I’ve just finished reading the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling. It’s a lesson in how wrong we are about the state of the world, and an attempt to teach us how to be more right about it. Rosling spent his life as a teacher, from students to world leaders and heads of international organizations. A feature of his talks was the quizzes consisting of a question with three possible answers. Although random guesses would result in a 33% success rate — he uses chimpanzees for this — educated people regularly score worse than that. People who in many cases should be expected to know, do worse than chimpanzees.
The questions have to do with things like how many of the world’s children are getting vaccinated against crippling and killing diseases, what percentage of girls are going to primary school and how many people live in extreme poverty. Our tendency to get it wrong is the result of the many fallacies and blind spots we have affecting our ability to think rationally. Rosling takes us through them, showing how they work and suggesting how to overcome them. He presents ten of them, including our tendency to generalization, our propensity to want to lay blame and our irrational reaction to a sense of urgency. He believed that we could control them by learning how to identify them and how to counteract them. He was not optimistic that we would learn in time to deal with the five big potential problems he thought we face: global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change and extreme poverty. He was not optimistic, but he did think it was possible.
One of the big things he wanted to show us is how it’s wrong to divide up the world population into two groups: us and them, rich and poor, developed and developing. He thought four would be more accurate, with 75% of us in the two middle groups between extreme poverty and extreme wealth. Us and them is one of our great fallacies. One of the good features about Factfulness is how it helps us see through the veil of our paleolithic filters. It’s not us and them with a big gap in between. You can’t generalize about people based on their ethnicity or religion or nationality. There is more variation within each of those groups than there is between the groups. We have more in common with the people in those other groups who share our economic status than we realize. Here’s a link to Dollar Street, a website that helps to make that clear. I was fascinated by the pictures of hands. I found that when you look at a lot of pictures of hands, they start to look weird.
Factfulness is a good book that shows us where we’re getting it wrong and that shows us how to work toward the better possibilities in our future.