Synopsis of Factfulness

The writer is a great volunteered doctor who’s been traveling around the world, especially those most undeveloped country, to provide health care to people that can’t afford them. Throughout his life, he’s eye witnessed the changes in what we think are the most rural places and got in close touch with the culture, the people, even the government there. However, when he started to give lecture on what he has seen, people living in so-called rich countries don’t believe it, and they have a developed a stubborn stereotype of the world.

At the beginning the writer summarised 13 questions about the world regarding, health care, energy, environment, and so on. He has asked these questions to numerous people around the world of all walks of life, however, very few got the right answer, in fact the result is even worse than a chimp’s. He found that people’s mind are clouded by those overdramatic events in this world thus they always think that the world is getting worse than better.

In this book, the writer, Hans Rosling, introduced the facts of the world, and explained 10 instincts of human being that lead us to misunderstanding.

The Size Instinct

When the author worked in Mozambique, the poorest countries in the world in early 1980s, he was the only doctor in the village for 30,000 people. One day, a friend working as pediatrician came to visit him from a slightly better city. In the afternoon, the author received a sick baby with serious diarrhea. He gave the baby the simplest treatment that he can provide, however, his friend insisted him should give better and more modernised treatment, which was not possible in such a poor village.

The instance leads to the author’s awareness of people’s size instinct — that people paying too much attention to the individual visible victim rather than to the numbers that can lead us to spend all our resources on a fraction of the problem, and therefore save many fewer lives. Like the arguments he had with his doctor friend, rather than give the best treatment to the baby in a poor village, more resources should be directed to precautions of the under-developed village so that more babies living condition can be changed, and more live can be saved.

Human tend to get things out of proportion. It is instinctive to look at a lonely number and misjudge its importance. It is also instinctive — like in the hospital in Mozambique — to misjudge the importance of a single instance or an identifiable victim, which constitutes the key aspect of the size instinct.

How to Control the Size Instinct?

The book provides to method, compare and divide.

Compare

Avoid to give judgement based on a lonely number. One number on its own can never be meaningful, and only by comparing it can you see the bigger picture.

In 2016, 4.2 million babies died. If looking at this number only, it is terrible, it is a astonishing huge number. But by comparing the numbers, we may have a more complete view. In 2015, one year before, the number of death was 4.5 million, and back in 1950, the number was 14.4 million.

Despite the tragedy of the 4.2 million death, we should not ignore the progress that our society has made, and before taking any action or prioritise any resource towards saving lives, everyone needs to stay cool-headed and think what would work and what wouldn’t.

So when we decide to stress a problem and put resource into it, we should look into the major part. Here the writer introduced the 80/20 rule, that in a lot of scenarios, 20 percent of items mostly take 80 percent the cost, and this is where we should put our attention and focus into.

To understand the world better, try answer the question below:

There are roughly 7 billion people in the world today. Which map shows best where they live?

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The correct answer is A and the ratio is 1:1:1:4, where Americas: 1, Europe: 1, Africa: 1 and Asia: 4.

People in North America and Europe need to understand that most of the world population lives in Asia. In terms of economic muscles “we” are becoming 20 percent, not the 80 percent. But many still can’t fit these numbers in to their nostalgic minds.

Divide the Number

The second method to address the size instinct is to divide the number. One example would be the case in 2007, World Economic Forum, when an minister attribute the blame of climate change to China and India, quote — “China already emits more CO2 than America, and India already emits more than German”.

An Indian delegate replied “It was you, the richest countries, that put us all in this delicate situation. You have been burning increasing amounts of coal and oil for more than a century. You and only you pushed us to the brink of climate change. But from now on, we count carbon dioxide emission per person”

In this case, large numbers — total emission per nation — needed to be divided by the population of each country to give meaningful and comparable measures.

Summarise

To control the size instinct, get things in proportion.

  • Compare. Big numbers always look big. A single number can be misleading and we should always be suspicious. Look for comparisons.
  • 80/20. Look for the largest items and deal with them first. They are likely more important than all the rest put together.
  • Divide. Amounts and rates can be tell very different stories. And better to use rates when comparing groups of difference size.

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Hmm…I am a data scientist looking to catch up the tide…

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