A fish-eye photograph of a city represented as a globe

Factfulness: 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world, by Hans Rosling

Reasons to be cheerful don’t come with more concrete evidence than Factfuless, Hans Rosling’s gentle – and funny – guide to rational thinking.

Ignorance is not bliss – just ask those denied education and, therefore, employment or good health. Ignorance encourages prejudice and inhibits progress. Ignorance is like looking at the world while wearing a VR headset: what you perceive doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s really in front of your face. Yet when information in the public domain – news and social media, for instance – is increasingly manipulated, misrepresented or misunderstood, it’s hard to take off the goggles.

Factfulness aims to be the antidote to this kind of wonky world view. Gapminder, the independent foundation that Rosling co-founded, defines factfulness as “a new way of thinking about the world and the society…. It is the relaxing habit of carrying opinions that are based on solid facts.”

If this suggests Factfulness is a dry maths textbook, it’s not. Rosling’s writing – like his talks – mixes hard facts with dramatic or amusing personal and professional stories. Like a statistically minded Jesus, for instance, Rosling recalls how his grandmother would watch a washing machine complete an entire cycle; he then connects this to evidence about societal progress.

There are of course statistics and maths, but always within a context that aids understanding. You could in fact skip all of the graphs and still feel you’ve followed a narrative with highs, lows, conflict and resolution. Aside from Rosling’s skills as a narrator (and teacher), this may be a reflection of a professional life filled with drama and discovery.

Factfulness, then, is about how to understand statistical information, and how to look past invisible agenda. It also investigates why people often eschew facts in favour of gut feeling, and coaches how to step past personal bias. For instance, most of us are deeply committed to believing that things are getting (or will get) worse – yet poverty is improving, female access to education has increased massively, and childhood mortality is falling. If you’re convinced that somehow the opposite must be true, Rosling will (gently) show you you’re wrong, and then guide you to back to a fact-based world view.

“Factfulness is . . . recognizing when we get negative news, and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful. To control the negativity instinct, expect bad news.”

The key elements of factful thinking are available for free on the Gapminder website, along with many other resources. Rosling’s talks, including his Ted talk, can be easily found online. If you only watch one, I recommend Why Boat Refugees Don’t Fly!

Hans Rosling, Factfulness: 10 reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. Sceptre, 2018

Similar to: How To Be Right (James O’Brien), Failure to Quit (Howard Zinn), Media Control (Noam Chomsky).


Words: my own except where quoted.
Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris via Unsplash.