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Friday, April 3, 2020

Factfulness by Hans Rosling: Maybe the world isn’t so bad after all

The bold cover of Factfulness draws readers in. // Photo by Mysti Willmon

By Mysti Willmon

The world is awful. Nothing is getting better. Nothing will ever change. Why even try to change the world if it is just going to fail anyway?

Author Hans Rosling spent his life fighting these misconceptions about our world.

His book, “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” is Rosling’s last effort to fight these misconceptions.

Rosling, along with his son, Ola Rosling, and his daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Ronnlund, worked side-by-side for years fighting the misconceptions of the world, one presentation or graph at a time. The three were angry about what they perceived as  ignorance about the world.

“Factfulness” is their way of trying to correct that ignorance. In it, Rosling points out there are many different ways people misconstrue what goes on in the world.

Rosling points out concepts like the “gap instinct,” a mindset where people group their peers into “us” and “them.” When, in fact, there is almost always overlap between the two groups. There is almost never as much separation as we believe.

For example, Rosling uses the example of developed versus developing countries. People believe there are inherent differences between these groups of people, but Rosling proves that wrong. Rosling explains how our evolutionary fears, such as being attentive to the negative or bad things happening around us, still affect our worldview and daily life today.

In “Factfulness,” Rosling said at every conference and talk he holds, he asks the audience a series of questions, ones he also published as a quiz in the book. He said he does this because despite many peoples’ bleak outlooks, the state of the world is not as bad as it could be.

These questions are things like, “In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?” followed by three answers: 20 percent, 40 percent and 60 percent. The answer is 60 percent.

Another question is, “How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?” The three choices are more than doubled, remained about the same and decreased to less than half. The answer being decreased to less than half.

According to Rosling, regardless of the education level of the audience, less than 30 percent of people get each question right. In fact, he said on average, people get two questions out of 12 correct.

In “Factfulness,” Rosling presents the world as how it actually is. Extreme poverty is at an all-time low. Life expectancy is at an all-time high. The world’s population is not going to keep growing at the speed it is right now.

When I started reading this book, I didn’t know that Hans Rosling had died in February 2017.

Like most readers, unless I’m reading a relatively old book, I assume the author is still alive. As I was reading, I imagined how amazing it would be to see Rosling talk in person. How great it would be to have a single conversation with him?

Even though the book is about the broad topic of fighting misconceptions people have about the world, I felt as though I was also getting to know Rosling personally. He uses examples from his life throughout the book in order to illustrate his points and does so in such a way that I felt connected to him.

Let me ask you a question.

Do you ever feel connected to someone in a TV show? Do you ever feel connected to an actor through the roles they have played? For books, it works much in the same way, even for non-fiction books.

To some readers this might seem odd. How do you connect to an author through a book, let alone an author of a non-fiction book?

Traditionally, non-fiction books are seen as non-emotional and purely factual. However, in “Factfulness,” I found I could connect with Rosling through his experiences and opinions. Reading it, I felt as if I wasn’t alone.

Rosling wasn’t creating a fictional world to survive in and get away from reality, he was wiping away the misconceptions of our own world. He was showing people that even when things seem bad, there is progress being made in the world.

He repeats throughout the book that he doesn’t see himself as an optimist. He sees himself as a “possibilist.”

On page 69 of “Factfulness,” Rosling writes:

“I’m a very serious ‘possibilist.’ That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.”

As I sat down to read this book, I cringed at the thought of reading what initially seemed to be a motivational book. But now that I’ve reached the end, my mind has been changed.

Rosling has found a new believer is his fact-based ideals. I now consider myself a “possibilist” too not because I found this book motivational, but because I now see the world in the way is actually is, which is improving.

I’m not telling you to read this book because it will change your life, I’m just saying it might help change your mind. Because, apparently, the world doesn’t completely suck.

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