We are living in the age of great and instant information where on the touch of a screen or by pressing a button of a media news channel, we are bombarded with dramatic stories which makes us feel that world is getting more frightening, violent and more hopeless. We, without doing any empirical research, jump to swift conclusions about war, violence, disaster, population growth, corruption, poverty etc. which makes us stressful. It is often because of such overdramatic worldview, people are having irrational fears and negative perception of the world but in reality things are not that much worse and things are getting better.

Book Cover page

The author, Hans Rosling, who was advisor to WHO and UNICEF, has written the book Factfulness, Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think tries to dispel such perceptions. The author tested the knowledge of eminent lecturers, investment bankers, executives, journalist, politicians and even Nobel prize winners about the worldwide poverty, wealth, violence, gender ratio, education, environment and some basic global questions in 13 Multiple Choice Questions pattern where they have to guess one answer from 3 options and the result of such tests was devastating and can be termed as ‘massive ignorance’. Only 30 percent of the people were right (even chimps get 33 percent right answers). For better clarity, two typical question were-

How many world’s one year old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?

Ans: 80 percent

In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in the extreme poverty has..?

Ans: Almost Halved

I know you would have said this is so easy (because the correct answer is written), but you probably would have answered it worse than a Chimp (Ouch, that hurts!) . Before reading further, first take the test and test your knowledge on https://www.gapminder.org/

The reason for our collective ignorance arises due to some deep-rooted instincts or heuristics which guides our decision making and thought process. These instincts are evolution based and common in all of us. Let’s discuss in brief some of these instincts-

The Negativity Instinct

Ice is melting, sea level is rising, Syria war, Australian wildfire, Covid-19 deaths, share market collapse and many more. This is our tendency to notice more bad things than the good things. We are so much surrounded by negative news because of selective reporting by journalists and our own flaw in remembering our past in today times, that news of gradual improvements over the period of times never make to headlines even when we have made dramatic improvements.

Such instinct makes it hard to believe that extreme poverty rates has almost halved all over the world for example 42 percent of the population of India and China was below poverty 20 years ago, now it has dropped to 12 percent in India and to stunning 0.7 percent in China, the average life expectancy 20 years ago was below 50, but now it is 72 years and like that child labor has reduced from 28 percent to 10 percent, literacy has increased from 60 percent to 86 percent, more than 90 percent of the girls are going to school, electricity coverage has increased from 70 percent to 85 percent etc. all over the world.

The Fear Instinct

When a picture of a child dead body being pulled out from the debris or a scene of natural disaster flashes on a media channel, our intellectual capacity to make any reasoned judgement is blocked by fear and sorrow. Fear can be useful only if it is directed at the right things, but the fear instinct is a terrible guide for understanding the world. Our perceived fear of violence, terrorism, natural disasters is very much overestimated these days and is mainly due sensational media reporting, otherwise we are living in the most ‘safest’ time of the humankind.

A single plane crash reported accident should not frighten us as more than 40 million planes landed safely in 2019, natural disaster deaths just accounts 0.1 percent and terrorism accounts only 0.05 percent of all the deaths reported in the world. Therefore, paying too much attention creates a tragic drainage of energy in wrong directions which frightens us and we overestimate the risks of such tragedies in our personal lives.

The Generalization Instinct

The World Bank has dropped the concept of ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries and United Nation may soon follow the trend. The categories of ‘developing’ and developed’, ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, ‘low income’ and ‘high income’ creates some pictures in our minds which form the basis of our opinion but such generalization can be misleading for us.

Today, 75 percent of the population of world is not living in ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ nation but in middle-income countries and only 9 percent of population lives in low-income countries. Barring few countries of Africa, today people in low income countries also have access to basic nutrition, school, hospital etc. Thus, the idea of the world divided in categories is no longer relevant as generalization is creating misconceptions and distortion of our world view.

The Destiny Instinct

Africa will always be the basket case of the world, ‘Islamic’ world is fundamentally different than other religions because of its values, women in ‘low income’ countries can never join the workforce etc. are some common feeling which we all share. The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions or cultures and we make predictions on the basis of such characteristics that things are always have been this way and will never change.

This destiny instinct makes us it difficult for us to accept ‘Africa’ is also developing, more girls in low income countries are also going to schools etc. Sticking to a particular idea or beliefs makes us blind and we accept that things are stagnant but there have been gradual improvements and things are changing, we just need to keep track of such changes and update our knowledge.

The author has discussed 10 instincts in the book but Gap, Straight Line, Size, Single Perspective, Blame and Urgency instincts are not discussed here for the sake of brevity of this article.

Takeaway

The author says that we should not trivialize or understate the seriousness of the current conflicts or the suffering of the vulnerable or the plight of the victims but we should also not feel that world is getting worse. The Author pitches the idea of Factfulness which means making views and opinions based on updated facts and knowledge. We should all replace our instinctive reactions with critical thinking and only by practicing Factfulness, we will start appreciating that we are living in the most ‘certain’ and ‘safest’ time in the humankind and we have made remarkable progress.

Just a thought…

We are living in the most advanced and safest civilization, yet we feel constantly worried and hopeless. Currently, we are facing one of the most depressing and stressful times by this Covid-19 pandemic, but if we practice Factfulness as discussed, we should be grateful that we all are safe and thankful to our advancement in medical science and coordinated actions.

For more detailed discussion on the topic, check out Hans Rosling TED talk and this video on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbkSRLYSojo

Stay tuned for the next book review till then stay home, safe and curious.

Happy Reading!

Amit Malani