Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (5 page)

Factfulness and the Fact-Based Worldview

This book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance. It is my last attempt to make an impact on the world: to change people’s ways of thinking, calm their irrational fears, and redirect their energies into constructive activities. In my previous battles I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software, an energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet. It wasn’t enough. But I hope that this book will be.

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.

I will teach you how to recognize overdramatic stories and give you some thinking tools to control your dramatic instincts. Then you will be able to shift your misconceptions, develop a fact-based worldview, and beat the chimps every time.

Back to the Circus

I occasionally swallow swords at the end of my lectures to demonstrate in a practical way that the seemingly impossible is possible. Before my circus act, I will have been testing my audience’s factual knowledge about the world. I will have shown them that the world is completely different from what they thought. I will have proven to them that many of the changes they think will never happen have
already happened
. I will have been struggling to awaken their curiosity about what is possible, which is absolutely different from what they believe, and from what they see in the news every day.

I swallow the sword because I want the audience to realize how wrong their intuitions can be. I want them to realize that what I have shown them—both the sword swallowing and the material about the world that came before it—however much it conflicts with their preconceived ideas, however impossible it seems, is true.

I want people, when they realize they have been wrong about the world, to feel not embarrassment, but that childlike sense of wonder, inspiration, and curiosity that I remember from the circus, and that I still get every time I discover I have been wrong: “Wow, how is that even possible?”

This is a book about the world and how it really is. It is also a book about you, and why you (and almost everyone I have ever met) do not see the world as it really is. It is about what you can do about it, and how this will make you feel more positive, less stressed, and more hopeful as you walk out of the circus tent and back into the world.

So, if you are more interested in being right than in continuing to live in your bubble; if you are willing to change your worldview; if you are ready for critical thinking to replace instinctive reaction; and if you are feeling humble, curious, and ready to be amazed—then please read on.


Capturing a monster in a classroom using only a piece of paper
Where It All Started

It was October 1995 and little did I know that after my class that evening, I was going to start my lifelong fight against global misconceptions.

“What is the child mortality rate in Saudi Arabia? Don’t raise your hands. Just shout it out.” I had handed out copies of tables 1 and 5 from UNICEF’s yearbook. The handouts looked dull, but I was excited.

A choir of students shouted in unison: “

“Yes. Thirty-five. Correct. This means that 35 children die before their fifth birthday out of every thousand live births. Give me the number now for Malaysia?”

,” came the chorus.

As the numbers were thrown back at me, I scribbled them with a green pen onto a plastic film on the overhead projector.

“Fourteen,” I repeated. “Fewer than Saudi Arabia!”

My dyslexia played a little trick on me and I wrote “Malaisya.” The students laughed.





I put the pen down and said, “Do you know why I’m obsessed with the numbers for the child mortality rate? It’s not
that I care about children. This measure takes the temperature of a whole society. Like a huge thermometer. Because children are very fragile. There are so many things that can kill them. When only 14 children die out of 1,000 in Malaysia, this means that the other 986 survive. Their parents and their society manage to protect them from all the dangers that could have killed them: germs, starvation, violence, and so on. So 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.

“It’s not the numbers that are interesting. It’s what they tell us about the lives behind the numbers,” I continued. “Look how different these numbers are: 14, 35, 55, and 171. Life in these countries must be extremely different.”

I picked up the pen. “Tell me now how life was in Saudi Arabia 35 years ago? How many children died in 1960? Look in the second column.”

… and forty two.”

The volume dropped as my students articulated the big number: 242.

“Yes. That’s correct. Saudi Arabian society has made amazing progress, hasn’t it? Child deaths per thousand dropped from 242 to 35 in just 33 years. That’s way faster than Sweden. We took 77 years to achieve the same improvement.

“What about Malaysia? Fourteen today. What was it in 1960?”

“Ninety-three,” came the mumbled response. The students had all started searching through their tables, puzzled and confused. A year earlier, I had given my students the same examples, but with no data tables to back them up, and they had simply refused to believe what I told them about the improvements across the world. Now, with all the evidence right in front of them, this year’s students were instead rolling their eyes up and down the columns, to see if I had picked exceptional countries and tried to cheat them. They couldn’t believe the picture they saw in the data. It didn’t look anything like the picture of the world they had in their heads.

“Just so you know,” I said, “you won’t find any countries where child mortality has increased. Because the world in general is getting better. Let’s have a short coffee break.”

The Mega Misconception That “The World Is Divided in Two”

This chapter is about the first of our ten dramatic instincts, the gap instinct. I’m talking about that 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. It is about how the gap instinct creates a picture in people’s heads of a world split into two kinds of countries or two kinds of people: rich versus poor.

It’s not easy to track down a misconception. That October evening in 1995 was the first time I got a proper look at the beast. It happened right after coffee, and the experience was so exciting that I haven’t stopped hunting mega misconceptions ever since.

I call them mega misconceptions because they have such an enormous impact on how people misperceive the world. This first one is the worst. By dividing the world into two misleading boxes—poor and rich—it completely distorts all the global proportions in people’s minds.

Hunting Down the First Mega Misconception

Starting up the lecture again, I explained that child mortality was highest in tribal societies in the rain forest, and among traditional farmers in the remote rural areas across the world. “The people you see in exotic documentaries on TV. Those parents struggle harder than anyone to make their families survive, and still they lose almost half of their children. Fortunately, fewer and fewer people have to live under such dreadful conditions.”

A young student in the first row raised his hand. He tilted his head and said, “They can never live like us.” All over the room other students nodded in support.

He probably thought I would be surprised. I was not at all. This was the same kind of “gap” statement I had heard many times before. I wasn’t surprised, I was thrilled. This was what I had hoped for. Our dialogue went something like this:

Sorry, who do you mean when you say “they”?

I mean people in other countries.

All countries other than Sweden?

No. I mean … the non-Western countries. They can’t live like us. It won’t work.

Aha! (As if now I understood.) You mean like Japan?

No, not Japan. They have a Western lifestyle.

So what about Malaysia? They don’t have a “Western lifestyle,” right?

No. Malaysia is not Western. All countries that haven’t adopted the Western lifestyle yet. They shouldn’t. You know what I mean.

No, I don’t know what you mean. Please explain. You are talking about “the West” and “the rest.” Right?

Yes. Exactly.

Is Mexico … “West”?

He just looked at me.

I didn’t mean to pick on him, but I kept going, excited to see where this would take us. Was Mexico “the West” and could Mexicans live like us? Or “the rest,” and they couldn’t? “I’m confused.” I said. “You started with ‘them and us’ and then changed it to ‘the West and the rest.’ I’m very interested to understand what you mean. I have heard these labels used many times, but honestly I have never understood them.”

Now a young woman in the third row came to his rescue. She took on my challenge, but in a way that completely surprised me. She pointed at the big paper in front of her and said, “Maybe we can define it like this:
‘we in the West’
have few children and few of the children die. While
‘they in the rest’
have many children and many of the children die.” She was trying to resolve the conflict between his mind-set and my data set—in a pretty creative way, actually—by suggesting a definition for how to split the world. That made me so happy. Because she was absolutely wrong—as she would soon realize—and more to the point, she was wrong in a concrete way that I could test.

“Great. Fantastic. Fantastic.” I grabbed my pen and leaped into action. “Let’s see if we can put the countries in two groups based on how many children they have and how many children die.”

The skeptical faces now became curious, trying to figure out what the heck had made me so happy.

I liked her definition because it was so clear. We could check it against the data. If you want to convince someone they are suffering from a misconception, it’s very useful to be able to test their opinion against the data. So I did just that.

And I have been doing just that for the rest of my working life. The big gray photocopying machine that I had used to copy those original data tables was my first partner in my fight against misconceptions. By 1998, I had a new partner—a color printer that allowed me to share a colorful bubble graph of country data with my students. Then I acquired my first human partners, and things really picked up. Anna and Ola got so excited by these charts and my idea of capturing misconceptions that they joined my cause, and accidently created a revolutionary way to show hundreds of data trends as animated bubble charts. The bubble chart became our weapon of choice in our battle to dismantle the misconception that “the world is divided into two.”

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

My students talked about “them” and “us.” Others talk about “the developing world” and “the developed world.” You probably use these labels yourself. What’s wrong with that? Journalists, politicians, activists, teachers, and researchers use them all the time.

When people say “developing” and “developed,” what they are probably thinking is “poor countries” and “rich countries.” I also often hear “West/rest,” “north/south,” and “low-income/high-income.” Whatever. It doesn’t really matter which terms people use to describe the world, as long as the words create relevant pictures in their heads and mean something with a basis in reality. But what pictures
in their heads when they use these two simple terms? And how do those pictures compare to reality?

Let’s check against the data. The chart on the next page shows babies per woman and child survival rates for all countries.

Each bubble on the chart represents a country, with the size of the bubble showing the size of the country’s population. The biggest bubbles are India and China. On the left of the chart are countries where women have many babies, and on the right are countries where women have few babies. The higher up a country is on the chart, the better the child survival rate in that country. This chart is exactly what my student in the third row suggested as a way of defining the two groups: “us and them,” or “the West and the rest.” Here I have labeled the two groups “developing and developed” countries.

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