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Is your worldview based on facts?

June 22, 2021

“As a society, globally, we seem to be struggling with finding a universally agreed-upon set of facts,” said Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, at the opening of the Alltech ONE Ideas Conference (ONE) on June 22. “With more data at our fingertips, we find it even harder to agree upon the truth.”

A few years ago, a book called “Factfulness” was shared with Dr. Lyons, and it transformed his perspective of the world. Since then, the book has been featured twice in the Alltech virtual book club, and hundreds of copies have been given away to Alltech colleagues and friends around the world.

The book was written by Hans Rosling in collaboration with his son, Ola Rosling, and his daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Together, they founded Gapminder to combat misconceptions and present facts, global trends and data in a way that everybody can understand. Rönnlund is also the founder of Dollar Street, which reflects her own passion for photography by using images and videos to promote a fact-based view of the world.

“What if we are wrong about the world?” asked Anna Rosling Rönnlund, the first keynote speaker at ONE this year. “How can we then make sure we do the right things?”

What are the facts about what’s happening around the world?

The world is full of problems. Climate change and COVID-19 are two hot topics, to name a few. To check whether conference attendees’ worldview was up to date, Rönnlund carried out a short quiz with 18 multiple-choice questions on topics that varied from suicide to low-income countries, farming and plastic waste. You can take the quiz here.

The following facts are true:

1. The suicide rate decreased by 25% over the past 20 years.

2. 9% of countries are low-income countries now.

3. 6% of plastic waste ends up in the ocean.

Below are the results of ONE participant responses comparing to the facts:

On average, attendees only answered 4.7 of the 18 questions correctly. The results demonstrated that our perspective of the world is often not based on facts and, as a result, can cloud our judgment.

What causes a skewed worldview?

Rönnlund gave three explanations for how misconceptions are often generated:

1 .The things we learned in school have become outdated.

2. What we see around us is a narrow slice of reality.

3. The news is overdramatic — we only hear about extraordinary events, instead of things like, “Yesterday, all trains were on time again.”

How can we update our worldview?

1. Get a reality check.

To broaden our horizon and see the truth about ordinary things, Rönnlund suggested that we pay attention to what’s happening in reality as well.

“We need to look at how people really sleep, how they brush their teeth, where they go to the toilet even,” said Rönnlund. “We need to see that everyday reality (in order) to understand that most of us are having everyday struggles that look pretty much the same, even though we might be in different countries and on different income levels.”

You can see pictures of items and activities from households with different income levels around the world here.

2. Look at the data.

“But that (seeing everyday reality) is not enough. We also need to look at the data,” Rönnlund noted before sharing 32 things that have improved in the world over time.

For example, legal slavery has decreased dramatically, deaths due to disasters have all but disappeared, fewer children are dying, more kids are getting vaccinated and there are more movies to choose from.

“So, a lot of things are actually improving, but we’re very bad at seeing these slow trends on a global level,” said Rönnlund. “Instead, we see the media, and we see the drama all around us.”

The world is, in so many ways, getting better. However, there are still many problems to solve. The danger of being wrong about data and global trends is that we might end up solving the wrong problems — or solving them in the wrong order.

3. Trick your brain.

Even when we are highly educated and know the facts, the world keeps changing. In addition, our brains love dramatic stories more than the truth about global trends. We need to trick our brains to be smarter without spending too much time learning.

With this in mind, the authors of “Factfulness” developed the 10 Rules of Thumb to control the dramatic instincts in our minds.

What are the 10 Factfulness Rules of Thumb?

1. The Gap Instinct: We tend to think about the world as divided, such as either poor or rich. The majority, however, is in the middle.

2. The Negativity Instinct: Our brains might think things keep getting worse because of what we hear, but sometimes, we should ask ourselves: Would an improvement get publicity?

3. The Straight Line Instinct: When we see a trend, we tend to think it will continue. However, many lines bend.

4. The Fear Instinct: Often, we see and search for stories that are dramatic and interesting, but our brains overdramatize reality.

5. The Size Instinct: Everything we hear on a global level seems to be huge because the numbers add up. But we need to compare, divide and put things in perspective.

6. The Generalization Instinct: For example, we tend to group people together and think they are all the same, even if they have different backgrounds.

7. The Destiny Instinct: Thinking that nothing can be done because of destiny is a bad ground for doing change work.

8. The Single Instinct: We tend to think that we have a hammer, and we want to use it on everything we see. To make smart decisions, however, we need to use a toolbox.

9. The Blame Instinct: This is our instinct of pointing fingers at certain people, forcing them to bear the guilt for things going bad.

10. The Urgency Instinct: We often feel the urge to do something big immediately upon hearing about dramatic events happening around us. “There is a risk of doing the wrong thing and doing too much of it, which might cause problems rather than fix them,” said Rönnlund. “What we need to do is to take one step at a time and keep evaluating and keep looking at it.”

How can we support a fact-based view of the world?

1. Foster data literacy by providing transparent and free data.

2. Make the world more understandable by visualizing data, especially in schools. “We need to serve the brain enough excitement so it’s interested enough to keep listening, and (we should) stay true to the facts and ensure we are not overexaggerating anything,” advised Rönnlund.

3. Be humble and curious. “You don't want to be looked at as someone who’s … wrong, but according to the testing we have done, we’ve seen that most people are wrong in most industries, in most ages, in most educational levels,” shared Rönnlund. “I think, if we are humble and curious and start looking for the data, we will find data, because it is existing.”

4. Keep upgrading our worldview, because the world keeps changing, and so do the facts about it. A lot of data is freely available from big organizations online. “We need to foster this new habit with curiosity and humility, looking for facts, and keep updating them,” said Rönnlund. “It’s not a small thing, because it’s about rewiring the way we think as a species, but I think we have to start doing it.”

5. Beware of unreliable data. Most information around us is not fake, but we get it wrong anyway. We also now have to deal with fake news. Be sure to check your sources.   

6. Reach out beyond your network. When it comes to social media, look for friends of your friends or distant relatives to widen your point of view. Explore other fields of interest to broaden your understanding of how people see things differently.

Fun facts from the Q&A session

  • Rönnlund started writing “Factfulness” with her husband, Ola, and father-in-law, Hans, after the three of them worked closely together on Gapminder for more than 10 years to make the world easier to understand.
  • Their collaboration began after a family dinner, where Hans shared his struggle to explain global health to medical students. At first, Rönnlund and Ola helped Hans simplify the information by creating more appealing visuals. Then, together, they started to innovate and find better ways to teach global health and development to a bigger audience.
  • The three authors wrote about five big risks for the future in “Factfulness,” and the number-one risk was a global pandemic.
  • People can be happy with what they know about the world, and it’s hard to change or upgrade that knowledge. The writers focused on two things: first, what people are most often wrong about, which they determined by screening populations with factual questions, and second, why we have such a hard time understanding the world around us, which they explored by looking at the brain.
  • Rönnlund and Ola are continuing Hans’ legacy by creating new content and new factual questions so that people can stay updated on different topics. They are working to create more teaching materials that can be used in the classroom.  

“Factfulness is recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination,” said Dr. Lyons in the conclusion of the session. “And remember that it is better to look at problems from many different angles. When we see the world in this way, we truly become possible-ists, people who can really see clearly how progress can be made, the potential ahead, and make sure that we can play a role in making it better.”

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