When Hans Rosling was growing up in Sweden, he dreamed of being a circus performer. His parents sent him to medical school instead. One day, in the course of a dull lesson on how the throat works, a professor showed his class an X-ray of a man swallowing a sword. Inspired, Mr. Rosling tried to put a fishing rod down his throat. No go.
A few years later, by sheer chance, he found out he was examining the very man shown in the X-ray, by then elderly and suffering (perhaps unsurprisingly) from a chronic cough. The man explained that a round object like a fishing rod would never work; the thing had to be flat, like a sword. So Mr. Rosling found an old Swedish army bayonet and tried sliding it down his own throat. Eureka.
When Mr. Rosling incorporated the trick into his lectures on global development, he would strip down to a black vest decorated with a lightning bolt, call for silence and insert the bayonet to the sound of a drum roll. Then, the bayonet fully swallowed, he would spread his arms apart in triumph. The crowd always went wild.
The trick did more than keep his audiences alert. It proved a point: what seems impossible is often quite possible. Our intuitions about what humans can achieve – and what they have achieved – are often way off.
Tell people that the state of the world is getting steadily better and most will wonder what you have been smoking. Mr. Rosling told them just that for years. After an early career working as a doctor and health researcher in poor countries, he roamed the planet telling everyone from students to government officials to business tycoons that the world was making astounding progress in just about every measure of human well-being. Audiences loved him and he became a geeky rock star of the lecture circuit. His TED Talks scored millions of views.
And yet, the message didn’t seem to be getting through. Mr. Rosling often posed a series of questions to his audience. For example: What is the life expectancy of the world today? A: 50 years, B: 60 years, C: 70 years. Or: How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the past 100 years? A: More than doubled, B: Remained about the same, C: Decreased to less than half. The answer to both questions is C.
To Mr. Rosling’s chagrin, most people got the answers wrong – consistently and thoroughly wrong. He calculated that if he threw bananas marked A, B and C into the chimpanzee enclosure at the zoo and called out the questions, they would eat the right bananas more often than the average groups of humans got the right answers.
How could people be more out to lunch than chimps? How could they fail to understand the massive continuing transformation (mostly for the better) in the welfare of the human race?
So in the last-ditch effort of his career – as it turned out, of his life – Mr. Rosling wrote Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think. He never finished writing it. He died of cancer in 2017 at aged 68. His son and his daughter-in-law completed the book. It spent weeks on The New York Times bestseller list this year.
Factfulness is one of a trio of outstanding recent books that challenge our assumption that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. Harvard professor Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress and veteran journalist Gregg Easterbrook in It’s Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear make essentially the same argument. The state of the world is better – much better – than most of us are willing to believe. Life expectancy is way up, infant mortality way down. Diseases that used to snuff out millions of lives have been wiped from the face of the earth. The proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has halved in the past 20 years, a fact that Mr. Rosling calls “absolutely revolutionary.”
He would sometimes take a washing machine on stage to help illustrate how much life has improved. His whole family gathered around when they got their first one, including his grandmother, who had spent her life washing clothes by hand with water warmed over a wood stove. The machine saved the family countless hours of labour, time that could then be used for more rewarding things things, like reading books.
Even with such concrete evidence of progress all around them, most people still don’t believe that the world is improving. Opinion surveys show a majority in countries all over the globe think that, in fact, it is getting worse. About 70 per cent of Canadians feel that way, according to a table in Factfulness.
All three authors struggle to explain why. Mr. Pinker says that intellectuals deserve a lot of the blame. They go on about the mess humanity is in because it makes them sound serious and prophetic. Mr. Easterbrook points a finger at the media and its tendency to tell its audience only what went wrong yesterday. He found that, in the course of one month, The New York Times used the word “crisis” 914 times. (To be fair, The Times now has a special feature on “the week in good news.”)
Mr. Rosling started off thinking people were simply uninformed – thus, his years of energetic lecturing. He changed his mind. He came to believe that the problem was not what we know or don’t know. It is how we think.
Our brains are wired to look out for danger, a survival mechanism from ancient times. We tend to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses, which makes the present look worse and the future scarier than they are. We feed on drama and leap to dire conclusions. Mr. Rosling wants us to control these instincts. He peppers his book with tips on how to limit our “drama intake,” put bad news in perspective and avoid generalizing.
Mr. Rosling doesn’t want us all to go through life whistling a merry tune. He is as awake as anyone to the monumental problems still facing the world, from climate change to deadly conflict in places such as Syria to the continuing plight of people in the world’s poorest countries. He is saying that “things can be both bad and better.”
He is onto something there. Recognizing the better doesn’t make us blind to the bad. To the contrary, seeing how much progress we have made should arm us with the confidence to tackle the problems that remain. Alive to what we have achieved, we can do almost anything – even slide a sword down our throat.