Saturday, June 6, 2020

Factfulness: Ignorance about global trends. The world is actually getting better.

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From the layman to the elite, there is widespread ignorance about global trends.

Author and international health professor, Hans Rosling, calls Factfulness “his very last battle in [his] lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance.” After years of trying to convince the world that all development indicators point to vast improvements on a global scale, Rosling digs deeper to explore why people systematically have a negative view of where humanity is heading. He identifies a number of deeply human tendencies that predispose us to believe the worst. For every instinct that he names, he offers some rules of thumb for replacing this overdramatic worldview with a “factful” one.

In 2017, 20,000 people across fourteen countries were given a multiple-choice quiz to assess basic global literacy. Examples of questions were:
  1. Does the majority of the world population reside in low-, middle-, or high-income countries?
  2. Is the average life expectancy in the world 50, 60, or 70 years?
  3. How many of the world’s 1-year-olds have been vaccinated against some kind of disease? 20 percent? 50 percent? 80 percent?
Not a single person in the 20,000-strong sample got all of the questions right. The average score was 2 correct out of 13 questions. All questions were straight-forward, free from vagary or trickery of any kind. All participants were educated professionals, including government officials, business professionals, doctors, journalists—even a Nobel prize winner.

Even at the World Economic Forum in 2015, in a room filled with a collection of high-ranking government and UN officials, professors, researchers, activists, and A-list reporters, most failed to correctly answer the three basic questions about global trends that were posed in the author’s lecture. This was a high-profile international affair, filled with people who have a vested interest in matters of global development.

A chimpanzee could do better than the average participant. That’s not a joke—it’s basic statistics that a chimp would likely get 4 or 5 out of 13 correct just by pressing random buttons. This means that, for some reason, we are systematically selecting the more pessimistic (and wrong) answers to test questions. What is shaping our intuitions that the world is such terrible place?

An outdated, overdramatic view of global affairs is hurting us.

Getting beaten by chimps in global literacy assessments is a bit embarrassing for humanity, but there’s hope! We are arriving at a better understanding of reasons for the underlying widespread ignorance. One factor is that our beliefs are outdated. Even after just a decade or two, the world can be a very different place. Consider one of the quiz questions about extreme poverty: In the past 20 years, has extreme poverty stayed the same, doubled, or been cut in half? The answer (which the vast majority got wrong) is that poverty has been halved in only two decades. This is arguably one of the most significant milestones of our time, and yet most people remain unaware of it.

Another factor is that we humans have a flair for the dramatic. Throughout our history, we have been drawn to epic stories of good overcoming evil and us-versus-them thinking. This impulse is deeply embedded within us, but it means that subtleties are missed because they just don’t have the staying power of a dramatic narrative.

Ignorance is not bliss. Our lives would be less stressful if we made a concerted effort to learn the facts and check our tendencies like focusing on the negative, playing the blame game, making false generalizations, blowing things out of proportion, and making everything ultra urgent. By doing so, our worldview will become less dramatic and more “factful.”

When we compare extremes, we forget that the majority of people are somewhere in the middle

Before despairing or decrying a so-called “gap” in society, look for the majority. Chances are between the poorest and wealthiest, there is a sizable number who are comfortably middle-class.

Beware of averages. They can be misleading and convey the sense that every single poor person earns x amount of money while every single wealthy person earns x + y. Averages give no account for how widely spread the data is. Another example would be the pay gap between men and women. It is typically presented in terms of two figures, with men’s income figuring slightly higher than women’s. But if you look at the same data on a standard deviation graph, which shows not only averages but the highest and lowest earners as well, it becomes obvious that there is almost complete overlap between the bell curves displaying men’s and women’s earnings. The averages by themselves can give the impression that every single man earns more than every single woman, but one important truth that the standard deviation graphs help keep in perspective is that there are plenty of women who earn a lot and plenty of men who earn very little.

Be careful when comparing extremes for the same reasons. By comparing the ultra-rich in Beverly Hills to the poorest in a famine-stricken region of East Africa, we lose sight of the fact that, on a global scale, the majority of the world lives somewhere in between. Examining only the top and bottom will give us a distorted picture of what the world is like.

The global consensus is that the world is getting worse—and they’ve got it all wrong

People in 30 countries were recently asked if they thought the world was getting better or worse. There was not one country in which the majority of those polled thought the world was getting better. A majority—and in some cases a vast majority—believe the world is getting worse.

But is it getting worse? About a century ago, there were no countries where a woman’s vote counted equal to a man’s. Now there are 193 countries that allow women to vote and consider their votes equal in weight. Two centuries ago, 2 percent of the world’s population lived in democracies. Now, 56 percent enjoy democracy. The incandescent light bulb was invented a bit over a century ago, and electricity was available only to the elite. Now 80 percent of the world has electricity. Enrollment of girls in primary schools has gone up from 65 percent in 1970 to 90 percent today. In under 40 years, access to water from a protected source has risen from 58 percent to 88 percent. In two centuries, global literacy rates have risen from 10 percent to 86 percent.

These are just a handful of the vast improvements that have taken place on a global scale. These changes are not insignificant.

No wonder we’re stressed and anxious— we believe the world is going to end up in the toilet. Who would have thought that statistics could be so therapeutic?

Before getting angry over an isolated statistic, find a standard of comparison

Around the world, 4.2 million infants died in 2017. Death of young lives is certainly sad, and if you had a way of visiting each of the grieving families that will never see their child learn to walk, run, and laugh, then you would have tears to cry for years. But tears alone will not bring about any change. What is more, this figure is actually extremely low. 4.2 million seems like a lot until we view the number in perspective. In 1950, that number was 14.4 million—and that was when the world’s population was a third of today’s. By adding just one more figure, humanity’s trajectory goes from tragedy to cause for celebration.

We humans are in the habit of blowing things out of proportion. It comes pretty naturally to us. We also tend to assign great significance to singular events. The media knows these tendencies and can sometimes run away with them. If there is a story of a tragic death, the media knows we feel insensitive ignoring it. Or take the shocking statistics—made all the more shocking for being ripped from their contexts—that journalists put in their headlines. These stories are often spun in such a way as to make them seem more significant than they actually are.

It’s best not to rely on a single isolated statistic. Gather a cluster of related statistics to build a frame of reference. The power of an isolated statistic is that it can shock and outrage because it might sound high or low. Thus, we should view statistics with suspicion until we have a standard of comparison. Questions like how rates in other countries compare or what the figure was last year, a decade ago, or a century ago ground our understanding.

Another rule of thumb to avoid being unnecessarily flabbergasted is to focus on statistics that give rates rather than raw numbers. Rates per capita will give the most accurate standard—far more accurate picture than sheer volume for an entire country or continent. Rates help turn these into manageable chunks of information that we can wrap our minds around and readily compare.

We can’t stop generalizing, but we can get better at it

We are categorizing, generalizing creatures. This tendency isn’t going anywhere, so it’s futile trying to eradicate it. What we should beware of isn’t generalizing, but doing a bad job of it. To keep a check on the generalizing tendency, you must be willing to question your categories.

Be cautious when people discuss “majorities.” When a headline refers to a “majority,” dig deeper. Both 52 percent and 98 percent are majorities, but that’s a huge difference. Beware of accounts that rely on vivid examples to make a case. These stories have staying power in the mind, but that doesn’t make them typical.

A final suggestion would be to learn from others. Operate under the assumption that people aren’t stupid. This fosters a sense of humility and curiosity about the world around you, and greater potential for others to expand yours. It will be through collaboration and sharpening each other’s ideas that we arrive at ideal solutions.

When we play the blame game, no one wins and nothing gets solved

We’re in the habit of pinning blame on power-hungry politicians and greedy corporate heads. The author describes an exchange with his class after announcing that he would be having a conversation with the CEO of a large pharmaceutical company. “Punch him in the face!” one student called out. The author indulged the hypothetical situation, asking what he should do after punching the CEO. Eventually the blame shifted from the CEO to the board members. But it was eventually agreed that punching three of four board members before security was called in would not be effective either, that even if the board members were removed, a set of like-minded men and women would be selected to take their place. So maybe it was the stockholders of this public company, those whose funds were perpetuating a business that looks after the interests of the wealthy instead of the poor. In the case of the pharmaceutical company, it was typically the elderly investing because pharmaceutical stocks tend to be more stable.

“So you may have to punch your grandmother,” the author told the student. He added that the extra money that grandmother gave for hiking trips last summer quite possibly came from company dividends. It was thus concluded that the student might have to punch himself in the face.

The point of this anecdote is that blame is something we’re eager to assign (to others, anyway), but it is often very difficult to isolate the guilty party. The blame game is easier to play than admitting complexity.

During the four decades that China’s one-child policy was in effect, the rate never dropped below 1.5 children per woman; whereas, some countries that have no such policy—like Hong Kong, South Korea, and the Ukraine—had ratios that dropped below one child to one woman. Or consider claims that the pope wields significant power over the world’s Catholic community. If this is true, then why are contraceptives used more in Catholic-majority countries than the rest of the world?

The point is that, while Mao had and Francis has strong political and moral influence, there are other factors at play.

So before you stand on principle and punch grandma in her face (or a CEO or a board member or a journalist), ask yourself what you would gain by accusing that person or group of people? Scapegoating is a cathartic experience, but rarely results in positive change. Identify causes and systems rather than villains.

Actions taken from a position of urgency and panic usually cause more problems than they solve

The salesman and the activist both tell us that now is the time to act, that tomorrow might be too late. In doing so, they are exploiting another deeply embedded human tendency, one that requires conscious effort to curb: urgency. When there is an issue, we tend to believe that everything has to change immediately. This is an unrealistic, stressful way to approach problems, whether personal or global. It is symptomatic of an overdramatic world.

Extreme poverty, for example, is slowly but surely being eradicated, but the process has been a marathon—not a sprint.

To be sure, there are global concerns that we should take seriously, like flu pandemics, financial implosion, climate change, and World War III. The point is not to ignore the belief that something should be done, but to remind us that unintended negative consequences often follow in the wake of rash action. It will take global collaboration, pooling resources, sharing the latest in independent research, taking baby steps, meticulously evaluating those baby steps, and deliberate, thoughtful action toward these pressing risks to lessen them and make the world a safer, healthier, wealthier place.

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