By Martin Shapiro
Book Review: Factfulness: Ten Reason We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
California State University, Fresno
Factfulness: Ten Reason We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. By Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Flatiron Books. 2018. ISBN: 978-1250107817. 352 pages. Hardcover, $27.99.
Martin Shapiro, Department of Psychology, California State University, Fresno.
Correspondence regarding this book review should be addressed to Martin Shapiro, Professor, Department of Psychology, California State University, Fresno, Science II Bldg., Rm. 359, 2576 E. San Ramon ST11, Fresno, CA 93740. Phone: (559) 278-2358. E-mail: email@example.com
Things are worse than they have ever been—or at least that is the way it feels sometimes. We watch commentaries from our favorite cable news channels or view pithy memes with comments from our online social circle, and it feels as though the world is a much scarier place than it once was and that it is only getting worse. The world’s population is exploding, violence and terrorism are on the rise, and abject poverty is gripping developing countries. However, what if many of these global statistics are actually improving, from extreme drops in poverty rates to stabilizing population growth to increased availability of education for girls? In Hans Rosling’s latest book, Factfulness, he and his coauthors (his son and daughter-in-law) address common misperceptions of the changing world.
Hans Rosling was a Swedish professor of public health (he passed away in 2017) and had worked as practicing physician in some of the poorest places in the world. He is probably best known for his imaginative TED Talks about statistics related to global issues, including population growth, socioeconomic status, and healthcare. Knowing that statistics can be a rather dry topic, Rosling’s often humorous talks employ wonderfully animated graphs or clever visual props designed to make global statistics more engaging and relatable. Factfulness continues in this vein, using humor and creative presentation to deliver well-researched information. His talks, and to a large degree his book, focus on three fundamental observations: (1) Many problems in the world are not as bad as they once were and are projected to get better; (2) when surveyed about statistics on global issues, most people show biases and are systematically wrong; and (3) there are reasons for these biases, and there are ways to combat people’s negative instincts.
Factfulness begins with a series of multiple-choice questions that Rosling had been asking for many years while touring the world giving his talks. The questions deal with population demographics, economics, education, and healthcare. For example, he asks, “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school (20%, 40%, or 60%)?” and “How many of the world’s one-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some diseases (20%, 50%, or 80%)?” (The answers are 60% and 80%, respectively.) He had surveyed the general public, college students, professors, heads of state, and high-ranking officials in the United Nations and found that, regardless of education or experience, people underestimated progress around these issues. Rosling points out that not only are most people wrong about the state of global issues, but their assessments are also systematically worse than random chance; as he often says in the book, chimpanzees would do better if asked the same questions. In other words, we are often not simply uninformed—we are misinformed and pessimistic, and have selective memories. There are systematic and predictable biases that prevent individuals from learning about and believing some facts; yet, accurate information is necessary for making good decisions and policies going forward.
The chapters of the book take on some of these questions and present the best, most current statistics available. For example, regarding wealth and poverty, Rosling points out that for a long time, public dialogue has centered on “us vs. them,” “the first world vs. the third world,” “developing vs. developed countries.” He calls this the “gap” instinct to maintain such separations. His foundation, Gapminder.org, was named after this problem and is a very useful resource for finding statistics and creating the kind of animated graphs he presented in his talks. Although there was some validity to this thinking 50 years ago, most people today live in middle-income countries, and the world has become a more homogenous place in relation to wealth, education, and access to healthcare. As he states, “while the world has changed, the worldview has not, at least in the heads of the ‘Westerners’” (p. 27). He spends each chapter addressing different human instincts that bias perceptions such as negativity, fear, and blame. He takes the reader through each of these problems in thinking and provides tools to combat the biases.
The book succeeds in many ways. The statistics, tables, and graphs are kept to a relative minimum, and when they are used, they are clear and relevant. Rosling uses anecdotes and examples to illustrate fundamental points that, again, are often humorous but poignant. He not only presents the problems that people have with information, such as biases, negative instincts, and selective memories, but he also provides useful remedies. I did struggle at times with the book’s optimism about the present and future world. Though he does discuss broad issues that are not improving, such as growing inequality, climate change, and ecosystem and species decline, I wish he had addressed these concerns with more urgency. That said, I too might be falling into the same cognitive traps—for instance, he dedicates a chapter to the “urgency” instinct. As Rosling writes, “I am not an optimist. I’m a very serious possibilist. It’s a new category where we take emotion apart, and we just work analytically with the world” (p. 69).
Factfulness is an excellent book for those who value good information over gut feelings especially in this age when social media, political discourse, and cable news programs often employ hyperbole, fear, and xenophobia as tools to convince individuals of untrue information. This book is extremely important for educators who are relied upon more and more to serve as guides for students on how to assess and consume factual and reliable information. Indeed, Factfulness is ideal for educators designing lesson plans for several reasons. First, it provides compelling but underreported information about how the world has slowly become a better place, what Rosling calls “the secret, silent miracle of human progress” (p. 51). Second, it shows that average caring citizens have achieved these improvements related to poverty, energy, healthcare, education, and women’s rights by taking action—that one person’s vote matters and that behaviors make a difference. Third, it provides tools for avoiding cognitive and emotional pitfalls while consuming information. College students need guidance and practice in dealing with the deluge of often-biased information coming from peers, parents, social media, television, advertisements, and school. While the content of Factfulness should be taught at any level of high school or college, it might be best reserved as required reading for college students at the upper-division and graduate levels. Reading this book will encourage students to identify their own biases, engage in excellent discussions, and perhaps even take action.
Dr. Martin Shapiro is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Fresno. He specializes in psychophysiology and decision making. Dr. Shapiro was a member of AASCU’s Global Challenges Committee from 2007 to 2014 and is an editor on both a manual for teachers and an e-book for students. He has taught a course on Global Challenges for the Smittcamp Honors College since 2008 and helped develop training for faculty members teaching in a First Year Experience Program with the theme of Global Challenges. Dr. Shapiro is the chair of a Taskforce on High-Impact Practices at CSU Fresno and has conducted workshops on project-based learning. He has presented and held workshops at the American Democracy Project Conference on teaching Global Challenges.