The Tyee has published my review of Hans Rosling's book Factfulness: Most of What You Think Is Wrong, and It’s Hurting Us All. Excerpt:
“Every group of people I ask,” says Rosling, “thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless — in short, more dramatic — than it really is.” And because the media know drama interests us, they offer frightening, violent, dramatic news of fresh disasters. Good news is no news.
Rosling’s not talking about ignoramuses. He developed a little quiz to test our knowledge of the world, and even Nobel laureates have flunked it. Here’s where he does with us what every good teacher does in the first class of the semester: shakes us out of our complacency and makes us realize we know a lot less than we think.
(You might pause and take the quiz before you continue with this review. I got seven right out of 13, which put me in a very chastened frame of mind.)
In fact, most people can’t even do as well on the quiz as if they were picking answers at random — you have to be actively misinformed to get fewer than one right answer in three.
“If your worldview is wrong,” Rosling warns, “then you will systematically make wrong guesses.” And, he implies, you will systematically support mistaken domestic and foreign policies based on those wrong guesses.
You don’t even have to read the book or take the test to see how wrong your worldview is. The Roslings developed a remarkable website, Gapminder Tools, which you can explore for hours. For example, you can use a “bubble chart” to see how nations compare in income and life expectancy in 2018. Then you can drag a slider all the way back to 1800 to see how countries have compared in the past. You can even watch each nation’s “bubble” progress from poverty and short lifespans.
A twenty-fold increase in income
Here’s an example: in 1941, the year I was born, Chinese average life expectancy was 33.4 years and income was $783. In 1983, the year I taught in China, life expectancy was 65.7 and income was $1,460. (And this doubling was despite years of civil war, political upheaval and famine.) In 2018, Chinese average life expectancy is 76.9 years and income is $16,000. That’s a doubling of life expectancy and a twenty-fold increase in income, most of it in the last 30 years.
Similarly, we still think of Africa as a continental disaster zone full of Ebola and terrorists. Maybe it was 50 years ago, but Rosling says “The world market of the future will be growing primarily in Asia and Africa, not at home.” Beijing evidently agrees; Chinese investment in Africa is now at $220 billion.
Our ignorance of the factual world is largely thanks to Rosling’s 10 basic instincts, aggravated by sheer parochialism. We scarcely notice the world outside North America, unless some Thai kids get trapped in a cave. Then we’re surprised that Thailand has the technical expertise to rescue them. (Thailand’s average income this year is $900 more than China’s, and life expectancy is over a year longer, thank you very much.)