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Why arenít more people 'factful'?

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 3 May 2018

I have written about the Swedish medico and educator Hans Rosling before, and have greatly enjoyed his TED talks, especially this one. He and his son and daughter have produced a book, Factfulness. Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. I had learned from the inside back cover that he has died, and that his book is a kind of summary of his world-view, and his earnest hope that people will become more optimistic about the future. They should, because his story, based mostly on data produced by agencies of the UN and others like the World Bank, is indeed that indeed the signs of human progress are everywhere. You only have to read and consider the facts.

I'll devote my next essay to his conclusions, but this one is about his (and my) puzzle over why people are so pessimistic, when the evidence is firmly in the opposite direction. Let me start with the dedication: "To the brave barefoot woman, whose name I don't know but whose rational arguments saved me from being sliced by a mob of angry men with machetes". Confronting beliefs with facts is not always safe. Rosling does not say where this incident occurred, or the context, but I might find that out by the time I have finished the book.

His book, as I have said already, focuses on the extraordinary ignorance shown by people almost everywhere about what has actually happened in the world over the last half-century. He begins with a short quiz, of thirteen questions. Number 11 goes like this:


In 1996 tigers, giant pandas and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today? A: Two of them B: One of them C: None of them.

The correct answer is C - none of them. I didn't get that one right, probably because I have seen a few clips on the TV news about poaching on game reserves and other examples of 'critical endangerment'. In fact, I missed three correct answers, and I am a reasonably well-read optimist. The last question was about whether or not climate experts predicted warmer, cooler or just-the-same climate over the next century. Most people, including me, got that one right, which says something for the way 'climate experts' have been able to dominate the issue over the past couple of decades.

I can say, with due modesty, that I was well ahead of the game. Here's Rosling:

In 2017 we asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer our questions. They scored on average just two correct answers out of the first twelve. No one got full marks, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. A stunning 15 per cent scored zero. Did well-educated people do better? No. Some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. It is not a question of intelligence. Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong.

Since these are forced-choice questions, you might expect to get one third of the answers right just by chance. In fact, the results ofd the survey are often worse than random. In general, every group Rosling sought answers from saw the world as "more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless - in short, more dramatic - than it really is". Rosling asked the world's leaders at Davos in Switzerland in 2015 about poverty, population growth and vaccination rates. The leaders did know about poverty, but they scored astonishingly badly on the other two questions.

Why is it so? I've asked that question before, and had a go at answering it, as well. One of my answers is that human beings are more affected by bad news than good news or, if you like, that they are suckers for drama. Rosling says that the mental picture that most Westerners carry in their heads is that the world is getting worse, that the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer, we will run out of resources soon, and so on. He calls it "the overdramatic worldview. It's stressful and misleading". Most people in our contemporary world are in the middle of the income scale, deaths from violence are declining, we are not running out of resources, and we are learning to find substitutes, and so on.


I put some of the blame on the media, more correctly, on the nature of news, and so does Rosling. But his analysis is altogether richer than my own. Rosling thinks that we go on thinking that things are bad because that is the way our minds work, which is the case because our brains have been formed over millions of years to allow us to make, for example, very quick decisions. We find it quite difficult to deal with facts that contradict our worldview, because our worldview affects almost every decision we make. There are echoes here of what Jordan Peterson was arguing in his recent book, and what the Peases were arguing in their book a decade or more ago. It has taken the human species a very long time to get here, and some of our instincts don't serve us well in today's very different world.

I'll steal a little from Chapter One, 'The Gap Instinct'. I've written before, many times, that making binary distinctions about the world is really silly. Yet people go on doing it every day, about almost everything. There was a fine example towards the end of the Comments on my last essay. Rosling calls it The Mega Misconception that "The Word is Divided in Two". He goes on to talk about the "irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and conflicting groups, with an imagined gap - a huge chasm of injustice - in between". I have written a few times about 'social justice' (for example, here) and 'inequality' (several times, here is a good example), and there is a great need for 'factfulness' when we start using these terms, because without some real data we sink quickly into a semantic swamp. It's one reason I dislike the 'poverty line', which simply divides Australia into two. Very few people ask exactly what it is that bespeaks poverty, or what, if anything, we as a society should do about it. The poverty line is about income. Those below it ought to have more of it, and if you don't think so you are plainly selfish, and without sympathy for the downtrodden etc.

Rosling's other causes of our tendency to see the world as worse than it is include what he calls 'the negativity instinct', the 'straight line instinct' (wonderfully portrayed in climate science), fear of what we cannot control, and the size instinct (a journalist's job is to make any given event, fact or number sound more important than it is). He adds the tendency to generalise, the unconscious belief in destiny, and the urge to blame. My favourite is 'the urgency instinct', which was tapped in bucketloads around the time of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009.'We have only a few days to save the world!' I think that was Gordon Brown, then the British PM. Or Kevin Rudd's well-remembered claim that climate change was 'the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time'. To such exhortations, seizing our urgency instinct that tells us to act now. "Relax", says Rosling. "It's almost never true. It's almost never that urgent, and it's almost never an either/or".

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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