[SCMP Column] Rosling and Factfulness

April 28, 2018

Let’s begin with a simple little test. Take a pen and look at the 10 questions in the (box). Answer a, b, or c. to each of the questions.

These questions were among those thrown at 12,000 people worldwide by Hans Rosling, possibly the world’s most famous statistical guru because of his mesmerising TED talks, which he illustrated with gloriously memorable bubble charts tracking the global trends that were the focus of his academic life.

Rosling’s book “Factfulness”*, co-authored with his son Ola and his daughter Anna, has just been published, just over 13 months after Hans died tragically of pancreatic cancer in February last year.

Shockingly – because answers are readily available in frequently-used public sources, and used commonly in discussions about global economic and social trends - not a single one of Rosling’s respondents got all the answers right. Fifteen per cent of respondents scored zero. The average score was two. How did you fare?

Throwing such a test at chimpanzees would on average have answered one in three questions correctly, so why do human respondents perform so appallingly? “This ignorance is not an accident,” Rosling concluded: “Only actively wrong knowledge can make us score so badly. Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong. Not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong.” He made it his life’s work, with his son and daughter, to attack the roots of this “factlessness”.

Factfulness is a fascinating exploration of why we so systematically carry wrong ideas around in our heads, and an attempt to steer us in a more fact-based direction: “Most western employees in large multinationals and financial institutions are still trying to operate according to a deeply-rooted, outdated and distorted world view.”

The distorting forces are strong and numerous – starting with “an irresistible urge to divide the world into two, with a gap in between (like rich and poor). He shows relentlessly clearly that “we imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement.”

He has fought for decades for us to stop splitting the world into “developed” and “developing” economies, showing that no such dichotomy exists. Instead he divides the world’s economies into four income levels, with most economies clustered in the two middle levels. He reminds that even those of us populating the lucky, richest Level 4 economies show wide ranges of richer and poorer.

Perhaps the second biggest distorter is the compulsion for people to imagine the world is getting worse – even though the reality of the past 200 years has been for steady improvement almost everywhere in the world. Even in polls measuring peoples’ happiness, where most describe themselves as happy, the majority still believe we are surrounded by misery.

They don’t recognise that extreme poverty has been halved over the past over the past 20 years, that most kids nowadays get vaccinated, that 80 per cent of people worldwide have access to electricity, and that most girls get at least a primary education.

He reminds that back in 1800, huge numbers of people in his native Sweden starved to death (many fled to the US to escape famine), and British children worked in coal mines, with both countries offering a life expectancy of roughly 30 years. He reminds that Egypt is today as well off as Sweden was in 1948. With such obvious evidence of “the secret silent miracle of human progress” all around, it perplexes him that we stick so obstinately to our “world getting worse” views.

Rosling reminds us that when Bangladesh became independent in 1972, women had on average seven children, and lived on average just 52 years. Today, they have two children, and live on average to 73. Extreme poverty in China gnawed at 42 per cent of China’s population in 1997. Today, that number has fallen to 0.7 per cent, with more than 500m people lifted out of poverty.

For most of his life, Rosling complained at our persistent inclination to see things getting worse, when the clear, fact-based reality was of steady improvement in terms of almost every metric you pick. It irritated him that when he pointed this out, people scoffed at him for being an optimist. He protested he was not an optimist, but rather a “possibilist”, who “neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, and constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.”

Like Daniel Kahneman in his awesome “Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow”, Rosling recognises that most of us glide through our working days depending mainly on intuition and generalisations that are frequently distortive or completely wrong, rather than on careful factful deliberate thought, which Kahneman describes as “thinking slow”, and which explains in part why clearly false ideas live on in people’s brains for as long as they do.

“In order for this planet to have financial stability, peace and protected natural resources, there’s one thing we can’t do without,” says Rosling: “And that is international collaboration, based on shared and fact-based understanding of the world.” He could have been talking to Trump’s “core”, with their preference for unilateralism to “make America great again”, their disdain for international collaboration, and their disregard for the clear evidence of global warming.

Because so many of the false ideas are rooted in educations completed many decades ago, Rosling calls for our education systems to work on mid-life “top-ups”. As an educator himself he said: “Sorry, what we taught you is no longer true. Please return your brain for a free upgrade.”

Despite his persistent concern for “factfulness”, Rosling insisted that “numbers will never tell the full story of what life on Earth is all about”. But this book, as his final gift as he edited chapters on his deathbed, goes a long way. We could do worse than encourage “Factfulness” institutes in all of our economies. Now there’s a thought.
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

*  Factfulness: Ten Reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronlund
(To editors: please get art people to build a “box” illustration around these 10 questions below, with the answers at the end)
  1. In all low income countries across the world today, how many finish primary school?
    1. 20%                        b. 40%                   c. 60%
  1. Where does the majority of the world population live?
    1. Low income countries    b. Middle income countries         c. High income countries
  1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty (less than US$1 a day) has
    1. Almost doubled                                b. remained the same                   c. almost halved
  1. There are 2bn children in the world today aged 0-15 years. How many such children will there be in 2100, according to the UN?
    1. 4bn                        b. 3bn                   c. 2bn
  1. What is life expectancy worldwide today?
    1. 50 years               b. 60 years          c 70 years
  1. The UN says there will be an extra 4bn people living worldwide in 2100. Why?
    1. More children aged 0-15               b. more adults   c. more old people (over 75)
  1. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children have had a vaccination?
    1. 20%                        b. 50%                   c. 80%
  1. How many people worldwide have some access to electricity?
    1. 20%                        b. 50%                   c. 80%
  1. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years at school on average. How many years have 30-year-old women spent?
    1. A. 9 years            b. 6 years             c. 3 years
  1. Deaths per year from natural disasters over the past hundred years have
    1. More than doubled        b. stayed about the same            c about halved
(Answers: 1. c    2. b         3. c         4. c         5. c         6. b         7. c         8. c         9. a         10. C)    

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