Rosling’s Ten Reasons Why We’re Wrong About the World

22 May 2020

Factfulness by Hans Rosling

This book is good news – the perfect antidote to Covid-19 overload. It sets out ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than we think. The basic premise is simple; our media diet is constant bad news, war, violence, natural and man-made disasters, corruption and so on. We imagine the world to be a pretty disastrous place and getting worse. Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor, expert in global health and founder of the Gapminder Foundation, calls this the overdramatic worldview. It’s stressful and misleading.

The book starts with a test of how well we know key facts about our world today. First up is the question, ‘In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school? A: 20%, B:40%, C: 60%.’ Question 9 is, ‘How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease? A: 20%, B:50%, C: 80%.’ In the UK only 15% of those asked in polls correctly answer question 9 (answers at the end of this review). Rosling’s point is that if our worldview is wrong then our guesses in the tests will be wrong and worse than random answering.

This book is Rosling’s last battle, before his untimely death, to fight what he describes as ‘devastating global ignorance.’ He seeks to change our way of thinking, calm irrational fears, and redirect our energies from worry to constructive activities.

Rosling explores ten instincts that give us the wrong impression about the world, many of which are at the forefront of how the current pandemic is being reported. The first is the ‘gap instinct’ – we think the world is divided into two; developed and developing countries. Yet the reality is very different with the majority of people living in middle income countries. Beware of stories that talk about the extreme – where are the majority? Focusing on pandemic stories from intensive care is an extreme, the vast majority of people recover and don’t need hospital care.

There is a chapter on the ‘fear instinct’ where Rosling puts a range of fears into perspective suggesting that ‘frightening’ and ‘dangerous’ are two different things. Terrorism is frightening but accounts for 0.05% of deaths whilst diarrhoea is dangerous and kills millions. Perhaps a very relevant chapter for us today is about the ‘blame instinct’ where we seek a clear and simple reason for why something bad has happened. As Rosling suggests, we like to think things happen because someone wanted them to – we want a guilty party. Our energy is focused on blame and not on learning amidst the complex truth.

An added bonus of this book are the graphics, 16 diagrams of bad things decreasing, 16 good things increasing and some inventive visual explanations of countries by income and health. A book stacked full of data but in an accessible and simple design.

Review by Canon Mike Williams

Answers: Q1 = 60%; Q9 = 80%

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