The world of (wrong) facts

Why Everything You Think You Know About the World Is Probably Wrong, warns Will Mapplebeck.

Let’s start with a question. In the last twenty years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has…

a. Almost doubled

b. Remained more or less the same

c. Almost halved

Interested in changing the world? Before you start, please read Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund. It is a brilliant, perspective-changing piece of work.

The book underlines how most of the stuff we think we know about the world is wrong. We get it wrong because of various instincts that are often fed by the media, schooling, our peers or unconscious prejudice. The good news, is it’s not just you – everyone else, including most experts, tends to be way off the mark as well.

During his brilliant life Hans Rosling got the chance to talk to some of the world’s leading scientists, doctors, economic development experts and politicians and asked them simple questions about the world like the one above. They also got them wrong. Really wrong. So wrong that Hans worked out that statistically in many cases chimps  could have returned more accurate answers.

Here’s three standout facts that should change the way you look at the world:

There is no such thing as ‘developing’ and ‘developed’…

Rosling calls this the ‘mega-misconception’ about a divided world. Incomes are growing, families are shrinking and access to education is mushrooming. Only thirteen countries, or six per cent, of the world’s population can today be classed as ‘developing’ and most people live in middle income countries with access to basic healthcare, transport and education. Remember, just 200 years ago 85 per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty.

The World’s population will not just keep increasing…

What Rosling calls the ‘straight line’ instinct might lead you to panic about the possibility of over-population. Today there are around 7.6 billion people in the world and numbers have increased rapidly with 5 billion added over the last century. However, the growth has started to slow down, largely due to improved child health – meaning people having fewer and fewer children. The UN expects the world’s population to level out at around 11 billion by the end of this century.

Terrorism is on the rise, but not where you think…

Terrorism is one of the few things that is getting worse, but let’s put this into perspective – it counted for 0.05 per cent of all world deaths in 2016 and deaths due to terror are actually falling in the richest countries in the world. The rise is accounted for by continuing terrible civil wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Back in our world, terrorism pales into insignificance compared to other causes of death that don’t get the same level of attention, Rosling calls this ‘The Fear Instinct’. On US soil over the last twenty years 3,172 people died from terrorism – the vast majority on 9/11 – over the same period alcohol contributed to the death of 1.4 million Americans.

By the way, the answer to the first question is c. Global poverty has almost halved over the last twenty years. Don’t feel too bad if you got it wrong. Most people do. 

Factfullness,Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling is published by Sceptre Books. I got my copy from the excellent Cogito Books.