25 April 2018

Factfulness – or why things are a lot better than you think


You probably don’t understand the world very well. At least you didn’t before reading Factfulness, a rather wonderful little book by the late doctor, educator and public health guru Hans Rosling.

If you are among the 35m or so people who have watched the Swede’s lectures on YouTube, you may be familiar with his natty graphs and cheerily avuncular presentation style. The basic message is pretty simple – “chin up, the world is getting much, much better”. Despite the “mega misconception that things are getting worse”, deaths from disease, natural disasters, famine and war have all plummeted in a relatively short space of time. And the demographic evidence suggests we are not actually heading for a Malthusian horror-show of overpopulation-induced starvation.

The “reasons to be cheerful” argument is one that has been many times before here on CapX. Regular contributor Marian Tupy documents humankind’s often dazzling scientific and technological breakthroughs in his work at Human Progress. And it’s a point that needs constant reiteration, given that we are all hard-wired for pessimism.

To emphasise the positive is not to diminish or ignore the immense suffering people all over the world still experience. After all, it’s not much consolation to a Syrian forced to flee their home to know that global living standards are on an upwards trajectory. Nor should we be complacent about the all too real risks of environmental degradation, financial collapse or military confrontation.

But it is to underline that the story of humanity in last few hundred years is of ever-increasing improvement, and that catastrophic events derive their power from their rarity. As Rosling argues persuasively: ”Is it helpful to have to choose between bad and improving? Definitely not. It’s both. It’s both bad and better. Better, and bad, at the same time.”

While Rosling sadly passed away last year, his work lives on through the Gapminder project, which has a range of tools for anyone interested in revamping their outlook on global development. Judging by the results of the surveys detailed in the book, the vast majority of us could do with stopping by to brush up.

His work, most of which uses UN and World Health Organisation statistics, is a rejoinder to the idea of an “us and them”, “rich vs poor” idea of the world. Instead, we should think about four different levels of income, with increasing numbers of people moving out of Level 1. This is both a social and economic phenomenon, driven by more literacy, huge advances in girls’ education and much lower birthrates. That 9 per cent of the world’s population are still on Level 1, living on less than $1 a day, should give us all pause for thought. That the number has fallen from 29 per cent in the space of just 20 years ought to be cause for justified celebration.

It’s striking how little even the apparently well-informed know about these things. On the “most essential” question of future population growth, Rosling reveals that “almost none of the highly educated and influential people we have measured have the slightest knowledge of what the population experts are all agreeing about”. This is not some harangue against boffins, but a gentle reminder that expertise in one area does not necessarily translate into another. Only 8 per cent of an audience of very bright scientists knew how many one-year-olds around the world have been vaccinated against at least one disease – it’s 90 per cent, in case you’re interested.

Along with the upbeat message and eye-opening dinner party facts — did you know that globally girls and boys now go to school at an almost identical rate? — Factfulness can help lighten our cloying diet of political and media gloom. That means avoiding the temptation to jump to dramatic conclusions, to exaggerate or to ascribe blame for the sake of it.

As CapX’s editor Oliver Wiseman wrote recently, the tendency to overstate the negative is part of what makes the worldview of Corbyn and others so alluring. Through that lens, all society’s evils can be pinned on Evil Tories and/or Evil (usually American) Corporations.

Exaggerating our woes is a profitable trade for any opposition politician, but the current Labour leader really does seem to believe that the mere existence of social ills in a country such as Britain is an indictment of the entire market-based system. In a similar vein, every problem with the NHS is greeted in some quarters as a sign that the entire system is about to collapse. Again, this is not to suggest there are not problems – manifestly there are. But describing every incident in terms of disgrace, disaster or catastrophe both creates despair and obscures what is really going on in complex systems.

It’s also worth noting Rosling’s advice to “remember how simple it is to construct a story of crisis from a temporary dip pulled out of its context of a long-term improvement”.

For a textbook example look no further than the recent story about London having the same violent crime rate as New York — a claim based on just two months of data, and completely ignoring the fact the latter has seen a huge reduction in violent crime since the early ’90s. Those details did not stop over-the-top headlines about an “epidemic” .

Such newspaper stories also exemplified some of Rosling’s other bugbears. What he calls the “instinct to blame”, for instance, was alive and well on both sides — some accused Theresa May of responsibility because she cut stop-and-search, while Conservatives piled into London’s relatively new mayor, as if the problem of youth violence had emerged since his election in May 2016.

Internationally, a “factful” outlook has strong implications for our view of Africa. It means moving on from a mindset that sees the whole continent as a homogenous bloc of aid recipients. In 2018 it is clearly ludicrous to bracket Somalia – one of the world’s most destitute countries – with nearby Ethiopia, which has undergone an astonishing economic boom in the last decade, averaging more than 10 per cent annual growth.

It is also wrong to see eliminating the most extreme poverty as the best the poorest nations can aspire to. Rosling recounts one particularly sharp encounter with the former chair of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, after he had been telling a conference how wonderful it was that eradicating extreme poverty was in sight. “Do you think Africans will settle with getting rid of extreme poverty and be happy living in only ordinary poverty?” she asks. The future, she tells him, is of Africans visiting Europe as welcome tourists, rather than unwanted migrants.

And a more accurate worldview has profound implications not just for policymakers and development specialists, but for entrepreneurs, bankers and investors looking for their next big payday. As National Review pointed out yesterday, total trade on the continent is projected to exceed $7 trillion by 2030. As William Davison explained earlier this week, countries are already working on a pan-African trade area that has the potential to be bigger than the EU (the kind of fact that is grist to the mill of a certain kind of liberal internationalist Brexiteer).

To survey today’s world, therefore, is not to be a starry-eyed optimist, but, in Rosling’s phrase, a “serious possibilist”.

“I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible,” he writes.

“This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.”

John Ashmore is Deputy Editor of CapX.