Hans Rosling was a statistician and doctor who was best known for presenting global development statistics with an engaging style and innovative use of graphics. Despite the success of his lectures and TED talks, Rosling felt that he wasn’t reaching enough people.
Hence Factfulness: 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think, a smart and hopeful guide to critical thinking written with his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Ronnlund. Published posthumously, Hans writes that “this book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance.”
The book begins with a quiz about global trends. It’s online if you want to take it yourself, and Rosling has set it to students and audiences around the world. The results are always the same: people, even very clever people, don’t know anything about global development. We consistently overestimate how many people live in poverty, and underestimate the percentage of girls who go to school and how many children are vaccinated. In fact, we are not just wrong, but “systematically wrong” – the average is just 2 right answers out of 12 questions, which is worse than if we picked answers at random.
Highly educated people don’t do any better either, and politicians, journalists and academics still don’t do better than random. “Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is.”
To explain why this might be, the book looks at a series of instincts in the human brain, and how it leads us to think that things are worse than they are. For example, we leap to extremes and tend to miss the stuff in the middle. So we think of the world as either rich or poor, and miss the fact that most people live in middle-income countries. We generalise. We find a perspective that resonates – socialism, free markets, or whatever – and apply in every situation whether or not it fits.
Or take ‘the blame instinct’, the need to pin a problem to a face, which Rosling argues can lead us to miss real solutions. This instinct “steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations elsewhere.” There’s a classic case of this in Britain at the moment, where we’ve had a spate of chaotic train disruptions as new timetables have come in. All the talk is of sacking CEOs, rather than the processes of timetable organisation where the answers actually lie. Everyone will feel better if ‘heads roll’, but we won’t have stopped it from happening again.
In discussing these instincts, the book sets out lots of actual facts about the world, and how progress on poverty, population, healthcare, crime and many others things is much better than most people know. That’s not done in a way that suggests everything is fine. Rosling was an activist and a humanitarian, and there’s no complacency here. Rather, recognising the facts shows us where things are working and where they’re not, and that’s vital to making good decisions.
One word of caution is that there are some well documented problems with some of the statistics used, especially how we define extreme poverty. That does complicate the rosy picture presented here, on that issue at least. But overall I don’t think it clouds the central point that false assumptions and ignorance of trends mean we easily miss progress, and focus on the the wrong things.
Along the way, the book shares stories and anecdotes from Hans Rosling’s life as a doctor in Africa, as a professor in Sweden, to being a globe-trotting ambassador for facts. He had an extraordinary life, and he is not afraid to share his failures as well as his successes. Many of his examples are times when his own instincts led him to the wrong conclusions, sometimes tragically. It gives the book the humility that it needs if you’re going to go around telling everyone that they are “devastatingly ignorant”.
The book is also very funny, and that combination of humility and humour softens the blow when one of his observations hits home. Whoever you are, it’s likely that you will identify with some of the flawed reasoning that he points out, and benefit from his advice. Assume you are not normal, Rosling tells us. Test your favourite ideas for weaknesses. Beware of simple ideas.
“Factfulness, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can and should become part of your daily life” says Rosling. And this inspiring, entertaining and counter-cultural book will set you on your way.
I suspect that the book will be widely read, but it’s worth mentioning that the Rosling family effort has already had a massive impact on how we access data. Anna and Ola worked at Google to develop the public data search tools that I use on a regular basis myself, and for which I am very grateful. There’s more to come from them and from Gapminder.