Hans Rosling was a rare human being.
He gave science and data a good name.
Early in his career, he was a self-described grumpy and angry public health doctor who couldn’t get his students or the groups he consulted with to see the realities of life in the Global South that were so different from the Gloom and Doom stories he saw in the news.
Then, he discovered the graphic presentation of data, did a TED talk, caught the eye of self-described data evangelists at Google and the World Bank. The rest, as they say, was history.
The grumpy, cranky scientist started doing engaging, eye opening, mind boggling talks at everything from TED gatherings to Davos to C-Suites. People started paying attention (though few of them did well on the factual tests he gave them).
Toward the end of his life, his son and daughter in law (aka his co-authors) convinced Rosling that he had to turn his data into a book. He died shortly before the three of them finished the manuscript. The two remaining Roslings finished Factfulness, kept it in his voice, and it is now out there for us all to see.
The book starts with a quiz he has given to attendees at his talks, many of whom are development, public health, corporate, and peacebuilding professionals. They do terribly. So do random samples of people from countries around the world.
Rosling seems to take a certain seemingly slightly sadistic delight in pointing out that most supposedly intelligent professionals don’t do as well as chimpanzees would who presumably chose their answers at random.
In fact, Rosling was not interested in embarrassing people who heard his talks—some of whom had paid a lot of money to the Gapminder Institute for the privilege of being told how ignorant they were.
Instead, he wanted to do two things.
First, as he had been doing in his TED talks and videos over the years, he wanted people to realize just how much progress we have made—and just how much progress we still have to make. With his collection of visually appealing bubble charts and his IKEA storage boxes and other props, he shows that we know longer live in a world split between the “west and the rest.” Instead, most people enjoy a standard of living somewhere in the middle. Only a billion of us live in abject poverty or less than $2 a day. About three billion people make between $2 and $8 a day which means that you can buy some food, have access to electricity some of the time, send your kids to school. It’s not much of a life, but it’s better than what people at the bottom have to deal with. Another two billion make between $8 and $32 a day. Still not luxury, but kids can go to high school, routine illnesses don’t bankrupt your family, you have a stove, and more. You may even have a motorcycle. Between one and two billion people are in what we would recognize as the middle class and have cars, extra clothing, cars, and electricity (almost) all the time. More surprisingly yet, something approaching a billion of those people don’t live in the West. They live in the rest.
- Second and more importantly for the teachers among us, Rosling points to ten gaps in our thinking that keep us wedded to this west and the rest mentality. Four of them are particularly important for the work I do, so I’ll just focus on them here.
Gap mentality. Given the way we evolved as a species, we tend to think in binary terms. Ingroups and outgroups and so on. That made sense in the distant past. It doesn’t today. It’s not just the west and the rest but lots of groups in between. Not seeing that keeps us from seeing that we in the west are about to be joined by a lot of people in the rest in our own lifetimes.
Negativity. My colleague George Lopez used to refer to peace studies courses as exercises in Gloom and Doom 101. Thinking in terms of gaps also leads us to be pessimistic and focus on the problems. Rosling would never have had us ignore the world’s problems which, in his latter years, focused on climate change. However, thinking negatively first makes it hard to see—let alone take into account—the progress that we have made.
- Blame. Take those two together and you end up with another common human mental failing—blaming our problems on somebody else. Rosling comes close to falling into this trap when he criticizes the media for perpetuating gap thinking. However, he realized he was doing this and made a broader case to avoid thinking in terms of what my colleagues call the image of the enemy in which we both demonize the people we disagree with and assume that they have to take the first step, of course, because they are responsible for creating the problem in the first place.
Linear Thinking. We tend to assume that things will involve in a linear way, whether we are predicting how fast our children will grow or do our graduate statistical training almost solely using linear regression and other models. Rather, Rosling notes how many areas of our live are characterized by exponential change in which change tomorrow builds on the changes that have already occurred. Like compound interest in a bank account, change accelerates, often at mind-boggling speed. That can be a good thing as when your bank account or IRA keeps getting bigger. It can be a bad thing when the problems we face also grow exponentially. Put simply, Rosling is among the people who urge us to think in terms of non-linear change. And, because he is Rosling and has those cute graphs and IKEA boxes, he makes it easy for us to see how exponential rates of change works.
If I were reviewing this book on Amazon, six stars. If I were still teaching either comparative politics or peacebuilding courses, I’d include Factualness in all of them somehow. It’s that good. And eye opening and mind numbing.