14 June 2022

Book Review: Factfulness by Hans Rosling

The more I read thru Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, the more I was taken back to an incident from a few years ago. This is when I still participated in WhatsApp groups (now, in general I avoid all groups other than those set up temporarily around events). Regardless of whether it was my early schoolmates’ groups or engineering college group or MBA group, I was always struck by the gullibility of folks that could be seen in those much forwarded messages that were mostly fake news. Nobody would even attempt to do a fact check first. The second was the negativity in the debates.

The particular one I am referring to involved my early school group and the general lamentation was about how in India, politicians have become more corrupt than ever, doctors cannot care less about patients and the society is degenerating fast in general. These are very well meaning folks and I can certainly vouch for their intelligence. I had asked them if they realized the following: We generally feel (rightly) that medical science, social conditions and all that was worse when our parents were growing up. But when it comes to our own life, we feel things were somehow better in the past (not so much past that it goes to our parents’ time) and now it worse!

Therefore, somehow, we all seem to have lived thru the Golden Age of this world in the near past. Whether it is medical practices, politics, transportation… you name it. I had asked them if something seemed too simplistic in this picture. Especially when contrasted with facts like lower death rates for most any reason, increase in real income level of poor people. The last point should have been amply felt by all my friends who had a constant struggle to get domestic help.

This book, I was thrilled to find, goes straight into that issue of how we have a very distorted view of the world and why we do so. Now, this is where I went wrong. I had thought my friends were simply not exercising their intellectual curiosity. That it was a knowledge issue. The book disproves my point. It is less of a knowledge issue. More of a bias issue. Biases that were important for our evolution but are very blunt and often disastrous tools in many situations (but not all) today.

I also want to give a shout out to Sunjay Talele. It is Somshekhar Baksi that has consistently recommended books that I have loved. Sunjay is now up there. He is three for three now.

Going back to the book, the whole purpose of the author – a medical doctor, renowned public educator and an adviser to WHO and UNICEF – is to establish how little we actually know of the world around us. Worse, how we are stuck with very old views of the world and how much the world has changed ever since. This leads to wrong decisions – personal and professional – on an everyday basis.

The book starts with 13 questions. Astoundingly, every segment of the population – different countries, corporate folks, doctors, students, Davos participants, Nobel Laureates – all get very few of those questions right. Most all do worse than a chimpanzee throwing bananas at three target answers. The author draws a chimpanzee face in every chart to show what the “random” answer would have been and how human beings do far worse than that. Which points to systemic bias in our knowledge. Or rather, as the author proves – “feeling” of answers.

Did you know the fear about “chemicals” is way overblown? Sure, there are bad chemicals but most of the chemicals that we are afraid of have very little to be afraid of. As an example – try out “how poisonous is DDT”. Check out the CDC report or any medical reports. It is nothing like what you and I think. [Of course, if you drink a gallon of DDT for over a month, it will severely affect you – but that is not the kind of extreme pictures we have in mind when we think of DDT].

Thru data – mostly from organizations like UN, UNICEF, WHO etc, the author dispels most of the misconceptions we, in the West, have about the Middle East, Africa, India, China and such. Many of those views were never true. Some were valid decades ago but nowhere even close to the truth today.

Here is another one. If I told you worldwide, 30 year old men have spent 10 years in school on an average and then asked you what do you think that number is for 30 year old women. And gave you the choices of 1 year, 4 years and 7 years – what would you say? Well that is a trick question. The answer is 9 years!! We have mostly caught up on that specific problem in spite of the pictures of Afghanistan and Sudan that come up in the news.

To be sure, the author is very clear is that 9 is not an acceptable answer. We got to keep pushing harder till every life lost to war or preventable diseases and gender bias is eradicated. But that does not mean we need to ignore the remarkable improvements we have made in this world on those exact areas. He stresses that we should think that the world is “Bad” AND “Better”. In other words, do not mix up relative scales with absolute scales. Recognizing that is important since just thinking the world is “bad” will lead to despair. Thinking it is “bad” AND “better” drives home the point that we need to keep doing what has made the world “better” so that the “bad” gets lesser and lesser. These are two seemingly contradictory concepts that we have to hold in our head together.

The best part is that the author dissects top ten instincts that leads to this lack of “Factfulness”. (e.g. Negativity Instinct, Gap Instinct and so on). The first four are most important.

You have to give this book a try.

Posted June 14, 2022 by Rajib Roy in category "Books

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