Inside the Book: Factfulness

Inside the Book - Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

This blog refers to the best 5 books I read in 2020 and goes deep on the matter. You can find the list of my best readings here.

Complete title – Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

Author – Hans, Ana and Ola Rosling

Around the beginning of 2019 there was a sudden shift in people’s attention to data-driven decisions in the organization where I used to work.

It was somewhat astonishing. Until that moment there was a higher stress on soft skills as the “game changers”. Of course, it would be simple-minded to think that one thing could now replace the other. And in fact, people started talking in numbers, charts, and percentiles more than before, anyways, without being able to make them relatable to their audience.

For some time I was pondering this issue on my own. Being quite the analytical thinker, I loved to be given the opportunity to use data in order to make my remarks and statements more consistent. However, I immediately realized how poor my data literacy was.

With data literacy I mean the ability to understand facts presented in the form of structured data (like Excel spreadsheets) and their graphic representations. This is the minimum requirement one should have, and it includes being aware that one fact is liable to different interpretations, some of which can be counterfeited for manipulative purposes, or altered by our self-deceiving attitudes.

I was thinking about this and more when my loved one gave me to the hands one more book, that was suggested by her professor while she was frequenting the university sometime earlier.

Here is where my journey in the world of Factfulness started.

This book has been written by the late dr. Hans Rosling and his daughter and son, Ana and Ola. The concepts expressed in it are backed up by the physician’s life experience with underdeveloped, poor communities, as well as his offspring’s co-creation, the GapMinder Foundation.

To use their mission statement word by word, GapMinder is “an independent educational non-profit fighting global misconceptions”.

This goes from richness distribution to female education and emancipation to population growth and resource consumption – which is also what the book, Factfulness, is all about.

Here’s what you’ll find inside the book:

A monkey-like, data-oriented point of view

The principle upon Factfulness is based on is that in time everyone pretends to know more about the world than they actually do.

The assumption is that, when it comes to the facts of the world, we believe to know something according to the information, the data we absorbed through various sources.

Little do we know that most of them exacerbate the facts we are seeking, to make them more sensational. Or else, we misinterpreted such information due to our past knowledge, which is sometimes incomplete, and others it is altered by our beliefs.

The illusions we build up in our heads make us prone to systematical errors: those that are not random, but rather incidental, because of the multitude of biases and heuristics that are inherent in our minds.

The Roslings make this even clearer by making an example of how a group of monkeys randomly assigning answers to a survey on socioeconomic facts would outperform the most educated minds and field experts.

In short, our specialized knowledge would not help when we think of global situations and we fail the moment we try to exert control. The authors jokingly remind us that we are far from conquering absolute knowledge ad that often what we believe to know is inconsistent.

The questionnaire is one of the main protagonists of the book, indeed. Because it was really provided and tested on twelve thousand people over fourteen countries (as of 2017).

What is scary about how many people got their statistics wrong, are the resulting statistics produced from the questionnaire’s answers. They do not demonstrate much about the level of education of some countries (including ours, perhaps), but how shortsighted we are. So much, that a monkey would randomly outperform us.

How bad our instincts really are?

The concept of Factfulness proposed by the authors means to be aware of our inner blindfolds, which are described throughout the book as ten “instincts” and even represented graphically, through simple drawings.

While I am not going to list them here to not spoil the fun of finding out for yourself, I am going to overall encompass them in a few themes.

What we call instinct is generally an immediate response of our being, that is not processed rationally and seen thoroughly. We know today (from other sources) that they are product of conscious and unconscious observation together. And in our case, out of a primal survivalist lifestyle, we repurposed them over the course of the centuries.

Two factors that play a strong role in our instinctive behaviors, like the famous “gut feeling”, are the proximity effect and fear. In the first case, the human brain groups things based on their closeness over other factors. In the second one, we enter a state of enhanced alertness that may result in the Freeze-Flight-Fight dynamics.

Both factors contribute to creating misconceptions about the world. And so, we see some gaps bigger than they are; we are selectively blind when we do not want to see them; or we assume things based on our made-up theories.

Also, since the things that scare us look bigger and worse than they could be, they are easily manipulated by who is in control of media, and exploit general emotional states to gain consensus over preposterous ideas, even putting people against each other.

This book considers ten different illusions in plain sight, explains them, and suggests ways to fight them so that we can reach a higher control of our knowledge.

A philanthropic mission of a kind

What is interesting about the “facts” that are object of speculation in the book, is that they are all of socio-economic importance and are seen in relation to demographics.

While reading, what emerges is the tireless work of dr. Hans Rosling with some African communities that were (or are) culturally and economically distant from the North-European environment he came from – and fairly speaking, it is probably from ours, too.

It was perhaps during his time in Mozambique, Congo, or dealing with the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa that he started to consider the way we perceive poverty, development, education, and so on.

Thanks to the work of Hans and Ola with the GapMinder Foundation, it was finally possible to collect data consistently to understand, through a more user-friendly approach, how the world goes.

On one hand, their DollarStreet project allows us to survey people around the world on their income and lifestyle, there mapping facts in detail. Everyone could become a GapMinder Ambassador and collect more data, to make this worldview more accurate.

On the other hand, the results of the already mentionned survey about global facts proved how often our points of view are far from the truth.

The authors took care of checking their sources multiple times, to ensure that first they got their facts straight and validate the lesson to pass on to the future generation.

This work is an enormous legacy upon which people, especially new generations, can rely upon if they are educated on the simple principles of Factfulness, while we can already benefit from them by getting a better understanding of the real problems of our planet and what are our responsibilities towards it.

My favourite quotes from this book

“It is quite relaxing being humble, because it means you can stop feeling pressured to have a view about everything, and stop feeling you must be ready to defend your views all the time.”

Hans Rosling

Towards the conclusion of this book, the authors summarized the antidotes to the ten instincts discussed over the course of their work. Overall, they agree that most valuables skills to correctly interpret the world through data are non-technical: actually, human virtues that everyone can and must use, regardless of their education and social background.

These words sound like a resolute ethical principle that anyone must follow, especially those who are entitled to work with data and are responsible to communicate it in simple words to the rest of us.

Much to the need to cultivate critical thinking above an analytical mindset, they are words that serve us as a reminder that none of us knows everything, and that the way we attempt to explain the world is often flawed.

Of the many limitations we must face, we have little control over external ones but we can keep in check our inner instincts to do a better job.

That’s why this admission of ignorance is so liberating.

What I learned from reading this book

We all have “know-it-all” moments. It is in our nature to find explanations to things with ease because it is comforting for us. None is exempt from this, but anyone can do their best to govern it.

Our biases propagate to the data we collect. A further reflection on how we handle facts made me realize that usually we look for sources that confirm our ideas, but we carefully avoid those that confute them. The “systematic error” mentioned early in the book can then easily affect the way we collect and analyze observations, not just how we explain them!

Data is a tool, not knowledge. We could be saying a lot about the way facts can be manipulated in favor of someone’s bidding. This happens in educational, political and economic settings alike. When looking at some facts, I also try to spend some time researching the authors and if they have certain affiliations or interests. While I may not agree with everything the book says, I also keep in mind that the world continuously changes and facts provide only a partial picture. This is especially true with socioeconomics.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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