Book Review Number 45

Factfulness – Hans Rosling

The entire focus of this book is on demonstrating through publicly available statistical data that the condition of the world is much better than people think; further, that it is continuing to improve. The author was an internationally known Swedish physician, academic, and public speaker. He called himself a very serious “possibilist”. That means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason; someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.

Professor Rosling starts off in the introduction with a 13 question test about how things are in the world. Here is just one of the questions:  “How many of the world’s one year old children have been vaccinated against disease?” 20%? 50%? 80%?  Rosling says he has asked this question of more than 12,000 professionals in meetings around the world – bankers, health scientists, academics, and members of the World Economic Forum, among many others. The correct answer is 80%, the most common answer is 20%. No group of professionals has done as well as 50% correct.

The author then follows up in subsequent chapters to explain the human and societal nature that makes people so wrong about what the real condition of the world is. He identifies the source of our wrong impressions in 11 human instincts. I will just list one such instinct here: The gap instinct – he says humans tend to see the world around them in binary terms. In our minds we divide the world into rich and poor countries; developed and under-developed; Western and the rest; as well as other binary assessments. We assume all countries fall into one category or the other with a large gap between them. The truth however is that most everyone actually lives somewhere in the middle with relatively few at the extremes.

The author says it is especially helpful in understanding the state of the world and its rate of change if one uses an explanatory model that divides world population into 4 income categories. While some assume culture and religion are key drivers of progress, Mr. Rosling says they have virtually no impact when compared to income. Income categorization is a central theme that he uses throughout the book.

The author further discusses how we tend to assume that what we learned about the world in earlier years is still true, and that there has not been significant change. The reality though is that there has been dramatic improvements in world health, economics, education, and adoption of technology in the past few decades. He suggests that we need to regularly test what we think we know against the latest information. In short we need to continue to educate ourselves throughout our lives. He stresses that he is not saying that things in the world are all good; in fact they are bad in many places, in most cases just much better than they used to be.

In one of the final chapters the author addresses what he calls the urgency instinct – the need to act immediately. He says most urgent crisis really aren’t once factual data is examined. But then he identifies five urgent global risks that he thinks we should be worrying about and addressing more seriously than we are:  1)  A global pandemic – very appropriate for our current world situation. He sees a new flu-like pandemic as the most dangerous threat to global health. He says we need the World Health Organization to remain healthy and strong to coordinate a global response;  2)  A global financial collapse. He believes the current system is too complex to understand and control. We need a simpler one so we have a better chance of avoiding a future collapse;  3)   A world war. He believes we need to accelerate global interaction (trade, educational exchanges, free internet, global safety net, and other coalitions) to mitigate the risk of the terrible human instinct to violent retaliation and war;  4)  Climate change. The planet’s common resources can only be governed by a globally respected authority, in a peaceful world abiding by global standards; 5)  Extreme poverty. This one is not really a risk. The suffering it causes is well known and now, not in the future. Though much less today than decades ago 800 million people worldwide still suffer extreme poverty.

This book was really enlightening to me. I dare say you will be surprised at how little you really know about the worlds condition today and how it is actually improving in nearly every important metric.


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