Synopsis of Factfulness

The Straight Line Instinct & The Fear Instinct

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 Straight Line Instinct

That people tend to follow the instinct to see things developing in a straight line and predicting the future by extending that straight line. One example is that when the writer saw the outbreak of Ebola in Africa, at the beginning he thought it would just be an decease like any he had seen before that would be contained and the number of infected cases would just increase in a straight line 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. But instead, what he saw was 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, a doubling line which was crazy! Like the rest of the world, he was too slow to understand the magnitude and urgency of the Ebola crisis.

Another mega misconception caused by straight line instinct is about the world population. You might have heard news or stories describing the increasing world population and would have been worried about the expansion. Would our population keep growing and in the end left no resource on the earth to consume? To answer the question, we need to know how the number of children in world is going to grow, as children constitutes the base of the world population. Try answer the following fact question,

There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the 2100, according to UN?

Among so many answers from people of all walks of life, only 9 percent got the correct answer, which is even worse than random guess. The correct answer is C that the number of children has almost reach a stable state.

So why is the population increasing?

The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason?

  • A: There will be more children (age below 15)
  • B: There will be more adults (age 15 to 74)
  • C: There will be more very old people (age 75 and older)

The correct answer is B. Not more children neither more old people.

The children’s population has stopped growing. The birth rate in many countries has reached extremely low level and the whole world is getting a lower and lower birth rate with the economic growth, not just in developed country, but everywhere.

On the left, the chart shows the ages of the 7 billion people alive in 2015: 2 billion were aged 0 to 15, 2 billion aged 15 to 30, and then there were 1 billion each in the 30 to 45, 45 to 60, and 60 to 75 age groups.

In 2030, there will be 2 billion new 0- to 15-year-olds. Everyone else will have grown older. There are only 1 billion 30- to 45-year-olds today. So, without any increase in the number of children being born, and without people living for longer, there will be 1 billion more adults.

The 1 billion new adults come not from new children, but from children and young adults who have already been born.

For three generations, this pattern will repeat itself. In 2045, the 2 billion 30- to 45-year-olds will become 45- to 60-year-olds and we will have another 1 billion adults. In 2060, the 2 billion 45- to 60-year-olds will become 60- to 75-year-olds and we will have another 1 billion adults. But from 2060, each generation of 2 billion people will be replaced by another generation of 2 billion people. The fast growth stops. And finally the increase in life expectancy would add another 1 billion old people, and in total the world population would reach 11 billion by 2100.

How to Control the Straight Line Instinct

The world is more than just straight lines, and many aspects of the world are best represented by curves shaped like and S, or a slide, or a hump. The writer suggested that to understand a trend we have to understand what type of curve it is. By simply assuming a straight line would typical result in false conceptions, like he did when saw the Ebola epidemic.

The Fear Instinct

When we are afraid, we can not think clearly neither critically. However our mind is especially intrigued towards negative information, and journalists and media are also working towards our interest and keep filling our knowledge with negative news. You can always hear news of:

  • physical harm: violence caused by people, animals, …
  • captivity: entrapment, loss of control, or loss of freedom
  • contamination by invisible substances that can infect or poison us

For people live in level 1 or level 2 with more primitive environment, it is reasonable for them to still fear about such condition. But for most the population on level 3 and 4 with clean water, complete base infrastructure, our fear is most originate from media that continuously tapping into the negative info of the world.

Take the example of natural disasters,

How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred year?

  • A: More than doubled
  • B: Remained about the same
  • C: Decreased to less than half

The answer is C, but only 10 percent of the people got the right one, which indicates most of us still believe the world is either remain unchanged or relapsed. In fact now natural disaster kills so few people is not because of it going mild as before, it is because our world is getting better and human has advanced into a stage to protect ourselves from natural disasters.

So next time when see the spreading news of some natural disaster, will you remind yourself of the long-term trend of progress that human has made?

Same goes with plane crash death,

There are 40 million noncrashing aircraft from the past decades, but you can only see news of crashed planes. Our fear instinct makes us pay greater attention to the down side and sometimes erased the progress.

Another example of the fear of chemical substances, called chemophobia. DDT has been banned in several countries, but when you try to trace the effect of DDT, there is actually no direct evidence that DDT killed anyone in history. Moreover, in 2006, after a series of scientific investigation, WHO has classified DDT as “mildly harm” to human, stating that it had more health benefits than drawbacks in many situations.

Even though, still a lot of countries refused to read through the report and critically weighting the pros and cons. Our fear instinct has run amok and sometimes the invisible fear itself is doing more harm than the substance.

To be Afraid of the Right Thing

Distinguish frightening and dangerous. Frightening is a perceived danger, which does not mean a real danger, only dangerous poses a real threat. Sometime by giving to much attention to an invisible danger creates a tragic drainage of energy towards the wrong direction.

To control the fear instinct, calculate the real risk:

  • The scary world: fear vs. reality. The world seems scarier than it is because what you hear about it has been selected by your own attention filter or by the media — precisely because it is scary.
  • Risk = danger x exposure. The risk something poses to you depends not on how scared it makes you feel, but on a combination of two things. How dangerous is it? And how much are you exposed to it?
  • Get calm before you carry on. When you are afraid, you see the world differently. Make as few decisions as few as possible until your panic has subsided.

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

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