The Great “Factfulness” Con

I was in South Africa earlier this year, visiting my dad, when I first read a review of Hans Rosling’s book “Factfulness”.  I remember excitedly reading some of the key points of the review to my dad, who expressed skepticism at what I was telling him. “According to this, Dad, 85% of the world lives in developed countries, while only 6% live in developing ones. And apparently, while most people believe that 59% of the world lives in low income countries, the real figure is only 9%”.   The facts and figures kept coming – oozing positivity and shattering many of my misconceptions about the state of the world.  Eventually, I handed my iPad over to my dad so he could read the review for himself – I wanted to share my excitement at what I had just read, and made a mental note to buy the book myself as soon as I got back to the UK.

Of course, I got sidetracked and so it’s taken me until now to actually buy and read the book.  And the disappointment, and sense of betrayal, is absolutely immense.  Because this book, and all the hype around it, strikes me as one of the biggest cons I’ve ever come across.

Bill Gates describes the book as “One of the most important books I’ve ever read – an indispensible guide to thinking clearly about the world”.

Barack Obama describes it as “A hopeful book about the potential for human progress when we work off facts rather than our inherent biases”.

Danny Finkelstein, whose review in the Times prompted me to buy the book, described it as “An assault both on ignorance and pessimism”

And Jeremy Warner, of the Sunday Telegraph, wrote “We need more of this way of thinking, both in business and politics”

After reading reviews such as those, how could I possibly expect anything less than groundbreaking?

I really was willing to have my biases challenged.  I was excited about being bombarded with facts and information that would challenge my preconceptions about the world – and I tore through the introduction with enthusiasm, racing through the multiple-choice test questions that form the basis of the book’s thesis, that on average, due to our inherent biases and overall pessimism about the state of the world, a chimpanzee selecting answers at random has a better chance of picking the right answer about the state of the world, than even the most highly-educated human.  And of course I got many of the answers wrong – in each case, the true answer, whether related to the number of people living in poverty, the number of people who have access to electricity, or the number of years of education girls receive worldwide, always turned out to be far more positive than the answer I had selected.

This was great!  I couldn’t wait to read further, to understand more about the underlying data behind these questions and answers.  Was it really true, for example, that the majority of the world population lives in middle-income countries?

Well, it turns out, it all depends on your definition of “middle income”.  Rosling uses four different income levels to illustrate his point.  Level 1 is extreme poverty – where the average citizen lives on less than $2 per day.  Level 4 is rich countries – where the average citizen lives on more than $32 per day. And EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN is what he terms “middle income”.  So essentially, when he says “The majority of the world lives in middle income countries” all he is actually saying, is that there are extremes of rich and poor and that most people live somewhere in between those extremes.  Now, had he phrased his question along those lines, I’m pretty sure 100% of people would have got the answer right.

Rosling's four income levels

Graphical depiction of billions of people living on different income levels. Note the logarithmic scale at the bottom – majority of people are at levels 1 and 2.

The majority of people in the world, in actual fact, live on the lower two levels (rather close to the 59% that most people believe live in lower-income countries).  And as the levels are represented as exponential growth, rather than linear, the reality is that the majority of people in the world are living on less than $8 per day.  Which I personally would define as being at the lower end of the income scale depicted – particularly as Rosling’s descriptions of the individual levels indicate that even those living on level 2, do not have water in the home, and any electricity they may have is generally unstable.  So it turns out what most people believe to be true, actually IS true, and Rosling is simply trying to spin the data to make us believe otherwise.

Let’s look at some of the other “facts” presented by the book.

FACT QUESTION 10

Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?”

  1. 9 years
  2. 6 years
  3. 3 years

The answer, of course, is 9 years.  But where is this data coming from?  Well, it turns out the underlying data set is made up of estimates of average educational attainment levels in 188 countries, from an organisation called the Global Health Data Exchange which is funded by – and here’s a surprise – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  Suddenly the glowing reviews on the book’s cover, from Bill and Melinda Gates, seem less surprising.  And “school” includes primary, secondary and tertiary education. So the countries where children get less than 5 years’ education are counterbalanced by those getting 13 years and upwards.   But you have to actually look up the dataset on the internet to find this out.  It certainly isn’t mentioned anywhere in the book. Nor is there any comparison of, or even commentary on, the different standards of education across countries. For the purposes of this “fact”, 5 years’ education in a developing nation such as Cameroon, Rwanda or Eritrea is considered of equivalent value to 5 years’ education in any of the developed nations such as Japan, Germany or the United States.

Moving on – let’s look at another “fact”.

FACT QUESTION 12

How many people in the world have some access to electricity?

  1. 20 percent
  2. 50 percent
  3. 80 percent

You guessed it – the answer is 80 percent.  But where does this figure come from, and what does the underlying data actually say? Well, it turns out it’s from the World Bank, who collate data showing what percentage of each individual country’s population has access to electricity.  The 80% appears to be a rounded-down, simple average of each country’s percentages, which does not appear to take into account individual population size (population figures are not given, and no mention is made of any kind of population-weighting, so while I may be missing something, it appears as though the many countries where 100% of citizens have access to electricity have simply been averaged against those where less than 40%, or less than 30%, or even less than 10%, of the population have any access).

Rosling, in the appendix, also points out that “access to electricity” does not mean the supply is reliable.  A person experiencing 60 power outages per week, would still be considered to have access to electricity.   Suddenly that 80% access to electricity doesn’t seem quite so impressive.

I won’t go into any of the other “facts” in the book – none of them appear to be blatantly incorrect, though many, like those mentioned above, have been very carefully curated.  Most of them, in fact, are fairly non-contentious.  Overall, though, this is a book that oozes condescension, that continually ignores the advice of its own author – he cautions against getting too hung up on attention-grabbing simple ideas, while basing his entire book on exactly those.   He points out the ability of researchers and statisticians to skew our perspective on data by changing the scales on a graph – while doing exactly that with his catchy bubble diagrams that use a logarithmic scale to attempt to convince us that the majority of the world is living not at the lower end of the income spectrum, but happily in the middle.

Depressingly, with its emphasis on simple “facts” and catchy bubble graphs, this is a book for the internet age – the world of TED talks and YouTube, where a credulous audience can be convinced of just about anything with the right combination of catchy slides and fun facts.

Despite all this, the overall trend IS positive – huge improvements HAVE been made in the last few decades, in all the areas discussed in the book – and it is good to be reminded of just how much progress has been made.  It’s just a shame that so little time is spent actually looking into any of the “facts” in any detail – if you truly want to get a proper picture of what is happening in the world, you either need to buy a different book, or spend hours, as I have just done, obsessively looking up the underlying data in an attempt to draw your own conclusions.   Rather than leaving me with the warm glow of optimism that I expected, this book has left me furious and despondent that this is the level to which public debate appears to be descending, when a book that is so light on facts and analysis, and so heavy on spin and graphics, can receive such great acclaim.

I don’t doubt the authors’ intentions were honourable – Hans Rosling, the primary author, died in 2017 and the book was completed by his son and daughter-in-law, Ola and Anna Rosling – and I don’t believe they set out to deceive.  But with their carefully-curated “facts”, cunningly-worded questionnaires and catchy graphics that hide massive income discrepancies via logarithmic scales, they have produced a book that has no more substance than the original TED talk that inspired it.  If simplistic “facts” and engaging graphics are your thing, I’d suggest you watch one of Hans Rosling’s TED talks.  But if you actually want to delve deeper into any of the “facts” presented, you’ll need to buy a different book.

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7 Responses to The Great “Factfulness” Con

  1. scottmc37 says:

    FWIW as a young boy in Canada I recall when my Grandmother got electriciy, 1 lightbulb in her farmhouse kitchen. They still had an outdoor toilet and a hand pump for water when she passed approx 1958. Rosling is trying to put things in prospective and important stats like infant morality show huge improvements around the world.

    Travel the world a bit and you will note the absolutely amazing improvements in quality of life for billions of people…..
    90% of the improvements are due to Capitalism, EG we couldnt afford a TV when I was a kid, today an amazing TV costs much less than 5% in todays $’s than something people would call unwatchable when I was a boy…

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  2. scottmc37 says:

    100 years ago virtually no one had electricity or indoor plumbing, People died on average 30 years younger in Canada, even my wife tell’s me of her grandmother burying one of her kids in the back yard when died at birth…
    Have things improved?? I would say yes….

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    • ilikewords23 says:

      Of course things have improved – massively. And I do get that the book is trying to get that point across. I just would have preferred if the writers had stuck to presenting the facts as they are – without the need to carefully curate what was presented, and particularly without the need to fudge the way questions and answers were presented in order to imply that the average human has less chance than a chimp of getting the right answers about the state of human progress.

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  3. scottmc37 says:

    Sadly Hans died about 18 months ago, but he has an amazing TED talk with fantastic visuals from about 10 years ago…

    From 2006

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  4. scottmc37 says:

    Hopefully you wont delete my posts as they dont agree with your slant… Steve Pinker has a someone similar message (I saw him about 6 weeks ago) although his message has too much of his own politics and his personal slant(IMO very biased), otherwise its Hans message that he projected over 12 years ago.

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