Book Review: FACTFULNESS by Hans Rosling

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Hans Rosling is a Swedish citizen who studies medicine, statistics, and public health. Early in his career, his fifth day on duty in a small Swedish hospital emergency room, a plane crash victim was brought in twitching. Epileptic seizure, he immediately thought. The man wore some kind of military uniform, which Rosling prepared to cut off. The man spoke an odd language, sounded like Russian. Rosling reassured him in Russian, as best he could: “All is calm, comrade. Swedish hospital.” The man’s eyes showed terror. More strange speech. Blood covered the floor. Rosling had only seconds to act. He shouted to the student nurse, “Four units of O-negative blood! Hurry!” He thought, Russian fighter pilot shot down over Swedish territory – World War III has begun!

The head nurse arrives back from lunch. She snatches the scissors from his hand. “That air force G-suit costs over 10,000 Swedish kroner! And take your foot off his life jacket .You’re standing on the color cartridge and turning the whole floor red.”

And to the pilot, she says in Swedish, “You were in the icy water 23 minutes, which is causing your shivering and chattering teeth, and why we can’t understand what you’re saying.” The patient gave a weak smile of relief.

With this introduction, Rosling begins his chapter on The Fear Instinct, one of eleven chapters on the assumptions which influence our world view and our reactions.

Each chapter has a brief quiz with three choices, A, B, and C, comparing the scores of people in twelve different countries with the scores of several chimpanzees (offered a choice of three bananas labeled A, B, and C, who usually score a random 33% correct.) Most times, the humans – including the American and Swedish groups, do not do as well as the chimps on knowledge of facts about present world population, facts provided by census bureaus, international health and economic organizations, etc.

The author documents world progress in eliminating “bad things” (for example, number of children dying before age 5, new HIV/AIDS infections per million people, number of 1,000 ton or greater oil spills per year, plane crash deaths per year, etc.) Also progress in “good things” – (percentage of girls of primary school age enrolled, share of people with some access to electricity, share of people with water from protected source, etc.) with each graph stating its sources of data.

In general, the facts of the world’s more than 7 billion people show considerable improvement over the measured time spans; but still in need of more. In the year 1800, 85% of the human race lived in extreme poverty; in 1966 only 50%; in 2017, only 9% of the world population (but that’s still 2/3 of one billion people) However the world population is not steadily increasing like a straight-line graph; more and more women are choosing to have only 2 or 3 children instead of 6 or 8. Some estimates predict world population will stabilize at about 9 billion.

Dr. Rosling sees five possible worst scenarios that might interrupt present world progress: an uncontrolled global disease pandemic; world financial collapse; World War III; climate change; or an increase in extreme poverty. He urges all people to base their thinking processes on verified facts rather than dividing the world into “us and them”, or basing opinion on a single statistic (“never accept a lone number.”) Nor on fear, nor on our own ignorance, nor failing to think things through.

He recounts two stories from his own experience as a public health worker in Mozambique, an impoverished country in southeast Africa. One story in which he never forgave himself, the other in which one woman stood between him and a furious crowd intent on killing him. It was a year when the crops had failed, and a strange disease had appeared, apparently for the first time ever. People experienced sudden onset of paralysis, different from polio. It was spreading fast in the local population, and needed to be stopped. He counseled a local official to cancel bus service to surrounding towns. Townspeople with goods to sell in the city only saw it as an inconvenience and hired fishermen to take them by boat. One of the boats capsized and all aboard drowned. It turned out later that the disease was not contagious.

Later on, he was testing people in a wider area of Africa. The people called the disease konzo; it appeared to be related to their main food, cassava, and was crippling their children. Dr. Rosling was taking blood samples in one village when the crowd grew angry – “He’s taking our blood to sell!” some began shouting, and brandished their machetes. There was no place to run.

A barefoot woman, maybe 50 in age, stepped out of the crowd and faced the shouters. “Shut up,” she shouted. “Can’t you see it makes sense? Remember all the children who died from measles? Then they came and gave us vaccine and now no one dies of that disease. How do you think they discovered the measles vaccine? By research, like this man’s doing!” She rolled up her sleeve. “Here, Doctor. Take my blood.” The shouts of the crowd changed from anger to soft voices and curious smiles as most of the crowd lined up behind her.

Hans Rosling died of cancer at age 69 in 2017. His work is carried on by his son and daughter-in-law, Ola and Anna, who continue to promote a fact-based world view through their Gapminder Foundation, and their work with the Swedish branch of Médicins sans Frontièrs [Doctors Without Borders]. They also co-published this book with Hans. The multifunction “bubble graphs” and photos are easily understood, and the common sense approach is hard to dispute.

The reviewer highly recommends this book.

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