Book Reviews

Book Review – Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling

This was a book that I really wanted to like. The author had made the subject his life’s work, and when he was dying from cancer, he set about to get the message he had been lecturing about for many years in print format so it would continue its message for years to come. For the most part, I did like it, and I recommend people read it, albeit with a bit of caution.

Hans Rosling was a long-time advisor to both the World Health Organization and UNICEF, so he has credibility with what he’s written here. The title is his basic premise, that things are much better in the world than we perceive them. He presents this with a small quiz at the beginning of the book where he states that humans have scored poorly when compared to the randomness of a monkey selecting the answers. Why is this?

One of the questions on the quiz:

In all low income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A: 20 percent
B: 40 percent
C: 60 percent

The answer, surprisingly, is C. This was one of the questions that fooled me too. I selected B.

And yes, when you look at many things, the world has been improving. He has broken down the economic status of a country to three different levels, Level 4 being the highest that most of the developed world finds themselves in.

However, that’s also my main problem with the book. Level one would be you brush your teeth with your finger. Level two would be you have a toothbrush you share with your whole family. Level three would be you have toothpaste to go with the toothbrush. At level four you have your own toothbrush. That’s as high as it goes. So it’s easy to see that everyone is doing better and bunching up there now on level four. However, there are still many ways to break down the economic status of people in level four. Some people have a manual toothbrush. Some people have battery-operated ones. Some people have rechargeable toothbrushes.

And, there are still people in level four economies who don’t have access to a toothbrush, even though the majority of people in those countries will.

While I think Rosling is correct, that we perceive the world as being worse than it really is, I’m not sure that there aren’t problems that many people would like to sweep under the rug with that assessment. He does make the case over and over that there is still room for improvement, but it seems to me like he’s too focused on the statistics rather than the people they represent.

Rosling is quick to point out how maternal and infant deaths have greatly diminished around the globe. This is due to a variety of factors, and Rosling does delve into it. However, just because the overall statistics have shown a decrease doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Take the United States with our profit-over-people approach to healthcare which has actually caused an increase in maternal deaths. We might be at a lower death rate than we were 200 years ago, but there are still problems. He doesn’t delve into this part of the statistics with any depth, just kind of leaving issues out there.

Rosling also delves into why our worldview is distorted. Much of it has to do with the media and how things are portrayed by them. Sensationalism and negativity drive a lot of the news reports because that seems to garner more viewers than saying everything is great. I know there is a perception of how dangerous some cities are. I lived in New York until I was 39, and there has always been a perception of how dangerous the City is. Yet, when you look at statistics, violent crimes have dropped over the years. In 1980, the murder rate in NYC was 12.73 per 100,000. In 2018, it was 2.18. Still, knowing that doesn’t help if you are one of the 289 people murdered in the city that year. However, this is what he is talking about. I still read posts on the internet where people are deathly afraid of going to New York due to “violence.” A realistic depiction of New York as a fairly “safe” city won’t get ratings or sell newspapers, though.

It’s also the case that when people perceive a situation is getting better, they tend to speak with their money. A charity focusing on providing safe drinking water across the globe will want to present the need as urgent and have people in dire circumstances. If they say “We’ve achieved 80% of our goal” chances are the donations will dry up as people move on to something more urgent.

I do recommend Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. It’s available to read on Kindle Unlimited for free. There’s a lot of food for thought here. However, reducing humanity to just numbers is a dangerous thing. I would think that perhaps we need a few more levels above 4, to show the gradations among people currently in that level. It’s easy to say 80% of the world is level four so we’re good. It’s harder to take a look and say now that we’ve achieved this much we need to re-evaluate the standards we are using to categorize nations that way.

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