “bad, but also better” lens and believe it would provide exhausted social justice activists with a healthier, more sustainable mindset. A small part of me wonders, however, if promotion of this idea could ever backfire. For instance, if we were all to think more positively about the world right now—as if a wand is waved and POOF! everyone is suddenly more optimistic—would our current "getting better” stage be at risk of slowing or stagnating? Would the instincts that get us moving on these issues—fear, alarm, empathy—be dialed down? While this would generally be good for our psyches and for refocusing our attention to the real problem areas as Rosling suggests, one could argue that there could be fewer internal or external drivers, or incentives, for us to mobilize (i.e. donate, volunteer, etc.). The sense of urgency decreases, as does the perception of need. Could soliciting support from wealthy donors become more difficult, if the pathos of marketing schemes are less effective now that the world is “better?" Are those pictures of starving children actually portraying reality, or are donations just going to fill a CEO’s pocket? We have almost freed the world of polio, but is "almost" the farthest we will get if the world congratulates itself too early? These theoreticals are hyperbolized and negative-leaning in themselves, but the point remains. If we follow similar lines of Rosling’s thinking, the message of “hey, the world’s actually doing fine,” could potentially be misinterpreted, leading people to jump to conclusions in the opposite direction. Is this a small part of what happened with COVID-19 in the US—first overdrive, then complete relaxation, sending us flying backwards?

These are some of the things keeping me less optimistic than what Rosling probably hoped. That being said, there’s much to learn from this book, and soon after reading I shared it with friends, family, and colleagues. The ways in which we can recognize and avoid our problematic human responses to stimuli should be widely shared, taught, and practiced in order to maintain a calm and rational perspective on reality. Rosling clearly defines the implications for this type of thinking and how a factful approach can benefit education, journalism, and politics. One can only imagine how different the United States climate would be if even a quarter of the population followed these lines of reasoning.

“Could everyone have a fact-based worldview one day? Big change is always difficult to imagine. But it is definitely possible, and I think it will happen, for two simple reasons. First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying” (2018, p. 255).

As with all good writing, Factfulness spurs the reader into action. While I think literary works with more alarming or inflammatory styles--like Wallace-Wells' The Uninhabitable Earth or other global issue exposés--have their place in public awareness campaigns, the positive and mindful approach of Factfulness seems to stick with the reader in a different way, perhaps attracting people to solve world problems instead of running away or slipping into cognitive dissonance as forms of self-protection.

The educational nonprofit founded by the Rosling family, Gapminder, is intricately connected to the book in both mission and material. Not only does the website offer hundreds of free tools for educators and students, but it also serves as a global data goldmine for everyday questions and misconceptions. Several of Gapminder's ground-breaking data visualization methods, including the bubble chart and Trendalyzer, work so well that they have been acquired by Google to help with their search and statistics software. Despite becoming widely renown and influential, the organization remains committed to keeping its tools and resources open access, freely available to everyone.

This book provides exemplary baseline knowledge of understanding the world around us, which is vital in today's climate of biases, fear, and sensationalism. And the global audience eagerly accepted it: when Factfulness was published, it instantly became an international bestseller, selling more than 2.5 million copies worldwide in 45 different languages. One can hope that Hans, who died of cancer just before the book was published by Ola and Anna, knew what a powerful contribution this book would be to the world amid this misconception epidemic.

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