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

The title of this book says it all. This is a fact based look at the world, and the facts show that, on the whole, the world is improving in most key areas, including education, income and life expectancy. Written by a gifted storyteller and accomplished scientist, Factfulness is a powerful antidote to people’s tendency to think that the sky is perpetually falling.

Hans Rosling was an entertaining and much sought after speaker. (I use past tense because, sadly, he died recently.) He used facts and his own fascinating background to weave together enlightening presentations to very diverse audiences. He was finding that even very well-educated people were terribly ignorant about the world, usually thinking that things are much worse than they actually are. So he set about trying to change that, first with his lectures and now with this book.

He often started his presentations with a quiz. It was a great way to establish the audience’s level of knowledge and a clever way to gather data. In the book, he is able to show quiz answers by nationality and profession, frequently and good-naturedly pointing out that chimps could have scored better on most questions. Here are just four of the questions from the quiz, and I have provided the answers at the end:

1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A. 20%
B. 40%
C. 60%

2. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
A. Almost doubled
B. Remained more or less the same
C. Almost halved

3. What is the life expectancy of the world today?
A. 50 years
B. 60 years
C. 70 years

4. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?
A. 20%
B. 50%
C. 80%

Answers:
1. C
2. C
3. C
4. C

If you got some wrong, you’re in good company. Experts, academics and journalists (and everyone else, really) tended to pick the more pessimistic answers. Dr. Rosling used data from sources like the UN and the World Health Organization, so the results aren’t due to suspect data. People just don’t know how the world is trending. Dr. Rosling provides some theories for why this is and also provides some techniques you can use to help understand data better.

“Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is.”

It’s also important to note that the author isn’t saying that things are perfect in the world. He makes the very valid point that things can be both bad and also getting better. The “getting better” part is a hopeful message that is backed up by credible data. It’s an important message for everyone to hear. That’s one of the reasons I highly recommend Factfulness. The other reason is that it’s sprinkled with fascinating stories about Dr. Rosling’s life, including several anecdotes about his experiences as a doctor in Africa.

If you’re still unsure about this book, check out one of the author’s TED talks here. The book is written with the same charming humor that he uses so effectively in his presentations.

Thanks for the recommendation, Deb!

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

  1. Good review! Glad you liked the book. It is one of the few books I actually bought. I often pick it up to re-read a section. It is amazing how good-humoredly (is that a word??) Rosling goes about showing us the errors in our perspective. He is able to do it effectively because he uses his own past reasoning errors to humble himself or at least to put us all on the same level. Since Bill Gates gave this book to all college seniors last year, I am hoping it is actually read by them. It makes optimists out of pessimists which, I think, is a good thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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