Book Review: “Factfulness”, by Hans Rosling

This might be one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Turns out we (and I mean all of us) are wrong about just about everything. Especially matters of global scale. It’s in our nature. It’s in our culture. And it’s in our systems. To see things as they really are requires some learning (and unlearning). The upside? Damn near everything is much better off than you thought…

My good friend (and generally wonderful, sunshiney, and very smart human being) Mimi Cooper (check out her great website all about meditation and being happier) posted about this book on Facebook a few months ago. She said everyone should read it, and it could make the world better. So, like any good book recommendation from a good person, I added it to my queue, where it had to wait its bloody turn like all the others. But, this recommendation came from Mims – and it’s about social sciences, anthropology, data, statistics, psychology and human behaviour… right up my alley! So, when its turn finally came, I was thickly excited to get stuck in.

Turns out, Factfulness (Subtitled; “Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better than You Think“) is better than just “good”. I believe it’s very important. Rosling repeatedly makes a very important point throughout the book, and one which I will paraphrase and start with as a sort of opening “disclaimer”…

It is possible for problems to be improving, or much better than you thought, but still be problems.

What this essentially means is that, learning that a situation is better than you thought it was, or rapidly improving when you maybe feel like it’s getting worse, does not mean there is no problem at all, that there is no work to still be done, nor that the category of social/economic/political concern suddenly has to change from “utterly f**ked” to “totally perfect” in your view. Just that things can be better (often a great deal better) than you have been led to (or have chosen to) believe. Or improving – sometimes a lot faster than you may be aware or even want to believe.

Well, I guess the above intro and disclaimer have pretty much given away a lot of what the book is about, and why I think it’s so important for as many people, especially those who like to think of themselves as informed global citizens, to read it as soon as they get the chance.

Hans Rosling – who sadly passed away due to pancreatic cancer in 2017 – was a Swedish physician, academic, data analyst, and public speaker. He was the Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute, and was the co-founder and chairman of the Gapminder Foundation, which developed the Trendalyzer software system for data analysis. He spent many years working as a doctor – often in disaster areas and the poorest parts of the world – as a university lecturer, and as statistician and trend analyst, advising and presenting to organisations like the World Health Organisation and the United Nations.

31-03-2014. Bill Gates visit Karolinska Institutet. Anders Hamsten, Bill Gates och Hans Rosling on stage. Foto: Gustav Mårtensson / Karolinska Institutet

In his later years, he spent much of his efforts lecturing and presenting to world leaders and global bodies, helping them to interpret the data at their disposal as accurately and in the best contexts possible. You can check out a lot of his lectures, TED Talks, etc online, and I recommend doing so. He’s no fringe iconoclast swimming upstream, or tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist, mind you. Just a passionate expert who dedicated much of his life to fighting misinformation on a global scale. Finishing this book with the help of his family before he passed away was his last great goal. And what a book it is.

As I type, I’m fighting the strong urge to turn this into a 20 000-word summary of the whole book, and everything in it. But that would spoil the book, take me many hours that I don’t have, I’d bugger some of it up I’m sure, and no one wants to read that much in a book review; let’s be honest. Suffice it to say, we are horribly misinformed, in general. We either have the wrong information, no idea how to interpret the information we do have, or both. And, we as humans have several natural instincts (some of which have been crucial to our species’ survival) that cause us to look for the worst-case scenarios, overreact or even panic, or seek a simple, villain-based explanation, rather than go to the trouble (and have the open mind) necessary to understand a more complex, true one.

It’s not because we are stupid, bad people, being tricked by an evil media or some kind of Illuminati elite, or deliberately trying to misinform one another. It’s just that we don’t necessarily react entirely logically to problems or bad news, nor do we know how to interpret numerical data (especially where huge numbers over long periods of time are involved), nor are we necessarily informed of the complexities at play in global systems which have more to them than simply “good or evil”, “right or wrong”, or “villain or hero”.

The good news? Almost everything is somewhere between “better”, “a lot better”, and “waaaaay better” than most of us think. I was shocked to learn that my own guesses (an exercise with which Rosling asks you to start most new topics) were not just wrong, but grossly wrong. In many cases, inverted in terms of negative and positive metrics. Always slanted massively toward the bad. But this is a case where learning that you’re wrong is a really good feeling; that your negative assumptions and assertions about the world and the people in it are in almost all cases grossly incorrect. Again, though, as I explained above (and as Rosling repeatedly does throughout the book), this does not mean that there isn’t work to do and a great deal of suffering and injustice in the world. Just that things are moving in the right direction, and are already a lot further down the road to radness than you have been led, or have led yourself, to believe.

In almost all metrics, we are doing the best as a species that we have ever done. There has never been less poverty, hunger, war, violence, sickness, gender inequality, income inequality, access to basic amenities, or general suffering, in all of our species’ history. Our lifespans and quality of life have never been higher. Population growth is set to level out, and poverty and hunger to be wiped out. Women aged 30 have, on average only one less year of schooling than men, worldwide, and that gap is still closing. In fact, on the top two out of four global income levels, women are getting more education than men. On the other two, the gap is rapidly closing, as it has done for decades.

While still not perfect, all of these metrics have been, and remain on a steady and increasing trend of improvement; year on year, decade on decade, and century on century. The only major metric where we are in worsening trouble (and big time, at that) is that of the climate and especially the health of the oceans. We should try, individually and collectively, to channel more of our focus and energies – both positive and righteously indignant – into these areas. If there were ever machines to rage against, the ones f**king up the climate are where we should be looking. Good news for those who seek offence and things to hate and complain about as a kind of “sport”… Rejoice, for all is not lost!

With that joke/dig out of the way, I’ll reiterate again: there is always room for improvement, and “getting better” does not mean “totally okay”. I just think some people will find that the blue pill not tasting so bad is a difficult pill to swallow, to mix some matching metaphors. The loss of a hobby at best. The total loss of a social identity at worst. I expect resistance from radicals. But then they tend to read what backs up their existing ideas, more than to seek out new ones anyways. But that’s a whole ‘nother long-ass discussion altogether. Moving along…

Rosling doesn’t just point out where we’re under misapprehensions and false ideas, and then back it up with stats, though. He explains how and why we come to misunderstand, leap to the most negative conclusions, and even actively reject good news when we are presented with it. The reasons are many-fold, and he offers great solutions for being better at separating the facts from the assumptions, identifying your own dramatic instincts, and communicating factfully when relaying information. Again, I can’t recommend reading the book strongly enough, and I’m not going to attempt to summarise the main areas where we get things wrong, but this graphic I found does a good job of giving you a sense of the basics.

A visual summary of some of the main points in Hans Rosling’s book; “Factfulness”.

I truly think this is one of those rare books that I would make mandatory reading for all, if it were up to me to decree things. It’s easy to follow, not too long, highly informative, and deeply uplifting in its own comforting way. It’s one of those that, after you’ve read it, leaves you unable to look at the world (and information about it) the same way again.

At the time of writing, the corona pandemic is starting to become genuinely serious, and this book has helped me process the information around it, and my reaction to it, in a far more balanced, level-headed and informed way.

Rating: 95/100.
How interesting? 9/10
How entertaining? 7.5/10
How useful? 10/10
How digestible: 8/10
Recommendation level: mandatory
Format read: Audible audiobook
Audiobook narration: 7/10

“Factfulness” by Hans Rosling