An actual conversation I overheard last week: “Did you hear? There was another shooting.” “Yes, I did. We shouldn’t be surprised, though. Jesus said it would get worse and worse before the end.” “We are seeing that playing out right now. Maybe Jesus will return very soon.” “I sure hope so; it’s getting really dark.” I do not know Jesus’ timetable for return, but I did learn a lot this week about a world that is getting better, not worse.
Mark Twain gets credited with the line, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” The perception of the direction of our world, the world over, views things as bad and trending worse. So says Hans Rosling, a physician and an educator in Factfulness co-authored with his son and daughter-in-law. His definition of factfulness is “the stress-reducing habit of carrying only the opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.” Those opinions can inform issues like natural disasters, famine, lack of access to clean water, overpopulation, crime, terrorism, income inequality, and access to education. These are many of the issues perceived to be dire and deteriorating.
The belief in a worsening world belongs to many cultures and continents. That phenomenon intrigued Dr. Rosling and led him to make his later life’s work the teaching of conclusions “based on years of trying to teach a fact-based worldview.” Worldview proves to be a crucial term in this work. “People constantly and intuitively refer to their worldview when thinking, guessing, or learning about the world. So if your worldview is wrong, then you will systematically make wrong guesses.” His language about the process of thinking and guessing sounded similar to Daniel Kahneman and heuristics. “Our brains often jump to swift conclusions without much thinking, which used to help us to avoid immediate dangers.” Rosling states his premise in his Introduction as a goal “to change people’s ways of thinking, calm their irrational fears, and redirect their energies into constructive activities.”
Extensive research accompanies Rosling’s claim that many circumstances exist in a more positive state than often perceived. He also writes with a sarcastic wit not often found in serious psychology studies. For example, he seems to take joy in noting that humans score worse than chimpanzees on the questions about the state of affairs in the world! Rosling unmasks certain “mega misconceptions,” especially the belief that “we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, with an imagined gap – huge chasm of injustice – in between. It is about how the gap instinct creates a picture in people’s heads of a world split into two kinds of countries or two kinds of people: rich versus poor.” The author demonstrates that perception holding over from the middle of the last century, and in the time since then, the world has gotten better, not stayed static or gotten worse. He proceeds to divide people into one of four economic categories. The vast majority of people live in the two middle categories.
The bulk of the book examines ten instincts that lead to false perceptions about the reality of the world’s condition. I took special note of the chapter titled “The Fear Instinct” because anxiety inflicts numerous challenges to leadership, according to Milton Friedman. Much of the chapter notes the propensity of the media to report fear-inducing reports. Fear gets ratings, views, and clicks. Fear also clouds people’s thinking. “Critical thinking is always difficult, but it’s almost impossible when we are scared. There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.” The media serves as an obvious target for anxiety-producing actions in ways similar to those noted by Tom and David Chivers in How to Read Numbers. My thoughts moved toward a ministry direction, and I wondered, “In what ways do pastors induce fear to fuel certain results?” Presenting the state of the world consistently as negative may cause people to attend in person or virtually for the same reasons one might regularly tune into the news that shares the negative events of the day.
During this semester, one major takeaway for me pertains to the interplay between theology and practice. Bebbington, Weber, Miller, and Clark note how spiritual desires like assurance, providence, and purpose manifest in particular behaviors meant to flesh out beliefs. I have wondered why in the past, followers of Jesus engaged faith in practical ways versus a movement by some today toward far-right politics and waging a culture war with predictions of doom if “they” win. In this cultural moment, the church is better led by confidence in God’s sovereignty and practical expressions of faith that demonstrate His need-meeting values. Jesus made clear the irrefutable witness to the world, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35, ESV) May the church not exchange Jesus direction for an empty idol born out of fear.
 Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Factufulness (New York: Flatirons Books, 2018), 13.
 Ibid., 15.
 Ibid., 21.
 Ibid., 33.
 Ibid., 103.