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January 26, 2020Podcasts I listen to (Jan 2020)
January 23, 2020Are you too old to start programming
January 22, 2020Use tabs not spaces
October 18, 2019Refactoring Overgrown React Components slides
October 2, 2019Book Review: Factfulness
October 1, 2019Yes, it's a good time to add TypeScript to your project
September 24, 2019Code Review – Best Practices, Guidelines & Process Insights
June 10, 2019Why I read on the iPad
March 18, 2019Software & Hardware I use
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factfulness cover

Book Review: Factfulness

I've been inspired to read Factfulness in one of the podcasts I listen to, where the authors mentioned an interesting case. Scientists, politicians, businessmen and other powerful and smart people have no idea about the current state of the world. I decided to find out and challenge my own knowledge.

Factfulness, written by Swedish doctor together with his son and son's wife starts with a quiz. The quiz proves to us that we know about the world less than the monkeys.

How rich (poor/medium/rich) is the majority of the world population? How many people in the world have access to electric power? What is average lifespan in the world? Did the amount of poor people in the world increased or decreased in the last 20 years?

The author proves that in closed, A/B/C tests, monkeys will eventually be 33% correct by just choosing random answers. He also proves, that 33% for a human is a really great score. You might think that "you will know", but Rosling doesn't ask random people or "stupid" ones. He checked politicians, scientists, Nobel prize winners, and these groups can be even worse than average people.

I personally scored quite high (8/13), but before the quiz, I knew what the book was going to be about and predicted whats going on.

Harmful instincts

The majority of the book author describes instincts, which prevent people from a rational, logical perception of the world. They are often cognitive biases or legacy of outdated thinking, education or stereotypes. And no matter how "smart" you are, these biases involve you too.

What is very interesting to me, people are far more pessimistic about the world then it actually is. Big part plays availability heuristic, which makes us think globally about a very limited amount of knowledge. For example, we constantly see on TV or other media about crimes or terrorism incidents, so we assume that we live in a very dangerous world nowadays. But it's not true - we live in the safest times ever.

The world has made huge progress in the last 20/50/100 years, but society still can't see it. We believe that people in Africa live in huts made from mud and sticks. We believe they don't have access to electricity or education. We believe that the center of the universe is the USA and maybe Europe. We believe that there are so many people in the world, soon there will be not enough place for them (not true).

However, despite what people think, there are organisations like WHO which reports about many predictions based on huge data they have and the world is a far much better place than we think.

The gap instinct

One of the bad instincts Rosling describes is "the gap instinct". People feel the need to divide the world in half. "We vs them". "East vs West". "Rich vs Poor". But this polarization doesn't work in the real world. According to how normal distribution works, most of the people are just in the middle, average spectrum. There are very poor people, but they are just as rare as very rich ones. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, especially in the modern, free world.

The author describes his definition of what poverty is (something about a few dollars of income per day) and also says there is below 1 billion poor people in the world nowadays. It might sound huge, but compared to 8 billion people in total and how fast people exit poverty in the last few decades, we will probably say goodbye to poverty very soon.

The rest of the world is just average wealthy and doesn't really miss any of modern needs like education or even luxury goods.

And, against popular opinion, rich people "don't own most of the world's resources".

The pessimism instinct

What is really interesting to me is how pessimistic people are about the world. For some reason, we always believe that the world is becoming worse and worse. The most optimistic nation seems to be Russia, where "only" 60% of the population claimed that the world's condition is going to the bad direction. Turkey is 80%. And the correct answer is of course that the world's condition is really improving each year. And he has a lot of factors to prove it.

One of the factors is comparing the state of countries from today and a few decades ago. Rosling is Swedish, so he often compares Sweden to other nations. Sweden is today super-rich country, but 60 years ago it was at the same "development level" as Iran today. Have we ever called Sweden "a poor" or "3rd world" country, even 60 years ago? Probably not, but we still think like this about Iran and other countries.

One of the reasons are probably mentioned media, which only shares information "interesting" to people - negative, shocking. People will not watch TV to be told that "no plane crashed today", but if one of them crashed, they will talk about it for many weeks. People will claim that planes are dangerous (just like nuclear plants) but statistically there is nothing safer.

Another reason is outdated education and repeated stereotypes after our parents or friends, without realizing that things might turn 180 degrees in just a few years. Scientists and researchers constantly update our knowledge about the world, but we still rely on knowledge told us by our parents decades ago. And they probably repeat after their parents.

In the end - people see single incidents but don't see slow, but constant improvement and progress in almost every area of life. We only see the information that in one year (I guess 2017) 4.2 million children died worldwide, but we don't see that 14 million people died 1950. We rely on selective information, not the whole picture.

There are 10 instincts described

I mentioned two of them, but the author defines ten. He mentions of exaggerating, wrong data interpretation, manipulating charts, not understanding trends generalization or blaming.

I see a lot of similarities of these instincts with Kahneman's cognitive biases, but they are described with more sociological aspects.

Authors message

Rosling with his book finalizes his mission (he died just before finishing the book), which started with being a doctor in Africa. He observed the world there and helped increasing living standard. When he realized how much this continent changed in years, he started to be a speaker who inspired people around the world.

He was invited (eg. from his Ted Talks) to be a conference speaker for corporations, to show that African and Asian countries are not poor villagers, but the rising power of a few billion people (which, opposite to "old world" will even increase), who are already good business potential for these companies.

I really remembered an example where the author shows "a broken" American system, where companies spend millions on advertising to create a demand in the market which doesn't really need new products and more supply. At the same time, there are millions (billions) in poorer countries which lack these products and can buy them without any ads. This is a huge business opportunity, which companies seem not to see.

My verdict - I really enjoyed this book. I've learned a lot of interesting things and opened my eyes to how harmful is stereotypical thinking about people and places we don't know. To be wise and aware we need to constantly improve our knowledge about changing state of the world - it will be good for our mind and will make the world a better place. It's also a great business opportunity for each of us. How? For example, if I'm aware that average lifetime in the world is now 70 years I realize how big and the important market is elder people.

If I can only name something I didn't like, it will be probably too medical perspective. Rosling is a doctor so his main perspective and arguments orbit around health. This is good and interesting, but for a book about many perspectives, I'd like to see a wider look. I also wonder if the author isn't biased too - if he focuses mostly on health and health actually really improved in the last century, what if he didn't see areas which may be decreased (or at least stayed bad)? I hope I will find answers in another, the similar book I want to read - Enlightment Now

Here is an example screen from the book which shows some of the factors I mentioned.

Chart with factors of bad things decreasing last years