Book review: Factfulness by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hans Rosling’s book on how to ‘get it right’ and not allow yourself to believe or propagate what has come to be known as ‘fake news’ is now rightly considered a classic and very probably a ‘must-read’. What I didn’t expect, as I read it, was to find the book a rollercoaster of emotions. I most certainly did not expect to be in tears when I came to the end. Most fiction books fail to move me that much – how could a non-fiction work, chiefly about crunching numbers, have done so?

Before wading to that, I have to allow myself a little gloat. I genuinely got 9 out of the 13 questions right that Rosling poses at the beginning of the book, and 11 out of 13 if you allow two answers I originally thought correctly but then doubted myself and wondered if he was trying a double-bluff. When Rosling goes on to show how most people around the world, including top leaders and experts in their fields, get these answers so horrifically wrong that monkeys in a zoo would actually, literally, do better, I felt rather pleased with myself. But the reason for that is simply that I’ve lived in the kind of places Rosling is concerned about – places like rural Bangladesh, among the very poorest – and I’ve known for a long time what the world is really like; where, and how, things are getting better. Plus, as a researcher, I’ve grown used to finding facts over intuition and I read and respect people like Jeremy Williams who unfailingly embody the spirit of ‘factfulness’. I’m quite certain that 20 years ago I would have been getting these questions horribly wrong. Although having said that, Rosling points out that the answers would also have been different back then too because facts are dynamic – they change over time – and he warns us of this. Always check that the facts you ‘know’ are still correct.

So, after that smug little glow, I settled back to enjoy a book which clearly wasn’t going to teach me very much or challenge me. I was wrong. I spent large amounts of time with eyes widening in horror thinking (or sometimes even saying out loud) “he can’t say that!” And then, somehow, Rosling seemed to know exactly what I was thinking, exactly what criticisms I was mentally preparing to level at him in this review, and went on to answer them. I really don’t know how he did it. Some of the things which upset me are not the kind of things most readers would be levelling at him as criticism and yet, bizarrely, he read my mind and either directly answered criticisms or indirectly made me think “oh…okay then…”.

Which is not to say that my worries are without credit. This is an exceptionally dangerous book. It is also essential reading or, perhaps more accurately, essential teaching. It’s dangerous for exactly the very things Rosling it trying to fight against: people hear what they want to hear.

As he started the book, I found myself increasingly uncomfortable as it seemed Rosling was saying ‘the world is getting better, it’s pretty damned good for everyone now, we can all stop worrying.’ Of course, he’s not saying that; really not – and he is very clear on this point too, to make sure. But such is the strength of the message he’s trying to convey that it is easy to come away thinking this is so.

Although I’m giving this a full five stars – because the book really is superb – I have to level the ultimate criticism that as Rosling is a brilliant communicator and excellent statistician, he’s a lousy psychologist. For those who wish to do nothing to help their fellow human beings, the environment and make changes for the better to help the poorest in the world, Rosling inadvertently gives them the weapons they need to justify their inaction. He doesn’t intend to. Indeed, he goes to great pains to prevent such thinking. But Rosling’s downfall is the almost childlike notion that if you tell people the truth, show them the facts and present them with reality that they will actually accept and believe such things. Psychologists know that they don’t.

Or, at least, they don’t very easily. I’m afraid that the world will continue to be driven by the inaccurate news media, by world leaders getting it wrong and by Bob the builder down the pub who knows exactly what’s going on because a mate of his said, the other day that it was so. We’re hard-wired to accept these things rather than change how we think because one random guy in a book told us to.

I’m exaggerating, for sure. Many of us will change. I’ve picked up some excellent tips and I’m pretty certain I know people who will really tighten up how they go about googling things as a result of Rosling’s book. There will be drip-feed effect for sure. But where this book could really score is by those of us who share Rosling’s dreams putting pressure on governments to make rational, fact-based research become part of the educational curricula. We need to teach children to check and re-check facts as a habit. Children really will pick up these skills for exactly the same reason why adults don’t – they latch on to the words and characteristics of teachers they love and admire and soak in their influence. Just as we soak up our favourite newspaper, our preferred political leader and our mates at work.

What Rosling does succeed in doing is present his love for the human race, love for life, love for the earth and his belief that we need to stop stereotyping ‘them’ and missing out on wonderful opportunities there are in life if only we stop believing what we’re told and actually go looking for the evidence (which is all out there, freely and easily discoverable, Rosling points out) and build our worldview from there.

Perhaps most impressive is when Rosling shares the things he really is worried about. With scary accuracy, he predicts the pandemic that we are currently suffering at the time of writing and looks like the global recession he fears will come as a result of this too. One truly hopes his remaining fears don’t come to pass too or we are really, truly screwed. What’s for sure is that we no longer live in a world where we can say “oh, it’ll never happen to us.” It can, it will, it has. This section of the book makes us sit up and take notice of Rosling all the more. After debunking outrageous fearmongerings we all know well, his own predictions have come horribly true.

So, read this book, but be careful to take away everything Rosling says and don’t just cherry-pick that which confirms your own agenda. It really was bizarre for me to flip back and forth in my opinions of what the author was saying, but as time went on he gave more and more personal anecdotes which made me feel like I was listening to a good friend. Eventually, he gave stories which stopped me in my tracks. In the very end – the very, very end – I openly cried. What an astonishing achievement from a man I initially held in suspicion but quickly came to admire and respect hugely.

Buy this book. It should sit, well-thumbed, on everyone’s bookshelf.

Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.

Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.

D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at dkpowell.contact@gmail.com. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.

Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine and Northern Arts Review.

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