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September 10, 2019

Facts are Stranger than Fiction

Two surprises:

  1. The world is getting better rapidly in almost every way
  2. A stubborn old man’s preconceptions can be blown away repeatedly

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling has glowing cover blurbs from both Bill and Melinda Gates. Bill says it is “one of the most important books I’ve ever read. Clearly it influences the good work of their foundation.

I’m the stubborn old man whose preconceptions the book blew away; sometimes could only read a few pages at a time and then had to pause to reconstruct my worldview.

Please take the whole quiz (copied from the book) below without reading beyond for the answers:

  1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
    1. Almost doubled
    2. Remained more or less the same
    3. Almost halved
  2. 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
  3. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?
    1. 20 percent
    2. 50 percent
    3. 80 percent
  4. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent ten years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?
    1. 9 years
    2. 6 years
    3. 3 years
  5. There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in 2100, according to the United Nations?
    1. 4 billion
    2. 3 billion
    3. 2 billion



  1. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has almost halved.
  2. The absolute number of deaths from natural disasters has almost halved in the last hundred years despite the fact that population including population in vulnerable areas has vastly increased. Modern communication, transport, and other technology has made a huge difference in disaster survival.
  3. 80 percent of the 1-year-olds in the world have been vaccinated against some disease. Public health matters.
  4. Worldwide women average 9 years of school, only one less than men. Afghanistan is an outlier.
  5. There will be the same number of children in 2100 as there are today according to UN demographic studies and projections. The implication is that the world’s population will have stabilized by then at about 11 billion people; there are 7 billion now. Why? Educated women not living in extreme poverty whose children have a high survival rate have many less children than uneducated women in extreme poverty whose children mostly die. See the answers to questions 2, 3, and 4. The poorest 10% of families in the world average five children per woman; the remaining 90% average just two children.

In each case, as you’ve seen, the answer was the most optimistic. I got them all wrong. If you got any right, you did very well. In almost every group of test-takers, people get the answers wrong more than they would if they just answered randomly. In general the higher their educational level, the MORE answers people get wrong, according to Dr. Rosling. We’re programmed to be wrong! We’re programmed to think the world is worse than it is!

Why? For reasons which served us well during most of our evolution, we have over-dramatic minds for today’s world which is more nuanced than whether the rustle in the weeds means a lion is likely to pounce. We have what Rosling calls a gap instinct; we want everything to be binary. “Journalists know this. They set up their narratives as conflicts between two opposing peoples, views, or groups. They prefer stories of extreme poverty and billionaires to stories about the vast majority of people slowly dragging themselves toward better lives…. If you look at the news or click on a lobby group’s website this evening, you will probably notice stories about the conflict between two groups or phrases like ‘the increasing gap.’”

Mind the gap! Most of the world lives between the two extremes.

Does it matter that we have an unrealistically negative view of the world? After all, there are problems which need to be solved and  negativity makes us concentrate on them. Most of Factfulness is anecdotes showing why it does matter that we have facts before we act.

Just one story here but more in blogs to come.

When Rosling was a young public health doctor in Mozambique, he worked in a hospital to which mothers brought their dying children; they saved about 95% of them. Rosling did some math (factfulness) and realized that the hospital, which most people couldn’t reach before it was too late, and his work in it were a waste of time and money despite the babies saved. 98.7% of the babies dying in the region he worked never made it to the hospital. The same money put into public health out in the community – mainly clean water and vaccination – would save many, many more lives. He changed his career.

Why do hospitals get built and staffed in areas of extreme poverty where only a very few people will ever be able to reach them when the same resources would be better spent on community public health? Part of the reason is that politicians and NGOs like to point to buildings and take donors and the press to see them. There’s nothing photogenic about someone digging a ditch to take the effluent from the latrines away from the drinking water supply. Decisions like this need to be fact-based but the facts are tedious and dry and don’t satisfy either our penchant for drama or our gap instinct.

Factfulness, is a must read for anyone concerned about public policy. You won’t agree with all of it; my worldview’s been changed by what I’ve learned.

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