Books and reading

Looking at our world a little differently: ‘Factfulness’ by Dr Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Ronnland

This book is subtitled ‘Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are better Than You Think’. I must admit, it was a welcome breath of fresh air after a year in which it’s been hard to feel anything except pessimism about global and national issues – climate change, searing bushfires, floods, warfare, reports of poverty, child abuse, and the rise of populist, authoritarian regimes. Add a global pandemic into the mix and it’s little wonder that most people, if asked whether the world is getting safer, healthier, fairer, would answer a resounding ‘No!’

Rosling, who sadly died of cancer in 2017, was a respected physician, epidemiologist, teacher and author. Rosling realised that even highly educated people and experts in particular fields, could not correctly answer a number of simple fact based questions about global levels of poverty and income, child mortality, education, life expectancy and so on. Indeed, on some measures, he found that the more educated a person was, the more likely they were to give an incorrect answer. He also noticed that the incorrect answers given tended to be on the more pessimistic or gloomy end of the scale.

Rosling was troubled by this, because these misconceptions are also held by people in charge of policy setting and decision making across national and international bodies. He decided that what was needed was to better communicate the available data to people at all levels and in all walks of life. His general approach is that the world is making progress, and that policy decisions should be grounded in data; not ideology, outdated information, or misconceptions.

Together with his son and daughter-in-law, he wrote Factfulness, which addresses these worldwide misconceptions and ignorance about human progress. The book presents data, available from reputable sources such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the World Bank, but it does more than that.

Rosling explores some of the reasons why people so often think the world is getting worse. He explains these as ten basic instincts that stop us from thinking clearly about a subject: among them are the fear instinct, the negativity instinct and the blame instinct. For each one of these natural and common instincts, he offers insights and ways in which we can train ourselves to think more ‘factfully’.

If all this sounds a bit dry or tedious, let me assure you it’s anything but. The data is presented in a compelling and even entertaining way, in part due to his liberal use of personal anecdotes from his own experiences and career. The ‘bubble graphs’ employed throughout help turn a series of hard-to-grasp numbers into colourful and simple visuals that explain everything from the link between income levels and family size, and the surprising distributions of wealth within and between the richest and the poorest countries on Earth.

Each chapter has a short, intriguing preface, such as:

How more survivors means fewer people, how traffic accidents are like cavities, and why my grandson is like the population of the world. Factfulness p75

Be less stressed by the imaginary problems of an over dramatic world, and more alert to the real problems and how to solve them.

Factfulness p241

Rosling argues that there are five global risks we should worry about: a global pandemic; financial collapse; world war; climate change; extreme poverty. Given our recent experiences of Covid-19, the global financial crisis, the two devastating world wars of the twentieth century, the changes occurring now due to climate change, and the persistence of extreme poverty despite all the gains made in the past fifty years or so, it’s hard to argue with Rosling’s summation here.

Rosling describes himself not as an ‘optimist’ or a ‘pessimist’, but as a ‘possibilist’. He believes that the world can be both bad and getting better. He advocates an approach of curiosity about new information, that ideas should be tested, and that we should all listen to opposing ideas or arguments.

To find out more about the work and ideas of Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnland, visit the website of Gapminder, a not- for- profit educational foundation that continues and progresses their work in addressing global misconceptions.

Dollar Street is a tool on the Gapminder site which allows you to explore how people at different income levels across the world live, by using photos and videos, illustrating how basic human needs (such as shelter, food, sanitation, transport) are provided for. We can see that everyday life for people on similar income levels looks surprisingly similar across different places and cultures. The viewer can ‘meet’ a family, learn about their home, their work, children, hopes and dreams; giving a more realistic picture of human experience across the globe and showing that income affects daily life as much as do culture and nationality. I imagine that Dollar Street would be a very useful addition to teachers’ resources in schools and colleges.

Hans Rosling gave many lectures and talks across the world, including this TED Talk in 2006.

Factfulness was published in 2018 by Sceptre.

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