Rosling’s book helps us think clearly about complex systems

Rosling Factfulness great book

This week’s read is Hans Rosling’s Factfulness.  I chose this book because Bill Gates called it “One of the most important books I’ve ever read—an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” 

Many reviewers have discussed the book in the context of global development. And, indeed, that is the focus of the book.  But the book is more than that; it is a discussion of how to think. The lessons apply equally well for anyone investigating complex systems.  And isn’t that what most of us engineers and scientists are doing?

Rosling describes instincts and biases that interfere with clear thinking and offers practical advice about how to overcome these innate biases. The errors he describes can cause problems in every field of human endeavor, from protecting public health and the environment, to making business investment decisions. His recommendations will benefit anyone thinking about complex systems.

All of this is done in a delightfully engaging manner. Rosling intersperses research with personal anecdotes, making this both an easy read and a thought-provoking one.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

If you really want to change the world you have to understand it.

Instead, constantly test your favorite ideas for weaknesses. Be humble about the extent of your expertise. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit, and information from other fields. And rather than talking only to people who agree with you, or collecting examples that fit your ideas, see people who contradict you, disagree with you, and put forward different ideas as a great resource for understanding the world.

Factfulness is … recognizing that a single perspective can limit your imagination, and remembering that it is better to look at problems from many angles to get a more accurate understanding and find practical solutions.

Beware of simple ideas and simple solutions. History is full of visionaries who used simple utopian visions to justify terrible actions. Welcome complexity. Combine ideas. Compromise. Solve problems on a case-by-case basis.

In fact, resist blaming any one individual or group of individuals for anything. Because the problem is that when we identify the bad guy, we are done thinking. And it’s almost always more complicated than that. It’s almost always about multiple interacting causes — a system. If you really want to change the world, you have to understand how it actually works and forget about punching anyone in the face.

When we are afraid and under time pressure and thinking of worst-case scenarios, we tend to make really stupid decisions.

Rosling, Hans. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Flatiron Books.

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