I thought Han Rosling’s book (written with his son and daughter in law) ‘Factfulness’ was wonderful. It was engagingly written but the real joy was the author’s ability to explain the world using data rather than hunches and pre-conceptions. It may come as a great surprise to many that Rosling’s take on the world is wholeheartedly positive. He blames negativity on the way we look at the world. When we sit back and look at the facts things are a lot better than most people seem to think.
He does some great surveys of what relatively informed people think is happening in the world and find they perform a lot worse than would a chimp with a dart. Our intuitions about the world are actually much worse than they would be if they were just randomly derived.
He details how the life of people across the world has got better in the last century. This isn’t just in the west but across the world a lot of people have risen from absolute poverty to, not wealth, but something much better than starvation. Not everyone’s life has improved, and not every year, but the life’s of the majority of people have and for the majority of the time.
He says the failure to see this improvement is that people confuse bad and better. Things are still often bad in the world but they are better than they were. “Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad” (Rosling, 2018, page 74). It isn’t an insult to people still suffering to suggest that progress has been made; it is a statement of fact. We often miss the progress because we censor history. “The evidence of the terrible past is scary, but it is a great resource. It can help us appreciate what we have today…” (Rosling, 2019, page 72).
What is wrong with concentrating on the bad things? After all there are terrible things remaining that we should be fighting against. “When people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing we have tried so far is working and lose confidence in measures that actually work. I meet many such people, who tell me they have lost all hope for humanity. Or , they may become radical, supporting drastic methods that are counter-productive…” (Rosling, 2018, page 69). It is important to view the world as it actually is if we want to help make it better.
Next week I will highlight what he suggests we do about it.
Read: Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund (2018) Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Flatiron books.