"Factfullness" and Understanding Population Impacts

Written by Hannah Evans, Population, Health, and Environment Specialist | Published: July 9, 2018

The news these days just objectively feels pretty depressing, doesn’t it? Political polarization, nuclear threats, misguided trade deals, destructive natural disasters, and a rapidly increasing global population might even induce panic or paranoia for those paying close attention.

And, let’s face it. Some of this is for good reason! While we are bombarded with the newest and most polarized portrayals of current events, we seem to be simultaneously driving the earth into the ground. Things are so consistently chaotic, so predictably unpredictable, that with each new tweet, and with each new disconcerting headline, my standards for normalcy seem inadvertently to spiral downward. Things must be as bad as they’ve ever been, right?

Well, as it turns out, it all depends on how you look at it! While things might currently seem to be devolving, growth and progress are actually best understood within a broader historical context. Hans Rosling’s new book “Factfulness” explores this concept and uses comparative data to argue that things are, in fact, much better off than they were before.

Ever heard or read something similar to this: “The state of the world is dire! The rich keep getting richer and the poor continue to become poorer. If we don’t do something soon, we will run out of resources and the world will become uninhabitable!!”

Perhaps even more terrifying than that paragraph is how commonly it’s publicized. But, how accurate are those determinations? Take a look at the questions below, which are presented at the beginning of Rosling’s book. I encourage you to answer honestly.

1)      In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has…

  1.       Almost doubled
  2.       Remained more or less the same
  3.       Almost halved

2)      In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?

  1.       20 percent
  2.       40 percent
  3.       60 percent

3)      How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?

  1.       More than doubled
  2.       Remained about the same
  3.       Decreased to less than half

4)      In 1996, tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today?

  1.       Two of them
  2.       One of them
  3.       None of them

5)      How many people in the world have some access to electricity?

  1.       20 percent
  2.       50 percent
  3.       80 percent

Rosling administered this quiz to a sample audience of 12,000 people in 14 countries. The quiz was given to people from a variety of backgrounds: medical students, teachers, university professors, eminent scientists, investment bankers, executives in multi-national companies, journalists, activists, and even senior political decision makers (Rosling, 2018). And, surprisingly, the results were astonishingly poor.

In fact, the outcomes were so ‘systematically’ incorrect that they were actually worse than random. Rosling makes the concerning point that chimpanzees would fare better than the majority of the population who took this quiz, as they would at least generally get 33% of the questions right by guessing randomly. Crazy, right?!

In general, the answers to most questions on the quiz are the best case scenarios. The means that, in the last 20 years, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has almost halved, and that the number of deaths per year from natural disasters has halved over the last one hundred. Is that what you guessed? I’ll be honest and tell you that my predictions were not exactly optimistic.

So, what’s with this “overdramatic worldview”? Is it the Western media? That’s part of it. But it’s also fundamental misconceptions about the world and the way we interpret data. For one, the assertion that there is a ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world is entirely obsolete, and yet the foundation for many incorrect assumptions about humanity’s present and future status. Instead, Rosling suggests that we look at the world in terms of ‘levels’ – each depicting a certain standard of living. He proposes four different levels, notes that the majority of the world lives on levels two and three.

Source: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/Factfulness

Interesting, right? As you can see, most of the world lives on levels two and three. However, our general perception of the world is slightly more polarized (think: North and South; Rich and Poor; Advanced and Primitive; West and.. Not West). The propensity to view the world in terms of binaries, or the “gap instinct” as Rosling calls it, is both easy and instinctual: for example, it’s either one or the other; if it’s not this, then it must be that. However, as social scientists have been pointing out for years, the reality is often much more complicated.

As a way of controlling this tendency, Rosling encourages us to pay close attention to the way that data is portrayed and interpreted, making note of how misleading the comparison of two averages may be. Rosling calls on us to look critically at the way that data is portrayed, and to remember that, generally speaking, the majority of whatever is being tested will likely range right in the middle of the spread.

Additionally, Rosling identifies the tendency of our society to compare extremes. You know, like comparing your life to that of a starving child in South Sudan. It’s a surefire way to make a compelling argument, but it’s not exactly a practical explanation of the way things are for most people.

Finally, Rosling encourages the readers of this book (who he concludes are probably living on level four) to recognize their place in the world. That is, those of us living on this level must understand that any comparison of lifestyles might seem extreme despite the fact that, overall, they are probably quite “normal.” And, if you’re living on level four, chances are that much of your daily life and reality will be a reflection of that very status, including the media you use to learn about most everything.

This book is a fascinating explanation of global health and development, and offers an optimistic lens for understanding reality even amidst some of the most relentlessly depressing news stories and projections. Of course, this is not to argue that everything is copacetic – we all know that’s not the case (don’t get me started). Rather, the point is to highlight that we are succeeding in making the world a better place. Yes, that’s right: we are succeeding in making the world a better place. Sigh. Let that one soak in a bit!

If you haven’t already, I highly recommend this book. Its explanations are tangible and the arguments are directly related to issues surrounding population stabilization. And, after all, if we’re going to work to make the world a better place, understanding the facts might be a good place to start.


Answers: 1) C; 2) C; 3) C; 4) C; 5) C