25 February 2023
Leadership & Management
This week I finished reading one of the best books I have ever read and certainly the best book of its kind. Factfulness
by Hans Rosling[i]
shows the degree to which humanity has progressed but also that the majority of people do not recognise this because of bias and misinformation. Hans Rosling was a medical doctor, professor of international health, and renowned public educator. His TED talks have been viewed more than 35 million times and he was listed as one of Time
magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. He died in 2017 having devoted the last years of his life to writing this book. Although the book is written in his voice his son Ola and his daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Ronnlund are cofounders of the Gapminder foundation, and their ideas have contributed greatly to the book. Hans Rosling knew he had terminal cancer and cancelled all his other commitments to concentrate on finishing the book - in other words he regarded it as one of the most important activities of his life.
He opens the book by asking the reader to attempt 13 questions each of which has three possible answers provided. I'm not going to spoil your reading of this book by giving away the answers but I will tell you that I got 11 of the 13 answers correct and this turns out to be highly unusual. Indeed of the many thousands of people that Rosling has surveyed with these questions including Nobel Prize winners, university professors, statesmen, business leaders and others in leading professions the great majority do not even get a third of the answers correct. Rosling points out that a chimpanzee picking answers at random will get a third of them right. Only one person he has come across got 12 out of 13 so in other words I am second in the world. I don't say that to boast of any cleverness but what I would say is my approach to life is rational. I base my opinions as far as possible on fact and indeed in my book Threads and Patches
published in 2021 I wrote a chapter on ‘Being Right.’[ii]
In the book Rosling describes ten instincts that people have, each of which can lead to the wrong understanding of a fact. in other words he gives ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think.
The Gap Instinct. Factfulness is recognising when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarised at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be. To control the gap instinct, you should look for the majority. Beware comparisons of averages. If you could check the spreads you would probably find they overlap. There is probably no gap at all. Beware comparisons of extremes. In all groups of countries or people, there are some at the top and some at the bottom. The difference is sometimes extremely unfair. But even then the majority is usually somewhere in between, right where the gap is supposed to be. Remember, looking down from above distorts the view. Everything else looks equally short, but it's not.
The Negativity Instinct. Factfulness is recognising 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. Practice distinguishing between a level (e.g. bad) and a direction of change (e.g. better.) Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad. Good news is almost never reported. So news is almost always bad. When you see bad news, ask whether equally positive news would have reached you. When a trend is gradually improving, with periodic dips, you're more likely to notice the dips than the overall improvement. More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering, not a worsening world. People often glorify their early experiences, and nations often glorify their histories.
The Straight Line Instinct. Factfulness is recognising the assumption that a line will just continue straight, and remembering that such lines are rare in reality. To control the straight line instinct, remember that curves come in different shapes. Many trends do not follow straight lines but S-bends, slides, humps, or doubling lines. No child ever kept up the rate of growth it achieved in its first six months, and no parents would expect it to.
The Fear Instinct. Factfulness is recognising when frightening things get our attention, and remembering that these are not necessarily the most risky. Our natural fears of violence, captivity, and contamination make us systematically overestimate these risks. To control the fear instinct, calculate the risks. The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected - by your own attention filter or by the media - precisely because it is scary. The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but on a combination of two things. How dangerous is it? And how much are you exposed to it? When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as possible until the panic has subsided.
The Size Instinct. Factfulness is recognising when a lonely number seems impressive (small or large) and remembering that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared with or divided by some other relevant number. To control the size instinct, get things in proportion. Big numbers always look big. Single numbers on their own are misleading and should make you suspicious. Always look for comparisons. Ideally, divide by something. Remember the Pareto Principle – the 80/20 Rule. Have you been given a long list? Look for the few largest items and deal with those first. They are quite likely to be more important than all the others put together. Amounts and rates can tell very different stories. Rates are more meaningful, especially when comparing between different size groups. In particular, look for rates per person when comparing between countries or regions.
The Generalisation Instinct. Factfulness is recognising when a category is being used in an explanation and remembering that categories can be misleading. We can't stop generalisation and we shouldn't even try. What we should try to do is to avoid generalising incorrectly. To control the generalisation instinct, question your categories. Look for differences within groups. Especially when the groups are large, look for ways to split them into smaller, more precise categories. And look for similarities across groups. If you find striking similarities between different groups, consider whether your categories are relevant. But also look for differences across groups. Do not assume that what applies for one group (e.g. you and other people living on a higher economic level) applies for another (e.g. people not living on that same level.) Beware of the majority. The majority just means more than half. Ask whether it means 51%, 99%, or something in between. Beware of vivid examples. They are easier to recall but they might be the exception rather than the rule. 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. Factfulness is recognising that many things including people, countries, religions, and cultures appear to be constant just because the change is happening slowly, and remembering that even small, slow changes gradually add up to big changes. To control the destiny instinct, remember slow change is still change. Keep track of gradual improvements. A small change every year can translate to a huge change over decades. Update your knowledge. Some knowledge goes out of date quickly. Technology, countries, societies, cultures, and religions are constantly changing. Talk to Grandpa. If you want to be reminded of how values have changed, think about your grandparents’ values and how they differ from yours. Collect examples of cultural change. Challenge the idea that today's culture must also have been yesterday’s and will also be tomorrow's.
The Single Perspective Instinct. Factfulness is recognising 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. To control the single perspective instinct, get a toolbox, not a hammer. Test your ideas. Don't only collect examples that show how excellent your favourite ideas are. Have people who disagree with you test your ideas and find their weaknesses. Don’t claim expertise beyond your field: be humble about what you don't know. Be aware too of the limits of the expertise of others. If you are good with a tool, you may want to use it too often. If you have analysed a problem in depth, you can end up exaggerating the importance of that problem or reveal solution. Remember that no one tool is good for everything. If your favourite idea is a hammer, look for colleagues with screwdrivers, spanners, and tape measures. Be open to ideas from other fields. The world cannot be understood without numbers, and it cannot be understood with numbers alone. Love numbers for what they tell you about real lives. Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis.
The Blame Instinct. Factfulness is recognising when a scapegoat is being used and remembering that blaming an individual often steals the focus from other possible explanations and blocks our ability to prevent similar problems in the future. To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat. Look for causes, not villains. When something goes wrong don't look for an individual or a group to blame. Accept that bad things can happen without anyone intending them to. Instead spend your energy on understanding multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation. 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. Factfulness is recognising when a decision feels urgent and remembering that it rarely is. To control the urgency instinct, take small steps. 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 are 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.
Rosling concludes by asking “could everyone have a fact-based worldview one day? Big change is always difficult to imagine. But it is definitely possible, and I think it will happen, for two simple reasons. 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.”
by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund Sceptre 2018
[ii] Threads and Patches
by David Pearson Janus Publishing 2021
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