Adopting a Fact-Based Worldview

get the factsI just finished reading a book by Dr. Hans Rosling entitled Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. He was a Swedish physician and researcher whose life’s work focused on the links between economic development, agriculture, poverty, and health. He was also the co-founder and chair of Gapminder Foundation which promotes global development through effective use of data to understand social, economic, and environmental factors.

The book begins with a simple 13-question test to assess the reader’s knowledge about the world. It covers:

  • Primary school education for girls in low-income countries
  • Population distribution across low-, medium-, and high-income countries
  • Percentage of world population living in extreme poverty
  • Global life expectancy
  • Population forecast for children in 2100
  • Primary cause of population growth
  • Deaths due to natural disasters
  • Population distribution across the continents
  • Childhood vaccination rates
  • Differences in education between men and women
  • Endangered species
  • Global access to electricity
  • Climate change

Without fail, his audiences score poorly; they’re overly pessimistic about the state of the world. These findings remain consistent across varying levels of education, profession, and socioeconomic standing. Chimpanzees – with their random selection of answers – outperformed humans.

As the extended book title suggests, Rosling explored 10 reasons why we tend toward a dim view of global development and offered suggestions for how we might self-correct.

Challenges Remedies
The Gap Instinct suggests that we characterize the world in binary terms with gaps between opposing sides. Reality generally shows no such polarization. Many (or most) data points could be in the middle and/or spread across a continuum. Be wary when comparing averages across two groups; look at the distribution of data and the overlaps between them. Don’t get mesmerized by stories about the extremes. Learn about real lives on the ground by getting close to them.
The Negativity Instinct says that bad news is more likely to get publicized and discussed. Good news and gradual-improvement news does not garner headlines. Get the facts from reliable sources. Let yourself hold in tension the notion that things may be bad/unpleasant but getting better. Don’t glorify history; things were rougher than we remember.
The Straight-Line Instinct leads us to assume that trends will proceed linearly. Remember that trend data may have S-bends, slides, bumps, doubling, or flattening.
The Fear Instinct suggests that frightening things – e.g., violence, captivity, contamination – get our attention and distort our view of the world and its risks. Recognize that one’s actual risk is a function of the real danger and the probability that one might be exposed to it. Get the facts and clear your mind before rendering any judgments.
The Size Instinct tells us that any number may seem impressive when it stands alone. It may distort our perspective. Look for relevant comparisons. Remember the 80/20 rule. Consider rates (e.g., per capita) when evaluating different sized groups.
The Generalization Instinct explores our tendency to view members of a group as homogenous and then using that categorization as explanatory. Look for differences and similarities within and across groups. When discussing “the majority,” ask whether it’s 51%, 90+%, or somewhere in between. Don’t get swayed by vivid examples.
The Destiny Instinct presumes that innate characteristics explain development differences across people, countries, religions, or cultures. Become attuned to the constant change in technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions… especially slow and steady progress.
The Single Perspective Instinct cautions us to beware of instances where we are so convinced that we understand a problem and its solution that we fail to grasp its complexity or be open to alternate approaches to dealing with it. Be humble. Test your ideas, especially among folks who think differently. Look at solutions that may be outside your wheelhouse. Combine numbers with real lives. Beware of simple answers and simple solutions.
The Blame Instinct stems from our desire to find a clear, simple reason for why something has happened. It’s the counterpoint to the Hero Instinct which wants to assign credit for good. Resist the impulse to find a scapegoat or a cast of villains. Bad things happen. Look for multiple interacting causes and the systems that provide remediation.
The Urgency Instinct makes us want to take immediate action in the face of a perceived threat. It may foster impulsivity rather than critical thinking and considered action. Things are rarely as urgent as we make them out to be. Pause. Gather and review good data. Consider multiple future scenarios. Remember that drastic action may do more harm than good.

Rosling admonishes us to practice humility and curiosity. Humility breeds awareness of the limitations in our own knowledge and the difficulty in getting the facts right. Curiosity motivates us to seek out new information and be open to what it tells us… even if it does not accord with our prior sensibilities.

Rosling leaves us with two solid reasons for adopting a fact-based perspective:

“First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying. When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems – and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.”