Sunday, October 18, 2020

Factfulness -- One Swede's Mission for a Larger Perspective-Practice That Might Help Us

I can’t remember when I last read a book by a strict empiricist, but I’m smiling with this one: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World--and Why Things are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling (with his son Ola and daughter Anna). The gist of his gift to us here, if you are willing to receive it? He describes ten (over)dramatic habits of mind quite prevalent across the globe today (especially in the level of society most of us reading/writing here live in). He counters these with practical tips on how to catch ourselves in dramatic instincts, or ingrained ways of thinking/feeling that had helped to protect us for centuries of our lineages but now are creating huge difficulties for being in the world as it is. With factfulness, he suggests, these instincts--realized and countered--could become stepping stones to better ways of being human, together. In his own words: 

Factfulness was written “to change people’s ways of thinking, calm their irrational fears, and redirect their energies into constructive activities.” In other words, he says, “This is data as you have never known it: it is data as therapy. It is understanding as a source of mental peace. Because the world is not as dramatic as it seems.”


“Factfulness, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can and should become part of your daily life. Start to practice it, and you will be able to replace your overdramatic worldview with a worldview based on facts. You will be able to get the world right without learning it by heart. You will make better decisions, stay alert to real dangers and possibilities, and avoid being constantly stressed about the wrong things. … You will learn to recognize overdramatic stories with thinking tools to control your dramatic instincts. You will then be able to shift your misconceptions, develop a fact-based worldview...”

Some of this strikes me as a human need to grasp and control through science, reliant on data more than on artistry, creativity or inarticulate wisdom. But “to calm irrational fears?” To “redirect our energies into constructive activities”? “The world is not as dramatic as it seems?” Those caught my heart in this political season for better ways of being human together…These brought me to the book, eventually to the gift he’s offering me. You can decide whether you can receive such a gift for yourself.

To whet your appetite, he offers a list of these instincts into drama, though I am only going to muse on the first two below…

The Gap Instinct

The Negativity Instinct

The Straight Line Instinct

The Fear Instinct

The Size Instinct

The Generalization Instinct

The Destiny Instinct

The Single Perspective Instinct

The Blame Instinct

The Urgency Instinct

Background to Factfulness:

The primary author of
Factfulness, Hans Rosling, was a Swedish physician and academic, the Professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute, and he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation. It is his final book, published after his death, well-stewarded by his son and daughter, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. A strict empiricist, as he seems to me, is someone who is focused primarily on ‘the data’, someone therefore well-steeped in statistically-oriented habits of interpretation. My vocational life in higher theological education means I do not interact much with strict empiricists. I appreciate the precision of those well-versed in statistical analyses AND I know enough to be quite suspicious about such analyses too. In my ‘biz,’ we encourage a hermeneutics of suspicion through which we bring a skeptical, critical, “you convince me” kind of listening stance to any text inviting a new perspective. I’ve often strived to counter this with a hermeneutics of charity, looking upon intellectual projects with love and presumption of goodwill. This book seems to fall in between these two mind-heart pillars of “how to interpret” something. 

I have been quite struck by the common sense and compelling invitation into a global perspective which may be worth considering in this tense, political season. There is so much at stake in these next weeks AND the work ahead of us beyond the Election beckons me more. I think this Work with We the People could benefit from a dip into factfulness. Come with me for a little bit here, and see if you agree…

A Fact-Based Worldview within (historically) Drama-Drenched Population(s)

Rosling worked tirelessly for decades trying to teach a fact-based worldview, all the while listening to how people misinterpret the facts, even when they are right there in front of them. He got curious why and how both highly educated ‘experts’ and less-educated people consistently scored worse than if they had simply answered survey questions randomly (like a chimpanzee might, he would say). The text actually begins with a survey in which you name (or guess) the state of the world today in terms of poverty, geographic locations suited to human life, life expectancy, age-range/children, death-rates, vaccination-rates, gender-differences/challenges, climate and more… Each time, survey participants would consistently perform ‘worse than randomly completed.’ In his language, ‘worse than chimpanzees’ simply hitting keys to answer the questions.

Rosling’s conclusion for this persistent misinterpretation in face of the data is that we have dramatic instincts and an overdramatic worldview. He is (was) convinced that this situation or tendency is not the fault of an evil-minded media, propaganda, fake news, or wrong facts. The overdramatic worldview is so difficult to shift because it comes from the very way our brains work. “Our brains often jump to swift conclusions without much thinking, which used to help us to avoid immediate dangers. We are interested in gossip and dramatic stories, which used to be the only source of news and useful information. We crave sugar and fat, which used to be life-saving sources of energy when food was scarce. We have many instincts that used to be useful thousands of years ago, but we live in a very different world now.” In contrast to the exclamations of Fake News! or the regular condemnations of the media, our worldview comes from thousands/millions of years of evolution and energies for survival. We need not attempt to alter this in any dramatic way, but simply learn to control our drama intake. “Uncontrolled, our appetite for the dramatic goes too far, prevents us from seeing the world as it is, and leads us terribly astray.”

The Gap Instinct

One of the most obvious ‘dramatic instincts’ here is what he calls the gap instinct. The chapter is a compelling read, with a hopeful tone. He begins his “lifelong fight against global misconceptions” by looking at child mortality rates across the globe. His argument is that this measure “takes the temperature of a whole society, because children are very fragile. ... When only 14 children die out of 1,000 in Malaysia, this means that the other 986 survive. … This number 14 tells us that most families in Malaysia have enough food, their sewage systems don’t leak into their drinking water, they have good access to primary health care, and mothers can read and write. It doesn’t just tell us about the health of children. It measures the quality of the whole society.” He then brings his listeners to his global point: “you won’t find any countries where child mortality has increased. Because the world in general is getting better.” 

If that strikes you as dissonant with your view of the world, do a random Google-search on child mortality rates. I did, here. “All countries in the world have made very rapid progress against child mortality…” This is just one statistic that he offers, in this chapter. The survey and the text as a whole offer this global perspective and shifting to “better than I expected” again and again on various statistics in measuring international health. Curious…! Where does my expectation come from?

The gap instinct is the “irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap--a huge chasm of injustice--in between.” Sound familiar? Too familiar, perhaps? Rosling is interested in how this gap instinct creates a picture in people’s heads of a world split into two kinds of countries or two kinds of people. 

He takes a look at the perception of rich versus global perspective...with the becoming-outdated terminology around developing countries and developed countries. When rich/poor is viewed in this lens, which originated well over half a century ago, there are two kinds of countries with a wide gap in between them. This (to the right) was the world in these terms in 1965. 

Using the same measures, the world today no longer has this gap. It makes no sense to view the world in terms of developing and developed! (see below). There is no gap, and the majority of human population--contrary to our worldview--now lives in developed countries with smaller families where fewer children die.

To counter our mental habits, Rosling suggests viewing societies' 'level' in four levels instead of two. He spends time delineating what each level means, in practical terms of water, transportation, cooking and food. While of course there are human beings across the globe in the lowest level, the majority of human population lives in Levels 2 & 3, with a less-than-majority living in the highest level, 4. 

Factfulness here is “recognizing when a story talks about a gap, and remembering that this paints a picture of two separate groups, with a gap in between. The reality is often not polarized at all. Usually the majority is right there in the middle, where the gap is supposed to be. To control the gap instinct, look for the majority. The thinking tools to assist in this reorientation...

Beware of comparison of averages. If you could check the spreads you would probably find they overlap. There is probably no gap at all.

Beware of comparison of extremes. In all groups, of countries or people, there are some at the top and some at the bottom. The difference is sometimes extremely unfair. But even then the majority is usually somewhere in between, right where the gap is supposed to be.

And remember the distortion in any view from up here. Everything else looks equally short, but it’s not. 

The Negativity Instinct

Rosling then moves into the next chapter, the next instinct: the negativity instinct, our tendency to notice the bad more than the good. To the survey question--is the world getting better, worse, or neither better nor worse?--all countries across the globe showed a majority thinking that the world is getting worse. “No wonder we all feel so stressed,” Rosling quips. And he alludes to another maxim: if 100% of us think in a particular way, do not trust it. Reality is rarely represented in 100% thinking.

The chapter courses through the basics for human survival, looking at trends for extreme poverty (which has actually halved since 1800), life expectancy (from 31 years in 1800 to 72 years in 2017), and then 32 other trends he simply shows in graphs: 16 bad things decreasing and 16 good things increasing. (see pix).

Culture and artistry are hard to measure, he admits, but playfully, he identifies the number of “playable guitars per million people” in the world: 200 in 1962 up to 11000 in 2014. “With beautiful statistics like these, how can anyone say the world is getting worse?”

We have a negativity instinct, which is probably even more apparent than the gap instinct! To gently counter this one, Rosling writes: Factfulness is recognizing when we get negative news, and remember that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is stressful. To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news

Hold better and bad together. Practice distinguishing between a level (e.g. bad) and a direction fo change (e.g. better). Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad.

Good news is not news. Good news is almost never reported. So news is almost always bad. When you hear bad news, ask whether equally positive news would have reached you.

Gradual improvement is not news. When a trend is gradually improving, with periodic dips, you are more likely to notice the dips than the overall improvement.

More news does not equal more suffering… More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering, not a worsening world. (I'm reminded here of a weary Will Smith, observing racism is not getting worse, it's just getting filmed...)

Beware of rosy pasts. People often glorify their early experiences, and nations often glorify their histories.

Conclusions...for now...

How does this all this factor in the increasing gap between rich and poor in our country? I found myself wondering. How does this measure up in my experience of my local community, ensconced in a season of national reckoning?  I am feeling an invitation…

The other instincts beckon, some more than others: the fear instinct, the generalization instinct, the blame instinct, the urgency instinct… Each chapter of Rosling’s book follows a similarly compelling shape--looking at a global health measure and discovering it’s not as bad globally as I am predisposed to believe. Each chapter concludes with a one-page summary on what factfulness is in contrast to the instinct under review. Thinking tools are given to practice, to explore… Chapter Eleven reflects on factfulness in practice, which I’ll probably read next. 

At the very least, I’m more and more curious about my Level 4--highest level of global resourcing-living--tendencies to see scarcity where there is abundance, fear where there could be hope, irreconcilable difference where there could be community-in-transformation.

I’m in for now...wanting to see how the practice might inform my citizenship right here.

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