Scholars' Blog: Factfulness

  • Geography
Scholars' Blog: Factfulness

Bill Gates said that Factfulness, by the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, is “one of the best books I’ve ever read”. Full of captivating anecdotes about his life, the book enthusiastically eulogises the virtues of being factual rather than emotional, and encourages us to try to shrug off some of our predetermined ideologies.

Over the past few decades, Rosling has used his website and social media to pose hundreds of factual questions about development, looking at areas such as: wealth and poverty, births, deaths and population growth, education, health, gender, violence, energy and the environment.  

Here are the first three questions:

survey, geography

Whilst not a single one is a trick question, nevertheless, when attempting to answer them, most people do very badly. In fact, statistically, we tend to get the answers so wrong that a chimpanzee can outguess intellectuals on the multiple-choice questions Rosling poses.

geography, numbers, stats

Why is this? Is it because we think the world is worse than it really is? Of course, our responses are primed and unconsciously biased by reports we see, read and hear in the media. However, the world, with all its flaws, Rosling argues, is in a much better state than we imagine.

Rosling lists 10 different instincts that make us believe that the world is worse than it really is: gap, negativity, straight-line, fear, size, generalisation, destiny, single, blame and urgency. I want to examine three of what Rosling styles “mega-misconceptions”.

Firstly, Gap instinct.

This is the irresistible temptation we have to divide all kinds of things into two distinct and often conflicting groups, for example: North and South; rich and poor; West and “the rest”; “us and them”; developing and developed nations.

For example, using the indices of rates of child mortality and numbers of babies per woman, we often categorise countries into two boxes: developing and developed, with a clear gap with only 15 countries in between, shown in the graph below (the circles that are not located inside either the developing or developed boxes). Only 2 % of the world lives in those uncategorised countries, such as Singapore and Cuba. In the developing box, there are 125 bubbles: examples are countries like China and India. In those countries, women have more than five children on averageand fewer than 95% of children survive. In the developed box we can see 44 bubbles, including the US and most of Europe; here, women have 3.5 children per capita and child survival rate is above 95%. 

However, the graph above is outdated: it shows the world in 1965; today, the world has completely changed. Only 13 countries - or 6% of the world population - are still inside the “developing” box (see graph below). Most countries which were in the developing box in the graph above, are today in the middle or in the developed box in the graph below. There is, in reality, no gap between the “West and the rest”, between developed and developing, between rich and poor regarding child mortality and fertility rate. Hence, the two distinctly diverse groups no longer exist. 

A manifestation of this phenomenon, and an area of personal interest to me, can also be observed in China’s 1-child policy. The fertility rate was around 5 or more babies per woman in China when the 1-child policy was introduced. With some exceptions for the 55 minority ethnicities and parents who are both single children, the policy mainly targeted those who lived in big cities - not the whole population. Moreover, it took a while for Chinese people to adjust their mindset about family sizes. Nonetheless, the number of children per woman dropped from 5.72 in 1970 to a staggeringly different 2.55 in just a decade. Now, the after-effects of the policy have kicked in - at least for my generation. Now, the fertility rate is 1.6 - a figure significantly less than the 2.1 replacement rate deemed by the UN. If this is sustained over a sufficiently long period, each generation will exactly replace itself. With this new uncertainty and fear of being unable to support future elderly dependents, China’s recent 2-child policy encourages a second child, to meet the replacement rate.

Secondly, Negativity Instinct. The mindset of a developed country develops views which are distorted. From many perspectives, everything looks less worthy, less significant, less impactful than it is, but it’s not true. This is the widespread tendency to notice the bad more than the good.

Yes, there are scary things happening in the world: terrorism, financial instability, climate change, potential world wars, pandemics. But there have also been significant areas of huge progress that we do not always acknowledge: a decline in the numbers of plane crashes; decreases in child labour and legal slavery; women’s right to vote; and increases in literacy rates, mobile phone ownership, internet access, and life expectancy.

Widespread extreme poverty was the norm until 1966 (see the graph below). In the last 20 years however, extreme poverty has decreased faster than ever in history: 20 years ago, 29% lived in extreme poverty and in 2017, it dropped to 9%. We should be pleased by this decrease, easing the original source of human suffering; however, we are dispirited, could be that we can afford and watch TVs where we still see people suffering, and it seems like nothing has changed.

"Things can be both bad and better,” says Rosling. It is a powerful concept. He is not advocating that we look away and dismiss the terrible problems in the world; nevertheless, he does want us to admit and understand our progress and the hope for the future. While good news is often “not news”, gradual improvement is also “not news”, and just because, often, our attention is only drawn to bad news does not mean the world is getting worse. The overflowing of bad news could be due to increased awareness of hardship, not a worsening reality.

Finally, Straight Line Instinct. People often expect that populations will just keep increasing in a straight line, but statistical curves take different shapes. For centuries, the population growth was flat: a well-established balance.


But as well as living in balance, humans also died in balance with nature. On average parents had six children, of whom, tragically, only two would survive and take on the roles and jobs to support the family. After a couple of centuries of sharp growth in population and global developments, there is now a new balance. This time, we will live in balance where parents have only two children, but both of whom are healthy (shown in the graph above).

The period of imbalance was when massive global advancements occurred, hence why the current two younger generations (economically active and youthful dependents) are larger than the generations that proceeded them. The birth rate starts to decline when we reach the new balance (on the graph above), and thus population increases more slowly than before. Effective sex education and widespread use of contraception, along with falling extreme poverty, has allowed this to happen. The period out of balance was filled with trials trying to control the population, clashing with the natural uncertainty of the parents still conceiving three to five children on average, resulting in a distinct population increase, albeit at a slower rate.

Humans have sought solutions to end extreme poverty or population increase for centuries, and Rosling’s research concludes that these are (inter alia): peace between countries and regions; education; universal basic health care; use of contraceptives; electricity; clean water, sanitation and hygiene systems; and microcredits to help the poor to finance. No innovative or revolutionary transformation is needed: only continuing to provide these necessities to the last billion who are still in extreme poverty.

Factfulness is an impactful and remarkable book. Rosling voices his potential legacy, and what he truly believed to be his life’s purpose: the fight against ubiquitous ignorance. It has undeniably made me a “possibilist” - someone who does not just hope mindlessly, but hopes based on a fact-based worldview, as described by Rosling.

(all graphs taken from gapminder)

Year 12 Student

  • Factfulness