Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
Reviewed by: John Stokdijk
For a while last year, Bill Gates was giving all 2018 college graduates a free digital copy of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling. It was one of Gates’ favorite books of 2018. Rosling was his friend and he describes him as “always kind, often patient and never judgmental.”
I was already familiar with the main premise of Factfulness. In 2004 I read The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse by Gregg Easterbrook. In 2018 I put Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker on my Wish List. Enlightenment Now sparked much discussion which I paid some attention to but I have not found time to read the book itself.
I had some concern that a book about facts might be boring but that was not the case. Factfulness is more about how we think about facts than the facts themselves. It is about how we build our worldviews and why we think the way we do.
Rosling presents two approaches to building a worldview, a dramatic worldview and a fact based worldview. In ten chapters he describes erroneous ways of thinking that lead to the dramatic worldview which most people have. Each chapter provides simple, useful tools for correcting that erroneous thinking and building a worldview based on facts.
Rosling also criticizes classifying the world’s countries into just two categories, the developed and the developing. Instead he uses four categories based on income which generates a much more accurate picture. And it is inspiring to learn that in the last twenty years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has almost halved.
While I completely agree with Hans Rosling, I think that, unfortunately, his approach is, and will continue to be, very ineffective. The political landscape in the United States is proof that politicians who manipulate people with dramatic worldviews will be far more successful than those who base platforms solely on facts. Imagine a candidate running for the office of President basing a campaign on credible, verifiable facts. That would be refreshing but would such a campaign catch fire? No, the public would find that campaign utterly boring and give it little heed.
A recent article on the Slate website captures my views quite well.
Truth is not enough. It never has been… What we need, first, is a way to unseat the lies—and whatever that winds up looking like, it’s going to mean swallowing your pride, asking the right questions, and listening to the answers. Look the zombie in the face, and then offer it your heart.
Hans Rosling gives us anecdotes about himself which help make his book interesting. He was not an academic working in some ivory tower. He was a medical doctor engaged on the ground in areas of the world which still suffer from extreme poverty. He is open about the mistakes he has made in his own life. He made no attempt to minimize the reality that in many ways and in many places the world is bad. His motivation for writing the book was to provide a realistic roadmap for continued progress.
Rosling died from cancer early in 2017. After he received his terminal diagnosis, finishing writing Factfulness was his passion. He has left us a valuable legacy which, again unfortunately, will probably achieve far less than he had hoped for. His way is not the way the world works. It will take much more than the knowledge in his book to bring the continued progress the world needs. But he should be applauded for his impressive effort.
The work of Hans Rosling is being continued by the Gapminder Foundation and his son Ola Rosling and his daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund. The Gapminder website is a rich source of information effectively presented using bubble graphs which change over a span of years. I have now added a bookmark for this site in my folder for resources that I value and trust.
I was particularly interested in what someone focused on facts would say about global risks.
The five that concern me most are the risks of global pandemic, financial collapse, world war, climate change, and extreme poverty.
I do not share the view that progress will probably continue. It may or may not. I believe that the future is uncertain, very uncertain.
I have a concern which Rosling does not address in his book, indeed it is outside of the scope of his book. History teaches us that civilizations progress until they collapse. History teaches us that all past civilizations collapsed except the one we now live in which began about 500 years ago.
During the Great Recession ten years ago, I began to imagine, for the second time in my life, the collapse of civilization. A worldwide effort prevented the Great Recession from turning into a second Great Depression. What if during that time there had also been a global pandemic like the Spanish flu of 1918 plus a large scale terrorist attack leading to a new major war? Those events are not beyond our imagination and those events occurring concurrently is far from impossible.
Back to Factfulness, I was very interested in what was said about DDT.
In 2006 the World Health Organization finally finished reviewing all the scientific investigations and, just like the CDC, classified DDT as “mildly harmful” to humans, stating that it had more health benefits than drawbacks in many situations.
I clearly remember the Canadian ban of DDT and the fear around that chemical during my childhood. My father was a vegetable farmer and cabbage was one of his biggest crops. I remember him walking with little protection in a cloud of DDT dust which he applied to protect his crop from the cabbage butterfly laying eggs that would became caterpillars with voracious appetites. After the ban he stopped growing cabbage. As well as breathing in DDT, my father was a heavy smoker. He lived to age 85 but did not die from lung cancer.
I enjoyed seeing and hearing Hans, Ola and Anna in the short video in the Gapminder website.
WHY WE WROTE FACTFULNESS (link)