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  • Writer's pictureDr Hugh Willbourn

Footnote to #13: The Errors of Thinking identified in "Factfulness"

Updated: Oct 24, 2020

FACTFULNESS, Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Flatiron Books, New York, 2018

Factfulness is a splendid book about ten commonplace errors of thinking (which Rosling calls 'instincts'). The only ‘instinct’ which is not involved in the Covid debacle is the first one Rosling mentions: the Gap Instinct. That is the erroneous belief that the world divides simply into rich “developed” countries and poor “undeveloped” countries. To find out how wrong that is, and what the world is really like – or at least was like before the global lockdown-created depression – click here.

The following nine cognitive errors are slap bang in the middle of the Covid catastrophe.

The Negativity Instinct

Rosling identifies it as “our tendency to notice the bad more than the good.” In the case of Covid-19 this tendency focusses attention on the fact that some people, the vast majority elderly and with co-morbidities, die when they catch it. Less attention is paid to the fact that 99.97% of the people who are infected survive, and the vast majority of them don’t even feel ill.

The Straight Line Instinct

Rosling introduces the concept whilst talking about ebola and about the world’s population. The fallacy is to assume that a straight line on a graph will continue indefinitely in a straight line. In the early stages of ebola cases were doubling every three weeks, in other words the line bends upwards. In the case of the world’s population it is rising fast but will flatten out. Rosling doesn’t go into the detail that over a longer period the ebola line stopped rising completely and fell dramatically. The Covid fear fest is regularly fueled by graphs of frightening projections which regularly turn out to be wrong.

The Fear Instinct

Rosling puts it bluntly, “When we are afraid, we do not see clearly.” He notes: “The media cannot resist tapping into our fear instinct. It is such an easy way to grab our attention. In fact the biggest stories are often those that trigger more than one type of fear. … If we look at the facts behind the headlines, we can see how the fear instinct systematically distorts what we see of the world.”

Presciently he also writes, “in some cases … fear of an invisible substance has run amok and is doing more harm than the substance itself.” He could be writing about Sars-Cov-2.

The Size Instinct

Rosling was a medical doctor who worked in many places with limited medical facilities. He realised that it was more effective to spend money on basic health care than on acute services.

He writes that in 2016, all around the world, 4.2 million babies died, and he asks “How can anyone argue that 4.2 million is anything other than a huge number?” And then he does so. He writes “it is not huge: it is beautifully small.” Because in 2015 the number was 4.4 million. In 2014 it was 4.5 million. In 1950 it was 14.4 million. His point is that the number is beautiful because more and more deaths are being prevented and “we would never realise this without comparing the numbers."

His advice is simple “Never believe that one number on its own can be meaningful. If you are offered one number, always ask for at least one more. Something to compare it with.”

The current obsession with "cases" (positive PCR tests) is mad in many ways, not least of which it is completely unrelated to mortality. We have plenty of other numbers, for example preventable deaths from cancer and heart disease which have occurred because of lockdowns. If we paid more attention to those it would bring about a more sane approach to Covid-19.

The Generalisation Instinct

Rosling was a brave and honorable man. He had the guts to confess that he used to promote the policy of laying infant babies on their tummies, which around the world lead to 60,000 excess infant deaths. This dangerous policy arose because doctors in the second world war and the Korean war discovered that unconscious soldiers stretchered off battlefields were more likely to survive if they were laid on their fronts than their backs. In the 1960s this “lie on front not back” policy was generalised to babies with tragic results.

The mistake was made because the difference between adults and babies was elided. As he puts it “beware of generalising from one group to another.” The tragedy of Covid-19 is littered with illegitimate generalizations. One of many is that millions of young people are frightened of Covid, and millions of mothers are frightened for their children, because they have illegitimately generalised from one group (the vulnerable elderly with co-morbidities) to the healthy under-60s. The barbaric behaviour of the Australia Federal and State Governments is perhaps the most egregious example of the grotesque generalisation of the notion of quarantine from small, manageable groups (for example aboard a ship) to whole states and nations.

The Destiny Instinct

“The destiny instinct is … the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change.” This dire mistake set in right at the beginning of the panic about Covid-19. The first absurd, inflated estimates of possible death were taken as gospel, and many people who should know better still take them as meaningful and relevant. It is as though Neil Ferguson had declared that the moon is made from green cheese, and as a result all the moon rock samples brought back by the Apollo mission must be declared fakes.

The Single Perspective Instinct

Rosling warns against forming your opinion on the basis of a single source of information – whether that be political, media or experts. In the UK, which has been tragically influential worldwide in this catastrophe, the Government has been hopelessly reliant on the largely mediocre scientists in the SAGE group. There was not a single immunologist or economist in the original group and the fact that Neil Ferguson was a member in spite of a record of twenty years of spectacularly exaggerated and inaccurate prophecies tell us all we need to know about the selection process. Nonetheless even if they were all brilliant scientists (and they are definitely not) the Government should still have consulted more widely.

The Blame Instinct

Rosling defines this one as “the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened.” In the Covid-19 case this entails abstracting Covid-19 from all the co-morbid causes of death and calling it critical in every case. It entails ascribing mortality to Covid, as opposed to national and seasonal variations (the dry tinder theory) or to other subsequent causes. It entails claiming that the clear, simple fact of large numbers of people catching Covid will increase danger to the vulnerable when in reality the direct opposite is true. As more people gain immunity at infinitesimal risk, they protect the vulnerable by denying the virus a safe haven.

The Urgency Instinct

This is the instinct which says that if you are faced with a serious threat you must act immediately. Rosling tells of the deadly response of an African Government to an outbreak of ebola in 1995. They set up a roadblock which caused a food shortage, and in due course an outbreak of poisoning as people in desperation ate unprocessed cassava.

In 2020 the madness of the urgency instinct has been repeated over and over. The best possible reaction to the discovery of Covid-19 would have been for Governments to do absolutely nothing and to let clinical medical staff get on with their job.

It is difficult to think of any Government intervention in the Covid situation which has not done more harm than good.

Hans Rosling was a great man. I recommend his book, especially if you are a member of the SAGE committee or are anywhere near any politicians in power. And if you meet Bill Gates please ask him to re-read the book he so warmly endorsed.

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