Factfulness: Exposing Visceral Tendencies and Instilling Profound Hope

Amidst COVID-19, many of us have attempted to shield ourselves from the ever-pervasive news. It’s dismal, anxiety-provoking, and draining. As much as I trust that this era has presented us with positive opportunities for growth and reflection, I am not immune to the angst that has permeated our daily lives. However, during a time in which adversity is seemingly ubiquitous, it’s crucial that we seek sources of brightness. This very wish for an altered outlook is what led me to pick up Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better than You Think. Not only did Rosling utterly shatter my perception of the world we live in, but he also instilled in me an immense sense of hope for the future. And let’s be honest, we can all use a little bit of hope right now.

Factfulness addresses “ten dramatic instincts” surrounding the way in which human beings are conditioned to misperceive the world. The first of these is the gap instinct, which Rosling defines as the “irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap – a huge chasm of injustice – in between.” This tendency, he asserts, encourages human beings to see life in black and white: good versus evil, rich versus poor, educated versus uneducated, and so forth. Rosling deems this first mega misconception the most dangerous of all, as it constructs an “us versus them” mentality, which inherently implies vast differences or conflict, whilst in reality, this middle space is the most populous of all. For example, the majority of world’s population lives neither in low-income countries nor in high-income countries as we often presume, but instead, in middle-income countries. Thus, our self-constructed “gap” is actually not a gap at all, but instead, in this particular instance, a place in which we can find 75% of humanity.

We intrinsically arrange people and things into distinct boxes or categories as a simple and intuitive way to make sense of the world, which is precisely where the gap instinct stems from. Consider the discomfort many hold surrounding the concept of gender fluidity as a perfect example of our innate preference to classify and categorize. This visceral, binary and dichotomic method of viewing life clearly leads us astray, as it completely eschews the complex and dynamic nature of our world. Did you know that when you combine middle- and high-income countries, you’ve accounted for 91% of the world’s population? While this data is clearly a very pleasant realization for humanitarians, it’s also a pivotal piece of knowledge for businesses. That is, while we continue to see the world through a “developed” and “developing” lens, we presume those “developing” nations to be poor or destitute, whilst they are instead somewhere in the aforementioned middle, making tremendous progress towards a decent life.

This distinction goes far beyond political correctness or technicalities. Through these simplified labels and their implied high-level assumptions, we ignore the fact that middle income populations (which we often lump with the “developing” or “poor” group), hope to consume the same types of things that we enjoy in conventionally “developed” countries, such as technology, hygiene products, and clothing. As long as we distinguish between populations in an inaccurate, distorted way, we will continue to face the consequences. Businesses will be clouded by these fundamental misconceptions, and therefore unable to invest in the fastest growing parts of the world (where there are plentiful opportunities), and aid will not find those who need it most.

Taking into account what we recognize about human tendencies and the need for a categorical way of viewing the world, while also recognizing that the binary methodology we currently employ is terribly flawed, Rosling proposes a new system, namely that of Four Income Levels, which is utilized by The World Bank today. Rosling leverages a myriad of techniques to differentiate between the four levels, including the average income by person per day, adjusted for price differences, which is demonstrated below.

Notice that, as previously revealed, the majority of people are neither extremely rich nor desperately poor, but instead are found somewhere in the middle. Other insightful illustrations surrounding these four levels can be found at Dollar Street. This site serves as a visual aid and testament to how families live (e.g., what toilets or kitchens look like and how hand washing is performed), by income variations. Dollar Street is a wonderful resource in that you can practically choose any item, and watch how it changes and progresses as income levels rise, portraying countries not as divided, but instead, on a shared spectrum, moving and transitioning together.

The second instinct Factfulness addresses is our tendency to notice more bad than good, leading us to a “mega misconception” that things are getting worse. Rosling illustrates several poignant instances in which things are getting better, such as a drastic decrease in the number of children dying on a global scale, alongside an immense increase in the number of girls enrolled in primary school around the world. While Rosling acknowledges that “everything is not fine,” and that as long as there are endangered species, climate change deniers, male chauvinists, dictators, and girls not getting an education because of their gender, we should not relax. However, Rosling also insists that “…it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made.” It is in fact possible to simultaneously celebrate advancement and continue to fight for more, and to do so, it’s essential to recognize the accurate amounts of progress that have been made.

It’s not shocking, however, that we maintain these dismal misconceptions surrounding the world. Would you disagree if I proclaimed that the news has pretty much always been dreary, even before the era of COVID-19? The job of a journalist or reporter is to deliver news in a way through which consumers will be provoked read or listen, and headlines such as “The Weather is Gradually Getting Warmer,” do not strike me as a particularly compelling. Moreover, we do not maintain the mental capacity to filter through every single piece of content that infiltrates our personal universe. So, what sticks? Well, as you might guess, the information that we are prone to process is the utmost dramatic sort. Murder Hornets. COVID cases surpass 4 million. Mass shootings. Impeachment. Hate crimes. So, while the world is gradually getting better around us, we are exposed to the more strikingly dim and afflictive eye-catching headlines, all of which underscore and reinforce our misconceptions. Rosling says that perceiving life through these fallacies will not only blind us from recognizing the progress that humanity has made, but it will also diminish the hope that we desperately need to propel this positive change forward. The current state of affairs can be bad, but they can also be getting better, and that is how we must think of the world today: bad and better. Bad because things are still bad, and better because things are steadily improving. This truth is vital, as without appreciating the monumental strides gained, any aspiration to make the remaining “bad” better, will dwindle.

A third instinct that Factfulness unravels is what Rosling coins the blame instinct and defines as “the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something has happened.” The premise of this tendency stems from overexaggerating the importance of individuals’ or particular groups’ roles amidst any sort of adversity or success, which derails our ability to develop a true, fact-based understanding of the world. For example, look at the finger-pointing that’s gone on over the past few months. We’ve blamed all of China, individual politicians, Asian Americans, all Republicans, all Democrats, the protestors in Detroit, the people gathering in Central Park, and so on. This instinct provides us with the illusion that as we channel our anger at these select individuals, we’ve identified the source of the problem. However, while this “blame game” may provide ephemeral relief, it oversimplifies the dilemma and distracts us from more complex truths that lie behind the problem, namely, the system. That is, simply blaming political leaders for their policies will not save us in a future pandemic. We must look to all of the factors that contributed to this situation, and what we can do to prevent them from coalescing into a similar predicament in the future. We must ask ourselves things like, “Why didn’t these policies work?” or “What can we change about such regulations to make them more effective?” Simply placing blame (or taking credit, mind you) does not allow us to progress. We must understand why things don’t work, or why they do, as rarely will one person be the essence of any success or failure.

As opposed to channeling our energy towards specific individuals or groups, we can instead look to institutions and technology. As we recall the Ebola outbreak in 2014, we can recognize that there was no individual hero or heroic organization. Instead, the fight was won prosaically by government staff and local health workers who increased awareness, alongside the medicine and technology that allowed such medical personnel to do their jobs effectively. Rosling says, “… 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.”

Rosling closes his book with the Five Global Risks We Should Worry About: the risk of a global pandemic (reading this sentence, published in April 2018, was truly eerie); financial collapse (also eerie); world war; climate change; and extreme poverty. Why does he deem these five areas to be the most threatening? When Rosling wrote this book, the first three elements of the list had already happened (e.g., The Spanish Flu, the US housing loan crash in 2008, and World War II). Moreover, climate change and extreme poverty were, and continue to be, crises. Today, four of the five global risks we ought to focus on, according to Rosling’s list, have infiltrated our world on a drastic scale. Surrounding the most alarming and pervasive as of late (i.e., global pandemic), Rosling wrote something too striking not to share: “The world is more ready to deal with flu than it has been in the past, but people on Level 1 still live in societies where it can be difficult to intervene rapidly against an aggressively spreading disease. We need to ensure that basic health care reaches everyone, everywhere, so that outbreaks can be discovered more quickly. And we need the World Health Organization to remain healthy and strong to coordinate a global response.”  Thus, as each of these risks holds the potential to pause human progress for years or even decades, we must act collaboratively and incrementally to thwart their negative impact, and to do so, we must first ensure that basic aid reaches the hands of everyone.

While I have only covered a few of Rosling’s coined dramatic instincts, I urge you to grab this book once libraries reopen, or find it at your local bookstore. The others are as compelling as those I’ve discussed. Factfulness has not only opened my eyes to the tremendous progress that humanity has made, which in my world, went unnoticed until now, but it has also revealed the power we possess to maintain these advances and foster even greater ones in the years to come. As the baton has been passed around the track from one generation to the next, marking gradual yet impactful change, our generation holds the power to run the baton across the finish line. But first, we must understand the world at a deeper and more complex level than any of us currently do. As Rosling says, “In order for this planet to have financial stability, peace, and protected natural resources, there’s one thing we can’t do without, and that’s international collaboration, based on a shared and fact-based understanding of the world. The current lack of knowledge about the world is therefore the most concerning problem of all.”

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