Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (9 page)

Most people in Brazil have left extreme poverty. The big hump is on Level 3. That’s where you get a motorbike and reading glasses, and save money in a bank to pay for high school and someday buy a washing machine. In reality, even in one of the world’s most unequal countries, there is no gap. Most people are in the middle.

The View from Up Here

As I mentioned, if you are reading this book you probably live on Level 4. Even if you live in a middle-income country, meaning the average income is on Level 2 or 3—like Mexico, for example—you yourself probably live on Level 4 and your life is probably similar in important ways to the lives of the people living on Level 4 in San Francisco, Stockholm, Rio, Cape Town, and Beijing. The thing known as poverty in your country is different from “extreme poverty.” It’s “relative poverty.” In the United States, for example, people are classified as below the poverty line even if they live on Level 3.

So the struggles people go through on Levels 1, 2, and 3 will most likely be completely unfamiliar to you. And they are not described in any helpful way in the mass media you consume.

Your most important challenge in developing a fact-based worldview is to realize that most of your firsthand experiences are from Level 4; and that your secondhand experiences are filtered through the mass media, which loves nonrepresentative extraordinary events and shuns normality.

When you live on Level 4, everyone on Levels 3, 2, and 1 can look equally poor, and the word
can lose any specific meaning. Even a person on Level 4 can appear poor: maybe the paint on their walls is peeling, or maybe they are driving a used car. Anyone who has looked down from the top of a tall building knows that it is difficult to assess from there the differences in height of the buildings nearer the ground. They all look kind of small. In the same way, it is natural for people living on Level 4 to see the world as divided into just two categories: rich (at the top of the building, like you) and poor (down there, not like you). It is natural to look down and say “oh, they are all poor.” It is natural to miss the distinctions between the people with cars, the people with motorbikes and bicycles, the people with sandals, and the people with no shoes at all.

I assure you, because I have met and talked with people who live on every level, that for the people living on the ground on Levels 1, 2, and 3, the distinctions are crucial. People living in extreme poverty on Level 1 know very well how much better life would be if they could move from $1 a day to $4 a day, not to mention $16 a day. People who have to walk everywhere on bare feet know how a bicycle would save them tons of time and effort and speed them to the market in town, and to better health and wealth.

The four-level framework, the replacement for the overdramatic “divided” worldview, is the first and most important part of the fact-based framework you will learn in this book. Now you have learned it. It isn’t too difficult, is it? I will use the four levels throughout the rest of the book to explain all kinds of things, including elevators, drownings, sex, cookery, and rhinos. They will help you to see the world more clearly and get it right more often.

What do you need to hunt, capture, and replace misconceptions? Data. You have to show the data and describe the reality behind it. So thank you, UNICEF data tables, thank you, bubble graphs, and thank you, internet. But you also need something more. Misconceptions disappear only if there is some equally simple but more relevant way of thinking to replace them. That’s what the four levels do.


Factfulness 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.

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

Beware comparisons 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.

The view from up here.
Remember, looking down from above distorts the view. Everything else looks equally short, but it’s not.


How I was kind of born in Egypt, and what a baby in an incubator can teach us about the world


Which statement do you agree with most?

A: The world is getting better.

B: The world is getting worse.

C: The world is getting neither better nor worse.

Getting Out of the Ditch

I remember being suddenly upside down. I remember the dark, the smell of urine, and being unable to breathe as my mouth and nostrils filled with mud. I remember struggling to turn myself upright but only sinking deeper into the sticky liquid. I remember my arms, stretched out behind me, desperately searching the grass for something to pull, then being suddenly hauled out by the ankles. My grandma putting me in the big sink on the kitchen floor and washing me gently, with the hot water meant for the dishes. The scent of the soap.

These are my earliest memories and were nearly my last. They are memories of my rescue, aged four, from the sewage ditch running in front of my grandma’s house. It was filled to the brim with a mix of last night’s rain and sewage slurry from the factory workers’ township. Something in it had caught my attention, and stepping to the ditch’s edge, I had slipped and fallen in headfirst. My parents were not around to keep an eye on me. My mother was in the hospital, ill with tuberculosis. My father worked ten hours a day.

During the week, I lived with my grandparents. On Saturdays my daddy put me on the rack of his bike and we drove in large circles and figures of eight just for fun on our way to the hospital. I would see Mommy standing on the balcony on the third floor coughing. Daddy would explain that if we went in we could get sick too. I would wave to her and she would wave back. I saw her talking to me, but her voice was too weak and her words were carried away by the wind. I remember that she always tried to smile.

The Mega Misconception That “The World Is Getting Worse”

This chapter is about the negativity instinct: our tendency to notice the bad more than the good. This instinct is behind the second mega misconception.

“Things are getting worse” is the statement about the world that I hear more than any other. And it is absolutely true that there are many bad things in this world.

The number of war fatalities has been falling since the Second World War, but with the Syrian war, the trend has reversed. Terrorism too is rising again. (We’ll get back to that in chapter 4.)

Overfishing and the deterioration of the seas are truly worrisome. The lists of dead areas in the world’s oceans and of endangered species are getting longer.

Ice is melting. Sea levels will continue to rise by probably three feet over the next 100 years. There’s no doubt it’s because of all the greenhouse gases humans have pumped into the atmosphere, which won’t disperse for a long time, even if we stop adding more.

The collapse of the US housing market in 2007, which no regulators had predicted, was caused by widespread illusions of safety in abstract investments, which hardly anyone understood. The system remains as complex now as it was then and a similar crisis could happen again. Maybe tomorrow.

In order for this planet to have financial stability, peace, and protected natural resources, there’s one thing we can’t do without, and that’s international collaboration, based on a shared and fact-based understanding of the world. The current lack of knowledge about the world is therefore the most concerning problem of all.

I hear so many negative things all the time. Maybe you think, “Hans, you must just meet all the gloomiest people.” We decided to check.

People in 30 countries were asked the question at the top of the chapter:
Do you think the world is getting better, getting worse, or staying about the same?
This is what they said.

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