My review of “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling – or 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world

I read this important book by Swedish professor of international health Hans Rosling shortly after reading “Enlightenment Now” by American professor of psychology Steven Pinker which was published just a few months earlier [my review here].

Both works essentially have the same message: if you look at the facts, on most measures humankind is making immense, sometimes spectactular, progress – but most people do not know or will not accept this. Whereas Pinker concentrates on the facts with a little analysis of the reasons for disbelief in quite a heavy work, Rosling offers fewer (but enough) facts and instead focusses on the “ten reasons we’re wrong about the world” in a lighter, more anecdotal and – frankly – somewhat repetitive treatment.

Another significant difference between to the two books is that Rosling – influenced by his work as a doctor – emphasises the progress made in Asia and Africa which are unappreciated by the western media and those who consumer it. He writes: “Over the past twenty years, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has halved” and asserts that “I consider this to be the most importtant change that has happened in the world in my lifetime”.

Rosling devotes a chapter each to the following issues to explain why we are so blind to incredibly important facts:

  1. The Gap Instinct: “that irrestistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups with an imagined gap”, such as the view that the globe in neatly divided into rich and poor nations with little appreciation of the spread of wealth between and within countries.
  2. The Negativity Instinct: “our tendency to notice the bad more than the good” because exceptional set-backs are more newsworthy than sustained but gradual progess, so we remember reports of murders or fatal accidents but underplay an increase in life expectancy from 31 years in 1800 to 72 years today.
  3. The Straight Line Instinct: the assumption that a straight line graph will continue into the future, making us think for example that the global population (now 7.7 billion) is irresistibly growing when convincing UN forecasts show a flattening of the population (at somwehere between 10-12 billion) by the end of the century.
  4. The Fear Instinct: the tendency to be afraid of risks that are in reality ever-diminishing, such as disasters which – measured as deaths per million people in 10-year averages – has slumped from 453 in the 1930s to 10 in 2010-2016.
  5. The Size Instinct: the habit of looking at “a lonely number” and getting things “out of proportion”, so that a terrible statistic like the number of babies who died worldwide in 2016 (4.2 million) needs to be be seen in the context of the toll the year before of 4.4 million and in the 1950s of 14.4 million.
  6. The Generalization Instinct: the prejudice to depend on stereotypes, instead of evidence, which means that we fail to appreciate that “the main factor that affects how people live is not their religion, their culture, or the country they live in, but their income”.
  7. The Destiny Instinct: “the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures” which, as a result. meant that “the fastest drop in babies per woman in world history went completely unreported in the free Western media” (this was in Iran where the figure is now only 1.6).)
  8. The Single Perspective Instinct: a “preference for single causes and single solutions” which can lead us to think for instance that the solution is always free markets, but the USA spends twice as much per capita on health care than other capitalist cointries while 39 other countries have a higher life expectancy.
  9. The Blame Instinct: a wish “to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened” when “to understand most of the world’s significant problems we have to look beyond a guilty individual and to the system”(he discusses the topical and controversial issue of refugees).
  10. The Urgency Instinct: the wish “to take immediate action in the face of a perceived danger” so for example, in the area of climate change, we need to avoid overstating particular risks and look hard at the actual data and consider what would be most effective.

Note: Hans Rosling died of pancreatic cancer in 2017, having devoted the last years of his life to writing “Factfulness”, and the book was completed by his son and daughter-in-law who were the co-founders with him of the Gapfinder Foundation.


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