World is getting better but many disagree

We need a better handle on our ignorance if we want to improve our lives, says Ola Rosling, a proponent of factfulness – holding only opinions supported by strong facts

By Jacob Aron

OLA ROSLING isn’t afraid to point out your mistakes. He is the president of Gapminder, the foundation he set up with his wife Anna Rosling Rönnlund and his late father Hans Rosling. Gapminder is dedicated to exposing common misconceptions about the world and promoting a fact-based viewpoint. The foundation uses data visualisations and quizzes to reveal how little we really know, asking people things like whether they believe the world is getting better or worse, and what they think is the average life expectancy for people globally.

Join Ola Rosling at New Scientist Live in London where he’ll explain why things are better than you think

He also advocates a “factfulness” mindset, one that seeks to overcome our brain’s inbuilt biases. These arise from the mental “rules of thumb”, known as heuristics, that we use to make decisions, and are responsible for our tendency to notice bad events rather than good ones, and to assume that some things are destined to happen.

You may have already seen Ola Rosling’s work via his father’s TED talks. The first, given in June 2006 on “the best stats you’ve ever seen“, has now been viewed more than 16 million times. Last year, the trio behind Gapminder published Factfulness – a book that identifies the common pitfalls that make us see the world as a scary place. It became a global bestseller.

You make a compelling case that the world is better than we believe. Why don’t we notice this?

For some reason, historically, it was beneficial to worry about everything, to see problems and plan for disaster. It was the way previous generations could survive. We are their offspring, so we tend to use the same tactics, except that we don’t need them anymore. I am not a researcher in these fields, but it seems like humans are predisposed to focus on the negative things we hear, to see problems.

When we are asked about the world, we look into our minds and – no surprise – find our preconceived ideas and all the negative things we have heard. Then the big picture turns bad.

The fact of the matter

Economic information shows that the world really has got a lot better than we might realise. In 1918, for example, 67.1 per cent of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty (see chart above). A hundred years later, this proportion had dropped to just 10.6 per cent.

How can we compensate for this?

By creating the habit of being factful. Today there is data about almost everything. It is the first time in human history when we can look back at the numbers. The data often show a completely different picture, so we need to keep track of what is actually true, the facts.

You use a test about global facts and even Nobel prizewinners are terrible at them, scoring worse than they would with random guesses. Do we become more ignorant as we age?

Toddlers and chimpanzees are often much better than grown-ups when answering our test. This is because they choose randomly and not because they understand or think about the questions. At some point in life, misconceptions are introduced: we see news about a terror attack or natural disasters, and the world out there turns out to be something bad. It becomes intuitive to assume that the world is becoming worse and then people pick the worst of options in the Gapminder test.

Do you think we can learn from children and their lack of preconceptions? For example, the climate strikes led by Greta Thunberg show that sometimes adults don’t get it right.

I have a huge respect for what Greta has done. She made my kids care about climate change, something I couldn’t do.

Many of the kids striking don’t have a clue about climate change but they are morally concerned about a grown-up society who cannot answer their questions. This is super important, just as learning the facts about the topic. Gapminder is currently developing a specific test about climate change, which will help us see if these kids and people around the world are ignorant or not in this area.

72 years

Global average life expectancy at birth

Climate change is one area where the book has been criticised, as it doesn’t fit with your “things are getting better” narrative. How do you respond to that?

I’m frustrated by that criticism because it’s absolutely false to claim that the book neglects climate change. In the last chapter, it is one of five global risks we identify [along with global pandemics, financial collapses, a third world war and extreme poverty].

The reason to not believe that everything is getting worse is to sharpen our focus, so that we can look at these five things that are super dangerous. Climate is among them. Criticising the book for not addressing climate change pretty much indicates that they haven’t read the whole book.

New Scientist Default Image
New Scientist Default Image

The book lays out how to adopt a factfulness mindset to help develop an evidence-based viewpoint. How did you acquire this mindset?

I think I internalised it while growing up. My father and I had long conversations and he taught me to think this way. He taught himself to think this way. Sometimes you have heuristics that you’re not aware of because no one has put a label on them. When we wrote the book, we sat down and labelled things, we invented names for these rules of thumb. Those are concrete principles to factfulness.

Can you give examples of these rules of thumb?

One is the fear instinct, which is the tendency of humans to pay attention to frightening things. In 2016, for example, 40 million passenger flights landed safely at their destinations and 10 ended in fatal accidents. You probably heard about the 10 that crashed not the 40 million that were fine.

Another chapter is on the blame instinct. It comes naturally to put the blame on one individual when things go wrong. This tendency undermines our ability to solve a problem because we are stuck with finger-pointing, which distracts us from the more complex truth.

Spreading these ideas has become a family mission. Did you ever expect it would result in a worldwide bestselling book?

It’s kind of a mistake that we didn’t write the book earlier. We got famous by visualising data and with Hans’ first TED talk, where he showed visualizations that I and Anna had developed for six years. It was the first viral TED talk ever.

We thought of ourselves as digital developers and made fun of books because they are made of paper. You can get arrogant when you’re successful in one field and ignore the possibilities of other fields. This is bad. We realised that communicating to wider audiences is 100 times easier with a book.

So you think the book makes it easier for people to understand a fact-based worldview?

The method of the book is pretty strict. Besides the rules of thumb, we present the results of a survey where we asked 13 questions about global development to 12,000 people in 14 countries. Most people were wrong.

We started the book with the same test because we wanted to expose the readers to their own ignorance. If we had only presented the results of the survey, the readers would have thought we were talking about someone else. People need to be exposed to their own ignorance to realise they need to learn.

We tend to think we already know stuff, which means we have no reasons to learn. To develop a fact-based worldview, we need to realise that we are ignorant about our ignorance.


Percentage of people with access to electricity in 2014

Finally, do you have a favourite statistic?

When my son was 1 year old, he got meningitis and almost died in my arms. My favourite trend is that child mortality went down from 43 per cent to 4 per cent between 1800 and 2016. As a parent, having almost lost a child, I know what that number means and it’s the meaning behind that number that really counts.

That’s why I do this work. Our world really is improving and we know how to help those last 4 per cent of children. They are dying for no good reason. We already have the cure. We know exactly what they need. They need clean water, they need a mum who went to school and they need primary health care and vaccines.

Ola Rosling is a Swedish statistician and co-founder and president of the Gapminder Foundation. He developed Trendalyzer, a bubble chart tool that was acquired by Google, and led the firm’s public data team.

First published at New Scientist – Wednesday 4 September 2019

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