Book review: Factfulness – Rosling argues we should clean up our distorted worldview

 

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Hans Rosling.

Book review by Anders Lorenzen

The world is going to shit. Climate change, environmental degradation, the reliance on fossil fuels, the rise of health epidemics, terrorism, wars, fights over resources, inequality, poverty. Is there anything to be positive about in 2018? Surely the world is going backwards, right?

Not so if you had asked Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician and medical doctor, who died tragically in early 2017 of incurable cancer. Up until his final days, he was putting the finishing touches to his book, Factfulness, written together with his son and daughter in law, Ola and Anna. When Rosling senior died, they completed the book and early this year it was released, instantly receiving praise and rave reviews, most notably even from Bill and Melinda Gates.

Busting the myth

With the book, Rosling set out to bust the myth that the world is going backwards, and he highlights a series of examples of progress from around the world in areas such as health, development, overpopulation, climate change and environmental problems. The examples are many. However, the world is at the same time living through a period of overdramatising events, which leads to misinformation and to a distorted worldview.

We continue to view the world and the environment in the way we did in the 1960s, he explains. We still see problems as Us vs Them, in other words, the Developing and the Developed world, or the West vs Rest. He explains why you can no longer use that terminology, as the true picture is broader and more complex. Rosling blames activists, NGO’s and journalists for the spread of this worldview.

In order to sell newspapers, journalists expose the facts and the campaigners exaggerate. Sometimes it is not their fault, because they don’t know better. Rosling ran a few polls on what he considered basic questions across all sections of society; ranging from students to the general public, journalists, scientists, CEO’s, doctors and so on. And he was astonished how little the people knew about basic facts.

Climate change one of the top five global risks

Rosling earmarked climate change as one of the five top risks the world faces but says we are tackling the problem in completely the wrong way. He claims it is absurd to measure CO2 emissions per country and not per person. By doing so, smaller countries like Denmark and Sweden will always come out on top while large populous countries like India and China will forever be the villains. He points out that while the CO2 footprint of the average European is much larger than that of a Chinese or Indian person, it is those countries which are blamed. And we never look back and talk about historical emissions.

Or we blame people in African countries for ecological footprints based on the number of children they have, but compared to us they use very few resources, so their contribution is more or less negligible. On top of that, the fertility rates in such countries are rapidly declining, but very few actually know that. These assumptions, Rosling says, contribute to our distorted worldview.

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The cover of Factfulness.

Even climate activists can get it wrong

In 2009 Rosling met Al Gore backstage at a Ted Conference in Los Angeles where they were both giving presentations. He explained how much he respected the former US Vice President turned filmmaker, climate educator and activist. However, he could not hide his disappointment when Gore requested his help in illustrating the future and present impacts of climate change using Rosling’s tool, Gapminder. This innovative tool developed by Rosling uses bubbles to pass on facts and stats. While Rosling agreed with Gore that swift action to tackle climate change was needed, Gore wanted him to help create fear and exaggerate the facts which he, under no circumstances, could agree to do. Of the different scenarios around future climate change impacts, Gore wanted to use the most pessimistic examples, thinking these would propel people into climate action. Rosling said that he would never show the worst-case scenarios alone, except only alongside the more probable and optimistic examples.

This goes alongside Rosling’s theme throughout the book, which advocates using data to tell the true facts. But you have to use data sets the right way, and compare the right data sets against each other, and not use them to manipulate and create fear, propaganda or misinformation. Rosling believed that if you did not communicate the robust climate science in such a way that gives credit to the actual science, you risk losing credibility in the climate change debate. This is far too serious a risk to take.

Progress in understanding the risk of climate change

Rosling also explained that while climate denial is still there it is in decline. And across the whole globe, there is more information and awareness now that the climate is changing due to human activity. He went even further and said that climate change is actually one of the few areas where the majority of people get the basic facts right.

He also made clear the positive signs that the world is taking action and that new technologies that reduce reliance on fossil fuels, such as solar panels, are getting cheaper each year. Back in 1976, the average price of solar panel modules cost $66. As of 2016, that price has fallen quite dramatically to only $0.6.

And while we are frequently invited to attack the science involved on climate change, the facts tell another story. Overall the attack on science, in general, has not materialised. In 1965 just 119 scholarly articles were published, while in 2016 the number was 2,550,000. This means that the right facts about climate change, amongst many other things, are now available.

While any oil spill is, of course, a bad thing, they have massively decreased. Due to the globalised news cycle, we hear about every single oil spill, which might make us believe such events are increasing. In 1979 a total of 636,000 tons of oil was spilled. Never since then has more oil been spilled in a single year, and since the 1990’s spillages have continued to decline to the all-time low of 6,000 tons in 2016. Of course, every ton spilled is still too much. But looking at the facts we can see progress across the board.

Conclusion

These days, with such pessimism about the state of the world, Factfulness is, without being complacent about what needs to be done, probably one of the most important books today. As Rosling says, bad things can become less bad without being good. Factfulness should be used as a bible to instruct us on how to handle information in our globalised world, where we often don’t give ourselves time to check sources before making important decisions.

Rosling says always look at the facts. Look at both sides of a story, and then compare before making irrational statements and decisions. This is, of course, easier said than done, in a world where the majority of news organisations are distorting news, and I know that I myself am also guilty of acting too quickly and making irrational and generalised statements.

Across the board, if we want to inform ourselves and make progress in these important areas, we should educate ourselves about what really is happening. That cannot be done by just reading opinion articles or one news source, nor can it be done by reading social media or listening to podcasts. But it can be done by looking at the actual facts available to all and accessible from the World Bank, the UN, the IMF and all the scientific journals being published on a daily basis. Check the facts for yourself from reputable sources. Do not just base your opinions and actions on your daily source of news.

Disclaimer

This review mainly focuses on the environment and climate change issues talked about in Factfulness and do not adequately represent the other issues discussed in the book.

Factfulness available on Amazon.      

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