The End is Nigh! Or is it? – “Factfulness”

by Hans Rosling et al

It would be easy to fill our blog with just a list of events and topics that depress you. Here’s just a sample: Climate change, populism, the refugee problem and our response, political “leaders”, fake news, hate speech, consumer waste, knife crime, endangered species, insect decimation, locusts in Africa, child abuse, hunger, sex discrimination, obesity, Brexit, plastic in whales’ stomachs, Trump’s inability to put a sentence together without the words “wonderful” or “beautiful”, floods, fires and now a deadly virus. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate – but where to???

If you want a breath of fresh air and the chance to say to yourself, “Pull yourself together!”, then this is the book you need. Hans Rosling (1948-2017), Swedish head of the Division of International Health at Karolinska Institutet and advisor to the WHO and UNESCO, co-founder of Médecins sans Frontières, combines his experience and knowledge of world health with statistics. Sounds dry and boring, doesn’t it!

His book, “Factfulness” starts with 13 multiple choice questions to challenge your perception of the world: “In 1996, tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today?“ or “The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason?“ or “In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has …“ Virtually all the correct answers will dumbfound you, because they are positive and optimistic. (I don’t want to spoil your experience with the book, so I’m not going to tell you the right answers.) Rosling travelled the world asking young, old, politicians, policy makers, corporation board members, students, Joe Average, journalists, and experts similar questions and they ALL scored worse than chimpanzees. OK, that’s his expression, but he meant even if the answers had been random they would have been 30% right. In other words, you had to make an effort to get so much wrong!

Rosling’s message is that
a) our perception of the world is wrong and
b) there is a system in our madness.

He talks of 10 instincts we all have that shape the way we see things. We irrationally think in terms of “them” and “us”, encouraged by all that lovely bad news we hear and read every day, “cheered” on by lobbyists who profit from it. We slip into anxiety at the numbers of virus infections but imagine our reaction to “Yesterday 16,254 Ethiopian babies were born healthy without complications.” Yawn… At the time of writing there are 160,000 identified cases of covid-19 worldwide, of whom 76,000 have already recovered. That means that roughly 7,65 BILLION people have not been infected.

To put things into perspective he identifies 4 levels of standard of living and relates them to transport (none, bike, motorbike, car), water supply, cooking and food, and maintains that “today the vast majority of people are spread out in the middle, across Levels 2 and 3, with the same range of standards of living as people had in Western Europe and North America in the 1950s. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving.”

Seeing the proper, rational use of statistics as the remedy for our misconceptions Rosling offers advice on how to put what we read and hear into perspective, and this is what he calls “Factfulness”. Read it!

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