Factfulness – A Statistical Therapy For The Data Enthusiast

Mahmut Karayel
09 Jun 2020


It has been two years since I read Factfulness, the delightfully insightful book by the Sweedish physician, Hans Rosling. A few days ago, while I was paging through some of the graphs again (I have a kindle version on the iPad), I noticed a paragraph that I had highlighted, where Dr. Rosling lists the five most important risks we need to focus on and mitigate as a global human society. A global pandemic was at the top of the list.

Factfulness is the collaborative work of Dr. Rosling, his son Ola Rosling, and his daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Hans Rosling died in February 2017, before the book was published, succumbing to pancreatic cancer. Many people are familiar with the famous moving bubble charts that Dr. Rosling used to show in his TED talks. Dr. Rosling’s son Ola Rosling developed Trendalyzer, the visualization software that displays these charts. Father and son Roslings subsequently founded gapminder.org where you can find some of these visualizations.

Dr. Rosling dedicated his life to serving the underserved in South Asia and Africa. He generously shares stories from that experience in his book. His stance is to look at the facts and apply scientific method before jumping to conclusions. From this standpoint, the world is an improving place, much more than we would think watching the news.

This book attempts to explain the general human condition around the world. It is "statistical therapy"to the data enthusiast: Things are not as bad as we think! We are not talking about Northern European optimism, or the wishful thinking of a pep-talker, we are talking about being factful.

Factfulness starts out with a simple quiz about the human condition. The purpose of the quiz is to illustrate how little we know. Why do we know so little about what is happening, even less than a Chimpanzee, randomly marking the answers? Rosling goes on to argue that we have biases. When we see a "news-worthy" snippet that is offered to us by the media, we resort to evolutionary brain tricks that saves energy. We don’t insist on seeing all the data.

Factfulness proceeds to methodologically dissect and explain our biases. Explanations include statistics on how different groups of people did on different questions of the quiz which makes them a lot more interesting. "Only 7% of Norwegian School teachers know that the overall life expectancy in the world today is more than 70 years." All of us have these biases which I summarize below. I will include my own examples to not to steal too much from the joy of reading this book.

Biases that go against being factful

Gap instinct: We do not focus on the whole data. We either focus on the extremes or the averages. The majority do not reside at the extremes. Yet two places that have the same average could be vastly different. The average GDP per capita in 2019 USA was right around $65,000. The USA we have today is vastly different than another USA where every man woman and child have $65,000 of income. We need to look at the whole distribution, not just extremes or averages.

Negativity instinct: Good events are not newsworthy. News is usually about death, disaster, displacement, and disagreement. Not only is there bad news every day, but it also spreads a lot faster than it used to. Add to this the unchecked social media regurgitations and reinterpretations, and there you have it. I dare you to be positive.

Extrapolation instinct: We extrapolate trends that are not sustainable. Even if the female literacy rate is improving by 2% every year, I guarantee to you that this will not happen when literacy rate reaches 98%. After a while linear growth (or decay) are not sustainable. Think about the limits of trends that you see. Ask "What if everybody did this? Why wouldn’t they?"

Fear instinct: We exaggerate probabilities when the outcome is fearful. We confuse the horror of the event with its likelihood. A plane crash, a terrorist attack, dying in a forest fire are all extremely rare events that we think are a lot more common. Each time you get into your car you take a higher risk but getting in a car does not make the news. Get calm before you carry on. Are you exposed to this danger more than others?

Size instinct: Although some numbers sound very large, no number makes any sense on its own. Compare numbers across regions and time. Look at rates rather than absolute levels. GDP of China is 14.1 trillion dollars. It is huge, it is growing fast, it is already 2/3rd of the USA GDP. But per capita income in China is $10,000, much less than many other places around the world.

Generalization instinct: Avoid using categories as explanations. "All immigrants coming in from the south border are …" The president does this kind of generalization often, but as people who are trying to understand the facts, we should avoid it. Also, beware of vivid examples. The horrendous recent video of George Floyd’s murder was something that should not have happened, period. But are all white officers like the one on the video? Are all who die in custody black? In the USA, 1005 people died in police custody last year. About 40% were black. But considering only 13% of US population is black, they are subjected to this treatment at three times the "average" rate. None of this is normal. Compared to anywhere else, 1005 deaths is not normal. However, protests are more meaningful if you participate knowing the facts.

Destiny instinct: "It’s bad, it’s been bad, it will always be bad". Thankfully, this is rarely true. Things are always changing, maybe slower or maybe faster than we want. We should focus on constantly updating the data. Are things changing in the right direction? Is change too slow?

Single perspective instinct: Simple ideas are attractive. However, a single simple perspective is often misleading. The problem: using social media we tend to hide in our own enclave of single perspective. Collect ideas from both (multiple) sides of an issue. Avoid people who claim expertise outside of their own field.

Blame instinct: Finding a scapegoat is a lazy solution to a problem; it steals the focus from other possible useful solutions. We should be wary when the explanation is a person rather than a cause, or a hero rather than a method. This will end up promoting explanations and solutions that cannot be consistently repeated.

Urgency instinct: In the old days, the only urgent thing was when a lion was chasing us. Nowadays everything is urgent. The work, the family, and the media constantly feed us urgent problems. And instead of calmly organizing the data, we end up with stress related health problems. Perceived urgency also makes us resort to short-cuts, looking for a villain, a hero, or a magic wand. None of this works.

Five pressing global risks that we need to address according to Dr. Rosling

I can’t help but ponder about the fact that this book was written in 2016 while Hans Rosling was fighting cancer, and wonder whether he would be as hopeful now as he was then. Back then, he listed the five global problems that we need to address urgently as:

  • A Global Pandemic
  • A Financial Collapse
  • A World War
  • Climate Change
  • Extreme Poverty

In the past three years, we certainly have been through strange times in many parts of the world. Now, we have already found out that we were not ready for the first problem that Rosling posed. Will we be ready for the others? We need change; change is good. And maybe a change of leadership all around the world is overdue.

FACTFULNESSTen reasons we’re wrong about the world -- and why things are better than you think, Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, 2018, McMillan Publishers.

FACTFULNESS Rules of Thumb

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