Book Review: Factfulness by Hans Rosling

This is the best book I’ve read in a while. It is very easy to walk around thinking the world is a terrible place, with insurmountable problems. In reality, most of the problems are not insurmountable, in fact we (the human species) have actually made a whopping dent in a great many of them!

In the mid 1990’s, Hans Rosling realized that most people were critically misinformed about important world statistics, so he started quizzing people at his lectures and public engagements to understand why. He found that even among people whose job it was to know things like “how the number of people living in extreme poverty around the world has changed over the last 20 years” , people got his questions wrong, and worse they were out-performed by random guessing, and that the answers people chose were always more negative than reality. This, Hans reasoned, showed that there must be some sort of bias driving people to chose as they did.

The premise of “Factfulness” is the ten “Dramatic Instincts”, instincts which drive us to see the world as being worse than it is. Each chapter discusses one of these instincts, such as the “Gap Instinct”, and for each instinct the author describes the instinct: where it comes from, how it affects the way we see the world, and how to counter-act it. This is something I really like about the book, actually, each chapter has a “Factfulness is…” section which summarizes how to counteract the particular Dramatic Instinct. The writing is clear, and very easy to absorb – I found this book a much quicker read than some others of the same length.

Each chapter is laced with useful statistics that show how the world is really improving, like how the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years. That’s amazing, there are now fewer than 1 billion people living in extreme poverty, and what’s more, the technology exists to help them step out of it faster than ever before!

For cool chains to work, you need all the basic infrastructure for transport, electricity, education, and health care to be in place. This is exactly the same infrastructure needed to establish new factories.

I guess what resonated with me the most, having spent a little time in a few African countries over the last few years, is that these countries are ready for investment, they need an influx of money to drive forward their industrialization, to help them take the next step up in income level, and thus quality of life. The problem lies in the reality that so many of us don’t realize these countries are ready. We don’t realize that over 80% of the world’s people receive vaccinations, and that these vaccinations must be kept cold from factory to patient, and if we can do that, then we can probably do a whole bunch of other logistics that aren’t nearly as hard!

Another thing I appreciated about the book is there is a handy chart at the back which summarizes the 10 dramatic instincts, a helpful reminder to switch off instinct, turn on reason, get our fact straight and propel the world forward.

Hans Rosling passed away before the book was published, but his view was if we as a society keep our heads, learn to see the world as it is, and act according to the real data, that we could see the end of extreme poverty before the middle of this century. Having read this book, I’m excited by the possibility that he might be right. That would be a sight to see.

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