Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world - and why things are better than you think
Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund (2018)
It would be awfully convenient if learned things stayed learned. Or so we often feel when we just can’t quite remember that name, or that holiday, or where we left our keys.1 Factfulness is essentially a book about the opposite problem: when our memories for things we’ve learned stay the same, but the facts change.
In a masterclass of big-picture thinking, the authors demonstrate the poor fit between the ways we’ve learned to think about the world and the way the world actually is. This isn’t really a book about cognitive biases so much as it’s about providing better ways to conceptualise the world. We can’t make good decisions with bad information, and Factfulness aims to provide that information.2
The most important conceptual overhaul the book aims to achieve is replacing the binary rich/poor, West/Rest, developed/developing etc. distinctions with ‘the Four Levels’ of income.
- Level 1 (US$0-2/day)
- People on Level 1 (about 1 billion) look like the pictures of dire poverty from charity fundraising materials: walking long distances each day to collect water; little or no access to healthcare; sleeping on dirt floors.
- Level 2 (US$3-8/day)
- People on Level 2 (about 3 billion) probably have rudimentary transportation, such as a pedal bike, reducing the time taken to collect water, and have some variety in their diet, but are highly vulnerable to unexpected expenses such as healthcare, repairs, or redundancy.
- Level 3 (US$9-16/day)
- The 2 billion people on Level 3 get cold water taps, stable electricity (and therefore refrigerators and more varied diets), and can afford occasional holidays. Sudden expenses like motorcycle repair are still a threat, but now they come out of savings for sending the children to high school.
- Level 4 (US$17+/day)
- The 1 billion people on Level 4 are the book’s (and this blog’s) audience. People with access to hot and cold water taps, cars, foreign holidays, more than a decade of education, pension plans, etc.
While the binary model was useful once (when the world really was split into developing and developed countries), this model needs to be unlearned because the world has changed. Nowadays people’s lives are more accurately described by their income level than their geographical location.3 This is neatly demonstrated by the authors’ Dollar street project, which shows visually how cultural differences are dwarfed by income differences.
Equipped with the Four Levels, it becomes easier to anticipate how the demographics of the world are changing. There is a steady transfer of people up through the levels,4 and with it reductions in infant mortality and childbirth rates, and increases in vaccination rates, years of education (for boys and girls), and the like. The resulting picture is of a world with a similar population to today, where most people live in Asia on a reasonable income level, including demand for electricity, travel, and consumer goods. Whether you’re concerned with how to provide power without destroying the climate, or how you’re going to make money from selling your local gadget, a fact-based world view is vital to making appropriate decisions.
The book provides a neat summary of some of the mistaken instincts we have about the world (in that sense it is about cognitive biases), but more than anything else it makes a very successful case for lifelong learning. Just because you learned something about the world once, it doesn’t mean it’ll stay true for your whole life.
Factfulness is humane, cautious where warranted, but consistently frank, powerful, and persuasive.5 It’s surprisingly light reading which cannot be taken lightly. Even for those who fundamentally reject the idea that useful knowledge about human flourishing can be gathered from aggregated data, the book does a better job of outlining that position than others.
The cutely-named ‘tip-of-the-tongue syndrome’ refers to those situations where our metacogntive ‘feeling-of-knowing’ tells us we know something, but we can’t produce the knowledge itself. ↩
One of the strengths of the book is its reliance only on widely-accepted information. One of its most impressive feats is showing how even the people who that information is collected and curated for are wildly wrong about what it actually says. ↩
In some sense this has always been true. The usefulness of the Four Levels heuristic is because the geographical correlation with income has dissipated rather than because income has emerged as a new predictor. ↩
The directionality of the levels constitute a value judgement, wholly endorsed by the book, that life on higher levels is better than life on lower levels. It’s possible to argue otherwise, at least philosophically, but the direction-of-travel remains the same even if you want to reject the idea that it’s a positive thing. I’m with the authors in thinking that life is better on the higher levels. ↩
It’s also humble. One of its endearing lessons is to assume that people making decisions are not stupid, and to ask what circumstances would render their actions an appropriate solution. Often people who look like they’re doing dumb things (such as living in a half-built house) are actually solving different problems (investing savings in tangible and stable assets). This lesson is at the heart of another fantastic book: Poor Economics. ↩