I just finished reading the blockbuster book by my hero Hans Rosling – “Factfulness”.
(If you have not been in awe of this phenomenal educator, check out his series of TED-talks, they are amazing!)
If you have read it, please let me know what you think. I am left with a strange feeling.
The main contribution
The one major contribution of the book is to further popularize “Dollar Street” and the four levels of human wealth/prosperity/development. This is a great tool to illustrate how life looks at different levels, and how many people are on each level.
(What Rosling forgets to mention is that the people on level 4 (where most of the blog readers are) is the major ecological destruction driver on this planet. If we all meet at level 3, we could all 7 billion people live rich lives sustainably. )
The prophet of progress
The core premise of the book is that the world is getting better in a number of measurable and surprising ways. Each of the 10 chapters shows one aspect of understanding data and distributions, which are quite illustrative. Throughout the book, there are numerous references to a survey that Rosling has conducted all over the world, where most people answer wrongly about the current state of the world.
I think this book has a deep ideological bias towards the “religion of progress”. It is a pamphlet to celebrate all improvements for civilization, especially in the last 200 years, while largely ignoring the price we pay for the advancements. This is deeply problematic for many reasons. It de-fangs the acute ecological problems that we face on a global scale, and lulls the readers into complacency.
Examples of problems with the book
The “knowledge survey” that is used throughout the book has a number of flaws, in my opinion. The multiple-choice-questions are of course simple to analyze, but have a strong bias to show the message that Rosling wants to show.
First of all the position-bias:
The correct choice in all the questions is the “best” of the three alternatives. Any and all mistakes are subsequently interpreted as “people have a bleak view of the world”. Imagine if the survey was repeated with the correct answer as the “worst” alternative – and how we could interpret the results as “people have a too rosy view of the world”.
Secondly, some questions could have slightly changed wording which would remove the “improvement” message. E.g. “number of people” or “proportion of the population” in abject poverty. If we choose to measure the number of people suffering, there has been no improvement. However, Rosling chose to ask about the proportion of the population which has decreased, and touts this as an improvement. Is that really better or maybe worse? For the 700 million or so in deep poverty, I don’t think it helps to know that there is another billion middle class people in the world.
Thirdly, the specifics of the questions are sometimes slightly misleading. The only ecological question is about the “endangerness status” of three picture-perfect mammals : Giant Panda, Tiger and Black Rhino whose populations seem to stabilize. However, if he had chosen to ask about Pyrenean Ibex, Yangze dolphin and Hawaiian crow, the correct answer is that they all went extinct since 1996. The general decline of wildlife is real, but the specific animals of his questions are exceptional, unique successes of conservation. Therefore only experts would know the answer to the question, while a well informed audience would follow the general trend and answer this question ‘wrongly’.
Other perspectives on a factful worldview
There are lots of improvements for humanity in the last centuries, mainly thanks to the enormous energy input that comes from fossil fuels. This has allowed billions of people to survive and prosper. The energy surplus has enabled a billion or so to work on other things than food production, which is great for development of music, Internet and vaccines.
However, at the same time, we have been growing populations in maddening numbers, encouraged by the Catholic Church, Mao Zedong and the Stalin era medals for “Hero Mothers”. We are increasing consumption of huge cars, long flights and enormous houses, encouraged by economists and advertisement, to drive “economic growth”. In the process, we are destroying ecology at an mind-boggling rate and we are depleting the stores of easily accessible fossil carbon resources. The future will look very different from the past.
The optimistic “humanity is always improving”-story therefore rings false in my ears.
Necessary facts to complement the story
I am sad that Rosling did not include the scientific model “Planetary Boundaries” (Rockstrom et al., 2009) in his book. It would convincingly show that we are reducing the natural wealth every year. Our ecological destruction is undermining our ability to have a civilization in the future.
It is a pity that Rosling chose to exclude the model of “ecological footprint” (W. Rees, 1996) from this factful book. Since 1975, humanity uses more resources than are replenished each year, effectively leaving a poorer planet behind to the next generation.
Those are important aspects of the status of the world, if we have the ambition to live with more factfulness.
I see the book of Rosling as part of a larger story of vocal cheerleaders of the religion of endless growth including Johan Norberg and Steven Pinker. I am not sure if this chorus is a part of wilful deception or a well-meant feel-good message?
What do you think?
Why is there such a need for shouting that “everything is fine” when it obviously is not?
I want to focus on sustainable economic contraction and reducing ecological destruction. How can we encourage modesty and cooperation?