Seeing possibilities

At a global scale, how do you perceive the path of mankind? Getting better? Getting worse? Getting nowhere? Listening to our instincts, we are inclined to hold a gloomy, even bleak view of the current state and our future prospects. But is such pessimism at all justified? Should we rely on our guts? And what do the facts tell us? The big trends that shape the development of populations and define their health and wealth, these drivers of societal progress are the focus of Hans Rosling’s lifelong mission as a public health practitioner, researcher, and teacher.

A dedicated and skillful public speaker, Hans captivated audiences around the globe by getting dry numbers to tell fascinating stories. Just watch his mesmerizing visualisation of 200 countries and 200 years, summarizing the developments of health and wealth around the globe from the early Industrial Revolution to the present day. For more examples of his equally entertaining and educational, check his TED talks; there’s actually an entire Hans Rosling playlist.

His latest, and sadly his last masterpiece is Factfulness, a book that he introduces as “my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance“. He set out “to change people’s ways of thinking, calm their irrational fears, and redirect their energies into constructive activities”. Fighting guts with facts –at a global scale– is no small ambition, for sure, but he delivers in style.

The basic story he presents is straightforward: How do we try to make sense of the world we live in, based on our personal observations and on the data we receive? And how are we misguided by our craving for simplicity, mislead by our yearning for drama? To illustrate how –easily and often– we misjudge reality and misinterpret facts, he develops a narrative along the ten dramatic instincts he identified:

  • The first is the gap instinct: how we often think of ‘us’ and ‘them’, assuming there’s a wide gap between two large groups that occupy the ends of a spectrum, while in fact the majority is usually somewhere in the middle.
  • The negativity instinct: our propensity for spreading bad news, combined with the inability to see developments that improved a far worse situation of the past to a better (though still not good) situation today.
  • The straight line instinct: how we automatically assume that any trend would simply continue linearly, as a straight line, while life is full of curves, and trends are likely to take drastic turns, either up or down.
  • The fear instinct: how frightful events get disproportionate attention, how angst occupies our feeling and thinking, even though such events are neither the most frequent nor the most impactful things that happen.
  • The size instinct: how we misjudge single numbers (either big or small), trying to interpret them just by themselves, rather than putting them in perspective, comparing them to or dividing them by other numbers.
  • The generalization instinct: how we fall for stereotypes and tend to take single examples as characteristics of larger groups (or assume that all members of a group would always display similar behaviours).
  • The destiny instinct: how we assume that ‘some things just never change’, thereby ignoring the very slow, gradual developments that occur quietly, out of sight, without drama over long periods of time, and that do drive fundamental changes in the long run.
  • The single perspective instinct: how we limit our judgments to a single view and miss the opportunities to take in many perspectives for a more fulsome appreciation of reality.
  • The blame instinct: how we expect to find the one single cause, the one individual driver (either hero or villain) who is in charge of –or to blame for– whatever happens to us.
  • Finally, the urgency instinct: our inclination to rush to decisions and actions, to jump to conclusions, even though ‘urgent’ does not equate to ‘important’, and ‘fast’ is not automatically the same as ‘good’.

These dramatic instincts stop us from realising the progress made and acknowledging the improvements achieved. True to his educational mission, Hans shows us how we can avoid getting trapped by those instincts in order to make better informed, sounder decisions. He shares the wealth of insights he drew from personal successes as well as failures, richly illustrating his narrative with the experiences gained over decades of traveling the globe as a widely acclaimed expert in public health, visiting the shacks and the palaces alike. His personal facts-based world view is that of a possibilist. In his own words:

People often call me an optimist, because I show them the enormous progress they didn’t know about. That makes me angry. I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve.   I’m a serious ‘possibilist’. That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.

We lost this profound voice of reason when Hans Rosling passed away in 2017. However, he had already taken care to leave us a very strong message.  And his work will continue through the Gapminder Foundation that he founded together with his daughter-in-law Anna and his son Ola.

Truly inspiring.

Spread the word!

 

Hans Rosling and the Gap Minder Foundation

 

Comments

  1. I was ready to add another “dramatic instinct” in that wonderful list of Hans Rosling, when I realized that it is actually kind of implied in his last one (the urgency instinct). My thought was focused on the abstract notion of time in the human behavior and the invention of the short-term vs the long-term notion. And I’m not talking only about the distinction between urgent and important, but also about the different aspects of what is considered fast and at the same time good for society. In the course of history, perception of time was relevant to the available technology that was able to make all other related factors move on a relative speed. So, what was considered short-term and long-term planning & vision 100 years ago, has a different meaning today. What I mean, is that although fast or slow could partially explain the good or bad in terms of cause and effect, I have the feeling that many analysts today, still interpret time (or urgency) the same way that we were doing a century ago, coming to conclusions without taking into consideration the speed of all factors and parameters. Nevertheless, the urgency of an action in the past was related to the predicted time response of a counteraction (or consequence) and could characterize the trend as good or not good enough; but this might be irrelevant today. And in the near future (if we are not already there) we might have to change our perspective of time cycles for short-term, medium-term or long-term planning and forecasting. Great reading in this post (as always)!. Thanks again.

    • Thank you for the encouraging words.
      I’d agree that the perception of time has changed, and that we live under conditions of acceleration. What was a a fast-enough response twenty years ago might well be too late today. That’s a problem that we must recognise and come to terms with. And at the same time, speed itself is not sufficient (and hasn’t been in the past). So we cannot simply trade quality of the response for speed; we must seek to maintain quality and increase speed. A truly formidable challenge.

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