FACTFULNESS: A Book Review
Book review by Kip Hansen
Hans Rosling’s FACTFULNESS : Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think is currently Amazon’s #1 Best Seller in the category Probability & Statistics. Walmart’s bookstore lists it in the Adult Non-Fiction Top 100.
It gets fabulous reviews:
“Inspiring and revelatory, filled with lively anecdotes and moving stories, Factfulness is an urgent and essential book that will change the way you see the world and empower you to respond to the crises and opportunities of the future.”
“In Factfulness, Professor of International Health and global TED phenomenon Hans Rosling, together with his two long-time collaborators, Anna and Ola, offers a radical new explanation of why this happens. They reveal the ten instincts that distort our perspective–from our tendency to divide the world into two camps (usually some version of us and them) to the way we consume media (where fear rules) to how we perceive progress (believing that most things are getting worse).
Our problem is that we don’t know what we don’t know, and even our guesses are informed by unconscious and predictable biases.
It turns out that the world, for all its imperfections, is in a much better state than we might think. That doesn’t mean there aren’t real concerns. But when we worry about everything all the time instead of embracing a worldview based on facts, we can lose our ability to focus on the things that threaten us most.”
Hans Rosling, who before his death in February 2017, was a darling of the TED Talk circuit, said: “This book is my last battle in my life-long mission to fight devastating ignorance.”
FACTFULNESS is getting a lot of attention and a lot of mentions in a lot of important places. Bill Gates has produced a YouTube promoting the book. [I admit, that the endorsement by Gates originally acted as a counter-incentive for me – at first preventing me from reading the book myself.]
It is a terrific book — my wife and I have been reading it together. We have been partners in life for 45 years yet have vastly differing viewpoints on the world around us. We both found the book informative and, heck, just plain fun.
Rosling was a life-long pragmatist — he sees and seeks pragmatic understanding and solutions. He sees that things are getting better, not worse. His background is that of a world-scale public health professional – fighting epidemics and disastrous endemic diseases in far-flung places.
He warns about ten cognitive bad habits or “instincts”:
I have written about many of the same topics over the years here at WUWT — covering the pitfalls of extending trends past the data, mis-use of averages (and averages of averages), bemoaning the tendency to try to reduce complex issues into a single number, comparing apples and oranges (and averaging them!), fighting against the instincts of the media to spread “bad news” and ignoring the good news and the fallacy of proposing single simplistic solutions to complex problems.
Rosling tells interesting anecdotes from his years of travelling and investigating health related issues around the world, making interesting reading.
The Al Gore Story
Hans Rosling was on the TED Talk circuit at the same time as our friend Al Gore. Rosling shares the following interesting story in his book (on Page 229 of the First Edition):
“A Convenient Urgency
“We need to create fear!” That’s what Al Gore said to me at the start of our first conversation about how to teach climate change. It was 2009 and we were backstage at a TED conference in Los Angeles. Al Gore asked me to help him and use Gapminder’s bubble graphs to show a worst-case future impact of a continued increase in CO2 emissions.” ….
“I agreed with him completely that swift action on climate change was needed, and I was excited at the thought of collaborating with him.”
“But I couldn’t agree to what he had asked.”
“I don’t like fear. …. Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. Climate change is too important for that. It needs systematic analysis, thought-through decisions, incremental actions, and careful evaluation. And I don’t like exaggeration, exaggeration undermines the credibility of well-founded data: in this case, data showing that climate change is real, that it is largely caused by greenhouse gases from human activities, such as burning fossil fuels, and that taking swift and broad action now would be cheaper than waiting until costly and unacceptable climate change happened. Exaggeration once discovered makes people tune out altogether.”
So, it turns out, despite all the denial of the AGW activist crowd, Michael Crichton was not mistaken when he wrote State of Fear. We have direct evidence of Al Gore caught actively seeking help and collaboration in inducing a state of fear in the general public through promulgating exaggerated worst-case scenarios.
Hans Rosling, to his credit and despite (like myself) not being a climate change denier or in his case, even a climate change skeptic —
“insisted that [he] would never show the worst-case line without showing the probable and the best-case lines as well. Picking only the worst-case scenarios and–worse–continuing the line beyond the scientifically-based predictions would fall outside Gapminder’s mission to help prople understand the basic facts. .It would be using our credibility to make a call-to-action. Al Gore continued to press his case for fearful animated bubbles beyond the expert forecasts, over several more conversations, until finally, I closed the discussion down. “Mr. Vice-President. No Numbers, No Bubbles.”
The authors [though the book is written in the first person, Hans Rosling notes that it is really the work of his son and daughter-in-law and himself in collaboration] rely heavily on “expert opinion” and “expert-offered statistics (numbers)”. This is in spite of his own advice to beware of experts and stating blandly that “sometimes ’experts’ are not experts even in their own fields. Many activists present themselves as experts. I have presented at all kinds of activist conferences because I believe that educated activists can be absolutely crucial for improving the world. …. Almost every activist I have ever met, whether deliberately or, more likely, unknowingly, exaggerates the problem to which they have dedicated themselves.”
In my opinion, Rosling’s team, which has worked for many years directly with UN health organizations, has failed to see that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the IPCC have become themselves “activists” groups and act exactly as he has described above. Little matter, under Rosling’s FACTFULNESS Rules of Thumb the IPCC recommendations would be rejected outright as “stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects.”
This is a great book, smooth reading and enlightening — you’ll enjoy it while learning (or refreshing) some new critical thinking skills. At less than fifteen bucks, it is a bargain for your home and borrowed free from your local public library, at “absolutely free”, an even better bargain.
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Author’s Comment Policy:
I recommend this book, but don’t accuse me of agreeing with everything the Roslings say in it. I’d be happy to discuss the book with you after you’ve read it.
If you use the links in the Ten Rules of Thumb pull-quote, you get a short version of his viewpoint.
Thanks for reading.
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