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Omkar Konaraddi

Notes from "Factfulness" by Hans Rosling

Published on 2020-05-23.

Factfulness is a book written by Hans Rosling, with help from his colleagues and family including Anna Ronnlund and Ola Rosling, and the book aims to equip its readers with a fact-based framework for thinking and understanding the world around us. The author observed that even well-educated individuals at the World Bank, United Nations, World Economic Forum, and several universities consistently had a factually incorrect view of the world and, according to Hans Rosling, his students had "illusions they knew things that really they only felt". Rosling was compelled to write this book after being diagnosed with cancer. He died before the book was published. The book was published in 2018 so some numbers and details have likely changed to some extent since then.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in getting things right. These are my notes from Factfulness.

Chapter 1: The Gap Instinct

The gap instinct is the tendency to divide the world's countries into two groups:

There are two things one should know to dispel this illusion of "we" and "them":

  1. Life in low-income countries is a lot better than you think
    • at least 60% of girls in low-income countries finish primary school and <2% of the world's girls live in these countries
    • Life expectancy in low-income countries is 62 years
  2. Few people live in low-income countries
    • 9% of the world's population live in low-income countries
    • i.e., 91% of the world's population live in high- and middle-income countries

I think Hans Rosling is using the World Bank's definition of low-income: as of 2016, low-income countries are countries with a gross national income (GNI) per capita of $1,025 or less.

Addressing the Gap Instinct

Instead of dividing the world into two groups, use the following four income levels.

Level 1 - $1/day

Level 2 - $4/day

Level 3 - $16/day

Level 4 - $64/day

A country is on Level N of the average person is on Level N (but not necessarily everyone; Hans Rosling explicitly says "Remember, averages disguise spreads").

In the early 1800s, 85% of all people were on Level 1. Today, >90% are on Levels 2-4.

Chapter 2: The Negativity Instinct

% of population in extreme poverty for a given region and year:

COUNTRY 1917 2017
China 42% 0.7%
India 42% 17%
Latin America 14% 4%

We're on track to eradicating extreme poverty (or at least containing it to regions in war).

The negativity instinct is "our instinct to notice the bad more than the good". Gradual improvements and good news rarely make it to the front page of the Internet newspaper. There's three parts to this instinct:

  1. "misremembering the past"
  2. "selective reporting by journalists"
  3. acknowledging the bad but not acknowledging improvement in the same space when relevant

Addressing the Negativity Instinct

Remember that things can be both bad and better. "Bad" is a state and "better" is the direction. More bad news ≠more suffering.

Chapter 3: The Straight Line Instinct

In 1800, the world population was 1 billion. Today, it's almost 8 billion.

Today, there's 2 billion children. According to the UN, how many children will there be in 2100? Still 2 billion. What will the total world population be in 2100? The UN expects it to flatten around 10-12 billion by then.

There's a common misconception that the world's population will continue to rapidly grow. Hans Rosling attributes this to our tendency to draw straight lines or assume trends will continue in a linear way. So why is the world's population projected to flatten around 10-12 billion? Why would there still be only 2 billion children in 2100? As we bring people out of extreme poverty, women are having less children. In 1965, each women gave birth to five kids on average. Today, the average is less than three. ".... this dramatic change happened in parallel to all those other improvements [in healthcare, education, etc.]".

Most people escaping extreme poverty are deciding to have fewer children because:

  1. They don't need as much child labor; people in extreme poverty need more kids to help on the farm or do other jobs to help provide for the family.
  2. "they no longer need extra children as insurance against child mortality"
  3. Educated individuals and modern contraceptives translate to less children without less sex.

And thus, "The only proven method for curbing population growth is to eradicate extreme poverty and give people better lives".

Addressing the Straight Line Instinct

Don't assume straight lines; there's lots of different shapes a line can take.

Chapter 4: The Fear Instinct

"The image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe". Unusual, scary events are newsworthy so "if we are not extremely careful, we come to believe that the unusual is usual".

Addressing the fear instinct

"To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks" where risk = (magnitude of danger) x (probability of exposure).

Chapter 5: The Size Instinct

We tend "to misjudge the importance of a single instance or an identifiable victim"

We tend to underestimate some proportions (e.g., what percent of all children are vaccinated? >88%). We also tend to overestimate some other proportions like the amount of support for an unpopular view.

Digression: I think popular websites like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter distort our perception of the proportion of a population supporting a given public policy proposal or political candidate. Those websites make it seem like public opinion is a bimodal distribution with a very wide valley between the peaks. I frequently browse subreddits with opposing views and it's quite common to see highly upvoted comments attacking strawmen, misrepresenting another's view, or misconstruing what another said. This can lead some people into believing that an opposing party is wholly extreme, wholly incorrect, or even wholly malicious (all of which, especially the last, are unlikely to be true given a sufficiently large group of people). Anyways, I'll continue with my notes from Factfulness.

Preventative measures can have a huge ROI for countries in Level 1 and 2. "So if you are investing money to improve health on Level 1 or 2, you should put it into primary schools, nurse education, and vaccinations. Big impressive-looking hospitals can wait."

Addressing the size instinct

Compare or divide.

Compare: When given a single number, compare it with another number. "Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful". For example, swine flu killed thousands of people in early 2009 but tuberculosis killed hundreds of thousands in the same period and tuberculosis is more infectious.

Aside: Currently "the west" constitutes the majority of people on Level 4 and dominates the consumer market. Within just 20 years, "the rest" will constitute the majority of people on Level 4 and dominate the consumer market. By 2100, "more than 80 percent of the world's population will live in Africa and Asia".

Divide: Big and lonely numbers typically need to be divided by something (e.g., per person). For example, at the 2015 World Economic Forum, Hans Rosling observed European officials, representing European countries, blaming India and China for climate change because they emit more carbon than any other country. However, looking at the total carbon emissions of a country is like looking at the total weight of a country and saying China and India are more obese than the US. Emissions per person is a better metric than the total emissions for a given country. More on this in the Chapter 9 where Rosling talks about the blame instinct.

Chapter 6: The Generalization Instinct

"The gap instinct divides the world into 'us' and 'them' and the generalization instinct makes 'us' think of 'them' as all the same"

Addressing the generalization instinct

A useful tool for visualizing differences within a group and similarities across groups:

Chapter 7: The Destiny Instinct

A country's culture can change very quickly. As people escape from extreme poverty, they're less likely to inherit the previous generation's traditional, patriarchal values. The world changes slowly day-by-day but very quickly year-by-year.

"Many Swedes think of the United States as having very conservative values. But.... In 1996, a minority of 27 percent supported same-sex marriage. Today that number if 72 percent and rising."

African countries are modernizing very quickly.

Addressing the destiny intinct

Chapter 8: The Single Perspective Instinct

"Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot."

"Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn't fit your perspective.... This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality" and "It saves a lot of time to think like this. You can have opinions and answers without having to learn about a problem from scratch".

There are other ways we develop tunnel vision:

Identify bottle necks and whether an issue is a symptom. For example, if students are doing poorly in school then it may have more to do with availability of electricity in their homes than the quality of textbooks or teaching. If there's a high maternal mortality rate, then it could have more to do with access to local hospitals than whether local doctors know how to do C-section.

"The United States spends more than twice as much per capita on health care as other capitalist countries on Level 4 .... and for that money its citizens can expect lives that are three years shorter" (emphasis is mine). Hans Rosling attributes this largely to "the absence of basic public health insurance that citizens fo most other countries take for granted". The other rich countries with similar life expectancies include Saudi Arabia and Kuwait; Hans Rosling expects them to surpass the US in life expectancy soon.

Rosling shows that both Cuba and the US suffer "from the single-perspective-mind-set". One believes a central government can solve all their problems and the other believes the market can solve all of their problems.

Addressing the single perspective instinct

Chapter 9: The Blame Instinct

We spend too much time figuring out who to blame and exaggerating their importance. But we don't spend enough time on how to make sure something bad doesn't happen again. I think Hans Rosling says this in the context of national or global issues (which seems to be the context of this whole book). For example, a company does something unethical, they get called out by the press and the general public, the politicians call them out to a hearing, but then the government doesn't do enough to prevent similar things from happening again.

Hans Rosling says we blame journalists too often for spreading misinformation or creating a distorted view of the world but his quiz results show that journalists are just as misinformed as the general public. Therefore, journalists aren't deliberately misleading (i.e., there are no malicious intentions). "You should not expect the media to provide you with a fact-based worldview any more than you would think it reasonable to use a set of holiday snap of Berlin as your GPS system".

Rosling provides an example (that I remember seeing in the news): "in 2015, 4,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe inflatable boats".

The media identified the villains: "the cruel and greedy smugglers who tricked desperate families into handing over 1,000 euros per person for their places in inflatable death traps". They also identified the heroes: "European rescue boats saving people". This is pretty much what I remember too.

The refugees lived in countries with accessible airports that had under-booked flights to Europe for prices much lower than 1,000 euros. So why did the refugees choose to travel over sea instead of air? The embassies in their countries lacked the resources to go through all the visa applications. Why didn't the refugees claim their right to asylum at the check-in counter? There's no way for the people at the check-in counter to formally distinguish between a refugee or a regular traveler and it's EU policy that any airline that brings over illegal immigrants must pay for the flight back. Why didn't the smugglers use good, reusable boats? It's EU policy to confiscate boats bringing illegal immigrants.

Thus, the refugees only options were to either stay in their respective country or pay absurd amounts of money for a risky passage to Europe.

We also see the blame instinct when discussing carbon emissions:

The idea that India, China, and other countries moving up the levels should be blamed for climate change, and that their populations should be forced to live poorer lives in order to address it, is shockingly well established in the West.

Rosling uses an example of a student from a Canadian university saying "They can't live like us. We can't let them continue developing like this. Their emissions will kill the planet." and says he often hears "Westerners talking as if they hold remote controls in their hands and can make decisions about billions of lives elsewhere". Most of the carbon emitted in the past 50 years are from Level 4 countries. For example, "Canada's per capita CO2 emissions are still twice as high as China's and eight times as high [as] India's."

Here's an excerpt from the book where Rosling talks about a "foreign" disease:

Before modern medicine, one of the worst imaginable skin diseases was syphilis. [...] In Russia, it was called the Polish disease. In Poland, it was called the German disease. In Germany, the French Disease; in France, the Italian disease [...] The instinct to find a scapegoat is so core to human nature that it's hard to imagine the Swedish people calling the open sores the Swedish disease or the Russians calling it the Russian disease.

We tend to exaggerate the influence of individuals and blame them for things they might not have had much control over. For example, Mao was a powerful figure but "his one-child policy had less influence on birth rates than is commonly thought":

[....] the huge, fast drop from six to three babies per woman had happened in the ten years preceding the one-child policy. And during the 36 years the policy was in place, the number never fell below 1.5, though it did in many other countries without enforcement, like Ukraine, Thailand, and South Korea. In Hong Kong, where again the one-child policy didn't apply, the number dropped even below one baby per woman.

Another example is that despite several popes condemning the use of contraception, "the statistics show that contraceptive use is 60 percent in Catholic-majority countries, compared with 58 percent in the rest of the world". The pope has less influence than one may think.

However, the "situation with abortion is different". Mao's one child policy did have an impact on the number of abortions (although the number of forced abortions and sterilizations are unknown) and "women and girls are still being made the victims of religious condemnation of abortion".

Instead of blaming individuals, we should examine the system(s):

Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it's almost always more complicated than that. It's almost always about multiple interacting causes"”a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.

Addressing the blame instinct

Chapter 10: The Urgency Instinct

Rosling provides some examples of where a government official panicked and put up road blocks when there was fear that an infectious disease was in town. However, in these examples, the road block indirectly killed people and made the situation worse. The lesson is panicking and making quick, simple decisions can lead to unintended consequences.

"Ebola outbreaks are defeated by contact tracers", not roadblocks, where contact tracers are people who speak with infected people to determine who they were in contact with so that infected and potentially infected people can be isolated.

The 5 most concerning global risks according to Rosling

  1. global pandemic - airborne diseases can spread quickly; terrible flu is a big threat

  2. financial collapse - globalization means everyone is vulnerable to a financial bubble (which is hard to predict)

  3. world war III - "It's a huge diplomatic challenge to prevent the proud and nostalgic nations with a violent track record from attacking others now that they are losing their grip on the world market. We must help the old West to find a new way into the new world."

  4. climate change - This is a big problem requiring global effort and collaboration. Rosling says we shouldn't be apathetic towards climate change (we shouldn't think "oh it's too big and too late anyway") because we've actually made tremendous progress by reducing "ozone depleters and [...] lead in gasoline [....] to almost zero in two decades".

  5. extreme poverty - This is still a big problem right now because "there are still 800 million people left" but it might one of the easiest things to address:

    Unlike with climate change, we don't need predictions and scenarios. [....] We also know the solutions: peace, schooling, universal basic health care, electricity, clean water, toilets, contraceptives, and microcredits to get market forces started. There's no innovation needed to end poverty. It's all about walking the last mile with what's worked everywhere else. [....] Providing these necessities of a decent life, quickly, to the final billion is a clear, fact-based priority.

The justification for this list is that they're the most probable to occur and they each have potential for a big impact.

Addressing the urgency instinct

Chapter 11: Factfulness in practice

This chapter talks about how the author narrowly escaped being butchered by a mob with machetes. A stranger swiftly addressed the mob's fear, generalization, and blame instincts. This chapter also talks about the far reaching implications of practicing factfulness.