books

Book review: Factfulness, by Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling

Hans Rosling was a statistician and doctor who was best known for presenting global development statistics with an engaging style and innovative use of graphics. Despite the success of his lectures and TED talks, Rosling felt that he wasn’t reaching enough people.

Hence Factfulness: 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think, a smart and hopeful guide to critical thinking written with his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Ronnlund. Published posthumously, Hans writes that  “this book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance.”

The book begins with a quiz about global trends. It’s online if you want to take it yourself, and Rosling has set it to students and audiences around the world. The results are always the same: people, even very clever people, don’t know anything about global development. We consistently overestimate how many people live in poverty, and underestimate the percentage of girls who go to school and how many children are vaccinated. In fact, we are not just wrong, but “systematically wrong” – the average is just 2 right answers out of 12 questions, which is worse than if we picked answers at random.

Highly educated people don’t do any better either, and politicians, journalists and academics still don’t do better than random. “Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is.”

To explain why this might be, the book looks at a series of instincts in the human brain, and how it leads us to think that things are worse than they are. For example, we leap to extremes and tend to miss the stuff in the middle. So we think of the world as either rich or poor, and miss the fact that most people live in middle-income countries. We generalise. We find a perspective that resonates – socialism, free markets, or whatever – and apply in every situation whether or not it fits.

Or take ‘the blame instinct’, the need to pin a problem to a face, which Rosling argues can lead us to miss real solutions. This instinct “steals our focus as we obsess about someone to blame, then blocks our learning because once we have decided who to punch in the face we stop looking for explanations elsewhere.” There’s a classic case of this in Britain at the moment, where we’ve had a spate of chaotic train disruptions as new timetables have come in. All the talk is of sacking CEOs, rather than the processes of timetable organisation where the answers actually lie. Everyone will feel better if ‘heads roll’, but we won’t have stopped it from happening again.

In discussing these instincts, the book sets out lots of actual facts about the world, and how progress on poverty, population, healthcare, crime and many others things is much better than most people know. That’s not done in a way that suggests everything is fine. Rosling was an activist and a humanitarian, and there’s no complacency here. Rather, recognising the facts shows us where things are working and where they’re not, and that’s vital to making good decisions.

One word of caution is that there are some well documented problems with some of the statistics used, especially how we define extreme poverty. That does complicate the rosy picture presented here, on that issue at least. But overall I don’t think it clouds the central point that false assumptions and ignorance of trends mean we easily miss progress, and focus on the the wrong things.

Along the way, the book shares stories and anecdotes from Hans Rosling’s life as a doctor in Africa, as a professor in Sweden, to being a globe-trotting ambassador for facts. He had an extraordinary life, and he is not afraid to share his failures as well as his successes. Many of his examples are times when his own instincts led him to the wrong conclusions, sometimes tragically. It gives the book the humility that it needs if you’re going to go around telling everyone that they are “devastatingly ignorant”.

The book is also very funny, and that combination of humility and humour softens the blow when one of his observations hits home. Whoever you are, it’s likely that you will identify with some of the flawed reasoning that he points out, and benefit from his advice. Assume you are not normal, Rosling tells us. Test your favourite ideas for weaknesses. Beware of simple ideas.

“Factfulness, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can and should become part of your daily life” says Rosling. And this inspiring, entertaining and counter-cultural book will set you on your way.


I suspect that the book will be widely read, but it’s worth mentioning that the Rosling family effort has already had a massive impact on how we access data. Anna and Ola worked at Google to develop the public data search tools that I use on a regular basis myself, and for which I am very grateful. There’s more to come from them and from Gapminder.

13 comments

  1. Many thanks Jeremy; very glad you featured this book so prominenently – I feel it’s one of the most important that I’ve read; a really valuable perspective to help us navigate our complex world.

    1. Absolutely, and I was pleased to see that Bill Gates has bought a copy for every student graduating from college in America this year. Because it’s a book about thinking as much as anything else, it’s applicable to every area of life and I hope it is widely read.

  2. I’ve saved a few articles that criticise Steve Pinker’s stance that I imagine is very similar to this. I’ll dig them up before saying more.

    1. I won’t say too much then, other than to say that I wouldn’t rush to lump them together. Factfulness is a book about critical thinking and how our own brains lead us to misunderstand the world. It’s all about facts vs perception. Pinker is much more philosophical and political, and some of his political opinions are really unhelpful.

      1. Jeremy I’m a bit behind here is one link https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/jeremy-lent/steven-pinker-s-ideas-are-fatally-flawed-these-eight-graphs-show-why BTW I have some idea about positive biases etc but given if you are depleting a series of natural resources ofc things get better as you use more and more resources, that is until it crashes. So in some ways, sure things could be getting better, that is before the whole house of cards comes

        1. I’ve read your article but I feel you miss the major point. Social progress has been directly correlated with economic growth. It may be that health is better linked to education than GDP but then education is also linked to GDP, how else does a country pay for its education? The history of almost every countries mass education has been linked to its increased economic development.

          The same for scientific knowledge, the massive growth in knowledge in the last 300 years has been linked to the massive growth in wealth generated by the free-market capitalist model. Other economic models just haven’t produced the goods, literally and metaphorically. Countries that can hardly feed themselves can’t think of building Hadron Colliders.

          Intellectually what Pinker, Haidt and the rest of the ‘Intellectual dark web’ thinkers argue for is not that we should push back against social progress but that we should fight for those norms that have allowed that progress: free speech and the rule of law. #MeToo is a case in point, where the accused have in many cases been denied just process, being fired for an allegation rather than being able to put their case. Not saying that many or indeed most of the accused are not guilty of inappropriate actions or worse but innocent men are almost certainly being caught up and that is not progress. Social progress enforced by repression of those who disagree is not true progress and does not enable human flourishing and can engender a backlash.

          An intellectual monoculture is unhealthy for society, for future social progress and ultimately for those intellectuals and other who support those ideas as without challenge they will ossify and decay. Free markets are for the best; in goods, services and ideas!

          1. Devon what many object to is the cultural exceptionalism of the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’, as well as the glass more than half full thinking which runs into the problem of certain aspects of the Seneca Cliff. There is an academic who thinks what better explains the West’s rise is the chance encounter with the New World and all the resources they could extract. Other cultures have risen to cultural and technical heights without Western thinking but unfortunately for them, they didn’t get an extra boost that the New World provided. & I would say access to more and more energy has more to do with increases in GDP and human flourishing, not a particular cultural mindset. Combine the advantage gained from the New World plus first access to fossil fuels and this enabled those that had this lucky break to then use these exploitative means to go on and dominate the world. Funny how the Enlightenment didn’t stop colonialism and the millions killed or exploited there. Even now similar thinking with American Exceptionalism has the US invading countries supposedly under Western Values and killing hundreds of thousands. Go ask the Iraqis what they think of Western values.

            BTW my apology I think I didn’t get back to an earlier thread concerning China and capitalism. I did have a nice link for that but I think I lost that and I got tied up in other things.

            But back to things getting better and Pinker, again sure some things in some areas are getting better but in a finite world that soon leads to a crash when using with an extractive/consumption non-renewing economy which your Free market thinking doesn’t address. Look you get no argument that Capitalism a great way to efficiently exploit renewable and nonrenewable resources so those most of the benefits go to those with the most capital. & sure it will help drag others up at the same time – not very efficiently that only happen with more distributive policies- but that party is coming to an end and the ironic thing is Marx was right Capitalism is doing it to itself.

          2. I don’t think that the maths work that exploiting the New World is the reason for the European exceptionalism. China had had far greater resources than Europe for centuries but never made the leap to industrialisation. The resources of the New World were only resources if made use of. That required the right mindset. Perhaps it is the use of coal that helped Europe but coal is hardly unique to Europe. To use it required the right combination of factors; geographic, economic and social.

            I like Deodrie McCloskey’s idea that the Great Enrichment of the last 300 years was powered by bourgeoisie values which fairly uniquely developed in Europe alongside the Enlightenment. Perhaps it was just luck that allowed these to flourish here rather than being stopped in their development by some invasion, cataclysm or overstrong ruler. But now we have them we should cherish them.

            While there is much wrong with our modern Western world I do think its wrong to have a mindset that the West is as bad or worse than contemporary or historic competitors. Take the Rawls test, would you choose to randomly be placed in any other society in history over this one?

            Perhaps it is cultural exceptionalism to laud the Enlightenment but from a Western outlook it is not an unreasonable bit of cultural flag waving. We would not decry the Japanese who point to the achievements of their culture, or an Indian. Likewise for Europeans and Americans the Enlightenment is part of their cultural heritage and they can feel pride in it, can they not. Many people invented the telephone but Bell made it work first so he gets the plaudits.

            Impatience is a besetting sin of ‘Progressives’. Progress is never fast enough. We don’t suddenly jump from barbarism to perfection. We move slowly step by step. Oh the Enlightenment didn’t stop Colonialism. Well it did stop the slave trade which was a fairly huge step. If liberalism is a descendant of the Enlightenment (which it is) then it did eventually erode the bases of colonialism. This impatience is leading to our current political difficulties. Social change has been rapid in the West, too rapid for many people who have not been convinced by all of it. But rather than accept it takes time to persuade people the current trend seems to be to try to enforce change and other those who don’t agree and ban dissention. It is an Enlightenment value to stand against this in favour for freedom and free speech.

          3. Frame it another way it didn’t just wasn’t access to resources but also coming from a stage of depletion and overcrowding which lent an impetus between competing states, who then were able to use that momentum and continued competition for and use, of New World resources that allowed an accumulation of wealth often through slavery and pillage – that granted combined with a thirst of knowledge that they had gained coming out of a Dark Age and rediscovering and importing ideas and technology – that allowed technical specialization and developing of new technology. I have also read articles and heard talks concerning how industrialization also depended on the wealth through slavery and to certain degree drugs to get going. It isn’t as if its all down to some superior mindset but also unenlightened selfish ruthlessness. Were they ‘worse’ than other societies? In some respect, no the Mongols were quite apocalyptic, but put it this way, if the Nazis and won the war and were just now giving back control, do you think they could use your exact same argument to say look how great we Westerners are? Don’t criticize us for the Holocaust, all past Great Empires do that sort of thing. Would that work?

            Oh and yes the Chinese had plenty of resources but in general, that was internal and not something they had to compete with for with peer civilizations. Granted they had to deal with horse nomads like the Mongols who were good at adopting technology but after the Mongols had won that stage of competition ended.

            But again let me bite the bullet and say going back to the Ancient Greeks and their new way of looking at the world was something exceptional that lead to further developments down the road. From what I remember their pre-scientific like views are still not what we have today and it also took a synthesis and ancient knowledge through the Arabs – they didn’t just translate- through the Renaissance and then into the Enlightenment, often with borrowed technology and ideas from others.

            & is it impatience? I take a wider view of time, for many years China was far more advanced, a historical observer who took that time slice could then talk about the superiority of their mindset. You could do the same for the Ancient Egyptians. Also, morally many cultures came up with the enlighted moral stances – Ashoka one good example among many- and I’m pretty sure its hard to advance culturally when you are under the yoke of another culture. So for me its a bit rich to feel smug about Western values and the technical superiority when you were using that technical superiority to exploit and kill others. & nice that you raised well it takes time my point exactly, just because at this moment the West appears superior in some ways these sort of things are fleeting and the others can equally ‘catch up’. And the mindset even if it is in some respects ‘superior’ depended on the input of other cultures to get where it is so it hardly exceptional.

  3. I’ve found Pinker’s writing on violence really interesting in the past, so I have nothing against him personally. I haven’t read his latest book and can’t comment on it really. One thing I will say is that a lot of people who are upset about it seem to dislike his division between right and left, and his very harsh dismissal of ‘the left’ as one category.

    If that is something he does, then he’s commiting the first category of flawed thinking that Factfulness points out, which is to stop seeing things as two categories and be aware of what’s in the middle.

    So as I say, whether you’re for or against Pinker (or somewhere in the middle…), it should’t affect your view of Factfulness.

    1. So Jeremy where are we? Are things getting better and we should be thinking we are going in the right direction? Or are we going up Seneca’s Cliff and the sharp decline isn’t far off. Club of Rome’s business, as usual, seems on track.

  4. I think we need to avoid generalising (another of Factfulness’ main points) because there are many different trends we could look at. The fact is that extreme poverty rates are falling and have been for some time. Literacy, life expectancy, access to water and healthcare are rising. Outside of conflict zones, no country in the world is moving backwards on social progress, and the world is more peaceful than it has been. Equally, CO2 levels have not peaked as we might have hoped, biodiversity is collapsing, water supplies are strained, soil is eroding and many environmental indicators look pretty bleak.

    Many things are getting better, and many things are getting worse. If we want to ensure that things keep getting better, we have to stop those things that are getting worse. Are we approaching a cliff edge? Quite possibly, but even if the decline is more gradual we can’t carry on as we are.

    Obviously I don’t think everything’s fine, or I wouldn’t write about these issues on a daily basis. But I don’t think we should ignore or dismiss progress either. We need to be able to say that things are bad, but getting better, and Factfulness is good on this. If we don’t acknowledge progress, we won’t believe that anything can change. And then we really are doomed.

    In short, we can’t look at progress and say ‘yay, more of the same’, because nature says no. My take would be ‘great, now let’s not throw it away before everyone gets a chance to participate’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.