Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress

May 30, 2018


Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress: Hans Rosling’s Legacy

 by  Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta


Is a tendency towards negativity, fear and blame preventing us from seeing all the good in the world?

Factfulness review: The miracle of human progress

As district medical officer in Mozambique, Hans Rosling discovered a previously unknown paralytic disease. Later, he became a professor of international health, co-founded Médecins Sans Frontières in Sweden, and a renowned public educator. His TED talks have been viewed over 35 million times.

Rosling was also a sword swallower, having learned the skill from a patient. Often, he would do a small show at the end of a lecture: “to demonstrate in a practical way that the seemingly impossible is possible,” he notes in his book Factfulness.

It’s human tendency to be bored with stories of everyday incremental progress, and to focus on the negative — for which the state of the world in the 21st century provides much material. So much is in fact terrible and heartbreaking: the refugee crisis, melting glaciers, plastic in the ocean. From pandemic breakout to climate change, there are real dangers to be concerned about.

Why the bleak view?

But so much more seems to be wrong, and not getting better. This has made cynics of most of us. In Factfulness, Rosling suggests 10 instincts that prevent us from seeing real progress in the world. These include the tendency to negativity, fear, and blame. He also describes the ‘straight line’ instinct, by which he means the tendency to view trends as unchanging. But as he shows, not all changes in the world happen in this way.

The most dramatic chart in the book shows the average number of babies per woman from 1800 to today. It is not a straight line: more like a slide in a playground. Over the last 50 years this number has dropped from five children per woman to below 2.5. As child mortality reduced, as families came out of extreme poverty, as women and men got more years of education, as access to contraception increased, people were able to feed their children better and send them to school — and thus had fewer children.

When things get better, Rosling notes, such as the decrease in child mortality across the world, it is not just because of heroic individuals, but systems. Lots of people working together at the frontlines in a sustained way, every day, over the long term, to bring the incremental changes that, together, constitute progress.

The India connection

Rosling’s life has a special India connection: he studied public health at St. John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, and qualified as a doctor in 1976. He describes his first lesson there as a fourth-year medical student: “How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up.”

Family stories are also a part of the book, contributing to its personal tone. As a child, he remembers his father taking him every Saturday, by bicycle, to hospital to visit his mother who had tuberculosis. “Daddy would explain that if we went in we could get sick too. I would wave to her and she would wave back…”

But the story didn’t end sadly. “A treatment against tuberculosis was invented and my mother got well. She read books to me that she borrowed from the public library. For free. I became the first in my family to get more than six years of education, and I went to university for free. I got a doctor’s degree, for free. Of course nothing is free: the taxpayers paid.”

Life-changing tales

Another story describes how a washing machine changed their lives. “My parents had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. Grandma, who had been invited to the inauguration ceremony, was even more excited. She had been heating water with firewood and hand-washing laundry her whole life.”

Family, education, advances in health care, tax-funded social security, labour-saving devices, functioning democracies: these are all things to be grateful for. And a way of showing appreciation would be to read the data, because otherwise we would be missing the entire picture.

The book is the product of enormous research, but the tone is light rather than ponderous. It makes a complicated world appear simple, without foolish optimism, stereotypes or cliché.

Factfulness is densely illustrated with charts and pictures, including the inside covers, but at the heart of the book is Rosling’s ability to listen, discuss and learn from other people everywhere.

Published after Rosling’s death, the book was written while he was under palliative care for pancreatic cancer. It is a book about his life and ideas, but it is also about how to pay attention to the world.


5 thoughts on “Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress

  1. CLF, this book is up your street and so your comments on Factfulness are welcome. Semper Fi, our man in Chicago too. Conrad, what do you think? –Din Merican

  2. I’ll leave CLF and Semper Fi to do the intellectual heavy lifting but here’s the thing, humanity/society has always been a cooperative endevour. I think when we look at human history , sometimes folks like think that all change/progress/regress is revolutionary as opposed to evolutionary.

    The nexus between Art – capital A – and media has created a symbiotic relationship where facts are replaced by subjective small “truths” – small t . Social and cultural anomie are sometimes viewed as pandemic when in fact it is localized and buried beneath narratives that service tribal politics.

    The world has changed, moved forward and technology is changing people in more ways than first assumed. Ways that are difficult to qualify/quantify especially when viewed through myopic lenses.

    But it is always easier to think that the world is a darker place. It’s easier to think this way because some people narrowly define hope .

  3. Yup Conrad, fact is not necessarily ‘Truth’, or even ‘truth’, according to your definitions.

    Truth is a function of cultural and societal norms. ‘Quid est Veritas’ has no connotation, except in theological terms.

    Franz Boas (father of American Anthropology) reached the conclusion that history is the force that shapes culture, rather than race or geographical environment. Different ethnic groups behave differently, not because of biology or climate, but because of the way ‘truth’ is taught. Therefore, we can say that all cultures are equally valid. Not something that many racists, fascist and chauvinists would like to hear it.. Therefore, i have this internecine quarrel with those blokes who insist that Chinese Civilization is the oldest extant culture. Yeah, only if it’s ossified..

    Of course no one can establish Quantum Mechanics as a fact, without the requisite understanding of its mathematical equations. It works as far as we laymen are concerned. It becomes a ‘Truth’ we use in our everyday lives. Therein lies the ‘utility’ of pragmatism as opposed to empiricism of Locke, Hume and Berkeley.. But that’s just too much water under the bridge to talk about.

    I don’t think humans want plain facts without embellishments. Our software just doesn’t allow too much of it to enter our consciousness. Perhaps that’s why the media becomes a culturally specific filter of sorts.

    Other than that, the vid of Hans and Olaf Rosling was entertaining but not earth shaking. Often, general knowledge is considered passe’ and increasingly specialized education is de rigueur – but obviously our ‘modern’ and best methods of pedagogy and education is severely lacking – when chimps outdo humans..

  4. //Therefore, i have this internecine quarrel with those blokes who insist that Chinese Civilization is the oldest extant culture. Yeah, only if it’s ossified..

    Some giants were debating this a century ago in China.

    And find it interesting that 蔡元培
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cai_Yuanpei, went as far as being a esparantist.

    Then, we have a generation in Malaysia like Jeffery’s that wanted a bangsa Malaysia that doesn’t want Islam.

    I found article of my maternal great grand father, as a senator, fought against the motion to demote Confucianism during the heyday of the New Culture Movement.

    In my small mind, a century later… I still couldn’t figure this out.

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