Damien Sullivan (mindstalk) wrote,
Damien Sullivan

Factfulness 1

I'm reading Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, on the state of the world and people's misconceptions of it. It's kind of like Pinker's Enlightenment Now except with less Enlightenment crowing and I think fewer people distrust Rosling, and more about "so, why are people so wrong?" Because that's his first point: people are very wrong about how things are going in income distribution, life expectancy, child mortality, etc. Worse-than-random-chimps wrong. I can confirm in a small way: a Facebook poll of my friends regarding global life expectancy was mostly wrong.

Gapminder link

A 1995 student of his suggested a neat division: "we have few children who mostly live, they have lots of children who die a lot." Rosling gives a graph supporting this: "developed" countries have less than 3 children per woman, who live to 5 at 90% or better; "developing" countries have more than 5 children, many of whom die... though some of the countries had high survival rates too. But most countries, and big one, fit in the developing box.

Except that the graph is for 1965! An upgraded graph, using the same boxes... has most countries, representing 85% of the world's population, in the "developed" box of under 3 children and 90% survival. And even the few remaining high-birth countries have 85+% child survival. On this metric most people are now "us". There is no longer any "them" where half their children die by age 5.

Or, income. There are rich and poor, right? Not so much. He breaks it down as: 1/7 of the world lives under $2/day, and a simplified average of their lives involves fetching water by hand, getting around by foot (and not because they live in dense cities), cooking by wood or dung. "Level 1". 3/7 live at Level 2, between $2 and $8/day, with a bicycle, propane gas stove, more protein, and better simple tools (buckets, sandals, mattress.) 2/7 live at level 3, between $8-32/day, with a cold water tap, motorcycle, electricity reliable enough to run a fridge. The last 1/7 is Level 4: hot water, car if you want it, electric or piped gas stove.

Apparently he got the World Bank around 2016 to drop "developed vs. developing" and use this income group model, where 5/7 of the world are "middle income".

Pinker, by the way, had graphs telling a simpler story: graphs of past years, showing a bimodal distribution of world income, and of recent years, showing a single curve with a hump in the (logarithmic) middle.

Then Rosling switches to psychology, talking about a gap instinct, a propensity to divide things into binaries, and some of the error-prone thinking that leads to that. Comparison of averages, without considering that the real spreads or distributions might overlap massively. (Male and female test scores, for example.) Comparison of extremes, where we compare the famine of South Sudan to the wealth of the US, or a corrupt dictatorship to the government of Sweden. He also looks at Brazil, a highly unequal country where nonetheless most people are living above Level 1 and the population hump is in Level 3.

Third, the "View From Up Here" bias, and I'll quote:

'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.... When you live on Level 4, everyone on Levels 3, 2, and 1 can look equally poor, and the word poor 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... 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.

...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.'

And finally, the theme of the book:

'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.'

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Tags: books, factfulness, progress
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