'Factfulness,' a Book Report

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Hans Rosling died a little over a year ago. He spent his lifetime trying to teach us how facts allow us to separate fear from danger. He is the ultimate debunker and a compelling, thoughtful communicator. Any of his TED talks will convince you of that. I recently had the opportunity to read his last publication, Factfulness – Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think. If you believe that “Data must be used to tell the truth, not to call to action, no matter how noble the intentions,” then Dr. Rosling has a message for you.

Over the course of ten chapters, he considers instinctual ways we look out at the world demonstrating that the evolutionary skills that made us so successful in our past, may be misleading today. For example, in the chapter about our “size instinct,” he notes that we tend to judge the size or proportion of things incorrectly –“to misjudge the importance of a single instance or an identifiable victim.” And he offers two simple, readily applicable means of countering that tendency.

“If you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more. Something to compare with. Be especially careful about big numbers. It is a strange thing, but numbers over a certain size, when they are not compared with anything else, always look big. And how can something big not be important?”

“Often the best thing we can do to make a large number more meaningful is to divide it by a total. When we divide an amount… by another amount … we get a rate. Amounts are easier to find because they are easier to produce. Somebody just needs to count something. But rates are often more meaningful.”

Rosling not only demonstrates how our instinct leads us astray but provides ways to counteract our “gut.” The ten instincts he identifies and how they mislead are at the heart of all the wide range of concepts and concerns we debunk at the American Council on Science and Health. Maybe that is why I found the book’s message so compelling.  

“Ultimately, it is not journalist’s role, and it is not the goal of activists or politicians, to present the world as it really is. They will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives… it is up to us as consumers to learn how to consume the news more factfully, and to realize that the news is not very useful for understanding the world.”

Hans Rosling still has a lot to teach us; his final book contains a great deal of wisdom in very few pages. It is well worth the read.