Knihu vzápětí pořizuju celé rodině. Geniální. Autor shrnuje naše instinkty, díky kterým vnímáme svět tak dramaticky, i přesto, že se tak dramaticky vyvíjí dobrým směrem. Nabízí obojaký pohled na svět, vše je relativně špatné, ale přitom o tolik lepší. Rozdělení světa na čtyři příjmové skupiny bych si přála, aby nás učili už na gymplu a vůbec. Přečtěte si to taky. Prohlídněte si ty nádherné grafy. Ať jste jako já chytřejší než rádio!
The Straight Line Instinct
Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is.
Think about the world. War, violence, natural disasters, man-made disasters, corruption. Things are bad, and it feels like they are getting worse, right? The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer; and the number of poor just keeps increasing; and we will soon run out of resources unless we do something drastic. At least that’s the picture that most Westerners see in the media and carry around in their heads. I call it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading.
Our brains often jump to swift conclusions without much thinking, which used to help us to avoid immediate dangers. We are interested in gossip and dramatic stories, which used to be the only source of news and useful information. We crave sugar and fat, which used to be life-saving sources of energy when food was scarce. We have many instincts that used to be useful thousands of years ago, but we live in a very different world now.
This is data as you have never known it: it is data as therapy. It is understanding as a source of mental peace. Because the world is not as dramatic as it seems.
I want people, when they realize they have been wrong about the world, to feel not embarrassment, but that childlike sense of wonder, inspiration, and curiosity that I remember from the circus, and that I still get every time I discover I have been wrong: “Wow, how is that even possible?”
So, if you are more interested in being right than in continuing to live in your bubble; if you are willing to change your worldview; if you are ready for critical thinking to replace instinctive reaction; and if you are feeling humble, curious, and ready to be amazed—then please read on.
The Gap Instinct
By dividing the world into two misleading boxes—poor and rich—it completely distorts all the global proportions in people’s minds.
“I use normal statistics that are compiled by the World Bank and the United Nations. This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion. I am right and you are wrong.”
Of the world population, what percentage lives in low-income countries? The majority suggested the answer was 50 percent or more. The average guess was 59 percent. The real figure is 9 percent. Only 9 percent of the world lives in low-income countries. And remember, we just worked out that those countries are not nearly as terrible as people think. They are really bad in many ways, but they are not at or below the level of Afghanistan, Somalia, or Central African Republic, the worst places to live on the planet.
Afterward, people ask me, “So what should we call them instead?” But listen carefully. It’s the same misconception: we and them. What should “we” call “them” instead? What we should do is stop dividing countries into two groups. It doesn’t make sense anymore. It doesn’t help us to understand the world in a practical way. It doesn’t help businesses find opportunities, and it doesn’t help aid money to find the poorest people.
So why is the misconception of a gap between the rich and the poor so hard to change? I think this is because human beings have a strong dramatic instinct toward binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct sides is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking, all the time.
As I mentioned, if you are reading this book you probably live on Level 4. Even if you live in a middle-income country, meaning the average income is on Level 2 or 3—like Mexico, for example—you yourself probably live on Level 4 and your life is probably similar in important ways to the lives of the people living on Level 4 in San Francisco, Stockholm, Rio, Cape Town, and Beijing. The thing known as poverty in your country is different from “extreme poverty.” It’s “relative poverty.” In the United States, for example, people are classified as below the poverty line even if they live on Level 3.
Your most important challenge in developing a fact-based worldview is to realize that most of your firsthand experiences are from Level 4; and that your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves nonrepresentative extraordinary events and shuns normality.
People living in extreme poverty on Level 1 know very well how much better life would be if they could move from $ 1 a day to $ 4 a day, not to mention $ 16 a day. People who have to walk everywhere on bare feet know how a bicycle would save them tons of time and effort and speed them to the market in town, and to better health and wealth.
The Negativity Instinct
The current lack of knowledge about the world is the most concerning problem of all.
As long as people have a worldview that is so much more negative than reality, pure statistics can make them feel more positive. It is comforting, as well as inspiring, to learn that the world is much better than you think. A new kind of happy pill, completely free online!
Level 1 is where all of humanity started. It’s where the majority always lived, until 1966. Until then, extreme poverty was the rule, not the exception. The curve you see above shows how the extreme poverty rate has been falling since 1800. And look at the last 20 years. Extreme poverty dropped faster than ever in world history.
How old were you 20 years ago? Close your eyes for a second and remember your younger self. How much has your world changed? A lot? A little? Well, this is how much the world has changed: just 20 years ago, 29 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Now that number is 9 percent. Today almost everybody has escaped hell. The original source of all human suffering is about to be eradicated. We should plan a party! A big party! And when I say “we,” I mean humanity!
Showing all the causes of deaths and suffering in one number is nearly impossible. But the average life expectancy gets very close. Every child death, every premature death from man-made or natural disasters, every mother dying in childbirth, and every elderly person’s prolonged life is reflected in this measure. Back in 1800, when Swedes starved to death and British children worked in coal mines, life expectancy was roughly 30 years everywhere in the world. That was what it had been throughout history. Among all babies who were ever born, roughly half died during their childhood. Most of the other half died between the ages of 50 and 70. So the average was around 30. It doesn’t mean most people lived to be 30. It’s just an average, and with averages we must always remember that there’s a spread.
The misconception that the world is getting worse is very difficult to maintain when we put the present in its historical context.
My grandmother was the Lesothian member of our family. When she was born in 1891, Sweden was like Lesotho is today. That’s the country with the shortest life expectancy in the world today, right on the border between Level 1 and 2, almost in extreme poverty. My grandmother hand-washed all the laundry for her family of nine all her adult life. But as she grew older, she witnessed the miracle of development as both she and Sweden reached Level 3. By the end of her life she had an indoor cold-water tap and a latrine bucket in the basement: luxury compared to her childhood, when there had been no running water. All four of my grandparents could spell and count, but none of them was literate enough to read for pleasure. They couldn’t read children’s books to me, nor could they write a letter. None of them had had more than four years of school. Sweden in my grandparents’ generation had the same level of literacy that India, also on Level 2, has achieved today.
For centuries, older people have romanticized their youths and insisted that things ain’t what they used to be. Well, that’s true, but not in the way they mean it. Most things used to be worse, not better. But it is extremely easy for humans to forget how things really did “used to be.”
Journalists who reported flights that didn’t crash or crops that didn’t fail would quickly lose their jobs. Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page even when they occur on a dramatic scale and impact millions of people. And thanks to increasing press freedom and improving technology, we hear more, about more disasters, than ever before.
What are people really thinking when they say the world is getting worse? My guess is they are not thinking. They are feeling. If you still feel uncomfortable agreeing that the world is getting better, even after I have shown you all this beautiful data, my guess is that it’s because you know that huge problems still remain. My guess is you feel that me saying that the world is getting better is like me telling you that everything is fine, or that you should look away from these problems and pretend they don’t exist: and that feels ridiculous, and stressful. I agree. Everything is not fine. We should still be very concerned. As long as there are plane crashes, preventable child deaths, endangered species, climate change deniers, male chauvinists, crazy dictators, toxic waste, journalists in prison, and girls not getting an education because of their gender, as long as any such terrible things exist, we cannot relax. But it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made.
As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.
A solution that works for me is to persuade myself to keep two thoughts in my head at the same time. It seems that when we hear someone say things are getting better, we think they are also saying “don’t worry, relax” or even “look away.” But when I say things are getting better, I am not saying those things at all. I am certainly not advocating looking away from the terrible problems in the world. I am saying that things can be both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time. That is how we must think about the current state of the world.
During my lifetime, Sweden moved from Level 3 to Level 4. A treatment against tuberculosis was invented and my mother got well. She read books to me that she borrowed from the public library. For free. I became the first in my family to get more than six years of education, and I went to university for free. I got a doctor’s degree for free. Of course nothing is free: the taxpayers paid. And then, at the age of 30, when I had become a father of two and I discovered my first cancer, I was treated and cured by the world’s best health-care system, for free. My survival and success in life have always depended on others. Thanks to my family, free education, and free health care, I made it all the way from that ditch to the World Economic Forum. I would never have made it on my own.
Factfulness is recognizing when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful. To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news.
When I was born in 1948, women on average gave birth to five children each. After 1965 the number started dropping like it never had done before. Over the last 50 years it dropped all the way to the amazingly low world average of just below 2.5. This dramatic change happened in parallel with all those other improvements I described in the last chapter. As billions of people left extreme poverty, most of them decided to have fewer children. They no longer needed large families for child labor on the small family farm. And they no longer needed extra children as insurance against child mortality. Women and men got educated and started to want better-educated and better-fed children: and having fewer of them was the obvious solution. In practice, that goal was easier to realize thanks to the wonderful blessing of modern contraceptives, which let parents have fewer children without having less sex.
I heard people say that humans used to live in balance with nature? Well, yes, there was a balance. But let’s avoid the rose-tinted glasses. Until 1800, women gave birth to six children on average. So the population should have increased with each generation. Instead, it stayed more or less stable. Remember the child skeletons in the graveyards of the past? On average four out of six children died before becoming parents themselves, leaving just two surviving children to parent the next generation. There was a balance. It wasn’t because humans lived in balance with nature. Humans died in balance with nature. It was utterly brutal and tragic.
The new balance is nice: the typical parents have two children, and neither of them dies. For the first time in human history, we live in balance.
The single factor that does have a strong connection with large families: extreme poverty.
Melinda Gates runs a philanthropic foundation together with her husband, Bill. They have spent billions of dollars to save the lives of millions of children in extreme poverty by investing in primary health care and education. Yet intelligent and well-meaning people keep contacting their foundation saying that they should stop. The argument goes like this: “If you keep saving poor children, you’ll kill the planet by causing overpopulation.”
Dental health, for example, gets worse as people move from Level 1 to Level 2, then improves again on Level 4. This is because people start to eat sweets as soon as they can afford them, but their governments cannot afford to prioritize preventive public education about tooth decay until Level 3. So poor teeth are an indicator of relative poverty on Level 4, but on Level 1 they may indicate the opposite.
Like tomatoes, human beings need water to survive. But if you drink six liters at once, you will die. The same goes for sugar, fat, and medicines. Actually, everything you need to survive is lethal in high dosage. Too much stress is bad, but the right amount improves performance. Self-confidence has its optimal dosage. The intake of dramatic news from the rest of the world probably has its optimal dosage too.
The Fear Instinct
I didn’t see what I wanted to see. I saw what I was afraid of seeing. Critical thinking is always difficult, but it’s almost impossible when we are scared. There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.
The question is, what part are we processing and how did it get selected? And what part are we ignoring? The kind of information we seem most likely to process is stories: information that sounds dramatic.
Yet here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe. Fears that once helped keep our ancestors alive, today help keep journalists employed. It isn’t the journalists’ fault and we shouldn’t expect them to change. It isn’t driven by “media logic” among the producers so much as by “attention logic” in the heads of the consumers.
The general trend toward less violence is not just one more improvement. It is the most beautiful trend there is. The spread of peace over the last decades has enabled all the other improvements we have seen. We must take care of this fragile gift if we hope to achieve our other noble goals, such as collaboration toward a sustainable future. Without world peace, you can forget about all other global progress.
DDT was banned in several countries and aid agencies had to stop using it. But. But. As a side effect, we have been left with a level of public fear of chemical contamination that almost resembles paranoia. It is called chemophobia. This means that a fact-based understanding of topics like childhood vaccinations, nuclear power, and DDT is still extremely difficult today. The memory of insufficient regulation has created automatic mistrust and fear, which blocks the ability to hear data-driven arguments.
In a devastating example of critical thinking gone bad, highly educated, deeply caring parents avoid the vaccinations that would protect their children from killer diseases. I love critical thinking and I admire skepticism, but only within a framework that respects the evidence. So if you are skeptical about the measles vaccination, I ask you to do two things. First, make sure you know what it looks like when a child dies from measles. Most children who catch measles recover, but there is still no cure and even with the best modern medicine, one or two in every thousand will die of it. Second, ask yourself, “What kind of evidence would convince me to change my mind?” If the answer is “no evidence could ever change my mind about vaccination,” then you are putting yourself outside evidence-based rationality, outside the very critical thinking that first brought you to this point. In that case, to be consistent in your skepticism about science, next time you have an operation please ask your surgeon not to bother washing her hands.
Chemophobia also means that every six months there is a “new scientific finding” about a synthetic chemical found in regular food in very low quantities that, if you ate a cargo ship or two of it every day for three years, could kill you. At this point, highly educated people put on their worried faces and discuss it over a glass of red wine. The zero-death toll seems to be of no interest in these discussions. The level of fear seems entirely driven by the “chemical” nature of the invisible substance.
If there’s one group of people who have fully understood the power of the fear instinct, it’s not journalists. It’s terrorists. The clue is in their name. Fear is what they aim for. And they succeed by tapping into all our primitive fears—of physical harm, of being trapped, of being poisoned or contaminated.
It turned out Wikipedia unintentionally presented a very distorted worldview. It was distorted in a systematic way according to a Western mind-set. Our disappointment was huge. More precisely, it was 78 percent. That’s how many of the 2015 terrorism deaths were missing from Wikipedia. While almost all the deaths in the West were recorded, only 25 percent of those in “the rest” were there. No matter how much I love Wikipedia, we still need serious researchers to maintain reliable data sets. But they need more resources so they can update them quicker.
In fact, it is hard to think of a cause of death that kills fewer people in countries on Level 4 than terrorism. A very conservative estimate would give us a US figure of roughly 7,500 deaths a year. In the United States, the risk that your loved one will be killed by a drunk person is nearly 50 times higher than the risk he or she will be killed by a terrorist.
One week after September 11, 2001, according to Gallup, 51 percent of the US public felt worried that a family member would become a victim of terrorism. Fourteen years later, the figure was the same: 51 percent. People are almost as scared today as they were the week after the Twin Towers came down.
This chapter has touched on terrifying events: natural disasters (0.1 percent of all deaths), plane crashes (0.001 percent), murders (0.7 percent), nuclear leaks (0 percent), and terrorism (0.05 percent). None of them kills more than 1 percent of the people who die each year, and still they get enormous media attention. We should of course work to reduce these death rates as well. Still, this helps to show just how much the fear instinct distorts our focus
Paying too much attention to what is frightening rather than what is dangerous—that is, paying too much attention to fear—creates a tragic drainage of energy in the wrong directions. It makes a terrified junior doctor think about nuclear war when he should be treating hypothermia, and it makes whole populations focus on earthquakes and crashing planes and invisible substances when millions are dying from diarrhea and seafloors are becoming underwater deserts. I would like my fear to be focused on the mega dangers of today, and not the dangers from our evolutionary past.
The Size Instinct
“In the deepest poverty you should never do anything perfectly. If you do you are stealing resources from where they can be better used.”
It is pretty much a journalist’s professional duty to make any given event, fact, or number sound more important than it is. And journalists know that it feels almost inhuman to look away from an individual in pain.
In the test questions about global proportions, people consistently say about 20 percent of people are having their basic needs met. The correct answer in most cases is close to 80 percent or even 90 percent. Proportion of children vaccinated: 88 percent. Proportion of people with electricity: 85 percent. Proportion of girls in primary school: 90 percent. The use of numbers that sound enormous, together with constant images of individual suffering presented by the charities and the media, distort people’s view of the world and they systematically underestimate all these proportions and all this progress.
It is not doctors and hospital beds that save children’s lives in countries on Levels 1 and 2. Beds and doctors are easy to count and politicians love to inaugurate buildings. But almost all the increased child survival is achieved through preventive measures outside hospitals by local nurses, midwives, and well-educated parents. Especially mothers: the data shows that half the increase in child survival in the world happens because the mothers can read and write. So if you are investing money to improve health on Level 1 or 2, you should put it into primary schools, nurse education, and vaccinations. Big impressive-looking hospitals can wait.
When I see a lonely number in a news report, it always triggers an alarm: What should this lonely number be compared to? What was that number a year ago? Ten years ago? What is it in a comparable country or region? And what should it be divided by? What is the total of which this is a part? What would this be per person? I compare the rates, and only then do I decide whether it really is an important number.
80/ 20. Have you been given a long list? Look for the few largest items and deal with those first. They are quite likely more important than all the others put together.
The Generalization Instinct
Everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes all the time. Unconsciously. It is not a question of being prejudiced or enlightened. Categories are absolutely necessary for us to function. They give structure to our thoughts. Imagine if we saw every item and every scenario as truly unique—we would not even have a language to describe the world around us.
The gap instinct divides the world into “us” and “them,” and the generalization instinct makes “us” think of “them” as all the same.
In the media, we see photos of everyday life on Level 4 and crisis on the other levels all the time. Google toilet, bed, or stove. You will get images from Level 4. If you want to see what everyday life is like on the other levels, Google won’t help. What it is like? When you go to bed in the evening you might brush your teeth with the same toothbrush as the rest of the family. You dream about the day when you don’t have to share your toothbrush with Grandma anymore.
Chemophobia, the fear of chemicals, is driven by generalizations from a few vivid but exceptional examples of harmful substances. Some people become frightened of all “chemicals.” But remember that everything is made from chemicals, all “natural” things and all industrial products. Here are some of my favorites that I would rather not live without: soap, cement, plastic, washing detergent, toilet paper, and antibiotics.
Assume You Are Not “Normal” and Other People Are Not Idiots.
With my own hands, over a decade or so, I turned many babies from back to tummy to prevent suffocation and save lives. So did many other doctors and parents throughout Europe and the United States, until the advice was finally reversed, 18 months after the Hong Kong study was published. Thousands of babies died because of a sweeping generalization, including some during the months when the evidence was already available. Sweeping generalizations can easily hide behind good intentions.
Assume people are not idiots. When something looks strange, be curious and humble, and think, In what way is this a smart solution?
The Destiny Instinct
The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change. This instinct makes us believe that our false generalizations from chapter 6, or the tempting gaps from chapter 1, are not only true, but fated: unchanging and unchangeable.
Historically, humans lived in surroundings that didn’t change much. Learning how things worked and then assuming they would continue to work that way rather than constantly reevaluating was probably an excellent survival strategy.
I think the last to leave extreme poverty will be the poorest farmers stuck on really low-yield soils and surrounded by or close to conflicts. That probably accounts today for 200 million people, just over half of whom live in Africa. For sure they have an extraordinarily difficult time ahead of them—not because of their unchanging and unchangeable culture, but because of the soil and the conflicts.
Another reason it matters, if you work for a company based in the old “West,” is that you are probably missing opportunities in the largest expansion of the middle-income consumer market in history, which is taking place right now in Africa and Asia. Other, local brands are already establishing a foothold, gaining brand recognition, and spreading throughout these continents, while you are still waking up to what is going on. The Western consumer market was just a teaser for what is coming next.
Now look at the other two graphs. The pattern is very similar: regardless of religion, women have more children if they live in extreme poverty on Level 1. Today, Muslim women have on average 3.1 children. Christian women have 2.7. There is no major difference between the birth rates of the great world religions.
Exaggerated claims that people from this religion or that religion have bigger families are one example of how people tend to claim that certain values or behaviors are culture-specific, unchanging and unchangeable. It’s just not true. Values change all the time. Take my lovely home country, Sweden. We Swedes are known for being quite liberal and open about sex and contraception, aren’t we? Yet this hasn’t always been our culture. These haven’t always been our values.
In my own living memory, Swedish values around sex were extremely conservative. My father’s father, Gustav, for example, was born as Sweden was leaving Level 2 and was, I believe, a quite typical Swedish man of his generation. He was extremely proud of his large family of seven children; he never changed a diaper, cooked food, or cleaned the house; and he absolutely would not talk about sex or contraception.
My students’ jaws drop when I tell them how different things were when I was a student in the 1960s. Abortion in Sweden was still, except on very limited grounds, illegal. At the university, we ran a secret fund to pay for women to travel abroad to get safe abortions. Jaws drop even further when I tell the students where these young pregnant students traveled to: Poland. Catholic Poland. Five years later, Poland banned abortion and Sweden legalized it. The flow of young women started to go the other way. The point is, it was not always so. The cultures changed.
“Despite the war, despite the poverty,” they told me, “many of us young people are planning a modern life. We are Afghans, we are Muslim women. And we want a man just like you describe, a man who listens and plans together with us, and then we want two children who go to school.” The macho values that are found today in many Asian and African countries, these are not Asian values, or African values. They are not Muslim values. They are not Eastern values. They are patriarchal values like those found in Sweden only 60 years ago, and with social and economic progress they will vanish, just as they did in Sweden. They are not unchangeable.
Some Americans think of Sweden as a socialist country, but values can change. A few decades ago Sweden carried out what might be the most drastic deregulation ever of a public school system and now allows fully commercial schools to compete and make profits (a brave capitalist experiment).
In my 30-minute slot in the Plenary Hall of the African Union’s beautiful headquarters in Addis Ababa, I summarized decades of research on female small-scale farmers and explained to these powerful decision makers how extreme poverty could be ended in Africa within 20 years. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the chairwoman of the African Union, sat right in front of me and seemed to be listening attentively. Afterward, she came up and thanked me and I asked her what she thought of my performance. Her answer was a shock. “Well,” she said, “the graphics were nice, and you are good at talking, but you don’t have any vision.” Her tone was kind, which made what she was saying even more shocking to me. “What?! You think I lack vision?” I asked in offended disbelief. “But I said that extreme poverty in Africa could be history within 20 years.” Nkosazana’s response came in a low voice and she spoke without emotions or gestures. “Oh, yes, you talked about eradicating extreme poverty, which is a beginning, but you stopped there. Do you think Africans will settle with getting rid of extreme poverty and be happy living in only ordinary poverty?” She put a firm hand on my arm and looked at me without anger but also without a smile. I saw a strong will to make me understand my shortcomings. “As a finishing remark you said that you hoped your grandchildren would come as tourists to Africa and travel on the new high-speed trains we plan to build. What kind of a vision is that? It is the same old European vision.” Nkosazana looked me straight in my eyes. “It is my grandchildren who are going to visit your continent and travel on your high-speed trains and visit that exotic ice hotel I’ve heard you have up in northern Sweden. It is going to take a long time, we know that. It is going to take lots of wise decisions and large investments. But my 50-year vision is that Africans will be welcome tourists in Europe and not unwanted refugees.” Then she broke into a broad, warm smile. “But the graphics were really nice. Now let’s go and have some coffee.”
The Single Perspective Instinct
Forming your worldview by relying on the media would be like forming your view about me by looking only at a picture of my foot. Sure, my foot is part of me, but it’s a pretty ugly part. I have better parts. My arms are unremarkable but quite fine. My face is OK. It isn’t that the picture of my foot is deliberately lying about me. But it isn’t showing you the whole of me.
Instead, constantly test your favorite ideas for weaknesses. Be humble about the extent of your expertise. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit, and information from other fields. And rather than talking only to people who agree with you, or collecting examples that fit your ideas, see people who contradict you, disagree with you, and put forward different ideas as a great resource for understanding the world.
I had the honor of attending the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, and addressing a large group of talented young scientists and Nobel laureates in physiology and medicine. They were the acknowledged intellectual elite of their field, and yet on the question about child vaccination they scored worse than any public polls: 8 percent got the answer right. (After this I never take it for granted that brilliant experts will know anything about closely related fields outside their specializations.) Being intelligent—being good with numbers, or being well educated, or even winning a Nobel Prize—is not a shortcut to global factual knowledge. Experts are experts only within their field.
Two hundred ninety-two brave young feminists had traveled to Stockholm from across the world to coordinate their struggle to improve women’s access to education. But only 8 percent knew that 30-year-old women have spent on average only one year less in school than 30-year-old men. I am absolutely not saying that everything is OK with girls’ education. On Level 1, and especially in a small number of countries, many girls still do not go to primary school, and there are huge problems with girls’ and women’s access to secondary and higher education. But in fact, on Levels 2, 3, and 4, where 6 billion people live, girls are going to school as much as, or more than, boys. This is something amazing! It is something that activists for women’s education should know and celebrate.
We can measure improvements in material living conditions using numbers. But the end goal of economic growth is individual freedom and culture, and these values are difficult to capture with numbers.
Experts in maternal mortality who understand the point about hammers and nails can see that the most valuable intervention for saving the lives of the poorest mothers is not training more local nurses to perform C-sections, or better treatment of severe bleeding or infections, but the availability of transport to the local hospital. The hospitals were of limited use if women could not reach them: if there were no ambulances, or no roads for the ambulances to travel on. Similarly, educators know that it is often the availability of electricity rather than more textbooks or even more teachers in the classroom that has the most impact on learning, as students can do their homework after sunset.
I was talking to some gynecologists whose job it was to collect data about sexually transmitted diseases in poor communities. These professionals were ready to put their fingers anywhere on people, and to ask them all kinds of questions about their sexual activities. I was interested to know whether some STDs were more common in some income groups, and so I asked them to include a question about income on their forms. They looked at me and said, “What? You can’t ask people about their incomes. That is an extremely private question.” The one place they didn’t want to put their fingers was in people’s wallets. Some years later, I met the team at the World Bank who organized the global income surveys and I asked them to include questions about sexual activity in their survey. I was still wondering about any relationships between sexual behavior and income levels. Their reaction was more or less the same. They were happy to ask people all kinds of questions about their income, the black market, and so on. But sex? Absolutely not. It’s strange where people end up drawing their lines and how well behaved they feel if they stay inside their boxes.
Under the current US system, rich, insured patients visit doctors more than they need, running up costs, while poor patients cannot afford even simple, inexpensive treatments and die younger than they should. Doctors spend time that could be used to save lives or treat illness providing unnecessary, meaningless care. What a tragic waste of physician time.
The communist system in Cuba is an example of the danger of getting hooked on a single perspective: the seemingly reasonable but actually bizarre idea that a central government can solve all its people’s problems. I can understand why people looking at Cuba and its inefficiencies, poverty, and lack of freedom would decide that governments should never be allowed to plan societies. The health-care system in the United States is also suffering from the single-perspective mind-set: the seemingly reasonable but actually bizarre idea that the market can solve all a nation’s problems. I can understand why people looking at the United States and its inequalities and health-care outcomes would decide that private markets and competition should never be allowed anywhere near the delivery of public goods. As with most discussions about the private versus the public sector, the answer is not either/ or. It is case-by-case, and it is both. The challenge is to find the right balance between regulation and freedom.
Factfulness is recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions.
The Blame Instinct
I was four years old when I saw my mother load a washing machine for the first time. It was a great day for my mother; she and my father had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. Grandma, who had been invited to the inauguration ceremony for the new washing machine, was even more excited. She had been heating water with firewood and hand-washing laundry her whole life. Now she was going to watch electricity do that work. She was so excited that she sat on a chair in front of the machine for the entire washing cycle, mesmerized. To her the machine was a miracle. It was a miracle for my mother and me too. It was a magic machine. Because that very day my mother said to me, “Now, Hans, we have loaded the laundry. The machine will do the work. So now we can go to the library.” In went the laundry, and out came books. Thank you industrialization, thank you steel mill, thank you power station, thank you chemical-processing industry, for giving us the time to read books. Two billion people today have enough money to use a washing machine and enough time for mothers to read books—because it is almost always the mothers who do the laundry.
It’s not the boss or the board or the shareholders who are to blame for the tragic lack of research into the diseases of the poorest. What do we gain from pointing our fingers at them? Similarly, resist the urge to blame the media for lying to you (mostly they are not) or for giving you a skewed worldview (which mostly they are, but often not deliberately). Resist blaming experts for focusing too much on their own interests and specializations or for getting things wrong (which sometimes they do, but often with good intentions). In fact, resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it’s almost always more complicated than that. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes—a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.
Look for systems, not heroes. When someone claims to have caused something good, ask whether the outcome might have happened anyway, even if that individual had done nothing. Give the system some credit.
The Urgency Instinct
When we are afraid and under time pressure and thinking of worst-case scenarios, we tend to make really stupid decisions. Our ability to think analytically can be overwhelmed by an urge to make quick decisions and take immediate action.
Now or never! Learn Factfulness now! Tomorrow may be too late! You have reached the final instinct. Now it is time for you to decide. This moment will never come back. Never again will all these instincts be right there at the front of your mind. You have a unique opportunity, today, right now, to capture the insights of this book and completely change the way you think forever. Or you can just finish the book, close it, say to yourself “that was strange,” and carry on exactly as before. But you have to decide now. You have to act now. Will you change the way you think today? Or live in ignorance forever? It’s up to you. You have probably heard something like this before, from a salesperson or an activist. Both use a lot of the same techniques: “Act now, or lose the chance forever.” They are deliberately triggering your urgency instinct. The call to action makes you think less critically, decide more quickly, and act now.
To take immediate action in the face of a perceived imminent danger have served us humans well in the distant past. If we thought there might be a lion in the grass, it wasn’t sensible to do too much analysis.
When people tell me we must act now, it makes me hesitate. In most cases, they are just trying to stop me from thinking clearly.
So, what is the solution to Global Warming? Well, it’s easy. Anyone emitting lots of greenhouse gas must stop doing that as soon as possible. We know who that is: the people on Level 4 who have by far the highest levels of CO2 emissions, so let’s get on with it. And let’s make sure we have a serious data set for this serious problem so that we can track our progress. Looking for the data after my conversation with Al Gore, I was surprised how difficult it was to find. Thanks to great satellite images, we can track the North Pole ice cap on a daily basis. This removes any doubt that it is shrinking from year to year at a worrying speed. So we have good indications of the symptoms of global warming. But when I looked for the data to track the cause of the problem—mainly CO2 emissions—I found surprisingly little. The per capita GDP growth of countries on Level 4 was being carefully tracked, with new official numbers released on a quarterly basis. But CO2 emissions data was being published only once every two years. So I started provoking the Swedish government to do better. In 2009, I started to lobby for quarterly publication of greenhouse gas data: If we cared about it, why weren’t we measuring it? How could we claim to be taking this problem seriously if we weren’t even tracking our progress? I am very proud that, since 2014, Sweden now tracks quarterly greenhouse gas emissions (the first and still the only country to do so). This is Factfulness in action. Statisticians from South Korea recently visited Stockholm to learn how they could do the same.
The overdramatic worldview in people’s heads creates a constant sense of crisis and stress. The urgent “now or never” feelings it creates lead to stress or apathy: “We must do something drastic. Let’s not analyze. Let’s do something.” Or, “It’s all hopeless. There’s nothing we can do. Time to give up.” Either way, we stop thinking, give in to our instincts, and make bad decisions.
We need Olympic Games, international trade, educational exchange programs, free internet—anything that lets us meet across ethnic groups and country borders. We must take care of and strengthen our safety nets for world peace. Without world peace, none of our sustainability goals will be achievable. It’s a huge diplomatic challenge to prevent the proud and nostalgic nations with a violent track record from attacking others now that they are losing their grip on the world market. We must help the old West to find a new way to integrate itself peacefully into the new world.
Today, a period of relative world peace has enabled a growing global prosperity. A smaller proportion of people than ever before is stuck in extreme poverty. But there are still 800 million people left. Unlike with climate change, we don’t need predictions and scenarios. We know that 800 million are suffering right now. We also know the solutions: peace, schooling, universal basic health care, electricity, clean water, toilets, contraceptives, and microcredits to get market forces started. There’s no innovation needed to end poverty. It’s all about walking the last mile with what’s worked everywhere else. And we know that the quicker we act, the smaller the problem, because as long as people remain in extreme poverty they keep having large families and their numbers keep increasing. Providing these necessities of a decent life, quickly, to the final billion is a clear, fact-based priority.
Take a breath. When your urgency instinct is triggered, your other instincts kick in and your analysis shuts down. Ask for more time and more information. It’s rarely now or never and it’s rarely either/ or. Insist on the data. If something is urgent and important, it should be measured. Beware of data that is relevant but inaccurate, or accurate but irrelevant. Only relevant and accurate data is useful. Beware of fortune-tellers. Any prediction about the future is uncertain. Be wary of predictions that fail to acknowledge that. Insist on a full range of scenarios, never just the best or worst case. Ask how often such predictions have been right before. Be wary of drastic action. Ask what the side effects will be. Ask how the idea has been tested. Step-by-step practical improvements, and evaluation of their impact, are less dramatic but usually more effective.
Factfulness in Practice
Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.” It also means, when you do have an opinion, being prepared to change it when you discover new facts.
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. Being curious means being open to new information and actively seeking it out. It means embracing facts that don’t fit your worldview and trying to understand their implications. It means letting your mistakes trigger curiosity instead of embarrassment. “How on earth could I be so wrong about that fact? What can I learn from that mistake? Those people are not stupid, so why are they using that solution?” It is quite exciting being curious, because it means you are always discovering something interesting.
Replace Sombreros with Dollar Street Children start learning about other countries and religions in preschool. Cute little world maps with people in folklore dress from across the world are intended to make them aware of and respectful toward other cultures. The intention is good but these kinds of illustrations can create an illusion of great difference. People in other countries can seem stuck in historic and exotic ways of life. Of course some Mexicans sometimes wear large sombreros, but these large hats nowadays are probably more common on the heads of tourists. Let’s show children Dollar Street instead, and show them how regular people live. If you are a teacher, send your class “traveling” on dollarstreet.org and ask them to find differences within countries and similarities across countries.
I cannot see even the highest-quality news outlets conveying a neutral and nondramatic representative picture of the world, as statistics agencies do. It would be correct but just too boring. We should not expect the media to move very far in that direction. Instead it is up to us as consumers to learn how to consume the news more factfully, and to realize that the news is not very useful for understanding the world.