Eliminating Biases

Ambi Parameswaran learns about the tendencies that stop us from seeing the real progress in the world in Hans Rosling's Factfulness

Published 6 years ago on Sep 08, 2018 3 minutes Read

When my school friend PV Ranganathan announced that he was taking up a five-year assignment to become the CFO of a successful local company in Mozambique, Africa, we were all quite perplexed. Many of us had to reach out to the World Atlas to find out where Mozambique is located. We were wondering what got into Rangu. He had a stellar CV, a rank holder in CA, a qualified company secretary, had handled numerous M&As, was a Ranji level cricket player and a Carnatic musician to boot. He could have picked a job closer home. So, why Africa? And why Mozambique? 

Many years later as he completed his contract and returned to India, we quizzed him on how it was worked out in the ‘Dark Continent’. He spoke of the wonderful time he had in the beautiful country. The people. The culture. The cuisine. 

As I started reading Factfulness by Hans Rosling, words from Rangu came back. This is a compact book on how we are so wrong about the world we live in. He argues how things are a lot better than we think. 

One of the key hypothesis of the book is that we tend to see the world from our vantage point that may be inherently flawed. We are inherently biased in our views. We think most girls in poor countries don’t attend school (real number is 60%). We think the count of people living in extreme poverty has increased in the last 20 years (in reality it has halved). We think more people are dying due to natural disasters today than they did 100 years ago (in reality the number has dropped by more than half). I could go on. 

Factfulness presents several reasons for this misperception. Gap Instinct speaks about our focus on the extremes without looking at the vast majority who are in the middle. Negativity Instinct speaks about media’s tendency to report the negative news rather than the more mundane positive news. Straight Line Instinct is about our tendency to extrapolate numbers in a straight line, while in reality nothing moves in a straight line, there is always a plateauing off of numbers. Fear Instinct speaks about our natural capacity to get frightened by things that catch our attention. Size Instinct is about how we get carried away by a big number while there may be many small numbers that need our attention. Generalisation Instinct is about the broad brush strokes we use to generalise. Destiny Instinct makes us believe things will not change because we don’t see the small changes that are always happening. Single Perspective Instinct is a disposition to get carried away by just one magic number. Blame Instinct is our inclination to blame someone and Rosling wants us to look at causes and not the villians. Finally there is the Urgency Instinct that pushes us to take quick decisions without looking at all the facts, from all the angles. 

Rosling has lent his voice to the champions of developmental studies and wants us to look at the world without our biases. Pick up the book to ensure that you get rid of all those cobwebs from your mind. And get a fresh perspective of the world, Mozambique included.