Thoughts on Factfulness by Hans Rosling

on November 8, 2018

It’s been years since I’ve written a book report, maybe decades, but I’ve just completed a book that I want to tell you about. The book, “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling, is one of the most inciteful, irreverent, and fascinating books I’ve read in years. I discovered it by way of a post from Bill Gates, saying it was one of the most important books he ever read.

What initially appealed to me was its premise that things are really much better in the world today than we think. That’s something many of us would like to believe, especially during these turbulent political times, but probably are skeptical, as I was.

The book explains that we get things wrong for many reasons, including what makes the news, how we react to it, as well as relying on old beliefs. We learn pretty quickly how different the world really is.

It shows how we’ve rarely questioned or revisited our beliefs, even though much of the world has been transformed in recent decades. The book opens our eyes and provides reasons why we need to think in different ways.

It provides us example after example of how we are misled and confused about the state of the world and presents factual data that corrects our errors. The book is filled with graphs, charts and tables that add much to the author’s assertions and are often eye-openers.

What was most enjoyable was Rosling’s self-deprecating humor and unusual insights into how we come to our beliefs, why we think that way, and how we can be more objective. He uses numerous examples and stories gleaned from his travels fighting epidemics and conducting research around the world, meeting with numerous leaders.

Throughout the book Rosling reports the results of surveys he took among his thousands of audiences, asking simple multiple-choice questions about life in different countries. Time after time he points out how a chimpanzee making a random guess do a lot better.

One comes away with new revelations about the world and how much it’s actually improved in the past few decades.

While the book is focused on the state of the world’s condition, such things as income, living and medical conditions, lifespan, and education, it’s much more. It’s a handbook for improving how we think.

Hans Rosling, who passed away last year, was an Egyptian-born Swedish medical doctor, a professor of international health, and an adviser to the World Health Organization and UNICEF. His TED talks have been viewed more than 35 million times.

He wrote the book in the last years of his life along with help from his son and daughter-in-law, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, who invented a bubble-chart tool for displaying information in a very unique and highly visual way; that tool was eventually acquired by Google. They make heavy use of these charts throughout the book, including on the inside covers.

Nearly every page is filled with fascinating information that most of us are unaware of and is even counterintuitive. Rosling goes into detail as to why that’s the case, from explaining the motivations behind journalists, doctors and experts, to explaining the biases we each hold. He does it in logical and non-blaming ways. In fact, when it comes to blame, he has a fascinating section on it.

“The blame instinct is the instinct to find a clear, simple reason for why something bad has happened… It seems that it comes very naturally for us to decide that when things go wrong, it must be because of some bad individual with bad intentions. We like to believe that things happen because someone wanted them to, that individuals have power and agency; otherwise the world feels unpredictable, confusing and frightening.”

This is one of those books that you savor and don’t want to see end. You’ll think about things very differently after reading this remarkable book and might even believe that conditions in the world have never been better than they are today.