Hans Rosling’s mission was to make the world aware of important trends

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by Hans Dembowski

Why things are better than people in rich countries think

Humankind has made more progress than is commonly believed. The extent of extreme poverty tends to be overestimated, whereas achievements in terms of health and education are mostly underestimated. Hans Rosling, the prominent Swedish physician and statistician, dedicated the last years of his life to correcting the public’s distorted perceptions.

Rosling’s views are spelled out in the book “Factfulness”. It was published this year, shortly after his death of cancer. His son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund contributed to the book. Both had been his collaborators for many years. They specialised in compiling relevant statistics from all over the world and presenting them in attractive ways, including animated computer graphics.

If you want to get an idea, check out Rosling’s Ted talk on how birth rates relate to religion. The graphic bubbles start moving after 4 1/2 minutes. They show that birth rates have been falling all over the world. This is the kind of work the Gapminder Foundation specialises in. Hans Rosling was one of the founders, and his son and daughter-in-law work for it.

Rosling’s style was very entertaining. He excelled in making complex data tell inspiring stories. He paid great attention to using solid facts. His mission was to make the world aware of important trends. Several important developments are generally not understood well. At least in Europe and North America, most people believe that there is a huge gap between a small group of advanced nations and a big group of developing countries. The truth, however, is that the vast majority of human beings do not live in low-income countries. They live in middle-income countries.

That is so, is reflected in other trends: humankind’s average life expectancy is 70 years today, and 80 % of the world’s one-year-olds have been vaccinated. On average, the men who are 30 years old today have spent 10 years in school. The average figure for women of the same age is 9 years. This gap is much smaller than most people assume. Only 20 % of all human beings lack access to electric power.

In many ways, the arguments made in “Factfulness” resemble those made by Harvard scholar Steven Pinker in his book “Enlightenment now”. Humanity has made considerable progress, but is not aware of it. Rosling’s book is easier to read. Where Pinker extensively and appropriately refers to tomes of literature, Rosling relates personal anecdotes. His personal enthusiasm is as charming as his long professional career in global development affairs was impressive. Among other things, he worked as a medical doctor in sub-Saharan Africa.

For good reason, Rosling argued that we should stop using categories like developing countries or advanced nations. In this perspective, the relevant distinction should be people’s income levels. In the book, statistics generally rely on four categories of people. At Level 1, people have a purchasing power of up to $ 2 per day. That figure rises to $ 8 for people at Level 2 and $ 32 for those at Level 3. Those who have more than $ 32 belong to Level 4. Of the world’s 7 billion people, only 1 billion are at Level 1. Three billion are at Level 2, 2 billion are at Level 3, and 1 billion are at Level 4.

According to Rosling, the conventional categories of developed versus developing countries distorts people’s perceptions. It suggests that there is a big gap between the categories. In truth, however, the income levels overlap national borders. If you judge by the average income, India belongs to the upper end of Level 2. Averages hide relevant information, and India indeed has a substantial number of prosperous Level 4 people. On the other hand, it has a huge number of people who are still stuck in the desperate poverty of Level 1. All countries have some kind of spread between income levels.

In a similar sense, poor people in the rich world do not have a purchasing power of $ 32 per day which would lift them up to Level 4. While the EU probably does not have people subsisting at Level 1, there certainly are poor people who have less than $ 16 per day and belong to Level 2.

I find Rosling’s approach convincing, but it is not useful for journalistic purposes. We cannot use categories we have to explain extensively every time we use them. Categories like developing country or advanced nation may not be very accurate and do indeed perpetuate distorting narratives, but they mean something relatively sensible to all readers. While averages do not reveal the whole truth, they are useful for getting an idea of what is going on. Perhaps we should shift to making more use of the terms “low-income”, “middle-income” and “high-income” countries at D+C/E+Z.

While the Rosling family shows that many trends are better than generally assumed, they do not encourage complacency. Climate change, for example, is a serious challenge that humankind must rise to. They emphasise, however, that action must be guided by solid data.

In the book, the Roslings spell out various reasons why the general public’s understanding of development trends tends to be so poor in high-income countries. They use terms like the “negativity instinct”, the “straight-line instinct”, the “fear instinct”, the “blame instinct” or the “urgency instinct”, which all are basically self-explaining. The book lists ten such instincts. The authors appeal to readers to pay attention to them and do their best to educate themselves in a “factful” manner. The book’s strongest point is that it serves this purpose in a very entertaining way. It is actually fun to read.

Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, 2018: Factfulness – Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world and why things are better than you think. London: Sceptre.
German edition, 2018: Factfulness – Wie wir lernen, die Welt so zu sehen, wie sie wirklich ist”. Berlin: Ullstein.

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