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Hans Rosling continues to dazzle and educate us with his brilliant book

'Factfulness' is a must-read book by Hans Rosling (with Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Ronnlund) - his last battle in his lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance. It can help us recalibrate our outdated ways of looking at the world.

Go to the profile of Madhukar Pai
Jun 25, 2018
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Hans Rosling was a Swedish doctor, a professor of global health, and a well known public speaker and educator. In September 2015, Hans, his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna decided to write a book together. Sadly, on February 5, 2016, Hans was diagnosed to have pancreatic cancer, and was deemed incurable. Despite the sadness of his impending death, the three of them raced against time, and worked hard to write a remarkable book called 'Factfulness.' Bill Gates called the book 'an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.'

What is Factfulness? The book says it is a 'stress-reducing habit of carrying only the opinions for which you have strong supporting facts.'

Figure. 'Factfulness' by Hans Rosling, et al. Flatiron Books, NY, 2018

Rosling's lifelong mission was to fight ignorance, stereotypes, and outdated worldviews. The book, he wrote, was his last battle in his lifelong mission to fight devastating ignorance.

What type of ignorance is he talking about? Well, many of us (including me) still talk about 'developed' versus 'developing countries.' We refer to 'Africa', as if it was homogeneous, and still think extreme poverty is widespread.

If you want to assess your own level of ignorance, take this simple Gapminder test. Thousands of people around the world have taken the test, and most people get a low score. In fact, most people do worse than random! I did not do well either! All of us, apparently, think the world is in a worse state than it actually is.

This is because of biases and instincts that distort our perception of reality. Take, for example, our tendency to divide the world into two groups (e.g. 'developing' vs 'developed', or 'rich' vs 'poor'). The book uses amazing graphics like the one below to shatter such outdated worldviews that are simply not reflective of reality. 

Figure. World Health Chart from 'Factfulness' by Hans Rosling, et al. Flatiron Books, NY, 2018

Today, only 9% of the world's population lives in low income countries. 75% of humanity lives in the middle - exactly where the gap between developed and developing is supposed to be. Rosling calls this bias the 'gap instinct.' To counter this, he encourages us to look for the majority. The book is full of such rules of thumb, and each rule of thumb is a separate chapter in the book. The graphic below is a great summary of all ten rules.

Figure. Factfulness Rules of Thumb, from 'Factfulness' by Hans Rosling, et al. Flatiron Books, NY, 2018

Another remarkable contribution of this book is to replace the old-fashioned way of dichotomizing the world with a new one - one that divides the world into 4 income levels. The graphic below shows the 4 levels, and provides a wonderful illustration of how people live on each level. Thousands of such images of real families and households can be seen at Dollar Street, a stunning website by the Gapminder team.

Source: Dollar Street: https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix

My parents in India saw extreme poverty when they were young (i.e. they lived on Level 1, and did not go to college). When I was growing up in India, we went from riding on a bicycle to a scooter to buying our first car. I went to medical school. Today, my daughter is experiencing all the privileges of a child born in a Level 4 household. 

Such dramatic improvements are happening all over the world. In fact, over the past two decades, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has halved. Rosling called this revolutionary, and the single most important change that has happened in the world in our lifetime.

As I finished reading the book, I felt sad that the world has lost a dynamic, original thinker. Hans Rosling's legacy, however, will live on through his book. That was his hope in his last days. I hope millions will read his book, recalibrate their outdated ways of looking at the world, and realize his lifelong dream. If you read Factfulness, do share it with others.

Go to the profile of Madhukar Pai

Madhukar Pai

Director, McGill Global Health Programs

I am a Professor and a Canada Research Chair in Epidemiology & Global Health at McGill University, Montreal. I serve as the Director of McGill Global Health Programs, and Director of the McGill International TB Centre. URL: http://www.paitbgroup.org/

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