‘Factfulness’ in the Age of Misinformation

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Nowadays, we’re barraged with information. Be it on the internet or on the streets, we’re surrounded by news and advertisements. Whenever you watch the news, you mostly hear about natural calamities, military conflicts, or political tension. This information overload has warped our perception of reality. “Factfulness” is a book that shows us how the world really looks like based on hard data and research.

Factfulness
'Factfulness' in the Age of Misinformation

Hans Rosling wrote Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think in collaboration with his son and daughter-in-law. Having done surveys across people who technically should be up-to-date with the current status of the world, he observed that we aren’t aware of the major positive change that has taken place in the last decades.

In his 2006 TED talk, Rosling presented the “shocking” statistics, which showed that the world has made great progress when it comes to health, safety, and education. Though these stats should belong to the common knowledge, we’re often unaware of how the world really looks like.

The book was published in 2018. The Swedish statistician uses data to show us what we should know about the world and how antiquated some ways of categorizing the population are.

 

Wealth and Income Levels

According to Rosling, the majority of us still sees the world as either “developed” or “developing” countries. However, so many nations have improved their citizens’ well-being in recent decades that such perspective and pigeonholing is no longer accurate.

Rosling proposes the idea of the four income levels:

Income chart

  1. Level 1 – less than $2 a day
  2. Level 2 – $2–$8 a day
  3. Level 3 – $8–$32 a day
  4. Level 4 – more than $32 a day

The vast majority of countries in the world are either in the second or third level – that being around 5 billion people. Only a billion of people live in the first level and extreme poverty, which is a relatively small number in comparison to 50 or 100 years ago. The trend shows that fewer and fewer people are going to live in the first income level in the next decades.

This data proves that about 80% of humans today can purchase food that they haven’t grown themselves, are able to afford some medicines, and have access to electricity.

We like to see the world in binary frames, which often narrows down to “us” versus “them.” This dividing instinct takes us back to our roots of tribalism. Rosling argues that this outlook does no longer hold water. Instead of seeing countries as belonging to either group A or B, we should see them as having their position on a spectrum of income and well-being.

In comparison to the poorest people, around a billion people live in the fourth level. If you have access to the internet and you’re reading this article right now, you probably belong to that wealthy billion. Luxurious items, higher education, frequent visits to restaurants, or cars – these amenities are still reserved for the high-income part of humanity.

All in all, looking at the statistics and comparing them with the past, it’s impossible not to see the obvious positive change – more and more people have access to healthcare, food, and electricity. Why then do we look at the world through a grey lens, focusing solely on what’s wrong, and why is our perception of the status quo so warped?

 

Instincts and Biases

The fact is, we can’t fully control our thoughts. How we see the world is largely influenced by nurture, creating some instincts and biases. They make it hard to see the world as it really is.

Shocking news

One of the greatest fearmongers of our time is mass media. News media attempt to grab your attention through headlines and shocking stories. Over 50% of adult believe that fake news is prevalent in various media sources, as statistics show, and fake news is witnessed more and more often in television worldwide.

If the news covered such topics as new houses built in Africa, how many people escaped extreme poverty, or how much we lowered the death rate of floods, they wouldn’t get the clicks. Instead, mass media report about casualties, natural calamities, rapes and robberies. Bad news catch more attention and are predominant across media news channels.

Of course, both of these deserve media coverage, yet the way that the latter are presented makes us believe that the world is nothing but blood, death, and suffering. At the same time, the progress happens gradually, and the effects can be observed throughout the years, while bad news is quick and exciting.

We need to understand that the world is better than it’s ever been. Yes, there are major global issues that require action, yet we need to accept both of these statements simultaneously. It’s bad, but it’s the best it’s ever been.

Bad trends like poverty, slavery, HIV, and child mortality have declined. On the other hand, good trends like life expectancy and health have increased.

The world is not as scary and dangerous as we often think it is, and we tend to overestimate the danger. Again, mass media instil us in the belief that personal tragedies are ubiquitous and wicked people are lurking behind every corner, taking up to 90% of news. Yet, that is not the truth. Our fear instinct makes us forget that ever-improving governments have been deteriorating the crime rates for years.

If the world is so much better than we think it is, is there anything we should beware?

 

Real Threats and Statistics

Our minds keep playing tricks on our perception of the world. Had the impact of mass media not been enough, our psyche seems to keep looking for problems, threats, and dangers.

Population growth

For instance, overpopulation looks like a major issue we’ll have to face in the future. The world population has skyrocketed and it doesn’t seem to stop. However, looking at UN predictions and forecasts, taking into consideration the trends and their relativism, the Earth’s population won’t grow forever. As more people escape poverty, they tend to have smaller families.

Numbers scare us, but don’t always trust graphs. Whenever you see a number, try to look at the bigger picture. If “this many people died in this war,” try comparing it to wars from the past, or take a glance at global statistics. For example, many people still suffer, die, and go through tragic events due to wars in the Middle East. Nevertheless, the number of people who die in wars annually has never been smaller. Again – it’s bad, but it’s never been better. We seem to be on the right track.

Obviously, we still have a long way to go. Not only do we have to keep decreasing the bad trends in the world, but we also have to stop newly-emerged issues. In “Factfulness,” Rosling warned against a global pandemic that would require international action and cooperation. Terrorism rates in the 21st century have gone appallingly up, and climate change is likely to have some impact on us in the future.

Yet, instead of urgent, thoughtless actions, we need thought-through solutions based on facts instead of fearmongering and overblown predictions. To understand the world as it is, we need to focus on the real threats and look at statistics from different perspectives, trying to get a bigger picture.

 

Wrap-Up

Mass media and our own psychological instincts distort our perception of the world. Outdated phrases and advertisement-driven news interfere with our outlook on the status quo. Despite your first impressions, the world is better than it has ever been.

Hans Rosling, along with his son and daughter-in-law, wrote “Factfulness” to show us how much we’re wrong about the world. Bill Gates called it “one of the most educational books [he’s] ever read.” There’s still a long way to go, but acknowledging the progress we’ve already made is a great start on our way forward and to opposing misinformation.

Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontages: Martina Advaney


More articles on fact-checking here:

True or False? How to Check Information on the Internet

Don’t Get Confused by Facts and Opinion

 

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