Factfulness is a neologism that describes a fact-based worldview. Put another way: Factfulness means basing one’s opinion on strong and unambiguous facts.
The term achieved notoriety through Hans Rosling’s 2018 book of the same name, in which Rosling speaks of a distorted representation of the world by the media, opinion leaders, and politicians. He notes that media reports often do not match the actual facts and appeals to us not to take all information from the media unchecked.
What does „factfulness“ mean? Explanation, meaning, definition
Dividing the world into two halves is simple, but it is also enormously important for the mental health of human beings. East and West, rich countries and developing countries, Islam and Christianity – pigeonholes make the complicated world a little simpler. (See: What is black and white thinking?).
For Rosling, this is not done with bad intentions or because of poor research. It a typical human phenomenon to deny facts. The human brain tends to divide the world into two poles, educated and uneducated, male and female, poor and rich, etc. When average differences are found, the media like to blow them up into a big deal. If you look at the facts more closely, it turns out that there is a very large overlap between the two groups, so the differences between the averages are meaningless to most people.
Yet the human brain fixates preferentially on the differences. We have a tendency to focus on scare scenarios. For us, the information that 8% of young people in Germany do not have a high school diploma is much more exciting than the fact that 92% have one. In the same way, an unemployment rate of 6% is perceived as much more exciting than a rate of 94% employed – although the employment figure should actually be convincing. After all, a society is not characterized by the number of unemployed, but by the predominant number of employees who contribute to the gross national product.
The situation is similar with figures on education and social background. For a long time, politicians and the media have been proclaiming that social origin determines educational success. According to statistics, however, only between 10 and 20 % of the differences in educational success can be attributed to social origin. Intelligence is also a significant factor, but seems to be less interesting because it cannot generate scandal.
Factfulness: Scandalizing Trivia in the Media
Humans are fascinated by scandals and tend to make snap judgments without considering the facts. The media take advantage of this, which is also evident in news broadcasts. In favor of the scandal, their editors often leave essential facts unmentioned. For example, when reporting on terrorist attacks, they show the victims. The fact that the number of terror victims in Germany has been declining for years is concealed. People often cling to beliefs and images that were valid decades ago but are now outdated.
Rosling claims in his book that one cannot expect a fact-based worldview from the free media. Nor, he says, are they the right sources to learn about disruptive cultural changes.
In order to continue to serve old stereotypes, Western media often used outdated sources. In this way, they do not really contribute to a realistic picture of other countries. He cites numerous examples of this, including Iran: „In this country, the number of children per woman has been declining at the fastest rate in the world since statistics on this have been available. (Today, statistically, there are 1.6 children; in 1984, there were still over 6 children).
Although Iran was a frequent topic in the free media, this fact was never reported. Instead, people made a speculative connection between the number of children and religion. However, income and infant mortality are decisive for the changed birth rate in Iran. Facts were concealed and the report was formulated in such a way that people inevitably drew the wrong conclusions from it.
Factfulness: Fact-based journalism must not stir up fears
Rosling’s book can be seen as an appeal to move people toward more factfulness. He wants to encourage us not to panic immediately, even in the face of reports that initially appear very dramatic.
Instead, we as media consumers should gather facts and data and inform ourselves precisely about the facts. After all, most of the problems presented in the media cannot be solved in a hurry. As the Corona pandemic showed, even in an epidemic, it is better to first collect data and then make decisions based on facts. This is especially important with the current and future challenges of climate change.
The old fears only ensure that we remain stuck in doing nothing.
Rosling advises a policy of small steps. History shows that many of the so-called Third World countries have already climbed out of the worst poverty and up a notch. It is the people, not the politicians, who are fighting for better education, better health and clean drinking water. Just 150 years ago, Germany was also a poor country full of famine and epidemics. So it is important to see the population in the southern parts of the world not as anonymous poor people, but as people whose lives are very similar to ours. We all strive for a healthier and happier life.
Rosling’s book aims to show us that the world is richer and more colorful than the media would have us believe. He appeals to our intellect and emphasizes again and again that it is worthwhile not to accept every lurid piece of information unchecked, but to always question it.