THE JOY OF FACTS: HOW GOOD DATA SAVES LIVES AND CAN SAVE THE WORLD
review by Cathy McGowan Russell, April 3, 2020
Two years ago on April 3, 2018, a remarkably helpful book was published that is even more inspiring today than when it first came out.
As I write, the Coronavirus pandemic continues to grow exponentially around the globe. As people try to make sense of the conflicting reports about this growing pandemic, fear rises.
The antidote to fear is hope. Not hope based on fantasy or wishful thinking, but hope based on what is truly possible. Facts ground us in possibility. Like many others, I find profound hope, inspiration, and encouragement in the book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling, with son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund.
DATA AS THERAPY
“This is data as you have never known it: it is data as therapy. It is understanding as a source of mental peace. ”
~ Hans Rosling,
Hans Rosling made many huge contributions to the world. His informative and inspirational TED talks have been seen by over 35 million people around the globe. TIME magazine declared him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He founded the Gapminder Organization to share his passion for good information about the world. He has served as an advisor to the World Health Organization, to UNICEF and to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He was a compassionate doctor, an impactful statistician, and a passionate teacher.
His greatest contribution may have been in a field for which he had no credentials. Hans Rosling was a world-class psychotherapist.
Hans was the ideal therapist: empathic, curious, humble, wise, courageous, fun, forgiving, and hopeful. He was the kind of therapist that healed just by the radiance of his lightheartedness and dedicated commitment to healing.
Instead of putting clients on the couch, Hans put himself on the couch, and we, the readers, are healed.
Like other top tier psychoanalysts, Hans analyzes the various “instincts” that had limited his perceptions. (Note that what Hans called instincts psychologists call “subconscious drives”, therapists call “limiting beliefs”, and educators call “cognitive biases.” )
Rosling’s devotes 10 chapters to the various kinds of instincts we have that prevent us from seeing facts clearly. These instincts include the “Fear Instinct,” the “Blame Instinct,” the “Urgency Instinct,” the “Single Perspective Instinct,” and more.
Each chapter feels like a 50-minute session with a competent and caring therapist whose entertaining stories transform suffering into insight.
As Hans opens up about his life with sad, funny and triumphant stories, he lets us see how his “instincts” limited his ability to act in productive ways. More importantly, in recognizing his own cognitive biases, he was able to transcend them. As he tells his stories, we recognize our own limiting “instincts.” And as he tells of how he overcame his limits to seeing facts clearly, we learn to overcome our own limits. And we are healed! Instead of becoming victims of cynicism and despair, we can move forward with clarity, hope, and energy to create solutions to the challenges of the world.
“This book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance. It is my last attempt to make an impact on the world: to change people’s ways of thinking, calm their irrational fears, and redirect their energies into constructive activities.” ~ Hans Rosling
After illustrating the instincts that hurt us, Hans offers a prescription for using factualness in everyday life. With factualness, we can make better decisions, reduce stress, find hope in the successes of the past, and inoculate ourselves against fear-mongers who profit from our distress.
Hans’ life mission was to end the epidemics of poverty and disease AND the epidemics of ignorance and fear. He realized that people who suffer in a state of fear are less ineffective than those who are energized by good information. His mission was to promote a culture of hope that can act to solve problems. This is why he wrote Factfulness, and this is why I adore Hans Rosling and his book.
Please don’t let the title turn you off. Facts and statistics intimidate or bore many people, and this book is not boring nor intimidating. This book is filled with stories that are funny, warm, tender, heartbreaking, eyeopening and ultimately TRIUMPHANT. Perhaps a more appropriate title would be: THE JOY OF FACTS: HOW DATA SAVES LIVES AND SAVES THE WORLD.
MORE RELEVANT THAN EVER
Hans was a compassionate doctor who died in 2017. His life project was to relieve the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number of people around the globe. To do this, Hans employed facts to create more comprehensive models to make better decisions and save more lives. Hans’ facts and models have given governments, NGOs, and philanthropists a clearer picture of how to most effectively leverage their aid to improve the world.
Because his statistics helped guide the philanthropy of the Gates Foundation, Hans became a friend of Bill Gates, who called Factualness “Fabulous” in his glowing review. President Obama said Factfulness is “a hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.” Max Roser, the founder of Our World In Data, greatly admired Hans Rosling.
FACTS VERSUS TWO DEADLY VIRUSES
As I write in April of 2020, people are battling two deadly viruses. The first is the Coronavirus, which may kill millions around the world. As awful as that virus is, an even more lethal virus is FEAR that causes panic, depression, cynicism, chronic disease, addiction, irrational behavior and potentially inflicts even more suffering, death and economic destruction than the coronavirus itself.
Hans Rosling’s work seeks to cure both kinds of disease: the kind that attacks human flesh and the kind that attacks the human spirit.
Factfulness was published a few months after Steven Pinker’s excellent book, Enlightenment Now. Both books deal with the same theme: that good information has made the world a much better place for humanity, and that human biases prevent many people from seeing this. I was delighted to meet Steven when he gave an inspiring presentation in Boulder to promote his eye-opening book filled with chart after inspiring chart of human progress. After his presentation, Steven told me that he liked Rosling’s work so much that he was hoping to write an introduction to Factufulness.
Enlightenment Now made my heart soar with hope because of Pinker’s stories and charts of human progress. Yet, at the same time, Enlightenment Now, gave me a certain dread about the future, because Steven points out humanity’s vast ignorance and the inherent biases in human nature that may limit future progress. In contrast, Factfulness offers a more hopeful view, while still acknowledging the real problems that humanity faces. Factfulness offers hope by showing us how we can overcome our biases and our ignorance. With humility and curiosity, Hans tells funny and poignant stories from his own life about how he learned to identify and overcome his own limiting instincts. If he can do it, we all can do it. If he can rise out of poverty and ignorance and limiting instincts to prosperity, knowledge, and transcendence of limiting instincts, then we all can.
Hans’ encouragement stems from his insight into human nature and how we can transcend our biases with humility and curiosity. Writes Rosling: “I want people, when they realize they have been wrong about the world, to feel not embarrassment, but that childlike sense of wonder, inspiration, and curiosity that I remember from the circus, and that I still get every time I discover I have been wrong: ‘Wow, how is that even possible?’”
“Factfulness, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can and should become part of your daily life. Start to practice it, and you will be able to replace your overdramatic worldview with a worldview based on facts.” ~Hans Rosling
LAST WORD FOR A BETTER WORLD
Our world is so much more beautiful because of Hans Rosling. I will let Hans have the last word:
“A fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying. When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems—and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.” ~ Hans Rosling.