May 6, 2019

Factfulness – a suitable legacy from the great communicator Hans Rosling

By Paul Laughlin

Readers may remember our obituary on the passing of Hans Rosling, whose book Factfulness was published posthumously.

In this post, I will review this engaging book. It is a fitting legacy for a man who dedicated so much of his life to education and relief. A  number of lessons can be taken from this work, on Data Visualisation, Biases and Communication.

It is a handy sized little hardback, measuring only 19 cm by 13 cm. Small enought to carry around while experiencing the world around you, which would be a fitting way to read this book.

One of many credits on this book is a quote from Barak Obama, who describes this as: “A hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases.”

I think that sums it up nicely, but to whet your appetite further, here are my key takeaways from enjoying this brilliant book.

Factfulness: Data Visualisation stripped down to the essentials

Throughout his career, Hans Rosling was an effective and creative data visualiser. His lectures or TED talks were legendary for innovative use of objects (from buckets to swords) to communicate statistics.

The key message of this book is that when we look at the data, there is so much positive human progress to celebrate. Hans shares data from both the World Bank and the UN, to illustrate how much progress has been made over the last hundred years.

Apart from the colour data visualisations in the front & back inside covers, this book is printed in black and white. Given those constraints (printed black & white media), you might think sharing data every few pages would make for a boring book. The fact that it is not is a credit to Hans’ use of Data Visualisation.

He uses a combination of basic charts, creative infographics and categories that help us understand the data. Each is data-led & truthful. Through simple line charts, column charts & scatter plots he brings the data to life. He also steps us through how he lets the data shape “binning” that improves our interpretation (his 4 levels of development).

I encourage any analysts who feel they are too limited in their toolkit to try Data Visualisation, to read this book. Thinking carefully & creatively we can all improve.

Factfulness: Recognising and mitigating our well trained biases

A key theme of this book is how we have all fallen into a number of familiar biases in how we see the world & interpret data about it. This starts with a quiz that reveals how even highly skilled world leaders know less about the world than chimps choosing at random. It is entertaining to read throughout the book how far wrong most people are when answering these questions.

Hans then uses successive chapters to demonstrate many of the reasons why we fail to recognise how much positive progress has been made. These include media reporting and rose-tinted views of the past, but also how we interpret facts, graphs & incomplete information.

Many of the pitfalls that Hans shares are worth remembering when reading new data visualisations or listening to news stories. He also grounds these in the same kind of biases that we identified when talking about Behavioural Biases. Hans presents these as instincts that served us well in the past but now distort our perception.

A chapter each deal with the following 10 instincts to misread data:

  1. Gap instinct
  2. Negativity instinct
  3. Straight Line instinct
  4. Fear instinct
  5. Size instinct
  6. Generealization instinct
  7. Destiny instinct
  8. Single Perspective instinst
  9. Blame instinct
  10. Urgency instinct

Each chapter is worth reading both for its insights into the human condition and to alert us to a different way charts can be misread or data misinterpreted.

Factfulness: Humanise the data

Throughout this fact-filled book, Hans’ passion and humour shine through. He peppers the text with human stories (from his life, travels & interaction with others). These really bring to life his passion for this cause. You want to listen to a man who clearly cares about what he is communicating and knows his message. That is a great example for customer insight leaders too.

A number of graphical devices are used to bring the text to life, from photos to icons. Combined with vivid descriptions of what life is like for people in the four different levels of development – he brings the data to life. Even the simple use of headstones in charts about mortality makes charts more emotionally impactful. A great reminder to always remember that each data point is a person & let their stories be heard.

Hans closes the book with two chapters and appendices that exemplify his attitude throughout. “Factfulness in Practice” & “Outro” combine moving personal stories with simple tips to put this book into practice. His “Factfulness Rules of Thumb” infographic is worth printing out & keeping on your desk to prompt useful critique when reading charts. The appendivies are also full of the full results of his surveys, notes and sources.

Hans role models transparency and willingness to let all the data be seen that is also a powerful way to communicate. Do your homework and have nothing to hide.

Have you read Factfulness

I hope that short review encourages you to both buy this book & embrace its challenge. May we all be encouraged and look at the world through more “possibilist” eyes. Knowing how much positive progress has been made around the world & better equipped to critically assess news and other new data.

Have you also read Factfulness? If so, I would love to hear your thoughts and comments, either in the comments box below or on social media.

Thank you Hans. You have left a rich legacy and an example of a life well lived.