Save the Doom and Gloom; Embrace the Facts
By Gary Howe | Aug. 11, 2018
Quite possibly, the world is getting better.
Unfortunately, we aren’t that inclined to accept the promising results. This is because our views are muddled by instincts that distort how we see the world. And it is this distorted understanding that stifles progress and leads to poor decisions of great consequence — or so argues the authors of “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.”
Before you read further, please take this mini-quiz about the state of the world:
1. Where does the majority of the world population live?
(a) Low-income countries
(b) Middle-income countries
(c) High-income countries
2. There are 2 billion children in the world today aged 0-15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100?
(a) 4 billion
(b) 3 billion
(c) 2 billion
3. The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason?
(a) There will be more children aged below 15
(b) There will be more adults aged 15–74
(c) There will be more very old people aged 75 and older
After you review the answers (below), the chances are that you will find yourself in an elite majority. The lead author of “Factfulness,” the late physician, academic, and statistician Hans Rosling, asked the same 13 questions, including the three above, for over a decade across the globe. He asked teachers, journalists, economic, and political leaders. He asked Nobel laureates. Everyone consistently scored less than 33 percent correct. Or, as he playfully liked to say, people who have taken this test seem to statistically know less about the world than chimpanzees.
Personally, the first time I took the quiz I was surprised that I scored 6 out of 13. I thought for certain that a geography teacher who had actually spent 10 years using Rosling’s data-rich Gapminder World tool in the classroom would fare better. Instead, my brain led me astray, even if I scored slightly higher than the average chimp choosing bananas.
"There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.”
In “Factfulness,” Rosling and his co-writers — his son, Ola, and daughter in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund — organize the book of world development and health data into chapters that are focused on 10 instincts they believe hinder our ability to see the world clearly. For example, we tend to focus on extremes instead of more truthful middles (Gap Instinct). We are also prone to negativity, which explains why quiz takers tend to grossly underestimate the progress we have made in lifting people out of poverty (Negativity Instinct). Further, we are fearful beings and tend to overestimate risks from all the negative news surrounding us (Fear Instinct). Interestingly, the higher the test-taker’s education accomplishments, the more frequently the wrong answers tend towards the negative. As Rosling writes, “Almost everyone thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless than it really is.”
I understand a book about global health and development facts isn’t everyone’s idea of a relaxing summer read. However, swaying in my hammock and escaping into a world of indisputable facts offered me a well-needed balance and perspective counter to the hyperactivity of news and blather of current affairs. It was refreshing to be guided through factual data with compelling anecdotes and insightful contexts.
The story of the world over the last 200 years is one of undeniable improvement. We are living in a time when a higher percentage of the world than ever is living wealthier, healthier, and with more opportunities. In fact, in the last 20 years alone, extreme poverty has been cut in half.
The world’s development is unbalanced and the wide gaps between the world’s 1 billion people living in extreme poverty — those earning less than $2 a day, cooking over an open fire, sleeping on a dirt floor — and the 1 billion who are wealthy enough to own cars and spend over $32 a day is a source of much strife. In between, however, there are 5 billion of us struggling and living middle-income lives that are at a similar level as most of the world’s richest countries were in the 1950s: There is running water, a refrigerator, a washing machine, and a stove in the home.
We are certainly in an era of truthiness. It is a time when what we know as facts are routinely challenged by those in positions of power, if not prestige. It can be downright depressing. However, when we take a breath, slow down, and sit with the facts, we will see a world of possibilities and uplift. That’s some welcome, good news for a change. We’d be wise to remind ourselves of it from time to time.
Answers: 1) b. Middle-income countries; 2) c. 2 billion; 3) b. There will be more adults ages 15–74. You can take the full 13 question quiz at gapminder.com.
Gary L. Howe taught in the social science department at NMC for 13 years. He encourages readers to visit the websites Gapminder and Gapminder World, the latter a bubble-graph tool that compares countries’ development since 1800. Begin by watching life expectancy against income per person, then move on to other data comparisons.