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Book Review Factfulness by Hans Rosling

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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”.

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The bulk of the book is devoted to ten instincts that keep us from seeing the world factfully

These range from the fear instinct (we pay more attention to scary things) to the size instinct (standalone numbers often look more impressive than they really are) to the gap instinct (most people fall between two extremes). With each one, he offers practical advice about how to overcome our innate biases. The framework Hans enunciates is one that took me decades of working in global development to create for myself, and I could have never expressed it in such a clear way. I’m going to try to use this model moving forward. Why does it matter? It’s hard to pick up on progress if you divide the world into rich countries and poor countries. When those are the only two options, you’re more likely to think anyone who doesn’t have a certain quality of life is “poor.” Hans compares this instinct to standing on top of a skyscraper and looking down at a city. All of the other buildings will look short to you whether they’re ten stories or 50 stories high. It’s the same with income. Life is significantly better for those on level 2 than level 1, but it’s hard to see that from level 4 unless you know to look for it.

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Factfulness includes many graphs of “bad things in decline” and “good things on the rise” but not a single graph of bad things on the rise. One graph depicts the reduction in oil spills at sea, but there´s no graph on the accumulation of plastic debris in the oceans and its effects on birds and fish. (Steffen, W., Broadgate, W. 2015).There is a graph showing the decrease in hunger around the world but no graph on the spread of obesity, though the book in passim notes that this is one of the largest health problems in the world (moreover, in September 2018 the UN World Food Program reported an increase in the number of hungry people in recent years). India alone polluted air was estimated to cause 1.1 million deaths in 2017, an increase of 50 percent since 1990

The book contains graphs on positive changes in protected nature, and good news on the conservations status of a few flagship species such as black rhinos, pandas, and tigers. However, it contains no information on the drastic decline in global biodiversity including a widespread decline of virtually all wild vertebrates, which researchers describe as the sixth mass extinction (Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P, 2015).

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To sum it up, Rosling says that it makes him angry to be called an optimist, because that makes him sound naïve. But amongst over 80 graphs in the book none illustrates a negative trend, which suggests he was very comfortable being professor of the half-full glass

He is exceptionally good at it, and Factfulness will penetrate the hide of the most determined pessimist. It is the corrective we all need as we head off on holiday, listening to fake news, and melting under a raging climate.

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Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P., Barnosky, A., García, A., Pringle, R., Palmer, T. 2015. Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction, Science Advances, Vol. 1, no. 5, DOI.

Pennisi, E. 2016. We’ve destroyed one-tenth of Earth’s wilderness in just 2 decades. Science Sept. 8.

Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch L., Gaffney, O., Ludwig, C. 2015. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, Vol. 2, 1, 81–98, p. 82.

Laestadius, S. 2018. Klimatet och omställningen (Climate-induced Transitions). Umeå: Borea.

Steffen et al. 2015. Planetary Boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science, 347 no. 6223.

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