Factufulness was my favourite book of 2018.
The author questions our outlook on the world by asking simple questions on economy, poverty, education, income and health. You will be astounded by how many of these questions you fail to answer correctly. Or at least by the percentage of people who get them wrong, as he demonstrates that people tend to think “the world is more frightening, more violent and more hopeless — in short more dramatic — than it really is.” Respondents would have a better chance at providing correct answers if they answered these questions he posed, randomly i.e. without any 'pre-knowledge' whatsoever. To prove this, he asks some of these questions to chimpanzees (who are of course choosing randomly) and in many cases, the percentage of chimps who get the right answer is greater than the percentage of humans who do. Simply put, our worldview contains actively wrong “knowledge”. The aim of the piece: to dispel the over-dramatized worldview and present a fact-based worldview.
The norm for describing our societies has been to divide the world into two groups: the developed and developing world. The book explains why this is too simplistic and does not make sense anymore as the author goes out of his way to quench this myth of developed and developing world. You may then wonder - “so what should we call them instead.?” But that, he argues, is the issue. The “we” and “them”. This 2-group partitioning does not help us understand the world in any way. The world is not divided by any relevant metric, into just 2 classes. Rather, he partitions the world into 4 distinct groups based principally on dollar income per day:
Level 1: Less than $2 / day (~1 billion people)
Level 2: $2 - $8 / day (~3 billion people)
Level 3: $8 - $32 / day (~2 billion people)
Level 4: Over $32 / day. (~1 billion people)
These levels are then used throughout the book to provide a simple way to understand several topics from terrorism to sex education, and what life averagely is like on each level. The highlights of the underlying research are presented in a very entertaining Ted talk "How not to be ignorant about the world." The statistics are impressive and provably positive. 20 years ago, 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Today, just 9% does.
Emphasis is repeatedly laid on the fact that the world is getting better. Yet many people's negative worldview is not necessarily improving, and this is very much influenced by media we consume. Slow positive progressions like overall yearly decreases in: small pox, child labor, reported crime, undernourishment, battle deaths and increases in: literacy rates, women's rights to vote, child cancer survival, immunization, are not reported in the news. The millions of children who did NOT die at childbirth today will not make the news. However a murder will, and exposure to this news will go on to feed our negativity instinct - the instinct to notice the bad more than the good.
The book focuses on pointing out such and several other instincts that prevent us from having a factual worldview, as well as methods to overcome them. All the while stating and demonstrating clearly that the world is not perfect, but it is better.
Some examples of these instincts:
The fear instinct: fear of some dangers often has a highly more dramatically negative effect than the thing itself. Natural disasters, terrorism, plane crashes, murders, nuclear leaks combined account for less than 1% of the people who die yearly.
The generalization instinct: the tendency to group things into categories and make conclusions about the whole group based on one or a few members, although of course, they might be very different. The best way to control it - travel more, experience more.
The size instinct: we tend to look at individual statistics and misjudge the importance. Individual numbers easily give a false impression when looked at by themselves. They should be considered only in proportion. Compared. What was the number a year ago? 5 years ago? How is it in a comparable region? What is it per person? Rates are more meaningful than amounts. Never judge by an individual number. Always compare it to another, to get a better understanding of the effect.
How much attention I actively pay to a book varies from time to time, depending on my interest in the topic being discussed in the section I'm reading at the time. Factfulness however got and kept my attention at its peak through every moment spent on it.
PS. If you'd like to understand better without having to read the entire book, a good summary of each instinct and counter measures is available on the gapminder website . ;)
“More news does not equal more suffering. More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering, not a worsening world.”
“Factfulness is...recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually, the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be.”
“Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe.”
"Fears that once helped keep our ancestors alive, today help keep journalists employed."
"The gap instinct divides the world into “us”and “them” and the generalization instinct makes “us” think of “them” as all the same. "
"When someone says that an individual did something because they belong to some group - a nation, a culture, a religion - take care. Are there examples of different behavior in the same group? Or of the same behavior in other groups?"
“When people tell me we must act now, it makes me hesitate. In most cases, they are just trying to stop me from thinking clearly.”
"When visiting reality in other countries,...you realize that generalizing from what is normal in your home environment can be useless or even dangerous."
“Arguing about [CO2] emissions per nation is pointless when there is such enormous variation in population size”. [Emissions should be evaluated per person.]