“Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think” by Hans Rosling
Hans Rosling is a phenomenal human being. He’s a Swedish physician and epidemiologist whom had worked in many poorest villages in the world – like in Mozambique, Zaire, and Tanzania – had taught and gave speeches in many more places around the world from his native Sweden to India to Canada to Iran to Vietnam, and also had worked with many UN agencies, influencing global elites from Melinda Gates, to Mark Zuckeberg, to Al Gore, to Fidel Castro, and the many Davos crowds along the way.
He is one of the most qualified persons to teach about global health, and perhaps one of few people who have the right to be pessimistic about the world, considering what he had witnessed and experienced directly in the world. But yet, his life’s work and mission is the total opposite of that. In a world where the majority of news headlines are giving us the impression that the state of the world is getting worse by the day, Rosling appears with the counter perception with undisputed arguments: through data and charts.
This book is the culmination of this mission. With a kind and worldly professor vibe, which is reflected in the relaxed tone of his writing (and the fun fact that he’s a proud sword swallower), he breaks down the paragraphs into bite size sub-chapters that makes the book easy to digest. And then with every argument he makes, he backs it up with the statistics and the charts that comes with it. And oh how he loves his charts. He has every imaginable charts there is in the world, from life expectancy, immunization, to plane crash deaths, legal slavery, to guitar per capita, new movies, even the projection of his grandson’s height.
Moreover, Rosling created 4 income levels to make it easier to analyse the condition of countries over the world, with Level 1 to Level 4 progress. Level 1 is extreme poverty: $1 per day (roughly 1 billion people live like this today). Level 2: $4 a day (roughly 3 billion people live like this today). Level 3: $16 per day (roughly 2 billion people live like this today). Level 4: more than $64 a day (roughly 1 billion people live like this today).
So, the state of the world is not getting worse, in fact if we look at the many charts in the book it is strikingly obvious that we’ve never had it better than today. For example, contrary to popular belief the proportion of people living in extreme poverty has almost halved in the past 20 years. In the year 1800 around 85% of humanity lived on Level 1, but just 20 years ago it was down to 29%, while today it is 9%. Global life expectancy has also grown from an average age of 30 years old in 1800, to 60 years in 1973, to 72 years as at the writing of the book in 2016-2017. Even the label developing and developed countries are technically wrong, since today 75% of people live in middle-income countries, or between Level 2 and Level 3. “Not poor, not rich, but somewhere in the middle and starting to live a reasonable life.”
Rosling then teaches us how to read the data more closely. For example, we can measure the “temperature” of a society from the child mortality rate, because children are very fragile and there are so many things that can kill them. He reasoned, “[w]hen only 14 children die out of 1000 in Malaysia, this means that the other 986 survive. Their parents and their society manage to protect them from all the dangers that could have killed them: germs, starvation, violence, and so on. So this number 14 tells us that most families in Malaysia have enough food, their sewage systems don’t leak into their drinking water, they have good access to primary health care, and mothers can read and write. It doesn’t just tell us about the health of children. It measures the quality of the whole society.”
Moreover, in a Daniel Kahneman-esque approach, Rosling also challenges our cognitive biases on seeing the world with such negative judgements. He explained “[i]n large part, it is because of our negativity instinct: our instinct to notice the bad more than the good. There are three things going on here: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better.”
Particularly on addressing the role of the media on selective reporting, he made a good point on the unavailability of breaking news in the past: “When Europeans slaughtered indigenous peoples across America a few centuries ago, it didn’t make the news back in the old world. When central planning resulted in mass famine in rural China, millions starved to death while the youngsters in Europe waving communist red flags knew nothing about it. When in the past whole species or ecosystems were destroyed, no one realized or even cared. Alongside all the other improvements, our surveillance of suffering has improved tremendously. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite.”
And of course there’s the common adage that bad news sell more than good news. For instance, the media report on plane crashes, that made some people afraid of flying. In 2016 a total of 40 million commercial passenger flights landed safely at their destinations, with 10 ended in fatal accidents. But of course, the 10 that didn’t make it were the ones the media wrote about, the 0.000025% of the total.
However, this is not saying that the true state of the world is all rosy and that the media is manipulating us all, this is not being optimistic for optimism’s sake. Instead, he acknowledged that everything is not fine, and that we should still be very concerned. “As long as there are plane crashes, preventable child deaths, endangered species, climate change deniers, male chauvinists, crazy dictators, toxic waste, journalists in prison, and girls not getting an education because of their gender, as long as any such terrible things exist, we cannot relax.”
But, he elaborates, “it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made.” So instead, he explain it in a simple analogy: we should see the world like we see a premature baby in incubator. Yes her health is critical and it’s bad, we should not relax and stop worrying. But the baby’s condition is improving day by day in the intensive care, so yes the situation is improving. It is both bad and better at the same time. In this light, his brilliant explanation and analysis on the reality of climate change and refugee crisis have completely changed the way I see these problems.
In this sense, he labels himself with a word that he made up himself: a possibilist. “It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.” True to his mission, he dedicate several chapters on teaching us to become a possibilist, including training us to refrain from reacting from URGENT news or message or sale or offer that prompt us to make quick (and rash and uncalculated) decisions NOW!
Hans Rosling sadly passed away in 2017, 2 months before the book was published, making this book his last ever contribution to society. In fact, his last days were spent reading and editing the draft that would become this book. And towards the end of the book he provides 5 global risks that we should worry about, the 1st of which was global pandemic, which in 2016-2017 he amazingly described a scenario similar with Covid-19 that we are experiencing right now.
Like many others, I first knew about this book because it is the book that Bill Gates gave away to all graduates in US college and universities in 2018. And after reading it, I get it. I understand why Gates specifically chose this book.