Given the vast amount of data available about almost everything, how much do you think you know about global trends? Do you think, for example, that life expectancy today is 50, 60 or 70 years? In the past 20 years, has the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty almost doubled, remained more or less the same, or almost halved? And in low-income countries, is the percentage of girls who finish primary school 20, 40 or 60 per cent?
These are just three of 13 questions posed at the start of Hans Rosling’s book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, which came out in April last year and has gone on to become a massive surprise bestseller, shifting more than half a million copies already. It was endorsed by Bill Gates, who thought it so important that he offered four million graduating US students a free digital download. Barack Obama also credited it as being a “hopeful book about the potential for human progress”.
The main point of Factfulness was to explain the huge discrepancies between what people think is going on in the world and what actually is. Using hard data, Rosling also wanted to show that, contrary to popular belief, the world is in a better state than we might think and continues to improve. To prove the point, Rosling made graphs to expose ignorance by nationality. Only nine per cent of UK respondents, for example, got the extreme poverty question right, while the Swedes did best, with a pretty paltry 25 per cent. In survey after survey, even apparently well-educated people, academics and professionals of all nationalities consistently got the answers wrong, and continue to do so. Why? Is it because people are stuck with what they learned at school or are we all too susceptible to consistently pessimistic news coverage?
Rosling realised that we have what he called an “overdramatic” worldview, and that we intuitively refer to this when thinking, guessing or learning. Our tendency to misinterpret facts is instinctive — an evolutionary adaption to help us make quick decisions to avoid danger. While we still need these instincts, they can also trip us up.
Behavioural economists like Daniel Kahneman have already established that algorithms have better judgement than people, but what floored Rosling was how we continue to get facts so wrong even when faced with hard data. He is not alone. Steven Pinker has delivered a similar message in his recent book, Enlightenment Now, while Rosling wannabes are already springing up.
This month a book by strategic communications consultant Hector Macdonald, has appeared as an almost exact replica of Factfulness. Published in hardback last year as Truth: How the Many Sides to Every Story Shape Our Reality, the new paperback has been repackaged not just with an almost carbon copy cover but a different, subtitle which is now: 13 Reasons to Question Everything You are Told. We can doubtless expect to see many more such hopefuls landing on our desks as publishers eagerly race to cash in on this apparent new trend.
Rosling, a medical doctor who was also an adviser to the World Health Organisation and co-founder of free online data resource the Gapminder Foundation, died of pancreatic cancer aged 68 in 2017, shortly before he finished the book. He was already a star in his native Sweden, well known for his TED talks — which have been viewed more than 35 million times — and a much sought-after public speaker all over the world. He had been working on what he termed the Ignorance Project for almost two decades, so writing Factfulness was inevitable.
Its extraordinary success is in no small part thanks to Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Rosling’s son and daughter-in-law, Hans Rosling’s long-time collaborators on the Gapminder project, who are on a mission to carry his legacy forward.
The couple have both worked for Google — Ola spent three years in Silicon Valley as head of Google’s Public Data Team — and were responsible for getting the final draft of Factfulness into print after Hans died. Since then they have been touring the world, giving talks and continuing to spread the message. “But we’re still fighting a lot of misconceptions and ignorance,” says Ola.
Inevitably there has been criticism from what one might call the “lies, damned lies, and statistics” brigade, who accuse the Roslings of using the statistics selectively to create a falsely bright worldview. Ola has responded by inviting his critics to participate in the ongoing surveys to ensure that “factfulness is not turned into a synonym for optimism, which is a very bad habit of pretending things are good”.
But he refutes the proposition that “most well-educated people have a quite realistic view of the world”. That, he insists, is not supported by the evidence. He is probably right, and if so, he and his wife will continue to have their work cut out.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund is out now in paperback (Sceptre, £9.99)