The world is a lot better than we think … Factfulness’ Anna Rosling joins me at the European Business Forum 2019

September 25, 2019

Anna Rosling first met her father in law when staying over at her boyfriend’s house at the age of 16. Next morning, Ole, her boyfriend now husband’s father, was founded counting shoes and measuring sizes in the hallway, trying to work out who the extra guest was.

Hans Rosling became a sensation of our time. His TED Talk videos transfixed audiences worldwide with his fast and simple statistical analysis of our changing world. His message was that “the world is better than you think”, and that we constantly underestimate how much progress has been made.

Together they wrote the book ‘Factfulness: 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think‘ .

Two years after Hans passed away, daughter in law Anna is continuing the family message. She joined me on stage today, at the Thinkers50 European Business Forum 2019, with an updated view of the world.

She had some news that might surprise you – although life on earth is far from perfect, it is improving at a faster rate than we think. Statistics and facts show that, in many areas, today’s world is performing much better than it gets credit for.

Factfulness plays a little game with their readers, submitting to them 13 questions with multiple-choice answers on issues such as health, literacy, demographics and poverty. The rate of correct answers, even in the case of highly educated people, is staggeringly low, with responses almost always erring on the negativist side.

Anna does not target wilful distortions of the truth so much as the tendency to base opinions on half-truths, negativist assumptions and sheer ignorance. This tendency leads people to give in to a number of what the authors call ‘instincts’, which go against good and sound judgment. She distinguishes 10 of them that distort our perceptions:

  • The GAP instinct, which makes us believe that the world is divided into two: ‘them’ (the ‘developing’ world) and ‘us’ (the ‘developed’ world). The authors prefer to talk about four levels of income, which they say give a far better picture.
  • The NEGATIVITY instinct: forgetting how the world really was before. It is not because some things are bad today that they cannot be better than they were before! This is a theme often alluded to by the French philosopher Michel Serres.
  • The STRAIGHT LINE instinct: the danger of extrapolating from a known variable. There are straight lines of course, but more often lines are curved or S-shaped; this is the case in demographics, for instance.
  • The FEAR instinct: some of our ancestral fears, justified at the time when we lived in caves, still haunt us today even though the situation has radically changed. And we have a tendency to grossly exaggerate modern threats such as terrorism, compared to other causes of death.
  • The SIZE instinct: the tendency to look at individual figures without putting them in perspective. There are more than four million infant deaths (for 141 million births) per year in the world today, which is staggering and shocking. But in 1950 the number was 14.5 million for 97 million births. We also tend to look at individual victims and forget about the many victims who do not make it on to our TV screens.
  • The GENERALISATION instinct: we divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us’ and then think of the people in these groups as all being the same.
  • The DESTINY instinct: best summed up by the phrase “things never change”.
  • The SINGLE PERSPECTIVE instinct: thinking that all problems have a single cause.
  • The BLAME instinct (could also be called the ‘conspiracy instinct’): it is always intellectually easier to find culprits rather than real causes.
  • The URGENCY instinct: pushing people to rush for solutions that are “simple, straightforward and… wrong”, to quote Einstein! Rosling gives a particularly dramatic example of himself giving in to that instinct as a young doctor in Africa, with devastating consequences.

Bill Gates described the book as “one of the most educational books I’ve ever read”. It could be of particular interest to those who have read the works of Steven Pinker, or Nicholas Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan’.

Finally here is a reminder of Hans Rosling, one of the most watched Youtube videos of all time:

Anna Rosling joined me at the Thinkers50 European Business Forum 2019. With thanks to Jane Thoning Callesen for transcript.