13 April 2021

Book review -- it's not 1965 any more

Factfulness by Hans Rosling (2018)

This book (buy it here), by a Swedish doctor and medical researcher who has worked in some of the world's poorest countries, has points in common with Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature.  It's an evidence-based look at the real condition of our world and the way things are going, and at how most people's perception of those things is so badly mistaken.  Rosling's book, however, is shorter and more accessible than Pinker's, and focuses more specifically on health and economic development.

He starts off with a self-test -- a list of basic factual questions on global education levels, life expectancy, population growth, vaccination rates, etc, and invites you to check your own answers against the correct ones.  He then points out that when he's given this test, even most educated people get the answers not only wrong but drastically wrong.  Almost everyone believes that in all these areas, the global situation is not only worse but far, far worse than it actually is.

Part of the problem is that people's perception of the world is still stuck in a half-century-old framework which no longer describes reality.  In that framework, the world was divided into rich and poor countries, "developed" and "developing", with the latter category having the large majority of the world's population.  But this is no longer a realistic view of what the world is like.  As an example, he gives a chart plotting countries on a graph that shows number of children per family and the proportion of children that die before growing up.  It looks like what we expect -- a large number of countries clustered in the "large families, many deaths" category, a smaller number in the "small families, few deaths" category, and very few countries in between.  But this chart is from 1965.  A chart of today, using exactly the same criteria, shows most countries -- with 85% of the world's population -- now in the "small families, few deaths" group.  By this criterion, 85% of the world is now "developed" by 1965 standards.

He looks at per-capita income in the same way.  Half a century ago, the world was pretty clearly divided into rich countries and poor countries, and most people in the West think it still is that way.  In fact, most of the countries that were poor back then have moved into the middle-income category, with some encroaching on the lower reaches of the "rich" category.  The chart no longer looks like two separate clumps of countries, rich and poor -- it's more cigar-shaped, with most countries in the middle and relatively few at the poor extreme.  There's no sharp discontinuity between rich and middle-income, no obvious place to draw a dividing line between a favored minority of developed countries and the rest.

Measures of global health -- life expectancy, vaccinations, infant mortality, and so on -- show the same pattern.  Most of the former "Third World" is in the process of catching up with the developed world (there remains a "straggler" group of seriously poor countries, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, but even these are better off than they used to be).  We haven't yet reached the point where most of the Earth's population is as prosperous and healthy as the US, western Europe, and Japan, but things are clearly heading in that direction, and it will take just a few more decades -- certainly not a century -- to get there.

If you're my age, you can remember decades ago seeing appeals to donate to help victims of massive famines in places like Ethiopia and Bangladesh, complete with pictures of pitiful stick-limbed children with swollen bellies.  Notice you don't see those any more?  It's because those places aren't like that any more.  In Bangladesh, for example, in 1972 the average woman had seven children and the child survival rate was under 80%.  Today it's two children per woman and 97%.  Life expectancy there has gone from 52 to 73 years over the same period.  Still not as good as France or Japan, but the magnitude of the change is undeniable.

Pages 60-63 have a series of striking charts showing the global changes from a few decades ago to the present in dozens of factors like literacy, malnutrition, oil spills, female education, air pollution, clean water, laws protecting nature, the percentage of the world's population living under democratic governments, and so on.  In every single case there has been substantial improvement -- in some cases, so huge as to be revolutionary, in just a few decades.

So why does the perception persist that everything is terrible and getting worse?  Rosling discusses ten "instincts", as he calls them, that lead people to misperceive and misinterpret reality (useful information in a broad range of situations), and offers suggestions for how to correct for them.  The media tend to over-dramatize and over-simplify how they report things and to treat exceptional cases -- deep poverty or large families in poor countries, for example -- as if they were still typical.  There's also the fact that people who are now in the age ranges that are socially dominant (40 to 70, say) got their education decades ago when the world was very different, and their picture of reality has not evolved to keep up with how things have changed.

Like Pinker, Rosling knows that many readers will be viscerally resistant to believing much of this, so he provides a great deal of supporting data, though it's not as overwhelming as the mountains of evidence that make Pinker's tomes so massive.

The fact that so many people, even those in positions of power, have such a drastically-mistaken view of the world can all too easily lead to despair, paralysis, and bad decision-making.  We need to understand reality, and the future we're heading for, the way it actually is.


Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...


13 April, 2021 05:44  
Anonymous HarveyB said...

Hans. rosling died in 2017

13 April, 2021 07:52  
Blogger Mike said...

When the ice shelf in Antarctica breaks off, the people in Bangladesh are going to have to be tall, very tall.

13 April, 2021 08:46  
Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Especially the idea that there's not 'first/second world countries' anymore. The idea people had of the world in the sixties has changed radically. Now overpopulation, dependency on fossil fuels, global warming and right-wing extremism are the real dangers.

Sounds like a great book. It's always good to read fact-based but easily digestible books like this.


13 April, 2021 12:23  
Blogger CAS said...

Thanks for your summary of what sounds like an interesting book. I totally agree with your concluding sentence. I feel like many people have become extremely lazy about informing themselves. I bristle when I hear people make broad generalizations that appear to be based on nothing other than what they'd like to believe. There is too much us-vs-them mentality and it's not limited to the U.S. vs. another country.

A couple of days ago I heard someone characterizing all New Englanders as irresponsible and crazy based on the way they were responding to the COVID crisis. Yet, I live in Michigan where our surging case rate was the lead story of every national news program at the time. Why were they dissing New Englanders? Probably because those states are blue and blue means crazy people live there. It's as simple as that.

I'm truly glad life has improved in so many countries of the world. Sometimes, I worry, however, that our country is stagnating. A growing number of uninformed blowhards along with social media platforms that boil most subjects down to a few lines or soundbytes seem to be empowering individuals to make authoritative statements when they know next to nothing about the matter. As you point out, we need to do better.

13 April, 2021 15:07  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

Sounds like an interesting book.

14 April, 2021 14:34  
Anonymous Annie said...

Most interesting—and definitely worth reading. But does he talk about the impact of climate change on migrations caused by food shortages? That has been one factor driving increased immigration efforts to the US and other areas.

15 April, 2021 09:21  
Blogger Lady M said...

Does he say anything about the state of the climate or the environment? How about tanking wildlife? The polluted oceans?

15 April, 2021 17:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Debra: And important.

HarveyB: Yes, the book was published after his death.

Sixpence: When we just look at the data, it often turns out that reality is very different from the picture people have of it. Speaking of which, there's no such thing as "overpopulation". That's a matter for another post, though.

Carol: It's a problem when people accept or reject facts based on whether or not they fit their preferred narrative or view of the world. Reality rarely does that. There are certainly some discouraging trends within the US. I'm actually more optimistic about the world in general than about this country specifically -- but one can't expect any country to remain the world leader forever.

Mary: It certainly is.

16 April, 2021 05:25  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

One wouldn't expect a book which is mostly about economics and health to discuss the environment much -- it is, after all, a different topic. But he does spend a few pages on it here and there. In most ways, the environment is also in better condition than it was a few decades ago, at least in the countries that have been rich the longest -- compare smog levels in any US city in the 1970s with today, for example. As other countries get richer, the same is happening. Basically, things like curbing pollution and taking care of the environment cost money, and the richer a country is, the more resources are available to devote to that purpose and the less environmental concerns are eclipsed by other priorities (when people have enough to eat, they're more likely to start being concerned about things like pollution of the oceans).

Climate change is a serious problem, but we know what to do about it. Again, it's a matter of having the necessary resources to invest in the transition to non-fossil-fuel energy. There's already very extensive development of solar power going on in places like Europe, India, and the Arab world. I feel a lot more confident that we'll beat climate change than I did a few years ago.

16 April, 2021 05:32  

Post a Comment

<< Home