Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Book Review: Factfulness

In a world of fake news, it seems increasingly important to be able to determine fact from fiction, to be able to evaluate others' claims and to use data to support our decision-making. But how well do you know basic data about the world around you? Consider the following three multiple-choice questions.

  1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? (A) 20 percent; (B) 40 percent; or (C) 60 percent.
  2. What is the life expectancy of the world today? (A) 50 years; (B) 60 years; or (C) 70 years.
  3. How many of the world's 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease? (A) 20 percent; (B) 50 percent; or (C) 80 percent.
The answers are at the bottom of this post, and the answers to those questions and ten others (and in particular how badly people get them wrong) provides the backdrop for the book Factfulness, by Hans Rosling (with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund). The subtitle is "Ten reasons we're wrong about the world - and why things are better than you think". Hans Rosling was the man behind the Gapminder website (and if you haven't seen it already, I highly recommend it), which illustrates data in highly memorable ways. The book is in some ways a memorial to Rosling's work - he died shortly before it was published, a year after being diagnosed with cancer.

Rosling clearly took issue with people's inability to answer simple fact-based questions about the world around them. He spent years collecting data on people's answers to questions like the three at the top of this post. The book notes that, almost regardless of country or the expertise of the group answering the questions (from university students to business leaders to scientific experts), people do no better than random at answering these questions. In fact, people do significantly worse than random. For instance, only 13 percent of people get the answer to Question 3 above correct.

Rosling's insight was that it isn't ignorance that leads people to get the answers to these questions wrong. If that were the case, they you'd expect the percentage correct to be closer to 33 percent than 13 percent. Our brains must be hardwired to steer us wrong.

Specifically, the book highlights ten instincts that lead us astray. For instance, the 'negativity instinct' leads us to notice the bad more than the good, while the 'single perspective instinct' leads us to believe that there is a single simple cause for most things that we see. For each instinct though, there is an antidote. To combat the negativity instinct, we should recognise that most of the news we hear is bad news, because good news is not news, and gradual improvements are not news. He notes that:
Journalists who reported flights that didn't crash or crops that didn't fail would quickly lose their jobs.
Learn to look for the good news. To combat the single perspective instinct, have people who disagree with you test your ideas and find their weaknesses, because:
The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone.
There are a number of worthy quotes I could pick out from the book, but I'll limit myself to one more, that actually relates to my own previous research:
Most concerning is the attempt to attract people to the cause by inventing the term "climate refugees." My best understanding is that the link between climate change and migration is very, very weak. The concept of climate refugees is mostly a deliberate exaggeration, designed to turn fear of refugees into fear of climate change, and so build a much wider base of public support for lower CO2 emissions.
Clearly, Rosling has no time for misuse of data to support shaky positions or to misdirect. The text is filled with great stories from Rosling's very full life and career as a physician in Sweden and Africa, and from his time as a researcher at the Karolinska Institute and running Gapminder.

This is an excellent book and well worth reading. I recommend it if you are looking for the good news on human progress. Oh, and the answers to those three questions: C, C, and C.

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