I’m absolutely loving Hans Rosling’s posthumous book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World (Flatiron Books, 2018), which, to my further delight, has become an Amazon bestseller. If you need a break from the mainstream media message about how the world is falling apart, I can highly recommend this fact-filled and super fun book.
In fact, I might even suggest that this book should be the starting place for any kind of discussion about economics, politics, and the state of the world in general.
It opens with 13 multiple-choice questions about the state of the world today. Here are a few examples. Test your knowledge with just these five.
In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has a) almost doubled, b) stayed the same, c) almost halved.
How many people in the world have some access to electricity? a) 20 percent, b) 50 percent, c) 80 percent.
How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease? a) 20 percent, b) 50 percent, c) 80 percent.
Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school? a) 9 years, b) 6 years, c) 3 years.
In 1996, tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today? a) two of them, b) one of them, c) none of them.
Here are the correct answers: c, c, c, a, c.
Surprised? If not, you are unusually informed. Most people are not.
Those are five of the fifteen but all of them involve the standard of living, which is the topic of the entire book. His goal is to prove through an unrelenting series of facts that we are living healthier, wealthier, safer, cleaner, and longer lives than ever – and the increases in all of these factors are so astounding that we should all sit around being amazed by them.
Consider just the first point: the percentage of the world population that is living in extreme poverty has fallen by half in the last 20 years. That’s thrilling news! But did you know that? Do you understand what this implies about burning issues like globalization, markets, and technology?
And yet we don’t really pay attention. In fact, most people get most of the questions wrong. I tested this on my colleagues before writing this article. The best score was 5 correct out of 13. The worst score was 2. I’m a pretty optimistic and informed guy but I missed fully four of the questions, even though I knew the idea behind the quiz. Essentially I was not cheery enough. None of us are.
We further find out that disease, death, airline crashes, oil spills, HIV infections, and hunger are all dramatically down. Harvests, immunizations, access to clean water, electricity, education, cell phone ownership, and new music and movies are all up. Again, dramatically.
Why So Sad?
The purpose of the book is not only to reveal facts about the world around us and the trends that are driving it. Rosling seeks to explain our unwillingness to face and incorporate into our thinking good news about the world. He lists a number of biases, which he calls instincts. We have an instinct to be drawn toward negativity, fear, and generalizing from single cases. We like blaming things and people and look for problems to feed that desire. We think only about bad news we just hear rather than long-term approaches. The media feeds this desire for ratings.
All of this sounds right to me but there is a simpler explanation too. Our minds are shaped by the narrative of our own lives. We live now and forward in time, whereas the past is an abstraction we either didn’t experience or have already forgotten. It’s true that one thousand years ago, most of us would be living in huts, sleeping on straw, threatened by violence, stuck in our own communities, dying young, suffering in pain from disease, unable to experience anything like what we call progress – if we would be alive at all.
We can say this, imagine it possibly, but we don’t actually live it. We only experience our prosperity that we take for granted while grousing about the various problems we have in life, and it is these that consume us. The upside of this way of thinking is that it makes the human mind aspirational, which drives us to try to make a future more to our liking.
What is the point of adopting a fact-based worldview? Rosling says that it is essential so that we can better navigate life, the way a GPS helps us navigate a city. Further, knowing the facts about life around us brings us more comfort. We are less alarmed at the news. We are less likely to be manipulated by panicked political promises. We see through the fog. We can be more calm, rational, and perceptive.
Most of all, realizing the progress that has been granted unto us by markets and human cooperation make us skeptical of wild plans to bring about progress via force and central planning. If you look at the fabulous trends of our time carefully, you can see that they are not the results of impositions but rather better human cooperation, technology, and the spread of knowledge. This is the way to improve the world.