I want to preface this blog post by saying that Factfullness by Hans Rosling should be required reading for every student. I would love to see this be expanded into a full class focusing on critical thinking.
Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress.
Perspective is everything. I really think many in the younger generation, including myself, forget this. If you want to get an accurate reading on the issues that plague society, it is important to zoom out.
Here’s the paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and more safe. Fears that once helped keep our ancestors alive, today help keep journalists employed.
The world can seem like a dark place. It sometimes feels that we are a nation of racist cops running through the streets, homophobic individuals around every corner, liberals that want to convert your children to communism, and conservatives that value guns more than lives. But this is not an accurate representation of reality.
your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves non-representative extraordinary events and shuns normality.
All it takes to see this is a quick comparison to our grandparent's generations. What was the state of racism? How about LGBT rights? We have made giant leaps of progress in a mere two generations. More dramatic progress can be seen when we zoom out and view the state of the world one or two hundred years ago. We have gone from slavery to the first black president. Being LGBT in the past could result in death depending on the culture you were born into. Now we have annual celebrations of pride month. We still have a long ways to go, but overall, we have grown more tolerant. And the projected arc of future progress should bring us great hope for future generations.
Okay, so maybe things have improved. But surely that doesn't justify the evil that can still be found in the world. Should we not fight evil everywhere it rears its head?
Does saying “things are improving” imply that everything is fine, and we should all relax and not worry? No, not at all. Is it helpful to have to choose between bad and improving? Definitely not. It’s both. It’s both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time. That is how we must think about the current state of the world.
Perhaps things are better, but surely focusing on areas of improvement can only help? It may seem that we need to keep our foot on the gas pedal if we want to ensure progress continues into future generations. And our activism may seem to only serve to accelerate this progress. So what's the danger?
When people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing we have tried so far is working and lose confidence in measures that actually work. I meet many such people, who tell me they have lost all hope for humanity. Or, they may become radicals, supporting drastic measures that are counter-productive when, in fact, the methods we are already using to improve our world are working just fine.
Consider this question; why are things improving? If the system was inherently bad, why are we making consistent progress?
Let's look at this from another angle. There are many that feel that if we shine a spotlight to bring awareness to a topic we will make faster progress and convert more people to the cause. What's the harm in exaggerating if it instills a sense of urgency and prompts others to action? We'll get to that momentarily.
This exaggeration can be due to one of two things. For one, the constant victim complex of every group that has ever existed. I don't say this to be derogatory or belittling of any group. Anyone who says they don't view themselves as a victim in at least one area of life is not being truthful. Victims will always magnify the persecution against the cause to which they belong.
Almost every activist I have ever met, whether deliberately or, more likely, unknowingly, exaggerates the problem to which they have dedicated themselves.
The second point is more intentional; the intentional exaggeration in the name of progress. This is an interesting ethical concept. While it may provide fuel to power the flames of change, it may also undermine the foundation of your movement.
It can drain credibility and trust from their cause. The constant alarms make us numb to real urgency. The activists who present things as more urgent than they are, wanting to call us to action, are boys crying wolf.
Take climate change for example. We don't all agree on the causes or solutions, but the general consensus is that some form of global warming is occurring. However, it is imperative that we don't exaggerate the issue or imbue it with a false sense of urgency. Blaming climate change for all global problems from poverty to migration, ignoring other factors such as regional instability or social issues, can turn people away from an issue that urgently needs attention and support. As tempting as it is, we must resist the urge to cry wolf despite wishing to draw awareness to a cause.
I'd like to wrap up this section with the following quote from Rosling;
I don’t tell you not to worry. I tell you to worry about the right things. I don’t tell you to look away from the news or to ignore the activists’ calls to action. I tell you to ignore the noise, but keep an eye on the big global risks. I don’t tell you not to be afraid. I tell you to stay coolheaded and support the global collaborations we need to reduce these risks. Control your urgency instinct. Control all your dramatic instincts. Be less stressed by the imaginary problems of an overdramatic world, and more alert to the real problems and how to solve them.
Next, I wanted to explain the Pareto Principle. Otherwise known as the 80/20 rule This is not Rosling's creation. Rather that of Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto.
The basic concept is that 20% are responsible for 80% of the results. 80% of the riches are held by 20% of the population. 20% of diseases are responsible for 80% of deaths. There are tons of videos online explaining this further, so I'm not going to go into further detail here.
What Rosling does with the Pareto Principle however is incredible. Rosling starts to apply the Pareto Principle to help guide policy.
Whenever I have to compare lots of numbers and work out which are the most important, I use the simplest-ever thinking tool. I look for the largest numbers. That is all there is to the 80/20 rule. We tend to assume that all items on a list are equally important, but usually just a few of them are more important than all the others put together. Whether it is causes of death or items in a budget, I simply focus first on understanding those that make up 80 percent of the total. Before I spend time on the smaller ones, I ask myself: Where are the 80 percent? Why are these so big? What are the implications?
You may notice that his use of the principle is a little different than its default definition but it is in the same spirit. He's choosing to focus policy on what makes up 80% of the total as the 20% brings diminishing returns, becomes more of a gray area, and takes resources from places where they are better used. We must see an issue in relation to other issues in order to understand the importance of the issue.
Please note that this is true in the vast majority of use cases, even if inconvenient. One such area that may come to mind is the protection of minority viewpoints. There are situations in which knowledge of the Pareto Principle will help bring awareness to the 20%. Like with anything, there is wisdom in making exceptions in situations like this where it makes sense to do so. But we also must keep in mind, that mathematics isn't as sensitive as we are. The focus on the 20% will be an uphill battle with diminishing returns so we must choose those issues with caution.
I'm going to make a rare break from policy to bring up a key difference in how the two political parties in America base policy;
The conservative Republican party tends to be better implementors of the Pareto Principle, though I doubt they are aware that is what they are doing. They tend to focus on numbers and statistics which can make them seem heartless, uncaring, and unsympathetic to the 20% minority. Inversed, and more true to the initial use of the principle, simultaneously passing legislation that tends to help the top 20%.
The liberal Democratic party is so busy focusing on everything, the 80%, that they sometimes fail to effectively target the 20% that makes big, lasting impact. The inverse of the principle, they are focused on the 20% minority.
Together they form a type of Yin Yang if they could but learn to cooperate. Anyway, back to Rosling. He said,
Paying too much attention to the individual visible victim rather than to the numbers can lead us to spend all our resources on a fraction of the problem, and therefore save many fewer lives.
I think it's safe to say that his use of the Pareto Principle when it comes to saving lives is the most efficient and perhaps most humane. Though it is understandable why some might feel he is heartless. And many did while he was in his career. But he was incredibly efficient because he didn't let his emotions get between him and the numbers.
Next up, I'd like to shift to blame. Or rather, how that's exactly what we shouldn't be doing.
I forgot the exact context of this conversation in the book, but it was something to the extent of a meeting by various world leaders on the topic of the climate. One leader stood and explained how certain countries' actions had caused damage to the environment. This is a scene we commonly see in politics these days. But then he paused and said,
“But we forgive you, because you did not know what you were doing. We should never blame someone retrospectively for harm they were unaware of.”
What a powerful thing to say! And I think this is a major issue in the political landscape. Blame. We love blame. We love finding scapegoats. Rosling continues;
Resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. [...] To control the blame instinct, resist finding a scapegoat. Look for causes, not villains.
Rosling beautifully put to words what so many in the political landscape fail to grasp. By playing the blame game, we often fail to implement an actual change or policy. Trading policy and fixes for blame and scapegoats.
But the need to find someone to blame is not only inefficient, but it is also often incorrect. Rosling explains;
It’s almost always more complicated than that. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes—a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.
This is one of my biggest pet peeves in politics today. Not only are we so willing and even wishing to place blame on each other, but we also fail to realize how the blamed party is rarely at fault. They are but a cog in a larger system. This is inversely applicable, and perhaps more obvious in today's political landscape. Perhaps the individual was a rogue actor, and truly deserves the blame, but the system as a whole is blamed in their place to push an agenda. Blaming an individual doesn't provide fuel for restructuring a system.
It's frustrating to watch blame become the main tool in politics today. We choose to ignore our own inefficiencies and fallacies because blaming the other side is easier and sadly, resonates more with voters. But the system is so much more complex than that. We can't simply pick and choose metrics that show us in a favorable light or cast our enemies in shadow.
There is no single measure—not GDP per capita, not child mortality (as in Cuba), not individual freedom (as in the United States), not even democracy—whose improvement will guarantee improvements in all the others. There is no single indicator through which we can measure the progress of a nation. Reality is just more complicated than that.
Alright, we have been rather harsh on ourselves the last few paragraphs. It's time we take a slight break and understand that there is also an element of this that is not our fault. The human brain simply cannot understand the system in its scale and immensity. Rosling explains;
Everyone automatically categorizes and generalizes all the time. Unconsciously. It is not a question of being prejudiced or enlightened. Categories are absolutely necessary for us to function.
This is when experts come in. It's nearly impossible for us to have an accurate overall view of the system. We must therefore use people that are hyper-specialized in a field to understand topics more in-depth than we can ourselves.
But even relying on experts has its negatives. I personally have an issue when one side or another parades out a "scientist" or "expert" to give their side credibility. Oftentimes the experts are in a different field entirely than that which is needed for the issue at hand.
Experts are experts only within their field. [...] Sometimes an expert will look around for ways in which their hard-won knowledge and skills can be applicable beyond where it’s actually useful. So, people with math skills can get fixated on the numbers. Climate activists argue for solar everywhere. And physicians promote medical treatment where prevention would be better. Great knowledge can interfere with an expert’s ability to see what actually works.
So...how can we remedy this? If we are unable to accurately understand the whole system and if we need to trust experts but we don't want them to meddle in things outside their area of expertise?
If this seems complicated, it's because it is. Rosling uses the following analogy to explain the predicament;
A long jumper is not allowed to measure her own jumps. A problem-solving organization should not be allowed to decide what data to publish either. The people trying to solve a problem on the ground, who will always want more funds, should not also be the people measuring progress. That can lead to really misleading numbers.
It can feel even a little hopeless at times. The truth is there is no perfect method. There is always some portion of a situation in which we are going to fail. Rosling's use of the Pareto Principle as a guideline to establish where his efforts were of the most use was brilliant even if at times criticized. I believe that if we apply critical thinking to build onto a system like that with verified results we can help cover more edge cases in time. But as I mentioned before, there is always an exception.
I'd like to wrap up with the following quote by Rosling that beautifully summarizes what seems unsolvable and hopeless at times.
The answer is not either/or. It is case-by-case, and it is both. The challenge is to find the right balance between regulation and freedom.
The truth about Factfullness is that we are more often left in darkness than in light. The key is to stick to what we know. Use verifiable methods even if imperfect, and strive to build a system based on Factfullness, not fear, blame, or exaggeration.