Factfulness: Observing and Understanding the World Around You

Elaina Plankey, Editor-in-Chief

A respected Swedish physician, Hans Rosling created Gapminder to “fight devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview everyone can understand.” Rosling, using the data consolidated by Gapminder and sourced primarily from the UN, covers in his New York Times bestseller book Factfulness how a pessimistic worldview is not backed by data.

His book is far more in-depth, however, a few of my takeaways from his book may be helpful in navigating a news feed. 

Commonly I will hear claims of ‘Fake News!’ when a trending story does not fit the viewpoint of a vocal Twitter user. As noted by Dr. Vincent F. Filak in Dynamics of Media Writing, Twitter’s 180 characters limits space to convey news; this brevity is a draw for a reader. But this briefness can also misconstrue or dramatize information. News, from reliable sources, is rarely unbiased. The occasional falsehood such as the Washington Post’s Jimmy’s World — a piece that won a Pulitzer Prize before it was debunked — may sneak through, but this is an outlier and not the norm. The majority of the time, when someone online declares something as fake it is because it does not fit their personal beliefs, and rather than analyze the data and are more willing to deny facts. 

Facts are never wrong. They can be construed, or manipulated to a goal without telling the full story, however. The most common way to construe facts is to look at a single fact without contextualizing it. 

A plane crashes; it does not matter how. Maybe the navigation system glitched, or they ran out of fuel. There has been a terrible disaster, and everyone knows about it. Now, follow my logic for a while: That is a remarkable thing. Flying is the safest form of travel — far outstripping cars, boats, and even walking in safety. In 2016 there were 40 million safely landed commercial passenger flights. That same year, only 10 flights had fatal accidents. Why do not we hear about the 40 million safe flights? It is the same reason we can so vividly recall images of a plane shattered into pieces on the ground, with smoke wafting in the air.

LaMia flight 2933, one of the 10 2016 fatal plane crashes. Photo from ABCnews “Colombia Plane Crash Was Co-Pilot’s First Flight With the Airline” (Photo by: ABCnews)

Journalists look for stories, that is their career. It is not news when a plane lands; it is news when a plane crashes. Safe flights happen in mass every day.  It is not shocking, and it is not newsworthy. Few readers peruse for reiterations of the same information they already know. Planes are safe.  All the safety standards and regulations they must meet to fly drastically lower the risk of an incident. Safe is not strange, it is regular and expected. 

What garners attention is rare events, the 10 fatal plane accidents. Those stories will be published and circulated, and without the circulation of information about the majority of safe plane landings. It is reasonable to be afraid of flying in planes — the only exposure is when they end in catastrophe. This fear can be addressed with data.

Unsurprisingly, this applies to more than planes. Disease, war and conflict are all fertile ground for the fear instinct. Understanding the risk is far better than immersing in fear. To control the fear instinct, calculate the risk posed. A simple equation: Risk = danger ⨉ exposure. Exposure is the likelihood of this happening — the 0.000025 percent of flights with fatal accidents. The danger is the level of the threat, the difference between mild embarrassment and a loss of human life.

A fantastic resource for world statistics is the UN database, but as analyzing data is a lengthy process, Hans Rosling created Gapminder to help contextualize the world using data. By comparing the danger and exposure data an accurate worldview can be formed, using this process I have found the world is not as scary as I once thought.