Book of the summer: Factfulness

Summer is the time when you can finally relieve yourself of the pain from the mountain of unread books that are piling next to your bed. Always amazed and impressed with myself when I read the same book as Bill Gates, I will write about a book that both Bill (yes, we are on a first-name basis) and I loved: Factfulness by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Ronnlund.

I had heard of Hans Rosling ages ago when I watched his famous TED talk. He is a medical doctor and global health professor who worked his life to increase health care around the world. At the same time, Hans, alongside his son and daughter in law, set up the Gapminder foundation as a tool to fight ignorance. Both the foundation and his TED talk aim to show that - despite the negative images we see in the media and the menacing feeling that the world keeps getting worse every day - the world is actually improving. In his TED talk he introduces the now-famous moving bubble chart which visualizes the progress humanity has made over the past 100 or so years. Since the talk, Hans has been touring the world trying to inform experts and leaders around the world about the amazing progress we've made and where action is still needed. The book factfulness is a culmination of his life's work, and sadly, Hans passed away before it was finished. His collaborates Ola and Anna finished writing it and today I finished reading it.

What is factfulness?
Most simply, factfulness is the practice of only holding beliefs for which you have evidence that they are true. For example, believing that the planet is warming is a belief backed by the data. The problem Hans identified throughout his life and the central premise of the book is that people tend to not be very factful when they think about the state of the world. In fact, we tend to think that the world is worse than it actually. We think fewer children are vaccinated, more species extinct, and more people in poverty than the data actually shows. The reasons for this are various but Hans identifies 10 instincts we have that make us pessimistic about the state of the world.

This matters because if we stress and worry about the wrong things then we don't spend our resources as efficiently as possible. After working in government all summer "value for money" is deeply ingrained into my brain. Most of us care about suffering around the world and want to improve our societies but if we guide our efforts according to where we feel help is most needed we might not achieve as much good as we could. Instead, Hans argues, we should let the data guide our way and see where we can have the biggest impact. At the same time, we ought to be careful not to rely only on data and take any insights with a pinch of salt. Overall, the book teaches its reader to adopt a more differentiated world-view, to not take everything we read and hear as a given, but instead inquire and ask questions to gain a better understanding of our world.

The book is an extremely honest account of a very experienced and wise person and we see how Hans has learned from his own mistakes and how he himself has struggled to practice factfulness throughout his life. This is because the instincts he describes are there for a reason and often they can help simplify things or help us make decisions. But when it comes to complicated systems and decisions - as they usually are in the social sciences - we need to step back and take a breath before acting.

The most important thing the book thought me was to be humble. Reading about how Hans has struggled to overcome his own stereotypes showed how it is a life long process. In many of his accounts of his time when he was a doctor in countries on lower income levels than the West and different cultures too, he has become aware to the assumption he makes about people in other living situations and how often they can be misguided.

Factfulness is an amazing book for everyone interested in the state of the world and potentially improving it. Most of all, however, it is a reminder - among all the worrying of the state of the world and the many things we could be doing better - to celebrate and appreciate the progress we have already made and be inspired to take action to continue these achievements. 

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