Factfulness … Hans Rosling’s final message, that life on Earth isn’t as bad as it might seem

April 30, 2018

Bill Gates’ favorite Swedish doctor and statistician, Hans Rosling, died of pancreatic cancer last year at the age of 68. Rosling’s new book, published posthumously, is now here to tell you life on Earth isn’t as bad as it might seem.

“Factfulness” was published with the help of his son and daughter-in-law, who finished up the final chapters of the book. Bill Gates called it “one of the most important books I’ve ever read ― an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.”

Like any good statistician, Rosling uses the tools of his trade (namely, graphs, charts and lots of questionnaires) to argue we’re doing too much feeling and not enough thinking when it comes to assessing the world.

He says our highly-emotional take is making us see the world in inaccurate and dire ways that don’t reflect all the progress that’s been made by modern improvements like vaccines, family planning, and widespread income and education gains for some of the world’s poorest people. His global surveys show that we tend to see the world in fatalistic ways, overestimating how many people are in poverty, assuming violent crime rates are skyrocketing, and thinking that many more people are dying in natural disasters than is actually the case.

Rosling thinks there’s one simple reason this is true: we’re operating under perspective-distorting, emotion-fueled “instincts” about how the world works, causing us to pretty much always assume the worst.

His goal is to change the way we see the world, by arming us with what he calls a “set of simple thinking tools.”

Here are a few of the reasons that the Roslings say we’re not actually barreling towards a terrible, horrible, apocalyptic future:

We’ve already reached peak baby-making levels, and the health of the world is on the up-and-up.

Rosling says what he calls our “negativity instinct” often makes us notice more of the bad than the good in the world.

But when it comes to procreating, he says we’re doing OK. The United Nations estimates that the number of children in the world between the ages of zero and 15 will be exactly the same in 2100 as it is today: two billion. It’s a promising sign that birth rates around the world are stabilizing, after centuries of exponential growth.

But just because we’ll be popping out fewer (and likely also healthier) kids in the future doesn’t mean there will be fewer mouths to feed.

There will be billions more adults in the world between the ages of 16 and 74 by 2100, and feeding them all could still be a challenge. Even though we technically have enough food to feed the world, more than 815 million go to bed hungry and under-nourished every night, according to the UN.

Globally, we’re living a lot longer than most people assume.

Average global life expectancy is around 70 years (though it’s a bit higher for women and a bit lower for men).

That number is a lot better than what most people think, but it’s important to remember the longevity numbers aren’t universal.

Here in the US, where we spend more that double on health care than any other rich country per capita, we don’t do nearly as well as most of them. At least 30 other countries around the world outlive Americans, and life expectancy in the US for both men and women is just shy of 80 years.

And there are new signs that US life expectancy is getting worse. Death rates for white working-class men between the ages of 25 and 64 are on the rise in the US, even as more life-saving treatments become available. Scientists think the big killers here could be more deadly overdoses, suicides and liver problems from drinking alcohol.

Rosling says there’s another critically flawed fallacy at work here in the US health care system: the “single perspective instinct,” or the idea that problems tend to stem from one single root cause and can likewise be solved with a single solution. He argues that Americans are ignoring key preventative measures while running up expensive and unnecessary hospital bills.

Over the past hundred years, deaths per year from natural disasters have plummeted to less than half of what they were.

Rosling says even though we’re more protected than ever before, we still tend to rely on our primal “fear instinct” more than we need to.

The gender gap in education has been virtually erased around the globe.

Worldwide, by the time people turn 30, men have on average 10 years of education while women have nine, Rosling says. That’s just a one year gap.

While it’s true that the developing world as a whole has essentially erased the schooling gap between boys and girls in primary, secondary and tertiary schooling, the UN still points out that women generally have a tougher time finding paid work than men.

Women with advanced degrees have higher rates of unemployment than their male counterparts, even as girls outperform boys around the world at school.

Everyone is better off than they were 20 years ago. Again, that’s true, but it misses one critical wrinkle in the data.

In Factfulness, Rosling says that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty is nearly half of what it was two decades ago.

Of course, that’s not mentioning the fact that while extreme poverty may be taking a dive, extreme wealth among an elite corps of top global earners is racing even higher, with the richest 10% of the world’s households now owning 88% of its wealth.

Rosling said the data presented in “Factfulness” shows that on the whole, we’re all much better off than we once were. But that doesn’t mean everyone is doing OK. Of course, Rosling might argue that’s just a “negativity instinct” at work.

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