Edinburgh International Science Festival 2018 / Factfulness: Why We’re Wrong About the World And Why Things Are Better Than You Think

Credit: Edinburgh International Science Festival.

Wars, climate change, overpopulation, scarce resources – the world is doomed, isn’t it? The late Hans Rosling, professor of International Health at the Karolinska Institute, dedicated a big part of his life to showing us that this isn’t necessarily the case. If anything, many things are getting better. Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty caused by reckless political rhetoric and unwise decisions, but the global economy and medical advancements are set to yield sizeable benefits to most of us around the globe.

To educate the public Professor Rosling co-created a website called Gapminder that shows the trends in global development in a simple, easy-to-follow and engaging manner. Anyone can use it to get a better grasp of the world in which we live. The idea behind Gapminder goes along the old propaganda adage – you can only fight old stereotypes with new ones. Complex concepts and data sets only bore and distract. What Gapminder aims to do is to replace old stereotypes with new concepts that are strictly based on facts and which give us hope by presenting a more balanced picture of the world. They are presented in entertaining manner to capture attention of the broad audience, yet they invite the reader to think and enquire.

The main message of the talk, delivered by Hans’ son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling-Ronnlund, was not that everything is great, but rather that we are missing the facts. As humans we are looking for drama and threats and being so preoccupied with them, we tend to miss the reality. We are not good with facts at all, therefore we can be easily manipulated. Even the most educated amongst us, the Nobel prize laureates, medical scientists, bankers and, of course, politicians, rarely score higher than chimpanzees on the ignorance test that was specifically designed by Professor Rosling to burst the information bubble in which we live. The test that is sent to the audience before each talk (it can also be found on Gapminder.org) serves not only an educational motive, but also an entertaining purpose. It shocks you by flipping your world view upside down. After taking the test, the world seems more reasonable and less chaotic. In fact, it may even seem a bit boring. It shows steady incrementalism instead of dramatic improvements, points out the similarities and averages in human lifestyles not the differences and extremes.

For instance, according to the test, the majority of respondents think that the number of people living in extreme poverty has either increased or stayed the same over the past few decades. It turns out the world is no longer divided in two – the rich and the poor – as it was for the most of the 20th century. But even then the percentage of people living in extreme poverty, i.e. surviving on around $1 per day, was steadily declining – the graph located on the Gapminder website shows how the massive poor peak rapidly catches up with the rich peak and eventually merges with it. “In the past 20 years half a billion left extreme poverty. Thanks to what? The UN? No, thanks to the Communist Party of China”, – proclaimed Ola to the silent audience. Only around 10% of the world’s population is left behind in extreme poverty and these are in the war-torn regions whose problems are very hard to resolve. Ola acknowledged for that reason we have likely reached the plateau in the extreme poverty resolution and this is something we should be intensely aware of.

The same goes for the number of children in the world having been vaccinated. It is currently at 88%, but even the health experts don’t realise that (8% answered correctly). Not surprisingly, banking decision makers did even worse (4%). This is troubling because these people are in charge of the money that can be directed to global development, but will not invest it based upon incorrect prejudice.This exposes another big problem with information dissemination. It would be tempting to blame politicians and journalists, but the fact is that they are as ignorant as everyone else. What would be tempting to label as conspiracy is simply pure ignorance, either conscious or unconscious.

Hans Rosling was often called an optimist, which he would get angry about. “Just because the data are better than you expected doesn’t mean I’m an optimist, he would say, I’m a possibilist, I see when things work. I say we can do more of this. It doesn’t mean I don’t see problems”,  Ola explained. But we should not paint the world black – things are also getting better.

Despite this the main problem still stands – we don’t know the world we live in and we don’t understand who lives in this world. It is definitely not the world we see in the news. The challenge is to look past the headlines and constantly ask ourselves: how many people does it apply to? What part of the real picture does it cover? This is a challenge each one of us should take on.

This article was written by Alina Gukova and edited by James Hitchen.

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