Some time ago, a business acquaintance gave me the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling, which I know some of you have read. It discusses the reasons why we are frequently so wrong about the world, and why things are often better than what we might think. When someone like Bill Gates says: “It is one of the most important books I have ever read”, you know that you need to pay attention and that it is a must-read. I can personally recommend it wholeheartedly.
In the book, Rosling – who sadly passed away to pancreatic cancer in 2017 – describes how, over many decades, he had posed hundreds of factual questions about poverty, wealth, population growth, education, gender, violence, energy, the environment, and so forth, to thousands of people. The questions were not complicated; and there were no trick questions. Yet, most people fared extremely badly. He also asked some of these questions to the participants at the World Economic Forum in Davos every year – now, these people are the elite: central bankers, heads of state, captains of industry – you would expect them to know what is going on in the world, but they did even worse; it was appalling. In fact, Rosling said they did worse than what the chimpanzees at the zoo would do. Each question had three possible answers: A, B or C. Now, if he would go to the zoo and throw bananas marked A, B or C to the chimpanzees and take their answers according to which banana they ate next, then you would expect them to score about 33%. The guys in Davos usually only got about 12%, much worse than the chimps. In fact, every group of people completing the tests thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, more dangerous, more hopeless, more dramatic, than what it really is.
How can so many people be so wrong about so much? Worse than the chimps, worse than random selection? The reason is that we as humans have a defect: our human brains are the product of millions of years of evolution, and we are hard-wired with instincts that helped our ancestors to survive. Our brains jump to swift conclusions, generalise and categorise, has dramatic instincts – instincts that used to be useful thousands of years ago, but today we need to control our drama intake. Because it prevents us from seeing the world as it is, it can lead us terribly astray, towards making very bad decisions.
The media, of course, capitalises on these dramatic instincts of ours. Bad news sells newspapers, and good news is, well… not really news at all. We are continuously subjected to a never-ending stream of negative news from across the planet: war, famine, budget cuts, tax hikes, diseases, layoffs, stock market falls, crime, acts of terror, acts of God. Journalists reporting on flights that did not crash or crops that succeeded would quickly be out of a job. I am often amazed when I read newspaper articles and see how something that should have been a good-news story is framed from an angle that makes it seem bad. Inflation going up? Oh, all of us surely know how very bad higher inflation is – potentially higher interest rates, things just getting more expensive! Inflation going down? Oh, that is indeed horrible, because economic growth is going down, soon we will have deflation, and if anything is worse than inflation, it is deflation! Car sales going down? How very bad, soon these companies will be in trouble and will have to lay off people, killing jobs. Car sales going up? Now that is really terrible, over-congestion, just think about the impact on the environment, oh, we are all doomed. And in our beloved country, there is more than enough material to stoke fear in all of us and to keep the media pleasantly busy. You really need to dig very deep and search very far for some good news in the local media; it is often like consuming junk food through our mental systems.
No wonder we think the world is such a bad and dangerous place. It is what we are exposed to in terms of the news every day. But it is also how we are wired – the pain of the bad is much heavier than the joy of the good; it is in our genes to think negatively and to be on the lookout and on the alert for what could hurt us.
Before we blame journalists too much, let us remember that it is not their job to bring us a fact-based view. It is their job to run a business, to sell newspapers. They must compete for our attention or lose their jobs. It is not them. It is us. It is completely unrealistic and unfair to expect the media to change their ways so that they can provide us with a better and unbiased reflection of reality. Reflecting reality is not the media’s job. It is our own job to figure it out.
That brings me to the COVID-19 situation. If ever there was a need to have the facts, and to act on the facts, and nothing but the facts, it is this pandemic. Herewith a few examples of what could help our decision-making:
We now have many more answers for most of these questions than a year ago, but how much do we still have to learn?
There are still so many things we do not know about the pandemic, which are vital in terms of policies and decision-making, to intelligently inform not only macro policy, but also our individual choices. I am sure that, as time progresses, and the pandemic runs its course, we shall get wiser on many of these things.
Perhaps the pandemic could prompt us to be more factful in life, not only as far as this crisis is concerned, but in life generally. Here are a few tips:
Finally, to end on a positive note, there are so many statistics that tell us that the world is actually becoming a better place over time. Here are only two from Factfulness:
The world is becoming a better place, but slowly, and sometimes with regression to previous worse states. We have actually never had it so good. Even this pandemic will pass. May it also prompt us to dodge the drama and the sensation a bit and strive to always be factful.