Why You Should Read FACTFULNESS

Recommended by Bill Gates. and me:)

The famous world health chart that greets you when you first flip the book.

In one short sentence, this book taught me to see the world in a new way and hopefully continue to do so.

The Authors

You can feel his passion exuding from this image.

Hans Rosling is a renowned global statistician. Trained as a physician, he spent the last few years as an academic and public speaker.

Anna and Ola Rosling in a Youtube video sharing the book.

The two co-writers are Ola Rosling (his son) and Anna Rosling Rönnlund (his daughter-in-law), who developed the Trendalyzer software that animates data compiled by the UN and World Bank.

The three of them together founded the Gapminder Foundation, which boosted the development of the Trendalyzer software system.

Hans then presents their findings in TED Talks worldwide, promoting the use of actual big data and its significance to use data visualization to explore global development issues.

I think it’s essential to introduce them because I find it endearing for a family unit to develop something together.

The Summary

Factfulness wants us to evaluate the past’s history and incorporate it into how we judge the present conditions.

Now, everything looks worse. Because we have Internet. But Rosling pointed out how we can’t just put the media bias on a pedestal.

Media is meant to be biased because that’s what they do. They use contentious headlines and side heavily to one side to sell stories. They have to, or else they won’t have much profit.

Rosling hoped to achieve with his book (in my opinion) is for us, the public, to read and watch the news with a grain of salt. And to use the 10 instincts that usually distort our thinking to instead guide us.

All in all, we would develop a fact-based worldview.

Below is my attempt to introduce every instinct and the rule of thumb against thinking that way. But, for better effects, you should really read the book.

The 10 Instincts

1. The Gap Instinct

The reality that usually paints a large gap to separate two different groups is usually not polarized.

Our old view of the world is that there are two types of countries: developing or developed.

And these countries are also commonly categorized into 3 sub-categories: low, middle and high income.

With a booming economy, it is unrealistic to see the 195 countries as just 2 or 3 categories. So instead, Rosling suggested dividing the world into 4 income levels.

Rule of Thumb:

  • Beware of extremes and comparison of averages.
  • Looking down will almost always distort our views.
  • Look for the majority (majority is usually in the middle)

2. The Negativity Instinct

Information on bad events gets circulated substantially more than good news. The excellent news is seldom reported. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world.

Some good statistics shared in the book:

  • Today, there are no countries with a life expectancy below 50 years.
  • Within the last 2 centuries, the percentage of children dying before their 5th birthday has decreased from 44% to 4%.
  • In 1970, it was reported that 28% of people globally were undernourished, but in 2015, it was 11%!

I’ll address the biases in the takeaways, but for now, let’s understand that the world is doing better than we think.

Rule of Thumb:

  • People are more likely to report periodic dips in a trend of gradual improvements. Gradual improvements are not newsworthy.
  • More bad news circulating does not directly reflect higher rates of suffering. It shows that we now live in a world with better surveillance of torture.

3. The Straight Line Instinct

Rosling addressed the controversial, false idea that the world population is just increasing (just a linear straight line)

The population is indeed growing fast (only to an extent). But, in fact, UN experts have reported that population growth will slow down in the next few decades. And this is attributed to the fact that the rate of birth has been halved since 1965.

Much of this was discussed in the earlier chapters (I have not mentioned). But, generally, many people have left extreme poverty, acquired higher education, and decided to have fewer children.

Remember that straight line graphs are misleading and very rare in reality.

Rule of Thumb:

  • Many trends are S-shaped, slides, humps, or double lines. Not just a straight line.

4. The Fear Instinct

Humans have natural fears of violence, captivity and contamination, driving us to systematically program our minds to overestimate these risks.

We should never forget to differentiate between something dangerous or threatening.

Due to new affordable solutions, global collaborations and better education, average annual death rates due to natural disasters in Level 1 and Level 2 countries plummeted.

Unfortunately, terrorism has increased worldwide, especially in Level 1 to Level 3 countries, while terrorism in Level 4 countries significantly decreased. This is a sad fact because it directly reflects the priorities of our world leaders.

Rule of Thumb:

  • “The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected by your own attention filter/media, precisely because it is creepy.
  • Calm yourself down clear your fears before making any decisions.

5. The Size Instinct

Never believe that a singular number can be valuable on its own. If you are presented with one number, ask for another to compare it. Let me explain.

In 2016, UNICEF reported 4.2 million cases of dead babies. 4.2 million. A considerable number indeed.

BUT, in 2015, the number was 4.4 million. So it got worse in 1950.

14.4 million cases of dead babies were reported in 1950. I repeat. 14.4 million! More than 10 million in 2016.

Basically, it is terrible that 4.2 million babies were reported dead in 2016, but we’re improving. Gradual improvement is rigid but necessary and slow.

Rule of Thumb:

  • Get things in proportion.
  • Get the numbers right. Amounts and rates are significantly meaningful but must be used in the proper context.
  • Learn and understand basic statistics (my rule of thumb)

6. The Generalization Instinct

Categories in an elaborate explanation can be very misleading. Learn to not generalize across only groups. When we learn new things, presented with new evidence, we must always question our initial assumptions.

Hans used a first-hand experience when comparing babies sleeping positions to unconscious soldiers.

In 1985, a group of pediatricians in Hong Kong suggested that the prone position might cause the increase in babies’ death rate at the time. They were basing it on the fact that unconscious soldiers were dying on their backs when they vomited.

However, this was not the case in babies. Sleeping babies have fully functioning reflexes and will turn to the side to vomit when lying on their back. But babies may not be strong enough to tilt their heads on their tummies when they vomit, risking the closure of their airways.

The advice was unfortunately reversed after a full 18 months of practice. The reason for babies’ death has yet to be known. But from this experience, it’s essential to understand that sweeping generalizations can easily hide behind good intentions.

Rule of Thumb:

  • Look for differences within and across groups.
  • Look for similarities within and across groups.
  • Recheck what majority means. Ask for the number. The majority can range from 51% to 99%.

7. The Destiny Instinct

The Destiny Instinct is the tendency to say that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures.

There are always exaggerated claims that people of certain beliefs and origins claim to have culture-specific values or behaviours, unchanging and unchangeable.

Well, cultures, nations and people are always in the state of metamorphization. And values change all the time.

They may look constant, but the gradual changes are just prolonged.

The macho values found today in many Asian and African countries, for example, are not strictly confined there. The Swedes had them too. But, slowly, with social and economic progress, these values will eventually vanish too.

Rule of Thumb:

  • Collect and analyze examples of cultural change.
  • If in doubt, sit down with someone from a different generation. Discuss the differences and similarities of values during their era and compare them to yours.

8. The Single Perspective Instinct

As the name of the instinct, it is straightforward.

You should always look at more than one perspective from different angles on newfound information. Like people usually say, there are 2 sides to a story and 2 sides to a coin.

Rule of Thumb:

  • Don’t claim expertise beyond your field.
  • Analyze numbers, but also look at beyond numbers.
  • Be humble. Just because you are an expert in something, don’t think you’re immune to mistakes.
  • Аlways test your ideas. Use the criticisms to improve your knowledge.

9. The Blame Instinct

Another straightforward instinct that I’m guilty of having. I naturally got defensive when some things that I shared with my friends were actually some forms of distorted truth.

I start to find agents responsible for the spread of misinformation. Should I blame Google? Should it be the Medium author?

It is my sole responsibility to ensure that I cross-check the newly obtained information from the Internet. The journalist or authors are doing their job. My job as a reader is to see if this fits reality, well, my reality at least (I hope it’s less biased and not overly distorted.

Rule of Thumb:

  • Look for causes, not villains
  • Look for systems, not heroes

10. The Urgency Instinct

The classic “now or never” mindset. This call to action tends to make us think less critically. Imposing a sense of urgency that we will regret if we don’t act now. One day, *insert something important to you* will be gone.

A great example is the screams on climate change. Yet, most human beings acknowledge global warming and believe in its objective truth.

But there shouldn’t be fear-mongering, scaring people with the unlikely scenarios based on huge uncertainties and worst projections.

Yes, we can do something. But, it is our planet. So, everyone has equal responsibility.

Rule of Thumb:

  • Never rush in making decisions. The urgency instinct will trigger other instincts and shut down your analysis ability. Take a deep breath.
  • Know that any prediction of the future is always uncertain. Insist on seeing the data and scrutinize it to your discretion.

Why This Book is a Must-Read

I finished this book in 3 sittings.

That says something because I have a short attention span.

With a real-life story, Rosling starts every chapter (an instinct for a chapter). And every single one is very unique as it perfectly segues into explaining the gist of the chapter.

Trained as a physician, he went on humanitarian missions in African countries. His unique ability to observe minute details always amazes me. (You’ll understand when you read it)

An excellent guide for a chaotic world

Just like Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules of Life, this book offers an antidote to our brain to filter through big data. In hopes that we can be more articulate in our journey of finding our true knowledge.

Excellent exposure for data science-related projects

His presentations and TED talks are valuable examples of how vital is story-telling skills in a data science career path.

Being an expert in data without sharing your knowledge with the masses will shave away the value of one’s work.

Great learning experience

It felt like reading through an engaging textbook. Before the introduction, readers were presented with a short quiz. Asking about the global improvements. I got 7/13. Very disappointed.

But these questions will be revisited throughout the book, elaborated. And Hans will compare how we answered the question to a poll of an audience who answered them on his TED Talks.

One of the main reasons I love this book. I finished reading it and wanted to reread it, hoping that these guidelines would imprint my brain.

Final Takeaways

Now, this article may come off as ignorant and emotionless. But, should we just think this way, ignoring the emotional aspect of a global crisis? No. Of course not.

We are human, and we connect with other humans through our empathy. But this book provided me with guidance to navigate my way in learning and consuming new things in the world packed with data.

I hope that you guys gain something from this and maybe will read it soon.

Whatever it is, thank you so much for reading and have a great day!

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