New Book “Factfulness” Asserts that World Is Much Better Than Most Believe
By David J. Olson
I first saw Hans Rosling deliver a presentation on facts and fiction on global health in New York in 2010. Like many of his fans, I was swept away by his stunning visual presentations of data, his charming Nordic folksiness and his ability to shed light on some glaring misconceptions of global health and development that he has been working to rectify the last two decades.
He was shocked to discover that people get basic facts on population, health and development wrong, and not just the general public but also highly educated people, even at the World Economic Forum in Davos and Nobel laureates. So this Swedish professor of global health set out to educate people, primarily through his TED talks, which have been viewed more than 35 million times (check out “Let my dataset change your mindset” and “How not be ignorant about the world”), to such an extent that he became a nerdy global health rock star.
In September 2015, Hans and his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund decided to write a book to explain why people do not see the world as it really is, and why we get so many basic facts so wrong. Five months later, he received a diagnosis of incurable pancreatic cancer, and was told he had two or three months to live. He threw himself into finishing this book to such an extent that he was going over printed copies of the latest draft from his hospital bed in the days before he died in February 2017.
“This book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance,” he writes in “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” In my previous battles, I armed myself with huge data sets, eye-opening software, an energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet. It wasn’t enough. But I hope that this book will be.”
The resulting book is a must-read for anyone interested in global health and development. Indeed, I hope it is read far beyond those small groups of people. The entire world needs to realize that most things are not getting worse, as most people think. Indeed global health and development indicators are improving in much of the world.
Hans co-wrote the book in close collaboration with Ola and Anna, and they explain here why they wrote Factfulness.
The book starts out with a global health and development pop quiz. It consists of 13 basic questions. Take the test here before you read the rest of this blog (where I reveal two of the answers). If you did badly, you are in very good company. Full disclosure: I got only seven correct and I have been working in global health and development for over 30 years.
Hans writes that in 2017, he and his team asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer these questions. They scored, on average, just two correct answers out of the first 12. No one got a perfect score, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. A stunning 15 percent scored zero.
“I have tested audiences from all around the world and from all walks of life: medical students, teachers, university lecturers, eminent scientists, investment bankers, executives in multinational companies, journalists, activists, and even senior political decision makers,” writes Hans. “But most of them – a stunning majority of them – get most answers wrong. Some of these groups even score worse than the general public; some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. It is not a question of intelligence. Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong.”
One of the 13 questions is on how the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has changed over the last 20 years: Did it double, stay the same or almost halve?
The correct answer is that it almost halved. “This is absolutely revolutionary,” writes Hans. “I consider it to be the most important change that has happened in the world in my lifetime. But people do not know it. On average, only 7 percent get it right.”
Another question is about the percentage of one-year-old children who have been vaccinated against some disease. Is it 20, 50 or 80 percent? The correct answer is 80 percent but only 13 percent of people surveyed got this right.
Eighty-five percent of 71 global finance managers at the headquarters of one of the world’s largest banks got that answer “extremely wrong,” and believed that only a minority of the world’s children have been vaccinated.
“The fact that 88 percent are vaccinated but major financial investors believe it is only 20 percent indicates that there is a big chance that they are failing at their jobs by missing out on huge investment opportunities (probably the most profitable ones in the fastest-growing parts of the world),” writes Hans.
Why do so many people get the world wrong? “It seems like people are suffering from an overdramatic worldview. They think the world is in much worse shape than it actually is, and this leads to terrible decisions and tons of unnecessary stress,” said Ola.
The authors found clear patterns behind the misconceptions and identified 10 “dramatic instincts” that make people misinterpret the world and lead to an “overdramatic worldview.” And they give us rules of thumb and “new, relaxing thinking habits which we call factfulness.”
An example of those dramatic instincts is “The Straight Line Instinct,” the tendency to imagine that a line will continue at the same angle into the future. That can manifest itself in the chart showing the world population forecast. If you look at the line showing population growth between 1950 and 2000, it seems to be going up at a 45 percent angle. If you follow your Straight Line Instinct, you might imagine that this will continue to skyrocket to 15 billion or so by the end of the century. In reality, though, UN experts expect the line to flatten out over the next few decades and land at somewhere between 10 and 12 billion people by 2100.
Please read this book and share it widely with friends, family and colleagues. The authors say it will soon be available in 24 languages.
Here is Hans at his best – though more serious than usual – in an appearance on Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN in 2010 – on how the rest of the world caught up with the U.S. You can view other related videos on the Gapminder website here.