Review of Factfulness (2018)


Anna Rosling Rönnlund (writer), Hans Rosling (writer), Ola Rosling (writer).

Read in 2019.

Read in the original Swedish.

Outsider journalism on selected positive trends in global human development and an approximately fifty-year lag in public understanding of the world.

It’s a fun read, partly because Hans Rosling is basically right, and partly because he’s a carnie. Even as he decries the media’s sensationalism, he describes his own great love of the circus and how he likes to finish his talks by swallowing a sword in a sequined shirt. Even as he urges the reader to take a nuanced view of complex statistics, he sells his ideas mainly with stylized anecdotes, some of which clearly contain a load of bullshit. The opening of chapter 9 looks particularly fictional: A spontaneous classroom conversation that repeats Milton Friedman’s diffusion of responsibility from CEO to board to shareholders, in this case anybody with a pension fund. Rosling is right to admonish activists, politicians and journalists for exaggerating, but drama and simplification are the main tools in his arsenal. He is apparently right to emphasize the contributions of Anna and Ola to his overall impact.

The Roslings’ anthropocentrism is distasteful. They briefly discuss Rachel Carson as if her main concern in Silent Spring (1962) had been that DDT would eventually poison people; an implausible misunderstanding in line with anti-regulation propaganda. It is also telling that among the authors’ questions where the most positive answer is correct, only one concerns the natural world, and it reeks of cherry picking: “In 1996, tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today?” In truth, the red-list status of the black rhino was critically endangered, not merely endangered, and this has not changed.

It is a triumph that conservationists have been able to save the Roslings’ three species as of 2019, and bringing attention to such successes is important for building public faith in conservation efforts. Charismatic megafauna, exemplified by the Roslings’ three picks, does have a significant ecological role, but it was charisma that drove the fundraising. Meanwhile, many thousands and probably tens of thousands of other species went extinct between 1996 and 2018, while many more did reach elevated levels of concern. According to the Living Planet Index, between 1970 and 2012, wild vertebrate populations declined by 58% on average. This is one cost of the developments the Roslings hail—correctly—as positive. They don’t look at costs. Their sole question about the natural world is disingenuous, which is a shame. They stick in climate change as the one area of concern on the same list of questions: A good choice, but it looks like a token safeguard against accusations of pollyannaism.

The Roslings’ passions lie in human health and make the book so useful to orthogonal interests that I got my copy for free from a for-profit company that has nothing to do with human health. For example, consider that Anna Rosling Rönnlund’s Dollar Street project cuts off at $32/day, the lower limit of her Level 4. That’s a good choice for the time of writing, but the authors fail to discuss why they base their distinctions on purchasing power at all. It’s not a great measure for the first 7000 years on their graph. When it applies, purchasing power is power and does not level off past $32/day. When Hans Rosling died, the richest 42 people owned as much as the poorest 3,700,000,000 people: Half the world. These 42 individuals were a bigger threat to the propagation of a fact-based world view than the Roslings’ favourite target: Journalists.

The Dollar Street is based on the correct observation that the subjective value of each new dollar decreases logarithmically. The market value of each new dollar, on the other hand, is constant. The Roslings mention Castro’s corrupt and cash-strapped regime but say nothing about the Koch brothers’ machine of near-global political influence. Hans Rosling was sincere in his efforts, neither a cynic nor a useful idiot, but for comparison to those facts the Roslings chose to popularize by simple means, consider the following metaphor, posted to Reddit by its anonymous creator apropos of David Koch’s death, paraphrased for context:

Picture a staircase. Each step on the staircase represents $100,000 of net worth. That’s several years of typical working wages at Level 4 on Dollar Street. Globally, the vast majority of people are on the ground, at the base of the staircase, not even one step up. This group includes half the population of the USA and is the sole subject of Factfulness.

Those US households at the 80th percentile of wealth are on the fifth step: About a second’s walk up the staircase. Dollar millionaires start on the tenth step: Another second at a jog. Even in the richest countries, extremely few people reach that height through a life of honest, helpful work, when they have to start from nothing.

A dollar billionaire is ten thousand steps up the staircase. That’s five Empire State buildings or about three hours of walking non-stop. Looking down from this height you can’t tell the difference between a destitute labourer and a millionaire.

Hans Rosling’s buddy Bill Gates, who vowed to give free copies of Factfulness to all college graduates, was worth 100 billion dollars at the time. His step on the staircase is almost 200 km above ground, two dozen times higher than the tallest peak of the Earth. To walk to that height you would need to sleep in your space suit for at least a month.

There is a deeper, less political problem with Factfulness: The Roslings teach tricks, not methods. They chose good tricks, but these are no substitute for the ability to recognize logical fallacies in an argument or cognitive biases in yourself. Most of the book’s ten purported instincts are not instincts at all but consequences of inferior heuristics, mostly excluded from discussion. Gapminder’s famous tools for visualization are excellent for understanding statistics: Much better than the advice offered here by their creators.

Hans Rosling says he gave a talk at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) but he does not contrast the purpose of that organization against his own. He cautions against putting one’s faith purely in private capital or centralized government control, but he doesn’t mention the golden mean or the false dichotomy, thus exemplifying both. Instead, he invents his own terms: “factful” and “possibilist”. These are nebulous and useless. Rosling’s possibilism, for example, seems to have a superficial relationship to Albert O. Hirschman’s “bias for hope” under the same name, but is not usefully distinct from general optimism.

In this book, the Roslings attempt nothing like The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995), which does a better job discussing the media and the history of human pessimism and folly. The Roslings’ ambitions were lower than Sagan’s, but not more concrete, and not more practical. Ultimately, they made the bet that a simple, dramatic book would have the greatest impact. It’s a good bet.

References here: Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), “Missing Women and the Bachelor Time Bomb” (2019).

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