Factfulness – Facts Matter, So Does Being Aware of Our Bias Against Facts

Mahmut Karayel
20 Jan 2021

FACTFULNESS - A STATISTICAL THERAPHY FOR THE DATA ENTHUSIAST

It has been over two years since I read Factfulness, the delightfully insightful book by the Sweedish physician, Hans Rosling. I nostalgically recalled parts of this book when I witnessed the mis-informed mob marching into the capitol. Facts matter and being factful involves awareness of certain biases that we developed to short-cut thinking.

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 social media, we resort to evolutionary brain tricks that save energy. If the information is coming from our tribe, we accept it without questions.

Factfulness proceeds to methodically dissect and explain our biases. All of us have some, if not all, of these biases. 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. And the averages often do not mean much. The average GDP per capita in the USA is right around $66,000. But more than half the population have income less than $35,000.

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. It takes effort to stay positive.

Extrapolation instinct: We extrapolate trends that are not sustainable. We overfish the oceans and over pollute the atmosphere. We believe that real estate values will keep increasing 10 percent a year forever, while personal income remains the same.

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. Stay 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. We should compare numbers across regions and time. We should look at rates rather than absolute levels. GDP of China is 14.3 trillion dollars. It is huge, it is growing fast, it is already more than 2/3 of the USA GDP. But per capita income in China is $10,000, much less than many other places around the world.

Generalization instinct: We should avoid using categories as explanations. “All immigrants coming in from the south border are …” The president does this kind of generalization all the time. The horrendous recent events in Washington DC were caused by a mob who were led to believe that anyone who did not support the president’s baseless claims of a stolen election was part of the conspiracy. They were after the head of the vice president.

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. Unfortunately, some people are being affected more than others by the change. But we live in a diverse and colorful world; it is highly improbable that it is all bad.

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. We should collect ideas from both (better yet, multiple) sides of an issue. Avoid people who claim expertise and makes claims without any evidence.

Blame instinct: Pointing to a scapegoat is a lazy explanation of a problem; it rarely ever leads to a solution. Beware when the explanation is a person rather than a cause, and a hero rather than a method. If we fall into this trap, we 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. People who do not even have these as the urgent problem sometimes cling to an urgent made-up conspiracy. Some of them drop everything and march to Washington. Perceived urgency also makes us resort to short-cuts, looking for a villain, a hero, or a magic wand. None of this works.

Instead, calmly organize the data and the facts. Ask questions. Do not accept short cut answers that do not offer any source or evidence.

Five pressing global risks that we need to address:

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

Since Dr. Rosling offered this list in his book in 2017, we certainly have been through strange times. We already found out that we were not ready for first problem, a global pandemic. Will we be ready for the others? Or will a war be incited by lies and baseless claims? Instead of choosing survival, will we deny scientific evidence that squarely point to climate change? Can we overcome extreme poverty and extreme income inequality partly brought on by advances in technology and the global competition?

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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