We are all susceptible to biases and fallacies | In Focus

Background and education don’t matter — how we see the world is skewed.

As I have mentioned in previous columns, I belonged to a religious cult during much of my young adult life. After I left, I developed a philosophy about my life: I had been scammed and I didn’t want to repeat my error. I resolved to search for information that caused me to see the big picture, to see outside the box of culture that often dictates our beliefs and actions.

Hans Rosling’s book,“Factfulness” points out the fallacies of human thinking, no matter the level of expertise. When dealing with global trends such as world poverty, population growth, and the number of girls who finish school, we frequently get the wrong answers.

In fact, chimpanzees are better at guessing than humans. In choosing bananas marked A, B, and C (representing various questions asked to people), they chose the correct answers 33% of the time. Rosling states that no matter the level of education, humans do worse than chimps. Rosling was a medical doctor and Swedish professor of international health who has lived and worked all over the world.

Rosling asks 13 multiple choice questions and then describes ten human fallacies we fall into when assessing the state of the world.

Here are two of the thirteen questions:

No. 1. “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?” A) 20%, B) 40%, C) 60%

No. 2. “Where does the majority of the world population live?” A) low-income countries, B) Middle-income countries, C) High-income countries.

Your belief in how bad the condition of the world is today is based upon skewed information and an emphasis by the media on disasters. Disaster stories grab our attention while the truth is not as interesting. The answer to question No. 1 is C, 60%. Only 7% of those worldwide who answered this question got it correct.

For question No. 2, the answer is B, middle-income countries. 36% of Americans got this answer correct, slightly better than chimps.

Our beliefs come from ten human fallacies or instincts. I will describe three.

■ The “Gap Instinct” is based on the mistaken notion that “The World is Divided in Two”. Most people think in terms of developed and developing. In actuality, the world should be divided into four income categories based on 2017 income levels:

Level one: one billion people live in this category, making only $2 per day.

Level two: three billion people live in this category, making $8/day.

Level three: two billion people, making $32/day.

Level 4: one billion people earning above $32/day. That includes all of you who work in the United States.

That’s a much more optimistic picture than most humans actually believe.

■ The “Blame Instinct”: “The Blame Instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened.” According to Rosling, “The blame game often reveals our preferences. We tend to look for bad guys who confirm our existing beliefs.” In Washington state, conservatives place the blame for inflation on foreigners, lying journalists, Gov. Inslee, President Biden, and the Democrats, while progressives like to blame Big Business, including Big Oil and Big Pharma, for gouging consumers. In actuality, the answer is much more complicated, including the war in Ukraine, and COVID creating supply chain bottlenecks and shortages.

■ The “Urgency Instinct” comes into play with climate change. Al Gore stated, “We need to create fear!” While Rosling deeply respects what Gore has achieved in arousing attention in regard to climate change, he strongly disagreed with engendering fear to accomplish that change. He directly told Gore he would not cooperate and refused to engender that panic because, “Fear plus urgency make for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects. Climate change is too important for that.”

We can’t predict the future with certainty. It’s better to show a range of potential forecasts rather than showing “a worst-case scenario as if it were certain…. This protects our reputations and means we never give people a reason to stop listening.”

I highly recommend “Factfulness”. It will change your perspectives and give you a much more hopeful and realistic perspective about the world we live in today. Children are better educated today than fifty years ago, women are treated better, crime decreased over the past twenty years until COVID, and death rates due to disease have decreased immensely as opposed to even twenty years ago, again, until COVID. Instead of succumbing to fear, Rosling says we should “take a breath”, “insist on the data”, “beware of fortune tellers”, and “be wary of drastic actions”.

These points are sound advice for whatever ails us today.