Hans Rosling's "Factfulness" and the Problem of Tribalism

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This is probably one of the most important books available today. Why? Because our world is desperately in need of a shared sense of reality, and it's very important that this reality has a solid grounding in science and reason. The book is not without its controversy. The charts and graphs mostly come from UN and World Bank statistics. Many people will argue about the "factfulness" of the various datasets presented in this book-- after all, your faith in the science and facts of these books also assumes your faith in the institutions collecting data (over and above other institutions like your local church).


But if you do have faith in these institutions, then you'll see that just because the institutions and the data aren't perfect (just like many other things in modern life) they are improving. The relentless pursuit of progress also extends to our statistical understanding of the things around us. For my part, one of the most striking things about the book is how uncontroversial its assertions are...and how simple the statistical facts of the world can be rendered.


At one point in the book, the author asks harder epistemological questions. For those who have a more mystical understanding of vaccinations, chemicals, and even modern science, the author asks "What evidence would make you change your mind?". Regrettably, for most of the world, the answer is this: "If the answer benefits my tribe and its particular world-view, then yes, easily accepted....oh, and by the way, I'll use the open-mindedness of non-tribal people against themselves by sewing the seeds of skepticism while continuing to build walls to protect my tribe's worldview."


Will you ever be able to convince a climate change skeptic to accept climate change? My own very controversial answer is this: Only if you can co-opt their tribe. That is very different than getting a tribe to buy into the shared world of factfulness.


My best guess is that this method of argument works within a worldview of competing tribes: Your tribe will have beneficial treatment, jobs, and prestige within this world and protection from other tribes. (Notice how the language of shared humanism is absent and the language hierarchy of tribes is emphasized).


A true understanding of science requires that we always regard truths as provisional and that we look for falsifying evidence. My fear is that eventually the world will become so polluted by tribal world-views that all forms of shared factfulness will become polluted by tribalism. Zero-sum competition will lay waste to the public utility that is a shared fact-based world.


There is one very controversial assertion in this book that I would like to reflect on. At several points, the author asserts that our current methods of pursuing progress are working. Child mortality rates are falling, crime is falling, battle deaths are falling, and national economies are rising out of poverty. I don't doubt the assertion within the framework of the book, but I do wonder about our current moment in history. A time when:

1- populism

2- social media enhanced sectarianism

3- the displacement of localisms by globalization

4- and discontent with the vast changes in technology

are leading to the most difficult problem of our time: tribalism.


As tribalism increases, our modern scientific tools for tackling climate change, political violence, disaster relief, and the fragility of the global economy deteriorate. As they deteriorate, zero-sum competition between tribes looks more logical. The tools of tribalism are becoming more visible: demonization and humiliation of enemies, the hoarding of resources, and the use of conflict over cooperation.


This is not a problem I'm ready to answer right now, but Rosling's thesis that public education may restore our confidence in these tools and roll back tribalism does provide some hope if not a sufficient political answer to our current moment in history.  

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