Why Bill Gates Told Us To Read Factfulness: A Review
Sticking true to custom, I usually pick up world-events-centric and self-help books only to reassure myself that I am, indeed, interested in bettering myself and in keeping abreast of all the latest (and usually horrendous) developments that are taking place around, over and under me. One such book that blew up all over my Instagram feed and which was, time and again, recommended by the people I routinely follow for inspiration and, on occasion, doses of helpful quotes that balance my own precarious mental health. That book is, appropriately enough, called Factfulness by Hans Rosling.
The cover was a delightfully deep orange colour and bore the legend 'Ten Reasons We're Wrong About The World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think'. And this book does exactly what it advertises. It makes you understand the evolution of medical health practices, mortality rates, economic avalanches and myriad other things that you snoozed over during those pesky Economics classes in your undergrad. It genuinely helps displace that uneasy ball of anxiety in your gut that tells you that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and does so using the most prosaic tools invented by mankind - statistics and bubble graphs.
This odyssey into the evolution of the world starts innocuously enough - the first chapter tells you that even supposed academics do little better than chimps when it comes to actual, factual awareness of the world (where does the majority of the world population live: low-income countries, middle-income countries, high-income countries etc). It shows us that like most things, we all fall somewhere in the middle - not too well-off but not destitute either. Having once told us off gently that we are all of us operating under dramatic misapprehensions that have no basis in facts, we are then taken through the very real reasons why we are so quick to jump to conclusions that tend to apocalyptize the world around us.
In large tracts of the book, we are painstakingly informed about factors that are strewn around like confetti all over Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Don't believe everything you see on the news, that small measures taken at the individual level all add up and that we are all coloured by the same dramatic instincts that dominate our species. While I was left feeling underwhelmed by the perhaps more obvious revelations presented in the form of bullet points that peel back our layers of ignorance, I was, despite a natural instinct to do otherwise, comforted by one vitally original thought - data being used as therapy. Not only was I fed rationalized numbers and verified statistics, but I was also systematically comforted, chapter-by-chapter.
One of the most affirming words the book carries are these 'Step-by-step, year-by-year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces huge challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.' The thing about liking posts that vilify politicians and takedown revered institutions is that after a while, you get the feeling that everything is hopeless. Once you start climbing down the pit of self-pity, you stop doing the things that might actually make a difference. You stop voting because every single politician who seems halfway promising is sooner rather than later tainted by scandal (case in point: Canada's darling Justin Trudeau is a feminist, eminently articulate and inclusive… right up until you're told that he smeared black paint on his face in an attempt to be provocative). You stop recycling because hey, climate change won't be halted just because you crushed your Coke can and dropped it in the green bin. But that's just the thing - if you don't have a reasonable, numbers-based analysis of how and why the measures you take actually do affect the world, then you're never going to get a clear picture.
Factfulness reinforces the pragmatic view that unless you are actually informed and in possession of all the facts, you cannot possibly make a sensible decision. It tells us that the world is BETTER, BUT STILL BAD. This simple acknowledgement, backed by statistics and bubble charts and multiple-choice questions, tells you that yes, there are several looming problems facing the planet, BUT, the world has never been better than it is in this moment while you read my rant/review. We have never been as medically advanced as we are today, the infant mortality rate has never been lower, we have never been more literate than today, in 2020. It divides countries into reasonable income groups and informs us, in no uncertain words, that our archaic categories of 'us' vs. 'them' and 'developed' and 'developing' countries are as outdated as black and white television sets. We see that no country has ever been perfect and that no country has ever systematically remained undeveloped. No, on the whole, things always end up improving. And that's comforting. That's affirming. That's helpful.
Hans Rosling also sounded off on journalists and the primal fact that a despicable and depressing headline will always grab more eyeballs than an optimistic one. That's nothing we didn't already know. But what makes his point of view infinitely more interesting is that he doesn't just blame the journalists. Rather, he moves further and paints our own overdramatic instincts as the culprits. I am reminded of the stark contrast between watching any inane episode of Fox News and a detailed and intelligently-packed episode of Hassan Minhaj's Patriot Act. They both, to an extent, give in to doomsday monologues, but where Fox News indulges in chest-thumping and placard-waving smattered with slightly racist overtones, the Patriot Act shows you verifiable figures, comparable trends and starts dialogues about issues you never even knew abounded outside the confines of your favourite coffee shop.
Factfulness rounds out the psychological pitfalls that surround us and tells us that there's a better way to plan, to think and to form opinions. It might serve us better to go back and flip through those pages from time to time, and be thankful for everything the human race has achieved, instead of side-stepping the recycling bin and drinking a mimosa instead of heading in to vote. The world is pretty bad, I grant you, but still better.