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Reviewed in India on 20 March 2019
I just finished this book yesterday and to be honest, I have mixed feelings of what this book talks about.
The book literally begins with a tone of “Why I am right and everyone is wrong” – because I gave simple questions to a lot of people and they all got it wrong. Well, people got it wrong because they have been conditioned to it, it’s the failure of our education and society in general, nothing wrong with that. The whole premise of the book is that we need to open up our eyes to the wide array of positive changes that are taking place in the world, and the world is getting better at most of the metrics be it child mortality, per capita income, healthcare, deaths to due to diseases, children being vaccinated, literacy levels, gender equality and what not. On the face of it, yes, mostly the world is getting better and it can be proved with data and statistics.
What did I like about the book?
1. Rosling tells you to believe that world is getting better (and he proves so with the use of data), and at the same time keep an eye out for the bad things (because they need to be improved too). I think this is a realistic world view, where you celebrate the progress and keep working on improving the things that need attention.
2. Every statement is supported by facts, figures, charts and a lot of data (simple to understand).
3. The book basically imbibes a more realistic (if positive is too strong a word here) outlook towards the world.
4. You learn to look at data cautiously, trying to overcome your bias and instincts.
5. You learn to look at media publications, news etc with a pinch of salt and would know better than they prefer showing ‘bad’ stuff rather than ‘good’ stuff. The media blows everything out of proportion and unfortunately, most people believe it.
6. Finally, you learn about your 10 instincts and would be more aware of them whenever you hear any news or information that talks about how bad the world has become. You learn to look at things from multiple perspectives, suppress these instincts, and eventually be more rational.
What I did not like about the book?
1. The book is based on figures and statistics to prove the point. But as it’s true with statistics, there’s more to it than what meets the eye. For example, Rosling says there’s no such thing as a ‘Developed’ and ‘Developing’ country anymore, a majority of the countries are now ‘Middle Income’ countries. He’s right, no doubt about that. But what makes up a ‘Middle Income’ country. If you make more than $2 a day, you are in the middle-income group. But does that ensure a good living? What is the meaning of $2 in the context of living standards? Isn’t this progress so slow that many generations will not even witness the progress?
2. Rosling has used averages to convey the point of progress while cautioning the user against them at the same time. As compared to maybe a few decades ago, there are only 1 Billion people living at Level 1 (Extreme Poverty) and trends show you that this number has decreased drastically. But if you look at it in absolute terms, we are talking about 1 Billion people on this planet who don’t get enough food to eat on a daily basis! That’s a huge number.
3. Rosling has underplayed suffering and lack of resources, and covered it with the statistically correct ‘progress’. It’s like saying, so what if your food lacks nutrition and variety, at least you’re getting better than what you were getting a decade back. It’s funny really and seems such a farce at times. Definitely, he’s not wrong when he says progress has happened, but the meaning of ‘progress’ would differ for different people. His overall thesis, that we live in a much better world than we imagine, is comforting, but “better” might still be “terrible” in some cases.
Let’s look at the book summary now! Rosling talks about our ten ‘Dramatic Instincts’ (and 10 reasons why we are wrong about the world). Here they are –
1. The Gap Instinct - We tend to divide the things into 2 distinct groups and imagine a gap between them. To control gap instinct, look for the majority. Beware of the averages, if you look at the spread, the majority will overlap. Beware comparisons of extremes (Media loves to do it).
2. The Negativity Instinct - We tend to instinctively notice the bad more than the good. We need to learn to acknowledge the fact that things can be both ‘better’ and ‘bad’ at the same time. Example, education levels have improved over time, but still, 10% of the children don’t get any education, that’s bad. We also need to know that good news is never reported, media would hype the bad stuff always. Subsequently, gradual improvement isn’t reported either. Countries, government, media often try to glorify the past, so we need to be beware of these rosy pasts.
3. The Straight Line Instinct - When we see a line going up steadily, we tend to assume the line will continue to go up in the foreseeable future. To control this instinct, remember that curves come in different shapes. Finally, don’t assume straight lines if data doesn’t show it.
4. The Fear Instinct - We tend to perceive the world to be scarier than it really is. We overestimate the risks associated with violence, captivity, contamination etc. The world seems scarier because what you hear has been carefully selected to be told. Remember, Risk = Danger x Exposure, and act accordingly. Make decisions only when you’re calm, not when you are afraid.
5. The Size Instinct - We tend to see things out of proportion, over-estimating the importance of a single event/person that’s visible to us, and the scale of an issue based on a standalone number. A lonely number may seem impressive in isolation, but can be trivial in comparison to something else. Hence, always look for comparisons. Use the 80/20 rule. When comparing countries, look for rates per person.
6. The Generalization Instinct - We tend to wrongly assume that everything or everyone in a category is similar. Hence, we must look for differences within a group, look for similarities across groups and look for differences across groups. We should beware of the term ‘Majority’ – it can mean 51% or 99% or anything in between. Beware of vivid images, which are easier to recall but can be exceptions than the general norm.
7. The Destiny Instinct - We tend to assume that the destinies of people, cultures, countries etc. are predetermined by certain factors, and such factors are fixed and unchanging, i.e. their destinies are fixed. To control this, we must keep track of gradual changes and improvements. We should update our knowledge on different subjects, and look for examples of cultural changes.
8. The Single Perspective Instinct - We tend to focus on single causes or solutions, which are easier to grasp and make our problems seem easier to solve. It is better to look at problems from multiple perspectives. To control this, always test your ideas and allow people to find weaknesses. Don’t claim to be an expert at all times, be humble about your limited expertise in different areas.
9. The Blame Instinct - When something goes wrong, we instinctively blame it on someone or something. To control this, resist finding a scapegoat. Look for causes, not villains. Finally, look for systems and processes, not heroes.
10. The Urgency Instinct - We tend to rush into a problem or opportunity for fear that there’s no time and we may be too late. To control this, take small steps. Always insist on data rather than making hunch based hasty decisions. Always be aware of the side effects of your hasty decision to avoid making the same.
Favorite Quotes from the Book:
- “The world cannot be understood without numbers. And it cannot be understood with numbers alone.”
- “Being always in favor of or always against any particular idea makes you blind to information that doesn’t fit your perspective. This is usually a bad approach if you like to understand reality.”
- “Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot. Sure, my foot is part of me, but it’s a pretty ugly part. I have better parts.”
To sum up, Factfulness is a good book that explains how our instincts sometimes distort our understanding of our world and why it's crucial to learn established facts that are now reliably and readily available. Our instincts might help in certain situations, but in others, critical thinking beyond emotions is necessary. However, we must learn to look beyond the displayed ‘progress’ also, because even lesser suffering can mean ‘progress’ statistically.