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  • Hjalmar Didrikson

A tribute to Hans Rosling

"When somebody threatens you with a machete, don't turn your back on him. Just stare him straight into the eyes and ask him what the problem is."

This Thanksgiving, we want to celebrate the late Hans Rosling and his book Factfulness. Probably most of you have seen the book in the shop windows. But maybe you haven’t had the time to read it yet? The book has been co-written by Hans, his daughter-in-law Anna Rönnlund Rosling and his son Ola Rosling. For simplicity, we call the author Hans in the below. 

Hans warns us against 10 basic human instincts. They are very much connected to how the human brain works. They are

The Gap instinct - we tend to see and exaggerate differences between people. Hans shows that most people’s view of the world today is dated and that we tend to miss the fact that the world has changed since the 1960s. Back in those days, we had industrialized and emerging countries with either poor or rich people. Today, a majority of the world’s population is somewhere in the middle.

The Negativity instinct - we tend to view the world as becoming an increasingly worse place to be. Hans point is that this is wrong. In fact, most measurable indicators are improving. The world may not be a good place today, but it is significantly less bad than before. Hans shows 32 KPIs to prove his point. Hans agrees that everything in this world is not great. He does not like being coined an "optimist". Rather, he would like to see himself as a "possibilist" and recognise the progress that, as a matter of fact, has been achieved.

The Straight Line instinct - We tend to assume that developments follow a straight line. This is seldom the case. For instance, if children would continue experiencing the same growth path they do in their first few years, they would end up several metres tall. This instinct makes us believe that the world's population will create massive problems. Hans argues in a fact based manner that this is unlikely to be the case.

The Fear instinct - When we are afraid we do not see things clearly. This disables our ability to think critically. Journalists love to instill fear in us in order to make us click on their articles and buy newspapers. Hans concludes that although the world has never been a better place than today, the spreading of the picture of the world as a distastrous place has never been more effective. When we see something disastrous happen, we exaggerate the probability it will occur to us. Fear makes us make irrational decisions.

The Size instinct - We mix up proportions. If we read something enough times, we believe that the instance is frequent. For example, during two weeks in 2009 there were 253,442 articles on the Swine Flue. During the same time, only 31 people died from it. Simultaneously, there were some 6 thousand articles on TBC, a disease that during the same time killed 63,066 people.

The Generalisation instinct - Everybody is prejudiced about people and situations they don't know. Hans example here is that the old doctrine on emerging vs. industrialised countries is obsolete. Instead, societies follow a developmental pattern from extreme poverty, via middle class to wealth. Hans sends out a warning: "Do not assume that you are normal and that everybody else is an idiot."

The Destiny instinct - Are Africans destined to poverty? Are countries doomed to a future of fundamentalism? Hans argues this is not the case. Rather, all societies go through phases of development. In order to spot this, Hans advises us to talk to our grandparents about their values, many of which are prevailing today in less developed countries. This is bound to change and we need to update our views on the world.

The Single Perspective instinct - "To a kid with a hammer, every object appears to be a nail". Experts are only experts within their area of expertise. Unfortunately they very often apply their own expertise on anything, which is seldom a good idea. Hans warns us to beware of simple solutions to complex problems. In Hans's words: "Suddenly everything appears simple. All problems have one single cause - that we all have to be against. Or all problems have one single solution - that we all have to be in favour of. There's only one catch. We misunderstand the world completely."

The Blame instinct - Whatever happens, we seem to always look for somebody to blame. Or somebody to give credit. Hans instead urges us to seek out the underlying causes of effects and to appreciate the systems that are in place. He brings up a fun example: The disease Syphilis has consistently been named a "foreign" disease. In Russia, it was called "the Polish disease", in Poland, it was called "the German disease", in Germany "the French", in French "the Italian disease", etc... 

The Urgency instinct - Back when we were living in caves, our brain was wired to react to danger with urgent measures. Today, this translates to a feeling of "It's now or never!". But is it, really? Whenever we perceive something as urgent, we turn off our critical thinking. Hans advice is to take a deep breath and analyse data available. Drastic actions very often have severe side effects. 

I would like to finish off with one of Hans's opening quotes:

"Step by step, year after year, the world becomes a better place. Not according to every measure every year, but as a general rule. Even if we face enormous challenges, we have made fantastic progress. This is the fact based view of the world."

Unfortunately, in these times of great division between people, the book has received criticism for being overly optimistic on the world view. Facts in the book have been questioned. We, on the other hand, choose to see the book as an attempt to change the world for the better. In Hans’s words; ”When we have a fact based view of the world we can realise the world is not as bad as it seems -- and we can see what needs to be done in order to improve it”. In our words, Hans was a true hero who devoted his life to the well being of human kind, leaving this world a much better place. He will be greatly missed.

Read more about Hans here:

With love to Hans and his family

Your A&D Team


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