Factfulness review: On the importance of truth

Dr Hans Rosling's final book reminds us of the enduring importance of truth, says Harry Lloyd

Dr Hans Rosling at the World Bank Source: Neil Fantom via Flickr

Many readers will already be familiar with the late Dr Hans Rosling’s infectious presenting style. In a wealth of TED talks, BBC documentaries and news appearances, Rosling has sought to persuade us that when it comes to global health and international development, our worldview is 50 years out of date.

80% of the world’s population have access to electricity. The proportion of people living in extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years. Average life expectancy at birth has risen to 70 years of age. Yet when asked whether or not this is the case in surveys, the vast majority of people in most countries will report the opposite of what is really happening. They make more mistakes than they would have done had they answered randomly. In Rosling-speak, “they are worse than chimpanzees”.

Factfulness, written by Rosling in the run-up to his death, covers all this familiar material. It’s delivered with Rosling’s trademark concision, and peppered with anecdotes from the two years he worked in Mozambique. But in many ways Factfulness represents a profound shift in Rosling’s thinking. After finding that even audiences at Davos were deluded about global health and population growth, Rosling has come to the conclusion that “our overdramatic worldview is not caused simply by out of date knowledge.” After all, “even people with access to the latest information got it wrong.” Rosling’s explanation for this is that evolution has saddled us with a trait for overdramatization. Even if you’re right only one in ten times, jumping to the worst conclusion will be evolutionarily advantageous if it helps to protect you from danger.

This paradigm shift has led Rosling to update his pedagogical style. Each chapter is focused on correcting one of the ways in which we systematically misinterpret information. We assume that trends will be linear. We fail to notice slow processes of change. We focus on extreme outcomes without considering how likely they are. Each of these tendencies is addressed by one of Rosling’s ten “Rules of Thumb”: “lines might bend”, “slow change is still change”, and “look for the majority”.

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The lessons may seem simple, but Rosling delivers them with such informative flair that the book is a delight to read. The world has gained a brilliant primer on world health, but lost one of its greatest and wisest educators.