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Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

July 29, 2019

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”—commonly attributed to Mark Twain

Cover: FactfulnessDespite our technological advances, it seems that things just keep getting worse. Overpopulation, terrorism, natural disasters, lack of food and resources, crime, income inequality, and access to education are just some of the things with which humanity is contending. It makes one long for the good old days.

But is this perception of the world correct?

A critical skill for UX professionals is the ability to recognize our biases and evaluate the quality of the information we consume and develop. By recognizing the errors in our perception and in the information at hand, we can improve decision making for ourselves and our teams.

If you like watching TED talks, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered presentations by the late Hans Rosling. There are ten of his talks on the TED Web site. While I was initially attracted to his compelling techniques for portraying complex information, I ultimately became much more interested in the message of his presentations. This led to my interest in reading his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, which is the subject of this review.

Book Specifications

Title: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Author: Hans Rosling

Formats: Paperback, Kindle, Hardcover, Audiobook

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Published: April 3, 2018

Pages: 352

ISBN-10: 1250107814

ISBN-13: 978-1250107817

Of Chimps and Humans

Rosling begins his book Factfulness with a thirteen-question, multiple-choice quiz to help readers evaluate their understanding of world facts. The questions generally focus on the distribution of healthcare, education, wealth, and population. Here’s one example:

How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?
A: More than doubled
B: Remained about the same
C: Decreased to less than half

Rosling has given his quiz to audiences around the world, and while the precise proportions of correct answers vary, people universally get the answers wrong. He uses chimpanzees as a humorous straw man with which his audiences compete. Of course, chimps being chimps, lacking human language and context, randomly select an answer, so there is an even distribution of 33% for any answer.

From the book: “Just 10 percent of people picked the right answer, and even in the countries that did best on this question—Finland and Norway—it was only 16 percent…. The chimpanzees, who don’t watch the news, got 33 percent as always!”

The correct answer is “C: Decreased to less than half.” But even that answer isn’t quite accurate. As of the writing of the book, the number was just 25% of what it was 100 years ago. And, when we consider the population growth over the last 100 years, “it has fallen to just 6% of what it was 100 years ago.”

This isn’t because there are fewer natural disasters. It’s because societies around the world are getting better at preparing for natural disasters. As I write this, California is recovering from a magnitude 7.1 earthquake and other high-magnitude aftershocks, and there have been no reported casualties. Compare this with the January 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti, where over 300,000 people died. It is no coincidence that the casualties were so much higher in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

This pattern is consistent throughout the book: We are presented with a scenario that seems to be explainable with existing conventional knowledge. Then we peel back the layers and find the facts that counter our prejudices. We believe ourselves to be the most rational and intelligent of the apes. But surprisingly, our ability to understand the truth of our world falls short of that of our evolutionary cousins—and likely that of almost any animal, given that a random choice is better than our selection. What is happening here?

No Drama, No Interest, No Ratings

As Rosling describes, humans are predisposed to identify unusual or novel incidents. Coupled with this characteristic is the power of fear. Given the amount of information our senses take in every day, it is natural that our brains have developed processes for prioritizing unusual information about our environment and disregarding commonplace details. This has been a necessity in human history—especially in underdeveloped parts of the world, where noticing a basic danger such as a poisonous snake helps one to survive.

Our media ecosystem, which is largely funded through advertising that is measured by its ability to garner the attention of its audiences—in other words, ratings—has created an incentive structure that rewards media outlets that keep our attention. Unfortunately, the best way to get and keep the attention of people is to incite a sense of fear.

Our human tendency is to emphasize the potential of loss, at the expense of potential gains. As noted in Factfulness: In 2016, 40 million planes landed safely at their destinations, and ten ended in one or more fatalities. The benefits of air travel—such as tourism, business, and new experiences—far outweigh the minuscule possibility of a fatal plane crash—just 0.000025% of all flights. However, while the media frequently report and repeat reports of aviation disasters, they never report on safe landings except in aggregate—perhaps in a passing mention that a given year might have been the safest in aviation history.

Similarly, while people fear death from attacks by sharks, wolves, and snakes, sharks and wolves each kill fewer than ten people in an average year, while snakes might kill around 50,000 people in a year. However, the lowly mosquito kills around 725,000 people per year and incapacitates another 200 million through disease transmission. But while your favorite cable channel may have a Shark Week, they likely spend little time discussing the scourge of the mosquito.

Finding Factfulness

Throughout his book, Rosling presents a series of anecdotes demonstrating how what he thought he knew was, in fact, very wrong. He analyzes events and applies his rules for factfulness in appraising what went wrong—how what he knew to be so was not.

His chapter on generalization is especially applicable to UX professionals. In his narrative, Rosling describes how, as a newly minted, young physician in Sweden, he intervened in a grocery store to advise a young mother on the appropriate way to let her newborn nap in his stroller. He was aghast when he saw the child sleeping on his back, so turned the child over to sleep on his stomach—as the medical profession advised at the time—thus helping to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

The root of this practice came from the wartime observation that injured soldiers who were laid on stretchers on their bellies were much more likely to survive than those who were laid on their backs. The reason for this is that injured soldiers were likely to choke on their own vomit if they were left on their backs—thus, this recovery position has become a first-aid best practice. Generalizing this practice led to the practice of advising parents to rest their newborns on their stomachs. But newborns are not the same as injured soldiers—and this was precisely the wrong advice to give to parents. Research that was conducted in 1985 suggested that a prone position may be a significant cause of SIDS.

I found this particularly interesting in considering audience segments and personas. In User Experience, we frequently conduct research and create design solutions with a generalized understanding of our audiences. Of course, this has the potential of leading us to misunderstand our audiences, make assumptions that are based on stereotypes, and potentially underserve vast segments of users because we assume they are the same. 

At the conclusion of each chapter in the book, Rosling provides guidance on how to retain a factful approach to problems. In the chapter “Generalization,” Rosling suggests “recognizing when a category is being used in an explanation.” Finding similarities across groups and differences within groups can help us to recognize facts we may not have considered. He also suggests being wary of a focus on the majority. After all, this can range anywhere from 51% to 99% of a given segment.

Us and Them

We frequently see a binary narrative. Rich and poor. Educated and uneducated. East and West. Developed and undeveloped. Democrats and Republicans. But doing this results in an oversimplification of reality. When considering poverty and opportunity in the world, Rosling suggests that there is not a divide between rich and poor countries. Rather there is a spectrum of wealth, which he divides into four levels. Level 1 is extreme poverty, and Level 4 enjoys abundance. Much of the world exists at Levels 2 and 3. What does this progression look like? Rosling explains it in terms of access to resources and opportunities. Based on Rosling’s examples, let’s consider access to electricity:

  • Level 1: No electricity—Washing clothes, dishes, and cooking must all be performed manually. Any light after dark comes from candles. There is increased danger from poisonous animals.
  • Level 2: Limited power—There is perhaps enough electricity to power lights or a radio. People can perform their chores at any hour. The world is safer, and populations can learn about the world.
  • Level 3: A bit more electricity—There may be frequent outages, but availability is predictable and meets a certain standard of reliability. There is capacity to support a freezer and refrigeration, so families have consistent access to safe food.
  • Level 4: Abundant electricity—People have central air conditioning, televisions, and computers.

What is interesting about Rosling’s perspective is that these levels are universal. We can see them in the evolution of societies across continents, religious traditions, and ethnicities. For example, Rosling describes his family’s experiences in seeing Sweden progress from Level 2 to Level 4.

Iran’s Condom Factor

A central theme of Rosling’s work in understanding and alleviating poverty is the role of family planning. Less developed societies tend to have larger families, then as they become wealthier, their families get smaller. Larger families are insurance against high mortality because of poor infrastructure and less access to healthcare. They also tend to restrict opportunities for women because, rather than pursuing education and professions, they must spend extended portions of their lives in child-rearing.

In another example from the book, Rosling describes social progress in Iran, as follows:

“The fastest drop in babies per woman in world history went completely unreported in the free Western media. Iran—home in the 1990s to the biggest condom factory in the world, and boasting a compulsory pre-marriage sex education course for both brides and grooms—has a highly educated population with excellent access to an advanced public health-care system…. It is, at least clear that a free media is no guarantee that the world’s fastest cultural changes will be reported.”

I think this example is especially relevant as we consider the potential for international conflicts. We imagine differences between societies are permanent. We are often told that cultural differences prevent progress, but in example after example, we see that this is not the case.

Conclusion

While Factfulness is not a typical book about UX methods or theory, it is a book that encourages UX professionals to challenge the biases and inaccuracies in our information diet. Facts are not necessarily what our news media reports or we perceive.

As UX professionals, we must be mindful of the accuracy of the information we consume. We need to remain curious and avoid the cognitive shortcuts that lead to biases and obscure the truths of our world. 

Vice President, User Experience at Metisentry

Owner of TheoremCX

Kent, Ohio, USA

D. Ben WoodsBen began his career in 1999, when businesses were just beginning to recognize the World Wide Web as a valuable tool. Prior to his appointment at Kent State, he held positions as a UX designer and UX manager. He has worked with global teams and a variety of consulting firms to deliver research and design that improved digital experiences for customers. He has also developed his organizations’ analytics discipline to track the performance of digital properties and identify opportunities for improvement. Ben’s company TheoremCX is an innovation firm that provides customer-focused solutions. He has developed solutions and corporate workshops for a variety of organizations around the world, including Eaton, General Electric, Knoch Corporation, and Orange S.A. Ben is the chairperson of UX Akron, a nonprofit professional network serving Summit and Portage Counties, as well as all of Northeast Ohio.  Read More

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