Irrespective of our level of education or area of expertise, our understanding of the world is almost universally 40 years out of date about most things – such as the proportion of people living on each continent, or in extreme poverty; the percentage of 1 year olds who have been vaccinated, or of girls that finish primary school; average life expectancy; or access to electricity.

We have failed to grasp just how significantly the world has already changed, and continues to do so.  As a result …

We do not celebrate what is working
and we invest our resources in the wrong areas

Our fears are escalating where we should be rejoicing and consequently we are not engaging effectively with the most serious issues, which Rosling believes are:

  1. Climate change and the state of the oceans
  2. The remainder of humanity living in extreme poverty
  3. The possibility of a pandemic of an airborne disease (like the Spanish Flu of 1918)
  4. A global financial collapse
  5. World War III

A root of many of our misunderstandings, Rosling argues, is our tendency to divide the world into the West and the Rest; the Rich and the Poor; the Developed and the Developing.  A much clearer and more practical framework is to think in terms of 4 income levels where people survive on $2, $8, $32 or $64+/day.  Almost every aspect of life in a country is dramatically transformed when it moves up a level, and every country is moving up.  The proportion of the world living in extreme poverty (on Level 1) has almost halved in the last 20 years and today no country has an average life expectancy below 50.  From Level 4, however, the other 3 levels look flat – like looking down on buildings of different heights from the top of a skyscraper.  “Google toilet, bed, or stove.  You will get images from Level 4.  If you want to see what everyday life is like on the other levels, Google won’t help.”

The call of Factfulness is to see the world as it really is – but that involves being “willing to change your worldview; … ready for critical thinking to replace instinctive reaction; and … humble, curious, and ready to be amazed.”

For a start, “seventy percent of people don’t know that the majority of mankind lives in Asia.”  Approximately 1 billion people live in the Americas, 1 billion in Europe, 1 billion in Africa and 4 billion in Asia.  By 2100, the UN expects that the world population will have peaked and that more than eighty percent of humanity will live in Africa and Asia.  Where 60 percent of the Level 4 consumer market today comprises people who live in “the West;” by 2040 it will be people who live in “the Rest.”  We need to grasp the enormity of the impact that shift is going to have on the world as we know it over the next 20 years.

The greatest challenge for education is surely to fundamentally transform its model in light of the fact that the volume of information that now exists to be studied, evaluated and acted upon is exponentially larger than we think (Nature magazine suggests that the number of scientific articles that are published is doubling every 9 years).  And our primary way to access all this information is not books sourced by teachers in our local school but mobile phones.  What does that mean for what, how and where we learn and consequently for the role of a teacher?

. . . . .

Rosling contends that we should be teaching our children where their own country is on the spectrum of health and income levels in the world, how that position has changed over time, and how it continues to change; how to process bad news well and put it into context; how to avoid the distractions of drama, fear and urgency and other common causes of misunderstanding; how to continually update their understanding and worldview in the light over constant change.

“Fear plus urgency makes for stupid, drastic decisions with unpredictable side effects.”

“Critical thinking is always difficult, but it’s almost impossible when we are scared.  There’s no room for facts when our minds are occupied by fear.” And “urgency is one of the worst distorters of our worldview …  ‘We must do something drastic’ … or … ‘There’s nothing we can do’ … Either way, we stop thinking, give in to our instincts and make bad decisions.”

The antidote is to face the facts with calmness, honesty, humility and wisdom.  The ten chapters of the book elucidate and illustrate the following rules of thumb for achieving that:

  1. Look for the centre of gravity in the vast majority in between the dramatic extremes.
  2. Things can be both bad and better at the same time – let the encouragement of what is working motivate you to continue.
  3. What kind of curve are we on?  Defaulting to a straight line will frequently be wrong.
  4. What are our greatest threats?  They are unlikely to be the same as our visceral fears.
  5. Whenever you see a large number, ask “what is that in relation to?”
  6. Have I allowed my understanding to be skewed by stereotypes and assumptions?
  7. Things are not destined to remain the same.  Slow change may be less dramatic but more transformative.
  8. If I only have a hammer, I will treat everything as a nail.  What other tools can I use to check my understanding here?
  9. Actual causes are usually far more complex than we might assume.  We need to unite to address issues so avoid distancing yourself from others.
  10. Things are almost never as urgent as they claim to be.

“Factfulness: ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think” is a book by the late Hans Rosling (professor of international health) with his son and daughter-in-law, Ola and Anna (creators of Trendalyzer – which was acquired by Google – and DollarStreet).  Together they founded the GapMinder Foundation “to fight devastating ignorance with a fact based worldview that everyone can understand.”