Many of you will have heard of Hans Rosling. He was an eminent Swedish public health physician and lecturer who came to public attention through a number of TED talks he gave, explaining how little most of us (in the Western world, anyway) really know about the world.
Sadly, Rosling died in February 2017, but his legacy lives on in his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World, co-written with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna.
As a book, its aim is very simple. To explain why the world is in a better place than you think and to emphasise that most of what you know is wrong. Rosling achieves this by asking a series of multiple-choice questions, most of which you fail miserably on.
I consider myself well-educated and got just 3 out of 14 correct, but my score is fairly representative. It’s down to common biases and blind spots that most people have.
The Size Instinct
Here’s a short extract from the book that highlights what Rosling calls the ‘size instinct’. He travelled to Hanoi in the late 80s and was taken by a doctor to see the memorial commemorating the Vietnam War, known locally as the ‘Resistance War Against America’.
“Niem drove me to one of the city’s central parks and showed me a small stone with a brass plate, three feet high. I thought it was a joke… More than 1.5m Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans had died. Was this how the city commemorated such a catastrophe.
…Then Niem asked me if I was ready to see the proper war monument. He drove a little way further and pointed out of the window. Above the treetops I could see a large pagoda, covered in gold. It seemed about 300 feet high.
He said: ‘Here’s where we commemorate our war heroes. Isn’t it beautiful?’ This was the monument to Vietnam’s wars with China. The wars with China had lasted, on and off, 2000 years. The ‘Resistance War Against America’ took only 20 years. The sizes of the monuments put things in perfect proportion.
It’s a sobering point, but one made perfectly. And the book is full of such observations that effectively turn our worldview on its head.
Rosling manages to write without sound patronising, simply because he had the same views as you or me when he first started out. Many of the anecdotes are at his own expense.
If you decide to read this, you may, just may, help to change the general perception that everything is going to hell in a handcart.
Here’s the last paragraph from the introduction to try and convince you further.
If you are more interested in being right than in continuing to live in your bubble; if you are willing to change your worldview; if you are ready for critical thinking to replace instinctive reaction; and if you are feeling humble, curious and ready to be amazed – then please read on.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund is published by Sceptre.