Ruth Corderoy reviews ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling and extols the importance of better data interpretation.

In an era where the phrase ‘fake news’ has come to dominate political and economic discussion and where a number of businesses seem to have signed off sets of accounts that should really have been published under the heading ‘crime fiction’, the role of economics and business educators in helping students to understand data and judge the veracity of what they are reading has never been more important.

As teachers and lecturers we are a highly educated bunch and as such we rather tend to pride ourselves on not being taken in by stories and misleading figures and graphs. After al,l we are not ‘ignorant rednecks’ or stupid ‘little Englanders’ are we? But I wonder if some of this confidence is occasionally a little misplaced and if we always know as much as we think.

I’ve just finished reading Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling that really should be on the reading list of every economics, politics, business and geography teacher and ideally that of their students as well. In it he sets out to show that even quite highly educated and influential people are often quite wrong about basic statistical data and labouring under misapprehensions that have considerable implications for business practice and economic policy.

Rosling (a global health professor before his death) conducted a series of questionnaires1 about global data with some highly educated audiences, all of whom would have considered themselves well-informed, and found rather startlingly that most of them did very badly. They did so badly that in most cases they would have been outperformed by chimps guessing at random. Most alarmingly of all he ran part of the questionnaire at the 2015 Davos World Economic Forum and found that although they did quite well on poverty, they were wrong on population growth and primary health care. I also tried the test and although I did better than his audiences (and even, thankfully, out-performed the chimps!) I did not score 100%, or even close, which made me pause.

Like any decent teacher I have never claimed to be all-knowing and infallible but I tend to do well on knowledge tests and pride myself on being pretty good at data interpretation so, slightly stung but open to learning more, I read on through the book.

Rosling’s findings imply more than ignorance (which would roughly give the chimp’s result), they imply a systematic problem because highly educated people were not only consistently getting worse results than chimps but they were consistently erring on the side of pessimism. As Rosling put it ‘Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is’2.

Rosling has a theory as to why we tend to be over-pessimistic, which draws upon some of the interesting work on the border where psychology, economics and statistics meet. He asserts that the human brain often jumps to conclusions without much thinking and has a craving for stories and drama3. He develops this in more depth in chapters 2 and 4, ‘The negativity Instinct’ and ‘The Fear Instinct’, by showing that we tend to over-select scary news and give it undue weight (the media understands this all too well: 5000 planes landed safely today is NOT a news story, one near miss, or even better a crash, is).

He points out that this over-weighting of bad news is compounded by some fairly basic statistical and data interpretation errors:

  1. We often fail to understand the difference between a level and a direction of change. For example child mortality in some countries may be quite high but over time it is improving so things are actually getting better (although the job is not yet complete). Moreover since gradual improvement is rarely reported (not dramatic enough) but any occasional dip is reported then the focus will tend to be on the dip rather than the underlying trend.
  2. Even where data shows an increase in negative effects (e.g. rising crime levels) this may be due to better reporting and data collection rather than actual increases.
  3. The straight line instinct tends to mean that when we extrapolate data we tend to assume a straight line whereas often trends turn out to be S shaped, humped or even exponential.

He further develops some of the psychological assumptions by noting that we tend towards being binary, we like to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, into ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ into ‘developed world’ and ‘under-developed or developing world’: Africa is ‘poor’, Italy is ‘rich’, whereas reality is more complex than this. This has obvious implications for overseas aid programmes and the like but it also has some interesting implications for private sector marketing and investment4.

Space does not permit an exhaustive discussion of all Rosling’s points and I’m not entirely convinced by some ofthe optimism, which feels a little rose-tinted at times, not least because he falls into a couple of traps (possibly under pressure to simplify for a general audience) when it comes to income. Of course $2 per day is better than $1 per day but to call level 2 income of $2-$8 a day ‘middle income’ is stretching things a bit, indeed level 3 (also ‘middle-income’) only takes it up to $32/day. So his assertion that most people live on ‘middle incomes’ might be technically correct but answers that say ‘low income’ might be more about definitions than ignorance and negativity bias. Secondly he correctly points out past trends in increased income levels in his home country of Sweden but I’m not sure how legitimate it is to go from there to assuming similar progress in other nations.

Rosling points out that cultural and racial stereotypes are useless for understanding and analysing the world and I’m with him there but he rather glibly skates over the influence that belief systems have on economic development. The figures show that broad brush definitions of faith (Islam, Christianity, Hinduism) have no impact on economic progress but it might be interesting to disaggregate a little to different branches of the major faiths. Certain beliefs clearly have a huge impact upon education of women for example and since he himself points out that educating women is one of the best ways to improve all sorts of economic indicators, he does rather duck out of that one.

Overall the book is a useful corrective and should be widely read and its main lessons taken on board, particularly by those of us who aspire to educate others. It can be difficult for us ‘experts’ to admit sometimes that our knowledge is faulty or our interpretations are not flawless but we should start with ourselves and just check what it is that we are teaching and how well we are equipping the next generation to think clearly, calmly and accurately about the world around them.

Rosling ends the book by saying ‘I have found fighting ignorance and spreading a fact-based worldview to be sometimes a frustrating but ultimately inspiring and joyful way to spend my life…And I have found it exciting to finally start to understand why spreading that knowledge and changing people’s worldviews have been so damn hard’5 That sound like a rallying cry to those of us to aspire to be educators.

Economics and Business are rarely seen as pastoral subjects, unlike English or Religious Studies, or even History, where pupils are often encouraged to engage emotionally with the material. Yet the subjects actually cover areas of huge emotional and practical significance: income, wealth, production and consumption, health expenditure etc. etc. At a time when surveys tell us that UK young people are pessimistic about the future despite often being materially comfortable and highly educated compared to previous UK generations perhaps Rosling is onto something. Maybe a dose of careful, calm factual analysis of data and trends will do just as much good as sitting and meditating and you never know you might be able to get a slice of the pastoral budget for the economics department!

Ruth Corderoy is a Senior Lecturer in Education Theory and Practice at the University of Buckingham

References

  1. The test can be found on pg3-5 of Factfulness by Hans Rosling Sceptre Books 2018
  2. Ibid pg 9
  3. This lack of total rationality is developed in much greater depth by Kahnemann, Gladwell and Thaler
  4. Ibid pg 149 where Rosling has a fascinating discussion about the marketing and selling of sanitary products but it could equally well be beer or mobile phones.
  5. Ibid pg 255