In a world awash with false ideas, ‘factful’ thinking can help us recognise the progress we have made

David Dodwell says the work of the late Hans Rosling shows why we have tended to overlook extraordinary human progress in recent decades, and how we can continue it if we maintain international cooperation

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 2:35pm
UPDATED : Friday, 27 April, 2018, 11:07pm

Let’s begin with a little test. Take a look at the 10 questions below. Answer A, B, or C to each. 

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 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 daughter Anna, has just been published, a little more than a year after he died of pancreatic cancer last February. 

Though answers are 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. 

“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employees in large multinationals and financial institutions are still trying to operate according to a deeply rooted, outdated and distorted world view”.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” in two, with a gap in-between (such as between the rich and poor). He shows that “we imagine division where there is just a smooth range, difference where there is convergence, and conflict where there is agreement”.  

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He fought for decades to get 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 us 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 people’s compulsion to imagine the world getting worse – even though the reality of the past 200 years has been steady improvement almost everywhere. 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 20 years, that most children are vaccinated, that 80 per cent of people worldwide have access to electricity and most girls get at least a primary education

He reminds us that, in 1800, huge numbers of people in his native Sweden starved to death, and British children worked in coal mines, with both countries offering a life expectancy of roughly 30 years. He reminds us that Egypt is today as well off as Sweden was in 1948. 

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Rosling also 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. Poverty in China afflicted more than 80 per cent of the country in the early 1980s. Since then, the country has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty, with officials claiming the poverty rate has been lowered to about 2 per cent and looking to eliminate absolute poverty completely by 2020. 

It irritated Rosling that when he pointed these things 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 world view”. 

Like Daniel Kahneman in  Thinking, Fast and Slow , Rosling recognises that most of us glide through our working days depending mainly on intuition and generalisations that are frequently distorted or completely wrong, rather than on factful deliberate thought, which Kahneman describes as “thinking slow”. This explains in part why false ideas live on in people’s brains 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 Donald Trump’s supporters, with their preference to “make America great again”, disdain for international collaboration and disregard for climate change

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Because so many false ideas are rooted in education completed many decades ago, Rosling called for our education systems to work on mid-life “top-ups”. As an educator, 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, including chapters he edited on his deathbed, goes a long way. We could do worse than encourage factfulness institutes in all our economies. 

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view