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BOOK REVIEW: Why the world is a better place than you think

May 10 2018 06:00
Ian Mann

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. By Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund 

“STEP-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”

So says Professor Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician, academic and statistician and the author of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

Ask anyone - and l mean that literally - whether the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless than it has been, and most people will answer in the affirmative.

Rosling formulated 12 questions with 3 multiple choice answers covering the world’s growing poverty, lack of education, preventive health, lack of freedom, violence and more, and confirmed that most people are convinced that “things are getting worse.”

He asked these questions of teachers, medical students, the general public and delegates at the World Economic Conference in Davos.

Through pure luck, a monkey would score 33% on the three-answer questions correctly. The humans answering the test scored 17% correctly. The facts are that, yes, the world is making progress on every measure.

This is not an impression of the starry-eyed: it is based on solid evidence. (See the book ‘Progress’ by Johan Norberg reviewed in this column, or watch the Ted Talk by Steven Pinker: Is the world getting better or worse?)

“Only actively wrong “knowledge” can make us score so badly,” Rosling wrote. The problem is that policy makers and politicians cannot solve global problems if they are operating on the wrong facts; neither can business people run effective businesses.

The question Hosling answers in the book is not whether the world is getting better - that is an established fact - but rather why the pessimistic worldview is so persistent. He identifies 10 psychological and social instincts that cause this misperception.

Our brains are the product of millions of years of evolution, and have been hard-wired with instincts that helped our ancestors to survive in small groups of hunters and gatherers.

We often jump to conclusions without much thinking. Our quick-thinking brains and cravings for drama cause misconceptions and an overdramatic worldview.

The first of our ten instincts is to dichotomise - good versus bad; heroes versus villains. The poor and the rich, the developed and undeveloped countries. Dividing things into two boxes is misleading and presumes there is a gap between countries.

Consider how you like your bath water - ice cold or steaming hot? There are many options in between.

This instinct completely distorts all the global proportions in people’s minds.

Facts show levels of income, tourism, democracy, access to education, health care, or electricity - all tell the same story: the world used to be divided into two but is not any longer.

Today most people, 75%, live in middle-income countries. Only 9% of the world lives in low-income countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, or the Central African Republic, which are the worst places on earth to live.

Most people have enough to eat, most people have access to improved water, most children are vaccinated, and most girls finish primary school. When you combine middle- and high-income countries, they constitute 91% of humanity.

Instinct towards extremes

The instinct towards extremes can easily have us forget that there are 5 billion potential consumers out there who want to consume shampoo, motorcycles, menstrual pads, and smartphones.

Another instinct is that of negativity. “Things are getting worse. It is easy to be aware of all the bad things happening in the world. It’s harder to know about the good things: billions of improvements that are never reported."

In 1800, roughly 85% of humanity lived in extreme poverty. All over the world, people simply did not have enough food. When the harvest failed you, your relatives, friends, and neighbours starved to death.

In 1997, 42% of the population of both India and China were living in extreme poverty. By 2017, that had dropped to 12% in India and a stunning 0.7% in China.

Our negativity instinct is to notice the bad more than the good. So how does one control this?

The answer is not to balance out all the negative news with more positive news. That is as helpful as balancing too much sugar with too much salt. Rather, it is to recognise that things can be bad and better at the same time.

The reporting on family violence on TV is bad, but that this crime gets national airtime means thing are improving. Improvement does not mean we should relax and not worry.

A third instinct is to think in terms of the “straight line” graph. A mega-misconception that is fuelled by this instinct is the false idea that the world population is just increasing.

The straight-line intuition is not always a reliable guide in modern life. A baby grows to 67cm in the first 6 months. At this rate the child will be over 6 metres by her tenth birthday.

Assuming the population trend will continue along a straight line is wrong. The number of children will stop increasing as women rise out of extreme poverty and children are no longer needed on the small family farm.

This is a book about the world and how it really is. Our natural instincts mislead us. Only data can correct that. “Factfulness, can and should become part of your daily life.” `

Readability:        Light --+-- Serious

Insights:             High +---- Low

Practical:             High ---+- Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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ian mann  |  opinion  |  book reviews
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