Why aren’t more people ‘factful’?

I have written about the Swedish medico and educator Hans Rosling before, and have greatly enjoyed his TED talks, especially this one. He and his son and daughter have produced a book, Factfulness. Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. I had learned from the inside back cover that he has died, and that his book is a kind of summary of his world-view, and his earnest hope that people will become more optimistic about the future. They should, because his story, based mostly on data produced by agencies of the UN and others like the World Bank, is indeed that indeed the signs of human progress are everywhere. You only have to read and consider the facts.

I’ll devote my next essay to his conclusions, but this one is about his (and my) puzzle over why people are so pessimistic, when the evidence is firmly in the opposite direction. Let me start with the dedication: To the brave barefoot woman, whose name I don’t know but whose rational arguments saved me from being sliced by a mob of angry men with machetes. Confronting beliefs with facts is not always safe. Rosling does not say where this incident occurred, or the context, but I might find that out by the time I have finished the book.

His book, as I have said already, focuses on the extraordinary ignorance shown by people almost everywhere about what has actually happened in the world over the last half-century. He begins with a short quiz, of thirteen questions. Number 11 goes like this: In 1996 tigers, giant pandas and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today? A: Two of them B: One of them C: None of them. The correct answer is C — none of them. I didn’t get that one right, probably because I have seen a few clips on the TV news about poaching on game reserves and other examples of ‘critical endangerment’. In fact, I missed three correct answers, and I am a reasonably well-read optimist. The last question was about whether or not climate experts predicted warmer, cooler or just-the-same climate over the next century. Most people, including me, got that one right, which says something for the way ‘climate experts’ have been able to dominate the issue over the past couple of decades.

I can say, with due modesty, that I was well ahead of the game. Here’s Rosling: In 2017 we asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer our questions. They scored on average just two correct answers out of the first twelve. No one got full marks, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. A stunning 15 per cent scored zero. Did well-educated people do better? No. Some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. It is not a question of intelligence. Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong. Since these are forced-choice questions, you might expect to get one third of the answers right just by chance. In fact, the results ofd the survey are often worse than random. In general, every group Rosling sought answers from saw the world as more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless — in short, more dramatic — than it really is. Rosling asked the world’s leaders at Davos in Switzerland in 2015 about poverty, population growth and vaccination rates. The leaders did know about poverty, but they scored astonishingly badly on the other two questions.

Why is it so? I’ve asked that question before, and had a go at answering it, as well. One of my answers is that human beings are more affected by bad news than good news or, if you like, that they are suckers for drama. Rosling says that the mental picture that most Westerners carry in their heads is that the world is getting worse, that the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer, we will run out of resources soon, and so on. He calls it the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading. Most people in our contemporary world are in the middle of the income scale, deaths from violence are declining, we are not running out of resources, and we are learning to find substitutes, and so on.

I put some of the blame on the media, more correctly, on the nature of news, and so does Rosling. But his analysis is altogether richer than my own. Rosling thinks that we go on thinking that things are bad because that is the way our minds work, which is the case because our brains have been formed over millions of years to allow us to make, for example, very quick decisions. We find it quite difficult to deal with facts that contradict our worldview, because our worldview affects almost every decision we make. There are echoes here of what Jordan Peterson was arguing in his recent book, and what the Peases were arguing in their book a decade or more ago. It has taken the human species a very long time to get here, and some of our instincts don’t serve us well in today’s very different world.

I’ll steal a little from Chapter One, ‘The Gap Instinct’. I’ve written before, many times, that making binary distinctions about the world is really silly. Yet people go on doing it every day, about almost everything. There was a fine example towards the end of the Comments on my last essay. Rosling calls it The Mega Misconception that “The Word is Divided in Two”. He goes on to talk about the irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and conflicting groups, with an imagined gap — a huge chasm of injustice — in between. I have written a few times about ‘social justice’ (for example, here) and ‘inequality’ (several times, here is a good example), and there is a great need for ‘factfulness’ when we start using these terms, because without some real data we sink quickly into a semantic swamp. It’s one reason I dislike the ‘poverty line’, which simply divides Australia into two. Very few people ask exactly what it is that bespeaks poverty, or what, if anything, we as a society should do about it. The poverty line is about income. Those below it ought to have more of it, and if you don’t think so you are plainly selfish, and without sympathy for the downtrodden etc.

Rosling’s other causes of our tendency to see the world as worse than it is include what he calls ‘the negativity instinct’, the ‘straight line instinct’ (wonderfully portrayed in climate science), fear of what we cannot control, and the size instinct (a journalist’s job is to make any given event, fact or number sound more important than it is). He adds the tendency to generalise, the unconscious belief in destiny, and the urge to blame. My favourite is ‘the urgency instinct’, which was tapped in bucketloads around the time of the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009.‘We have only a few days to save the world!’ I think that was Gordon Brown, then the British PM. Or Kevin Rudd’s well-remembered claim that climate change was ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’. To such exhortations, seizing our urgency instinct that tells us to act now. Relax, says Rosling. It’s almost never true. It’s almost never that urgent, and it’s almost never an either/or.

I’ll add a bit more here (and Rosling was talking here about climate change). And whenever we talk about the future we should be open and clear about the level of uncertainty involved. We should not pick the most dramatic estimates and show a worst-case scenario as if it were certain… We should ideally show a mid-forecast, and also a range of alternative possibilities, from best to worst. If we have to round the numbers we should round to our disadvantage. This protects our reputations and means we never give people a reason to top listening. In fact, perhaps because he takes the IPCC reports seriously, he does think climate change is a problem. But he thinks, correctly, that Al Gore has done harm to possible solutions to the ‘problem’ because he exaggerates.

 This is another really good book, one that offers a way forward to people who worry too much about the world they live in. Human progress has been quite fast in the last half-century, and shows every sign of continuing. In the next essay I’ll spell out, in summary form, what the advances have been. They are staggering. And I’ll bet most readers will not know most of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Join the discussion 68 Comments

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    I am not particularly concerned about the future of the world, but I am, and I think rightly, very concerned about the future of Australia. A discussion about that might be more rewarding than the constant reiteration of facts/pseudo-facts/fiction about what the climate ‘might’ do in the year 2100.

    Stretch your brains, pals. The answer will affect your kids far more than the climate, and far sooner.

  • Neville says:

    I don’t know why people enjoy telling fibs about their fantasy planet either.
    Macron’s nonsense about OZ mitigation and dangerous SLR impacting on Island nations is always supported by our media.
    Here the Bolter tries to explain the fibs and the facts and evidence that tells the true story, but they’re not interested.
    It seems their fibs and BS will always win out. Who cares about data and evidence anyway?

    http://www.heraldsun.com.au/blogs/andrew-bolt/macrons-big-warmist-fib/news-story/4ea952998a085da8bcf7ceebb79619db

    • Chris Warren says:

      Bolt is not an objective commentator.

      He is a Murdoch-stable hireling.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Yes Neville, blith is much more objective and “factful”.

        In spite of satellites daily photographing increasing beaches around the world, particularly on coral islands blith, Macron and all the rest of the groupthinkers who never go outside to check for themselves, simply “know” the “true facts”.

      • Neville says:

        Bolt always supplies data and evidence, but I’ll leave you and others to believe in your fantasies.
        They must be a great comfort to you and the other infantile groupthinkers.

        • Chris Warren says:

          So Nevile, when did Bolt point to Mauna Loa data – the most basic schoolboy source of real scientific data we have?

          I doubt whether Bolt even knows waht the word evidence is?

          • spangled drongo says:

            Only a supreme blitherer could claim that CO2 is evidence.

          • Neville says:

            Chris why are co2 emissions important to SLR observations? BTW have you checked Mauna Loa against Cape Grim in Tassie lately?
            And there are many recent SL studies that show little dangerous SLR.
            SD has linked to a new SL study yesterday. Not a lot to panic about from that study either.

          • Chris Warren says:

            Neville

            The impact of CO2 increase is not just sea level, but causes warming of the lower atmosphere and cooling stratosphere.

            Other effects are consequential. Sea levels have been discussed sufficiently in earlier threads.

            I assume your SD refers to someone who I have long blocked in by blog reading software. There is no value here.

            Your link doesn’t go anywhere useful either.

            Your comment about Cape Grim is also meaningless.

          • spangled drongo says:

            “I assume your SD refers to someone who I have long blocked in by blog reading software.”

            What’s new, blith?

            Reality denial [as usual].

            And blith comments yesterday on the May Off-Topic Thread:

            “The North Pole continues to cook.”

            So here’s something more for you to deny.

            Arctic sea ice back to normal:

            http://ocean.dmi.dk/arctic/icethickness/images/FullSize_CICE_combine_thick_SM_EN_20180502.png

  • Neville says:

    Ehrlich’s fantasy novel about a fantasy planet turns 50. This fantasist couldn’t have been more wrong but he still has a job and heaps of donkeys still rally to listen and support this fool, even his wild exaggerations about CAGW.
    Hans Rosling must have been disgusted that this stupid extremist had any credibility left at all.

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/05/02/the-population-bomb-that-bombed-turns-50/

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/05/02/the-population-bomb-that-bombed-turns-50/

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Malthus, Erlich, and Bartlett were all correct. Mathematics doesn’t lie. You can’t fit an indefinitely expanding population into a finite space, no matter how intelligent and adaptable they might be. What, in fact, is so wrong with a declining population? The countries in which the population is declining are all wealthy, and easily able to support their elderly, many of whom are probably well able to support themselves, and have no need of younger immigrants to support them. However, if the government is to be believed (a risky proposition at any time, especially when money is involved) the Australian superannuation scheme has been a complete failure, since apparently none of the people retiring have any, and will be completely dependent on the state. Yet there are known to be billions, if not trillions of dollars inAustralian superannuation funds. This is well-known to the people drawing commissions, but of which the people paying in to them are strangely ignorant. The government might find its budget strategy easier to sell if it acknowledged that it was not necessary to import hundreds of thousands of people every year to manage a manufactured crisis, and that superannuation was not a convenient cash cow. Utilised appropriately, which can be managed by careful, and not punitive legislation, the problem of the ‘ageing’ population immediately disappears, and restricted immigration also removes the threat in the future. Of course, there is no chance that these issues will ever be subject to rational consideration under either Labor of Liberal governments.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Bryan, you forgot to say that their predictions applied to the stupids of this world and the non-stupids disagreed strongly.

        That’s not to say that the end result won’t go with the stupids.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Bryan,

        Malthus et all committed the straight line error that Rosling says we are all prone to do. Yes, if human population were simply to go on increasing in a straight line eventually there would be no room, set aside the absence of food and other necessities of life. Art the moment, as I remember, you could fit the whole population of the planet into Tasmania, with a metre or two to spare. So Malthus is right, theoretically. But straight lines are not the way most increases occur.

      • spangled drongo says:

        “Malthus, Erlich, and Bartlett were all correct.”

        You mean like this, Bryan:

        “Giving society cheap, abundant energy would be the equivalent of giving an idiot child a machine gun.” (Paul Ehrlich, who in 1968 predicted mass starvation and a collapse of civilization by the 1980s)

  • Grandma says:

    I think you are too kind about the purveyors of contemporary hysteria. Any salesman can tell you that fear is the best of all sales levers. And so many of the fear mongers are selling something… Lots of vested interests in provoking and exacerbating this pessimism!

  • Bazza says:

    “Number 11 goes like this: In 1996 tigers, giant pandas and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today? A: Two of them B: One of them C: None of them. The correct answer is C — none of them. I didn’t get that one right, probably because I have seen a few clips on the TV news about poaching on game reserves and other examples of ‘critical endangerment’. In fact, I missed three correct answers, and I am a reasonably well-read optimist.”

    Strange question I think. I would have got it right. However just because twenty years has elapsed doesn’t logically or necessarily lead to further endangerment. It also doesn’t mean they are no longer endangered.

    • spangled drongo says:

      These days we’re all endangered, bazza.

      Just ask Nanny.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Bazza, my guess is that Rosling was picking up exactly the error that I exposed in my response: what I had seen on TV affected my whole sense of endangerment. I simply didn’t know what the facts were. And I also exhibited another of his causes: because X was endangered, and because things are getting worse, then X’s endangerment must be getting worse too.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Being factful can be very inconvenient:

    “A veteran Ph.D. meteorologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) was physically assaulted by NWS Director Louis Uccellini for mentioning “cooling” during a talk about the Earth’s climate in 2014 according to an account provided to CFACT.”

    “Don’t ever mention the word cooling again,” the agency’s Director warned.

    http://www.cfact.org/2018/05/02/meteorologist-allegedly-assaulted-by-nws-director-uccellini/

    H/T Pat

  • Patrick Purcell says:

    Obviously that author is not aware of what is happening here in Australia. Politicians of all stripes spending up big to buy votes from those dependent on government handouts. Major political parties failing to stem the increase in power prices. Banks ripping us off left right & centre. Ineffective regulation of financial institutions. Educational standards in decline despite huge investments of taxpayers’ dollars. Unchecked political bias in our public broadcaster. Bipartisan support for financial black holes e.g. NDIS, NBN etc. Hopeless government & even worse alternative.

  • Chris Warren says:

    Yes why are people not more factual.

    Here is a list of endangered species;

    https://www.britannica.com/list/10-of-the-most-famous-endangered-species

    All are there except rhino. In 1996 the statement that they were endangered was factual and correct.

    https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/black-rhino

    So lets use facts properly.

    Anyone who takes statements from the 1990’s and tries to impute errors based on conditions “today” are missing the point.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Here’s some serious lack of factfulness for you, blith.

      As a PC and eco-saviour you can improve your facts an extra 21 times:

      https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2018/05/twenty-one-times/

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Chris, I think you in particular would benefit from reading the book. I got mine from Amazon…

      • Chris Warren says:

        Don

        I can get it through inter-library loan. However to ensure that you get a factual, balanced view one need to consider;

        Does Rosling provide data on falling labour share in GDP?

        Does Rosling provide data on GHG trends?

        Does Rosling provide data on atmospheric temps?

        Does Rosling provide data on GINI coefficients?

        Does Rosling provide data on housing affordability?

        Does Rosling provide data on macroeconomic instability?

        • Don Aitkin says:

          A factual, balanced view of what exactly, Chris?

          • Chris Warren says:

            “Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” in the light of the aspects Rosling may not have covered.

            You can always present a Rosling view if you pick the aspects Rosling highlights, but not if you look at other aspects. Rosling tries to argue that inequality is falling, but he only shows a convergence amongst countries not the inequality occurring within nations.

            Why wouldanyone say “Things Are Better Than You Think” without addressing the possibility that the existence of humanity could be jeoparised?

            So I added-in 6 other aspects to assist those who are interested in coming to a more balanced understanding.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            You haven’t read the book, Chris, so get it out of the library and do so. He does deal with inequalities within nations. And he does talk about climate change too (along your track, as well), so you should be pleased.

        • spangled drongo says:

          When the doom-screamers like our blith and the rest of the climate alarmists encounter a lone rational optimist like Hans Rosling who demonstrates how they make stuff up for the benefit of not only their twisted philosophies but the world media, this lone voice has to be ridiculed and silenced.

          The factualness of these doom-screamers is evidenced by none better than whinnying jimmy:

          https://realclimatescience.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Screen-Shot-2017-03-01-at-3.44.38-AM-down1.gif

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    test

  • spangled drongo says:

    It’s always interesting how many people in life just cant handle facts.

    And how PC it is to go along with the stupidity:

    http://www.heraldsun.com.au/blogs/andrew-bolt/museum-bans-viking-bones-cites-aboriginal-culture/news-story/e0659aa6a509534947138ec9d9ec9124

  • spangled drongo says:

    But when we really get down to being “factful” it is hard to beat climate models:

    https://wattsupwiththat.com/2018/05/03/climate-models-predict-women-minorities-and-children-hit-hardest-film-at-11/

  • spangled drongo says:

    Groupthinking warmist-alarmists chasing money have one set of “facts” for customers and another for judge and jury:

    “Statements made to potential investors contradict allegations made by the municipalities when they sued the energy industry, the filing says.

    For example, San Mateo County’s complaint says it is “particularly vulnerable to sea level rise” and that there is a 93% chance the county experiences a “devastating” flood before 2050. However, bond offerings in 2014 and 2016 noted that the county “is unable to predict whether a sea-level rise or other impacts of climate change or flooding from a major storm will occur.”

    In doing so, they must have lied to potential investors in their respective bond offerings, ExxonMobil claims.”

    https://climatechangedispatch.com/in-climate-lawsuit-boulders-hoping-exxons-deep-pockets-will-pay-for-its-left-wing-agenda/

  • Neville says:

    Here’s Rosling’s video on population growth since 1960 and into the future.
    It’s amazing what otherwise sensible people choose to believe. Lomborg , Ridley, Goklany have all understood the Rosling numbers for decades, but we still have people who want to believe any silly nonsense that comes their way.

  • Neville says:

    It seems we have to wake some people up every few months.
    Here’s Rosling packing a mountain of data into about 5 mins to show the great leap forward for humanity since the start of the Ind Rev.
    Everyone today is much healthier and wealthier than 200 years ago or 100 years ago or 50 years ago or 25 years ago.
    Chinese life expectancy has soared since their huge increase of coal some 25 years ago.

    • Chris Warren says:

      Neville

      Within its selected range Rosling is interesting, even amusing, but when you look at other aspects the picture changes dramatically. You only have to walk down a few streets of deindustrialised America or through the slums of Bogáta in Columbia or visit East Africa.

      https://www.worldvision.com.au/global-issues/world-emergencies/east-africa

      The unemployed are not better off merely because their living standard has increased since the 1930’s.

      • spangled drongo says:

        “The unemployed are not better off merely because their living standard has increased since the 1930’s.”

        Are you kidding, blith?

        My grandfather, who was in charge of peoples life savings that completely dissolved, defenestrated in the thirties.

        A sailing mate who died a while back, nearly 100, with a pick and shovel singlehandedly sewered a town for next to nothing to keep himself fed in the thirties.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Neville, please. A few countries made major advances, and dragged the rest along. Why do we still have ‘foreign aid’? Why is Saudi Arabia rich? Because it invented petrol? What’s its foreign aid budget? Rosling is sheer nonsense. He may have been a wonderful person, but his ideas are only for the idealists.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Bryan , are you saying that because we still have the stupids, the poor and the pirates, that we haven’t progressed?

      • bryan roberts says:

        Of course we’ve progressed. We have more of all of them

        • spangled drongo says:

          You’re right there. And just look how much better these post-mod “factfuls” are becoming at teaching:

          1. Teaching Arithmetic In 1950s

          A timber cutter sells a truckload of timber for £100. His cost of production
          is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

          2. Teaching Maths In 1970s

          A timber cutter sells a truckload of timber for £100. His cost of production
          is 4/5 of the price, or £80. What is his profit?

          3. Teaching Maths In 1980s

          A timber cutter sells a truckload of timber for £100.
          His cost of production is £80 Did he make a profit ?
          Yes or No

          4. Teaching Maths In 1990s

          A timber cutter sells a truckload of timber for £100. His cost of production
          is £80 and his profit is £20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

          5. Teaching Maths In 2000s

          A timber cutter cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing
          for the habitat of animals or the
          preservation of our woodlands.
          He does this so he can make a profit of
          £20. What do you think of this
          way of making a living?

          Topic for class participation after
          answering the question: How did the birds
          and squirrels feel as the logger
          cut down their homes? (There are no
          wrong answers, feel free to express your feelings e.g, anger, anxiety, inadequacy, helplessness etc.)

          Should you require debriefing at conclusion of exam there are counsellors available to assist you adjust back into the real world.

          But here’s the “solution”

          6. Teaching Maths In 2050

          ??????? ???? ??????? ?? ????10 0 ?????. ????? ??????? ??80 ???????. ??? ???????? ????? ????

          2018 —- Britain has over 200 Muslim-only schools.

  • spangled drongo says:

    I think Hans Rosling forgot to mention the good news that with the increasing atmo CO2 our ever-increasing population will be assured of a good food supply.

    Kilauea has some up side. The aerial fertiliser is doing wonderful things.

    But we need more:

    https://3c1703fe8d.site.internapcdn.net/newman/gfx/news/hires/2013/1-anotherlinkb.jpg

  • spangled drongo says:

    “It is the basis of the Gaia hypothesis of Richard Lovelock that the sum effect of the biosphere’s activities is to enhance the earth’s habitability. This hypothesis is true – one of the profoundest truths in biology up there with evolution by natural selection (it’s actually a connected part of the same theory).”

  • Neville says:

    SD I think you’ll have to give up on Bazza, Chris, Bryan etc and leave them to their delusional fantasy planet.
    Amazing how silly some people are, but at least Dr Lovelock was decent enough to admit that he’d been wrong about CAGW.
    Just a pity that the then UK chief Scientist ( Dr Viner) hasn’t been honest enough to admit he was wrong about the lack of snow in our kid’s future.
    Then again I suppose all these stupid groupthinkers need to have all these urgers to feed their delusional fears about the future.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    stop. STOP. If you can’t make an argument that stands up without urls, then shut up.

  • […] on the argument and contents of Hans Rosling’s book Factfulness… You can read the first essay here. There have been some misguided comments on the book, for which I may be partly responsible. So […]

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