Data vs. Drama – A Cautionary Tale

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

FACTFULNESS: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
By Hans Rosling
Hardcover: 352 pp. Flatiron Books

The conundrum about this book is that it really should be read by those folks who never read books. You know who I’m talking about. The late Hans Rosling, who died in 2017 after an impressive career in education and public health, urges us to let the data tell the story, rather than imposing a narrative based on our “dramatic instincts.” He highlights ten ways that our instinctual bias and craving for drama, similar to our craving for sugar and lethargy, undermine our wellbeing. Rosling experienced firsthand how sharing accurate (and beautiful) data is insufficient to the task of overcoming these dramatic instincts.

Hence Factfulness, his final book and swan song, a highly readable plea to the world to come back to its collective senses and return to the evidence. For a book that stresses the need for solid data, it’s not dry or academic but packed with amusing anecdotes and confessions. I recommend it especially to public servants and activists, and to everyone who wants to make better decisions based on reality.

We are all familiar with the power of fear—how it tunnels our attention and short-circuits our decision-making. We literally cannot see properly when we’re afraid, let alone think clearly. But data can be an antidote. Riding in a car leaving the airport in Washington, D.C., recently, the driver asked me if I was afraid to fly. I said no and asked why. The driver mentioned the woman who had been killed recently after almost being sucked out a window of a plane. But I had just read Rosling’s chapter on fear, in which he shares flight fatality data over 100 years. In the last five years only one person per 10 billion passenger miles has died in an airplane crash. Compare that to hundreds in the 1950s or thousands in the 1930s. Similar to the point Steven Pinker makes in his book, Enlightenment Now, we fixate on scary, one-off, dramatic stories and miss the fact that the world is safer now than it’s ever been.

Rosling thinks of urgency as “one of the worst distorters of our worldview.” I highlight this instinct because it is likely that you and I are both susceptible. We may not fall for the salesman’s “last chance!” claim, but our conversations on climate change might give old Hans a reason to scold us from his lectern.

I often say that climate change is the most pressing problem we face, often to the exclusion of other problems, but perhaps I could be more considered in my thinking. Racism, misogyny, and wealth inequality claim lives on a daily basis. The future of our democracy is a pressing issue. But if we pile on too much urgency we are just as likely to turn away in overwhelm, give up, and settle back into our preferred distractions. So how do we find a middle way? The professor, no surprise, suggests we approach with “cool heads and robust, independent data.” He prefers “baby steps and constant evaluation, not drastic actions.”

My one criticism is Rosling’s glorious, blessed naïveté in thinking a book can change hearts and minds. How will Factfulness alter the course of the conspiracy theories and victimhood narrative reverberating in the right-wing echo chamber? If you are already deliberate with your decision-making—if you believe in reading and research, and you use checklists—this book offers insights that may help you improve what you’re already doing. But for the folks who don’t read books? In one of his most powerful stories, Rosling is saved from machete-wielding science skeptics not by evidence alone but by a persuasive grandmother in the village of Makanga (in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo) who exhibited “razor-sharp logic AND perfect rhetoric at a moment of extreme tension.” It’s a powerful reminder that no matter how valuable factfulness is, we are hardwired to be enticed by powerful storytelling.

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Christopher Peck

Christopher Peck

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