Hans Rosling was a Swedish medical doctor who worked all over the world and in many places throughout Africa. During a long and varied career he realised that experts in many fields were routinely operating on assumptions that were completely at odds with the data.
By the end of his life he had lectured at the United Nations, the Davos World Economic Forum, multibillion-dollar corporations, the leading financial and education institutions around the globe and had changed the way the United Nations assessed the financial status of individuals and countries.
Everywhere he lectured he would also test the audience about the facts (data) which would affect the decisions in their fields of speciality. The results were gobsmacking – women’s activism groups, finance ministers, documentary filmmakers, statisticians got the answers wrong by massive margins – between 52% and 94% of their answers were wrong, across a whole range of topics. These were highly educated, intelligent and informed experts, and they were scoring worse than chimpanzees on multiple choice questions.
The two major questions he faced were – Why? And how do we change that? In an easy-to-read and well-thought-out way he presents his conclusions. It is a detailed and comprehensive book, which I cannot attempt to summarise, but I have four main takeaways from this book.
The first is that the “negativity bias” which we read and swallow daily is an evolutionary redundancy which has not yet been able to adapt to the massive developments of the last two centuries. In our very recent past, all humans had to be wary, fearful and sceptical, otherwise you were far more likely to be killed, attacked, and robbed of both your food and your family. And so the extraordinary assessing ability of the Amygdala gland was developed as the primary flight or fight decision maker. And it still is – even though we are now using it assess media articles and online and television stories which have no possible chance of affecting us immediately. So for example the swine flu epidemic of 2009 killed 31 people in two weeks, and generated roughly 8,000 articles per death. In the same period 63,000 people died of TB, and those deaths passed by without comment. Because those TB stats did not trigger our Amygdala Cave Man reaction.
My second takeaway is our inability to grasp this central and confusing fact – “things are bad but they have never been better”. The clearest example he gives is that in 2016, 4,2-million babies died globally. In isolation that is an horrendous figure. But as he puts it , it also a beautifully small number, because in 1950, 14.4million babies died and the number has continuously dropped every year (most data is from United Nations and GapMinder and can be independently verified in the bibliography of the book).
He supplies an endless stream of global data about health, democracy, income, population, nutrition, disease – which prove that a bigger percentage of people live better lives every day than the day before. It does not mean we need to stop fighting to improve the world, but it does mean that we need to know that we are succeeding – everywhere.
My third take-away, is that we still use the terms first world and third world as valid definitions although they have been outdated since 1963. Every country in the world has people who live in four income groups – group one live on less than $2 a day, group two live on less than $8 a day, group three live on less then $32 a day, and group four live on more than $32 a day. Of the seven billion on the planet today, one-billion are in group one, 0ne-billion are in group four, but five billion live in the middle. And every year that group gets wealthier, healthier and live better lives by every measurable definition. Which means that tomorrow’s markets are not in the West, it is those huge hordes of individuals who have more to spend today than they did yesterday.
And my fourth and most important take-away is this, that as we swallow the news, we need to actively “not believe” the quickest simplest explanation which affects us viscerally and emotionally. We need to make sure that we are seeking two measurements at least that will mean that we can begin to see a bigger picture. For instance this country is still the murder capital of the world, is still the most unequal society in the world, and our education system has been assessed to be as bad as it was before 1994 which fills me with despair and rage against our government.
But recently the 50-year-old black old man who works for us one day a week had a psychotic episode (the first of his life). His friends among the shacks where he lived have cellphones and so were able to phone for an ambulance, which took him to a hospital where he was treated for three weeks, before being assessed and transferred to a state psychiatric facility. (When I visited him there it was clean and efficiently run by helpful staff.) He was treated and he is given monthly medication – all of this for free; which means that he has been able to get back to work and start reclaiming his life. I shudder to think what would have happened to him had he had that breakdown in 1990.
The statistics alone did not tell the picture of how the life of that poor community has improved. I needed both the local and personal and national perspective to get to the more accurate picture. Things are bad – but they have never been better.
Rosling became internationally famous with a series of arresting visual displays on YouTube that went viral proving that we were ALL hopelessly out of touch with the facts. View those visuals here, here and here.
They are easy to watch and give an easy kick start into the actual realities.
But his book intrigues, engages and stimulates on every re-reading. I am on my fourth perusal and I am repeatedly amazed, encouraged and inspired.
Buy it and try it – if for no other reasons than that you will feel more in control, more hopeful and better able to inform yourself. DM