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  1. Book Review: A book argues that the world has become a better place than we think – Factfulness by Hans Rosling

Book Review: A book argues that the world has become a better place than we think – Factfulness by Hans Rosling

The most recent news item relating to electrification in the country highlighted the fact that all the villages in the country are now electrified. It was added that the challenge henceforth is to ensure that all households get access to power. How would the reader react to this statement?

By: | Published: May 27, 2018 3:19 AM
Cars and buses work their way through traffic in New Delhi. China and India may look like large pollutants, but if the amount of pollution is divided by the population and then compared with developed countries, one would get a very different picture, says the author (Bloomberg) Cars and buses work their way through traffic in New Delhi. China and India may look like large pollutants, but if the amount of pollution is divided by the population and then compared with developed countries, one would get a very different picture, says the author (Bloomberg)

The most recent news item relating to electrification in the country highlighted the fact that all the villages in the country are now electrified. It was added that the challenge henceforth is to ensure that all households get access to power. How would the reader react to this statement? Most of the economists without political leanings would be unmoved by this fact because 100% electrification means that there is a connection, but all do not have access to it. In fact, the number of people who have access is still limited. However, those with open minds will laud the same as a major achievement.

It’s these reactions that are explained in the book titled Factfulness by Hans Rosling, where he argues continuously that the world has become a better place than we think. While sporadic incidents or epidemics give the picture that the world is getting worse, the truth is that if we put the facts together and then analyse the data, it will be evident that the world has progressed with great strides and that the visions of poverty, death, disease, etc, are actually the exceptions and not the rules.

This is a very interesting thesis that has been put forward and supported by data. It does not suffer from any economist’s bias, as it has been written by a doctor and public educator whose experiences show that the world is a better place today.

We normally talk of countries being either at one end of the spectrum or the other, with terms like ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. This is a folly because the world no longer goes with a bipolar description. Rosling prefers to classify countries at four levels, where ‘Level 1’ is where we normally place the so-called least developed countries. ‘Level 2’ and ‘Level 3’ are the former ‘Level 1’ countries, which have moved to different levels of development, while ‘Level 4’ is the concentration of the richest nations, which we refer to as the developed countries. Once we have such a broad classification, the entire way of looking at progress becomes different. Most countries are in the Level 2 and 3 phases.

The book is divided into 10 chapters and each one relates to an optical view (which may not be right) that makes us react in a certain way. The case of division of countries into four categories rather than two has been called the ‘gap instinct’. Throughout the discourse, the emphasis is on explaining how this typical way of looking at things makes us jump to certain rational conclusions, which, however, are not supported by data. And when using data, the author takes us through official sources like the UN, IMF and World Bank, which are standard sources.

There are 13 basic questions with multiple choices, which he poses at the beginning, where the reader can tick the most appropriate answer. Invariably, the success rate will be very low for the most educated people because of pre-conceived notions. For example, when you are asked how many one-year-old children have been vaccinated against some disease, we would tick, more likely, a bold number of 50%, with the first option being 20%. But the right answer is 80%. Similarly, deaths from, say, natural disasters have actually decreased by less than half, even as one would probably tick the doubling option. This is because of the ‘negativity instinct’, which is reinforced by the media. Hence, an air crash makes news for several days, while no one likes to report that 99.9999% of flights arrived safely.

There is also what Rosling calls the ‘straight line effect’, where we assume that everything moves in a straight line in one direction. However, there are bends and things are ‘S’-shaped instead. Therefore, the world population is not just increasing as it is normally projected, which makes the future prospects look scary.

Similarly, there is the ‘size effect’, where environment comes into the picture. China and India may look like large pollutants, but if the amount of pollution is divided by the population and then compared with the Level 4 countries, one would get a very different picture. We get stuck with the ‘generalization instinct’, which can affect business strategies when wide-scale segmentation is not made. Or one can make a wrong move by generalising that India is a large market for a particular product without going into specifics, such as income, culture, local mores, etc. An interesting case which is made here is that of Tunisia. When the author saw several incomplete houses there, it was easy to jump to the conclusion that there is a severe problem. The investigation, however, showed that people actually invested their savings in bricks, which could not be stolen and people constructed houses over the years with their money. Cash could not be kept at home, as it could be robbed. Banks were not easily accessible and, hence, the poor converted savings into bricks used for constructing their houses.

‘The destiny instinct’ is related to how cultures and values change over time and we need to look at these carefully as, over time, there can be a big change. Here, the author gives an example of homosexuality, which is broadly gaining in acceptance across several countries, which was not the case earlier. Therefore, to say that things do not change because ‘we are like this’ is not right, as there are changes taking place continuously.

Another interesting reaction is called the ‘urgency instinct’, which can be seen when we have an epidemic that starts and spreads. While swine flu was a good example and the noise made about it relentless, the important fact is that the number of deaths caused was a fraction of the regular TB cases in the world. This creates a distorted vision of things. Similarly, the ‘fear instinct’ has made us feel that terrorism is rampant. After the WTC blast, in fact, Level 4 countries have had the impression that terrorism is rampant, which is not the case.

At a different level, the author brings in the ‘single perspective instinct’, where he shows that it is not necessary to have a democracy to get high levels of growth, which is something he had also believed for a long time. South Korea rose to where it is today under a dictator. Similarly, rich countries need not have the best life spans. These are all interesting data points, which make the book interesting.

Factfulness is a very thought-provoking book, which will definitely make one debate the issues raised. While data provides a great deal of support to the observations made, the reader would have to use her judgment to conclude whether enough is being done or not.

Madan Sabnavis is the chief economist, CARE Ratings

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