Factfulness by Hans Rosling; this book made me see the world in a startling new way.
I like to regard myself as a reasonably intelligent, well-educated, well-read, and observant woman. I keep up with current affairs, I have travelled widely, and I like to think that I know more about the world and its people than most.
Within the first few pages of Factfulness, author Hans Rosling demonstrated that I didn’t know the world that well. Or myself for that matter.
He asked a dozen questions. Simple multiple-choice questions, only need to pick one of three answers. Okay, I thought, I’m pretty hot on these things. I get up near 100% on all those Facebook quizzes, and I’m an asset to any trivia team.
I jotted down my answers. Even better, I thought that I saw a pattern and followed that. These were not difficult questions, and the choices were not even close. Things like whether a certain global measurement had doubled, halved, or stayed about the same over the past century.
When I marked myself, I got two correct answers out of twelve. Two! I was stunned. Chimps picking random bananas marked A, B, or C could do better. As Hans kept on pointing out through the rest of the book.
To say my pride had taken a fall was an understatement. I never get a test so badly wrong.
And yet, the questions were simple, the answers easily checked from impeccable UN sources. There was something fundamentally wrong with me!
Not just me, it turned out. Hans explained that he had given the same test hundreds of times at presentations. TED talks. Meetings of Nobel laureates, heads of state, multinational company heads. Household names looked up to with awe and respect. The people who pull the levers of the world’s affairs.
And guess what? These august folk had all done woefully. In every audience, an equal number of chimpanzees could have gained better results.
I won’t say anything more. No spoilers. You can take the test for yourself without reading the book. It’s online here.
Why did I get it so very wrong?
But I heartily recommend reading the book. Hans, with the assistance of his son and daughter-in-law as co-authors, goes on to explain exactly why I and so many others did so poorly on his quiz.
Put simply, it is a matter of having a certain worldview that is decades out of date and built on emotions, not facts.
Check your facts, he tells us. Go back to solid sources to find the real numbers, and then check to see what the trends are. The number of road deaths in a certain country may have doubled — bad! — but if the number of cars on the road has quadrupled in the same period, this is actually a good result, all things considered.
As another example, he points out that we have an inbuilt tendency to extrapolate data based on a few samples, when the underlying reality may be quite different. Take measurements of a baby’s body length over the first two years, and you’d extrapolate these points into somebody who needs an open-top car by the time they get their driving license and has trouble with overhead streetlights.
Check your emotional and cultural biases. We tend to divide the world into us — the familiar — and them — all those weird foreigners. Africans or Chinese are different from Americans and Australians in fundamentally different ways, we assume.
It turns out that income, not culture or race, is how the world is divided. The kitchens or living rooms of people earning more than $32 a day look pretty much the same across the world. Tiles, carpets, appliances, a colour television. At the bottom level, on a dollar a day, mud floors and a pot over an open fire are the norm. A battered chair outside in the weather is the lounge room.
The Roslings have documented homes around the world on “Dollar Street”, where the street number is the income, not the location. Take a look at the families and the houses illustrated. Houses next door to each other on Dollar Street are similar, even though they might be on different sides of the world, or in what we used to call First World and Third World nations, or developed and developing countries.
Or in what Don Trump called “shithole countries” in contrast to what he regards as nice places to live, such as Norway or Florida.
Chimpanzees could do a better job
Factfulness does not mention President Trump by name, but the careful, fact-based, unemotional way of finding the truth is at complete odds with the rhetoric coming out of the White House.
A man who controls the best intelligence services in the world, but declares that he knows better in his gut feelings than all his experts and their careful research. A man who is barely literate and needs his in-depth daily briefings in short bullet points. A man who talks in stream-of-consciousness fractured sentences, and pushes out Twitter messages full of all caps, bizarre claims and schoolyard taunts.
It is clear that Don Trump communicates with his unthinking base by appealing to emotion, prejudice, and ignorance. Facts and reason don’t stand a chance. He lives in an “us and them” world, and this resonates with people who — like me until a few days ago — don’t know any better.
His methods work well when facts and factfulness are set to one side. If his support base truly believes deep down that Americans are better than the residents of poor nations, that white folk are superior to black, that Muslims are terrorists, that the head of state has been selected by the Almighty, and on and on, then truth and reality based on facts are of no use. Trump is whispering into their ears that their emotions are better than all the facts in the world. More than that, the truth is fake news, and the media with their research and ethics and fact-checking are the enemies of people like him and them.
How can you help yourself? And the world.
Read this book. It’s not a dry treatise on statistics and philosophy. It is a series of anecdotes, some laugh-out-loud funny, and the lessons that may be learnt from each. Each chapter has a paragraph or two giving the main points in a nutshell.
Hans Rosling explains, by referring to real-life examples, exactly how the world is faring, and why that reality is at odds with what we think we know.
It’s not just the reader, the experts, the Nobel laureates, the heads of state who get things wrong. Rosling himself tells a tale where he thought he had nailed a presentation to a high-level audience of African leaders, only for one of them to pull him aside and show him exactly how wrong — and short-sighted — he had been in his view.
We can all be taken in. We can all be outperformed by chimpanzees. Factfulness shows us how and why. It’s an international best-seller, translated into 30 languages, and it is a book that will change the way you see the world. And yourself.
You owe it to yourself and to humanity. Do you really want to live in a world where chimpanzees could perform better at ruling superpowers, than whomever we the unthinking elect?