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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Why ‘Factfulness’ Cannot Save Us

Optimism is great, but not when it’s the product of ignoring the obvious.

I am, to my dismay, a perennial sucker for books that promise to revolutionize my thinking.

This inclination probably stems from intellectual insecurity. I have strong convictions about complex problems beyond my expertise—a potent recipe for self-doubt. I dislike narratives about the inevitability of human progress, and I worry about calamitous problems like climate change. Yet I also live in a world where knowledge is functionally infinite, so I’ll always be wrong about something important. Why not these things? I can’t suppress a nagging voice that whispers doubt about my deeply held beliefs, asking: How can you really be sure?

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2018) is one of those books. Its author, late TED Talk-star and professor of international health Hans Rosling, cites polling that shows I’m not alone in my grim assumptions. [1] Pessimism about modern society’s trajectory is widespread, but Rosling laments that people like me don’t recognize how good modern humans have it.

To combat this dearth of good cheer, Rosling tells a story about how “Things Are Actually Getting Better.” Readers of Current Affairs will be familiar with this narrative, which is the core of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker’s homage to “Enlightenment ideals.” Both men are often included in the pantheon of so-called “New Optimists,” and, like Pinker, Rosling collects trend lines that show how extreme poverty, child mortality, deaths from natural disasters, and other horrors have declined in recent decades. As he writes:

In fact, the vast majority of the world’s population lives somewhere in the middle of the income scale. Perhaps they are not what we think of as middle class, but they are not living in extreme poverty. Their girls go to school, their children get vaccinated, they live in two-child families, and they want to go abroad on holiday, not as refugees. 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 last sentence is key. Rosling is not simply asking readers to memorize a few statistics. He’s selling cynics an entirely different perspective. Factfulness represents his extended defense of the “fact-based worldview.” It exhorts readers to adopt the practice of “factfulness,” which is Rosling’s homespun remedy for overcoming psychological “instincts” that, in his view, cause people to assume the world is worse than it actually is.

Despite its ambitions, there were signs Rosing’s book wouldn’t change my mind. The book’s popularity among liberal figureheads was one warning. Barack Obama called it “a hopeful book” and included it on his 2018 summer reading list. Factfulness also seems to be a must-read for Silicon Valley executives. Bill Gates loved it so much he gave free ebook copies to college graduates. Still, I tried not to pass a hasty judgment. Obama’s taste in books can be excellent. Perhaps my certainty about the scale of global problems was unfounded. I wanted to be convinced.

I was not.

Rosling’s manifesto is best described as intellectual self-care for the global business elite. While he may have noble intentions, his “fact-based worldview” turns out to be mostly a guide for how Fortune 500 CEOs can increase their profits and feel good about it. Meanwhile, the only real option for readers without seats in a corporate boardroom is to use rosy statistics “as therapy.” Factfulness transforms the project of crafting an equitable global society into an internal quest for stress-reduction and self-improvement. Taking Rosling’s advice would mean that we drop any demands for radical change and take shelter in the hands of benevolent oligarchs, where the future looks glorious (for them).

It’s important to note that Factfulness has an audience far beyond rich people. The book’s publisher calls it an “Instant New York Times Bestseller,” and it’s been translated into thirteen languages. Free publicity from Bill Gates probably helped move copies, but its appeal surely stems from something more fundamental.

The book seems to tap into widespread dissatisfaction with popular media, at least in the U.S. News headlines are full of horrible things, and constantly reading about horrible things is exhausting and demoralizing. Factfulness confronts this problem, though it resists the urge to demonize individual reporters or publications. (“Journalists who reported flights that didn’t crash or crops that didn’t fail would quickly lose their jobs,” Rosling writes.) Instead, the book promises to alleviate your anxiety by reducing the number of horrible things you should worry about.

There is also so little media, especially at the national level, that does anything to embolden its readers. So it’s not surprising a book that claims it will “change the way you see the world and empower you to respond to challenges and opportunities of the future” would be popular. While these promises don’t hold up under scrutiny (more on that below), that doesn’t mean they aren’t attractive.

To be clear: Rosling’s work is not totally without value. His explicit desire to promote accurate knowledge about the world is laudable and seems genuine. Before his death in 2017, he was a charming ambassador for factual literacy. Millions have watched his popular TED Talks, which combine audience participation, colorful charts, and humor. To show humans could accomplish improbable things, Rosling swallowed swords, a holdover from his childhood dream of performing in the circus. At its best, his writing captures this sense of joyful exuberance:

I want people, when they realize they have been wrong about the world, to feel not embarrassment, but that childlike sense of wonder, inspiration, and curiosity that I remember from the circus, and that I still get every time I discover I have been wrong: ‘Wow, how is that even possible?’

One of Rosling’s most useful insights is that highly educated people in rich countries are often staggeringly wrong about trends in global health. To demonstrate this, Factfulness relies heavily on a survey his educational foundation, Gapminder, conducted in 2017. The foundation posed simple, multiple-choice questions about health and population statistics to about 12,000 people living in places like the U.S. and Sweden. Examples include:

How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?
A: More than doubled
B: Remained about the same
C: Decreased to less than half

How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?
A: 20 percent
B: 50 percent
C: 80 percent

(In both cases, the answer is C.)

The average participant flunked, scoring two out of twelve, [2] and more education was no help. Rosling writes that “some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers.” Rosling often quips that chimpanzees would beat humans. By this, he means that, statistically, people do worse than if they were just picking answers at random. It’s this systematic wrongness, which always leans toward the more negative answer, that concerns Rosling.

It seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: We should know that global deaths from natural disasters have fallen dramatically in the last century (though an increase in climate change–fueled floods, storms, and heatwaves complicates this trend). Likewise, there’s no reason to downplay the success of childhood vaccination campaigns. The fact that 86 percent of the world’s infants were vaccinated against polio in 2019 is an achievement. (Of course, this also means 19.7 million babies a year are still not protected against horrible illnesses. And in recent years, childhood vaccinations have stalled and even decreased in some countries; the U.S., which eliminated measles in 2000, is dealing with new outbreaks caused, in part, by declining vaccination rates.) 

Anyone who wants to improve the world should start with accurate information. I feel the need to make that point strongly because I’m about to criticize Rosling’s ideological assumptions and his blinkered focus on the facts that support his narrative of progress. (Note the many caveats in the previous paragraph.) But that is quite different from criticizing the need for facts.

Let’s say you agree with Rosling so far. Perhaps you haven’t bought into his whole “factfulness” schtick, but you’ve familiarized yourself with United Nations population statistics, and looked up how many humans around the world have electricity in their homes. You’re feeling more hopeful about the state of the world. Now what?

Here, the problems begin. Rosling often fails to say what readers should actually do with better information. When he does, the recommendations are vague. Readers will “get the world right without learning it by heart,” “stay alert to real dangers and possibilities,” and “avoid being constantly stressed about the wrong things.”

This is odd. One of his central justifications for spreading factual-knowledge is that cynicism undermines the possibility for future progress. Spend a little time answering fact-questions on Gapminder’s website, and you’ll see what I mean. Gapminder informs us that overestimating hunger in the world “can have the unintended consequence of ruining our hope.” Underestimating the percentage of female CEOs in the world “slows down the speed of change” because girls “might not aim high enough.” But suggestions for specific steps are usually lacking.

Rosling does claim Factfulness will help people “make better decisions,” which sounds great except he never specifies what kind of decisions—with one major exception. He writes that company executives can and should use the “fact-based worldview” to make more money. He has given “hundreds of lectures to business leaders” about this:

If you suffer from the misconception that most of the world is still too poor to buy anything at all, you risk missing out on the biggest economic opportunity in world history … Strategic business planners need a fact-based worldview to find their future customers.

This is a common refrain in Rosling’s writing. Elsewhere in Factfulness, he refers to “5 billion potential consumers” in Asia and Africa. When discussing reductions in extreme poverty, defined by the World Bank as people living on less than $1.90 per day, Rosling writes that billions “have escaped misery and become consumers and producers for the world market.” (His claim that people have “escaped misery” seems exaggerated at best. People living on, say, $4.00 a day aren’t considered “extremely poor” but only because the World Bank’s standard is pitifully low. Many still live in harsh, precarious circumstances: According to Rosling’s own analysis, “a single major illness in the family” could throw them back into destitution.)  

Rosling also advised companies about how best to capitalize on these emerging markets. In a scene from his memoir, How I Learned to Understand the World, he tells a major appliance manufacturer that it should pivot to producing affordable washing machines to sell in Asian countries:

Once you do, you can access billions of customers. This isn’t about ‘corporate social responsibility’; it’s about your future profits! Unless you get on with redesigning your product, you will lose the leading position in the marketplace.

Unsurprisingly, rich people loved this stuff. Before his death, Rosling was a sought-after speaker among the world’s financial and corporate elite; he even attended the World Economic Forum’s annual retreat in Davos, a playground for obscenely wealthy transnational capitalists. He discusses these speaking gigs quite openly in Factfulness:

I traveled the world with … elegant teaching tools [to upgrade people’s knowledge]. They took me to TED talks in Monterey, Berlin, and Cannes, to the boardrooms of multinational corporations like Coca-Cola and IKEA, to global banks and hedge funds, to the US State Department.

The worst results [on surveys] come from an annual gathering of global finance managers at the headquarters of one of the world’s ten largest banks. I have visited three of them. I can’t tell you which one this was, because I signed a piece of paper.

Not long ago I was invited to the five-star Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh to present to a gathering of capital managers and their wealthiest clients. As I set up my equipment in the magnificent high-ceilinged ballroom, I couldn’t help feeling a bit small, and I asked myself why a wealthy financial institution would want its clients to hear from a Swedish professor of public health.

It’s unfortunate that Rosling’s books don’t really grapple with the answer to that question because his consulting doesn’t mesh well with his stated desire to make the world better. He informs readers that “we cannot relax” while terrible things exist and includes a list of examples, including “crazy dictators,” “plane crashes,” and “endangered species.” But he never acknowledges how destructive the pursuit of profit can be to human flourishing.

Coca-Cola, whose board members he advised, has notoriously rapacious water-use practices. A bottling plant in the Mexican state of Chiapas consumes vast quantities of local groundwater even as the wells in nearby communities dry up. At the same time, rates of diabetes in the area have skyrocketed. Locals blame the company’s soft drinks, and the New York Times reported in 2018 that Coke “can be easier to find than bottled water and is almost as cheap.” Meanwhile, major U.S. banks and their board members continue to invest heavily in fossil fuel companies and other organizations that intentionally obstruct climate action.

That Rosling chooses to ignore the unsavory sides of global finance and economic development is telling. In his view, getting consumer goods to more people, faster, is the best way to enrich their lives. He is a strong advocate for expanding the availability of household appliances, and he’s adamant that we shouldn’t expect “the 5 billion people in the world who still wash their clothes by hand” to forego washing machines. Of course, there’s no good reason why a public institution couldn’t design, build, and distribute an affordable washing machine. But Rosling, who speaks highly of international bodies like the U.N., decides to bet instead on the supposed efficiency of the free market. 

In fact, Rosling’s advocacy for free-market solutions to global poverty goes beyond even what his audience will say openly. The rhetoric of responsibility is currently in vogue at Davos, which has a history of rebranding capitalism as a force for social good, as author and activist Naomi Klein points out. In the current political climate, where corporations are rapidly adopting the slogans of social justice as a public relations strategy, Rosling’s disparagement of “corporate social responsibility” sounds downright crude.

Perhaps this is evidence that Rosling didn’t intentionally cater to the Davos-audience. Yet their enthusiastic embrace of his message means he’s telling them something they want to hear. His assurances that business-as-usual will improve billions of lives must be comforting to capital managers, financiers, and architects of privatization schemes. In this light, Rosling’s justification for spreading a “fact-based worldview” sounds more like a method for keeping the pitchforks at bay: 

When people wrongly believe that nothing is improving, they may conclude that nothing we have tried so far is working and lose confidence in measures that actually work. I meet many such people, who tell me they have lost all hope for humanity. Or, they may become radicals, supporting drastic measures that are counter-productive when, in fact, the methods we are already using to improve our world are working just fine.

This should worry readers who don’t share the economic interests of the global business class. The ways in which they are reshaping the world—by, for example, privatizing water systems or transforming people’s houses into commodities—are certainly profitable. But their vision of a global society is not one most of us want to live in.

I know how Rosling would probably respond to my criticisms. He devotes a chapter of Factfulness to what he calls “the blame instinct,” which leads people to point accusing fingers at “evil businessmen” (among other villains) when things go wrong. But this, Rosling says, is a bad idea. Instead of demonizing corporations or banks, we should turn our ire toward the “multiple interacting causes” of problems we care about. Our efforts should be put towards fixing the “system” responsible.

These words sound great; and despite my gripes about corporations, I’m inclined to agree. Unfortunately, as sociologist Roland Paulsen observes at In These Times, it’s unclear what Rosling means by “system,” let alone how anyone should go about fixing it. 

If we want to solve global problems, we need to change the conditions that give rise to them. But there is no theory of change in Rosling’s books. He has lavish praise for human “progress,” both economic and social, and identifies two ostensible sources. These are “institutions” (by which Rosling means individual professionals like teachers, lawyers, plumbers, and civil servants) and “technology.” Yet these factors are depicted as unchanging, quasi-miraculous constants. [3] We can draw no lessons from them about how we might improve society—except, perhaps, to trust they will continue to deliver. For readers who see something wrong with existing institutions or who have a problem with the technologies hawked by private enterprise, Rosling provides no help.

Rosling does sometimes identify things about the world he thinks should be changed. But once again, he is vague about what people should do to enact solutions. Where there could be a discussion of political strategy, movement building, or even a basic exploration of how change happens, there is a gaping void. For example, Factfulness criticizes the U.S. for lacking single-payer healthcare, but Rosling demonstrates no awareness of the political barriers and entrenched economic interests that oppose it. Instead, he claims the country is suffering from “the single perspective instinct.” (Perhaps you begin to see the pattern here.) This is, according to Rosling, a human tendency to assume all problems have a single solution. In the case of health care, the U.S. simply has too much faith in markets. What needs to change is the country’s “mind-set,” not its politics.

Factfulness promises to “empower” readers, but the tools it offers are ultimately those of self-help, not political emancipation. After years of lecturing and surveying audiences, Rosling developed a theory about human understanding. It is formed, he claims, by a tug-of-war between factual knowledge and psychological “instincts.” The “blame instinct” and “single perspective instinct” are two examples. Others include the “gap instinct,” which leads people to divide the world into false binaries. Then there’s the “generalization instinct,” which is, well, about how humans generalize. The “size instinct” is… confusing, but has something to do with taking large numbers out of context. Rosling argues these supposed psychological frailties lead human beings to see the world as more depressing than it is.

(By the way, Rosling provides no empirical evidence to prove these instincts actually exist. Instead, he delivers anecdotes and “just-so” evolutionary stories. In endnotes, he points readers to a number of pop-psychology books that have influenced his thinking, including Pinker’s. But he omits any discussion of scientific support for his theories—a curious decision for a book about facts.)

What is Rosling’s solution to this ingrained negativity? “Thinking tools.” These include, among others, trying to calm down before you make a decision and resisting the urge to find a scapegoat when things go wrong. Factfulness includes many commonsense bromides like this, which are summarized at the end of each chapter in convenient, bullet-pointed lists.

It could be harmless stuff, except Rosling also transmutes toxic ideologies into “instincts,” implicitly suggesting that self-help mantras, not struggles for social justice, are how we should combat racism. Consider, for example, how he characterizes the so-called “destiny instinct”:

The destiny instinct is the idea that innate characteristics determine the destinies of people, countries, religions, or cultures. It’s the idea that things are as they are for ineluctable, inescapable reasons: they have always been this way and will never change … It is easy to see how this instinct would have served an evolutionary purpose. Historically, humans lived in surroundings that didn’t change much. Learning how things worked and then assuming they would continue to work that way rather than constantly reevaluating was probably an excellent survival strategy.

Rosling’s own confused wording inadvertently reveals the core problem. He rightly identifies an “idea” that still has broad appeal in rich, Western countries: Namely, the assertion that other cultures (almost always composed of people who don’t look like “us”) are founded on unchanging “essential” characteristics. This particular claim has a long and racist history that’s deeply intertwined with European colonialism. Edward Said, the Palestininan-American literary critic, described the ways in which Western people imbibe stereotypical and inaccurate representations of “Eastern” cultures through art, literature and other cultural practices, which then generate people’s preconceived ideas about “Those People.” This distorting lens, which Said labeled Orientalism, tends to produce a static, rigid understanding. As Said writes: “The very possibility of development, transformation, human movement—in the deepest sense of the word—is denied the Orient and the Oriental.”

Said is not, of course, the final authority on how cultural stereotypes are formed. (His ideas are controversial even among scholars who share his political concerns.) But by attributing the process of stereotyping primarily to an “instinct,” Rosling seems to sidestep the real issue. Even when directly confronted with racist ideologies, he doesn’t name them for what they are. His representative anecdote shows this quite plainly. In it, Rosling has finished giving one of his talks to a wealthy business audience and is packing up when:

[A] gray-haired man in a lightly checked three-piece suit walked slowly up to the stage, smiled sweetly, and said, ‘Well, I saw your numbers and I heard what you said, but I’m afraid there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that Africa will make it. I know because I served in Nigeria. It’s their culture, you know. It will not allow them to create a modern society. Ever. EV-ER.’ I opened my mouth, but before I had figured out a fact-based reply, he had already given my shoulder a little pat and wandered off to find a cup of tea.

Rosling is adamant about not shaming people for ignorance, and I suppose he wouldn’t want to be so uncivil as to call the man a racist. But attributing racist assumptions to an “instinct” disguises the central issue. Ideologies and ideas can be uprooted and refuted; people can be convinced to change their minds, while universal psychological structures that shape our perceptions require fundamentally different tools to mitigate. Worse, Rosling’s framework of evolutionary psychology takes the concept of societal change and reduces it to the individual plane. I’m sure human psychology plays some role in generating and perpetuating harmful stereotypes, but Factfulness fully internalizes problems like racism, transforming what should be a social ill that can be solved collectively into fodder for self-help. 

We can certainly argue over the best ways to dismantle racist ideas and institutions. We can, as a global society, figure out how reparations for American chattel slavery or European colonization would work and debate whether anti-racism training is valuable. But if we can’t see racism for what it is, we certainly can’t fix it. There will be no progress.

This conflation of ideology and instinct is a small piece of Rosling’s larger blindspot when it comes to politics. He doesn’t position his books, TED Talks, and lectures to executives as defenses of the socio-economic status quo, though that’s what they are. No, he simply corrects people. He “upgrades” worldviews and hands out self-help tricks so people can remember the proper facts and make rational decisions.

But this aura of objectivity is an illusion. Like all of us, Rosling selects facts that fit his narrative—in this case, the story of human progress—while discarding others. Throughout this essay, even when I’ve accepted particular pieces of Rosling’s argument, I’ve had to include caveats and qualifications, and I haven’t even touched on his biggest omissions. Paulsen points out how Rosling’s version of history fails to acknowledge the economic impoverishment inflicted by colonialism and, before that, by capitalism’s enclosure of the commons. And even some of Rosling’s “facts” are themselves suspect. Anthropologist Jason Hickel observes that current definitions of the poverty line—a key piece of Rosling’s story—are deeply flawed. Analyzing global poverty trends with a more accurate measure reveals that poverty “has grown dramatically since 1981, going from 3.2 billion to 4.2 billion, according to World Bank data.”

Hickel also excoriates Rosling and other New Optimists for promoting “a cartoonishly simple narrative wherein capitalism is responsible for virtually everything good that has happened in modern history and nothing bad”:

The fact that the most important gains in human welfare have been won by labour unions and social movements, enabled by publicly funded research and secured by public healthcare and education systems, almost always in the face of determined and even violent resistance from the capitalist class, is never acknowledged. Egregious disparities in social indicators between classes and nations are papered over in favour of aggregate trends. And the decidedly regressive sides of capitalism – colonization, genocide, plantation slavery, oil wars, regular attacks on workers’ rights and welfare systems, and, perhaps most damningly, climate change and ecological breakdown – are either downplayed or ignored altogether.

Indeed, Rosling’s selective squinting is clearest in his book’s discussion of environmental crisis. These sections of Factfulness capture everything wrong with the “fact-based worldview,” from its political naivety to its painfully limited vision. Remember that survey question about the decline in deaths from natural disasters? In an endnote, Rosling writes that his source is the International Disaster Database, which is maintained by the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters. Its data show annual deaths from natural disasters have dropped 75 percent in the past century.

But a recent report from the same institution also documents a “staggering rise in climate-related disasters over the last twenty years” when compared to the previous two decades. This led to a 4 percent increase in deaths, as well as a 134 percent increase in economic damage, from $1.63 trillion to $2.97 trillion. The report notes that rich countries “are failing miserably on reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” which makes the work of disaster management much harder. It continues:

It is baffling that we willingly and knowingly continue to sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people. … A change must come. We hope this report will add weight to the argument for action on climate and the overall strengthening of disaster risk governance.

Runaway climate change threatens to undo the progress the world has made in mitigating natural disasters and so much else. Environmental collapse poses an existential threat to human flourishing. In Factfulness, Rosling repeatedly scolds environmental activists for being too alarmist and argues we shouldn’t leave climate change to “sketchy worst-case scenarios and doomsday prophets.” But scientists are telling us this. It’s true that simply saying “listen to the scientists” isn’t persuasive nowadays. COVID-19 has revealed the flaws in this approach, which is inadequate when basic facts—such as how the coronavirus is transmitted—are hotly disputed. (Which scientist does one listen to under these circumstances?) On the other hand, scientific institutions have had decades to accumulate knowledge about climate change and reach a consensus on the need for urgent action. The future is always uncertain, but would Rosling really accuse the fact-gatherers at the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters or the U.N. of being “doomsday prophets?”

Meanwhile, the book’s framing of the biodiversity crisis is downright deceptive. One of Gapminder’s survey questions looks at a few species that were endangered in 1996 and asks how many of them are “more critically endangered today.” The answer is none, but most people get it wrong, as expected. Rosling uses this to lament that environmental activists don’t focus enough on promoting success stories.

However, the question only mentions three, high-profile examples: tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos. It entirely ignores the possibility that humanity’s destruction of wetlands, forests, and other ecosystems will put an estimated 1 million species at risk of extinction. That’s according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an international scientific organization supported by the U.N. While its report was published in 2019, after Rosling’s death, scientists have been vocal about similar predictions of extinction for decades.

The ludicrously narrow question commits one of the intellectual sins Rosling warns against: highlighting well-known but non-representative cases to tell a story about general trends. And Rosling’s not even honest in his choice of examples! He claims victory, noting that the populations of the three animals have increased in recent years. That’s true, but you have to check the endnotes to learn that the black rhino is, in fact, still critically endangered. [4]

To his credit, Rosling lists climate change as one of the “Five Global Risks We Should Worry About.” He admits “taking swift and broad action now would be cheaper than waiting until costly and unacceptable climate change happened.” But the best Factfulness has to offer in the face of this crisis is—are you surprised?—better data. Rosling recounts his efforts lobbying the Swedish government to track the country’s quarterly greenhouse gas emissions, instead of publishing emissions data every two years, which is what it was doing. He calls his success “Factfulness in action.”

This is underwhelming but not unexpected. Can we really expect Rosling to demand banks divest from oil and gas companies? Or advocate for redistributive policies to make polluting corporations pay recompense to the world’s most vulnerable communities? Or call for the end of an economic system that relies on carbon emissions to drive constant growth? No. Here is his vision for how we should tackle climate change:

So, what is the solution? Well, it’s easy. Anyone emitting lots of greenhouse gas must stop doing that as soon as possible. We know who that is: the people [in rich countries] who have by far the highest levels of CO2 emissions, so let’s get on with it.

Sure, let’s get on with it. Fossil fuel companies will clearly shut themselves down if we just show them the facts. The world’s wealthiest denizens will surely give up their lavish, carbon-intensive lifestyles if we ask nicely. 

Once you’ve adopted the “fact-based worldview,” there isn’t room to do much else. The best you can accomplish, as an individual, is to tinker with the psychological structures that supposedly dictate how you see the world. You may be less stressed, but you’ll be unequipped to deal even with those problems you choose to recognize as legitimate. Your newfound hope will be hollow and dependent on the good-will of global capitalism.

In the spirit of Rosling’s book, I offer my own thinking tool. When someone starts telling you about their “fact-based worldview” and suggesting you “upgrade” yours, take a moment to scrutinize their ideological assumptions. Human beings are not robots or calculating machines. Values will always factor heavily into our decision-making, especially when it comes to solving problems on a global scale. Anyone who ignores this—anyone who wants to talk facts without politics—probably can’t help you understand the world or how to improve it.

[1] Rosling co-wrote the book with his son and daughter-in-law. It’s written in his voice, though, and I refer to him as the author for simplicity.
[2] There were actually thirteen questions on the survey. However, the vast majority of people could answer the thirteenth one, which asked how the world’s average temperature is expected to change over the next century. The book’s statistical analyses exclude that question, for some reason.
[3] If you think I’m exaggerating, consider how Rosling talks about industrial products with an almost mystical reverence. He writes that, to his grandmother who had been hand-washing clothes her entire life, an electric washing machine was a “miracle.” To Rosling, it is a “magic machine.” His litany of thanks to different sources of “technology” sounds like an un-ironic prayer to a collection of benevolent deities: “Thank you industrialization, thank you steel mill, thank you power station, thank you chemical-processing industry, for giving us the time to read books.” This is not a rational, fact-based assessment of technology.[4] Gapminder features a different, less-deceptive question about endangered species on its website. It asks about the percentage of species currently threatened or endangered among those that have been evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
[4] Gapminder features a different, less-deceptive question about endangered species on its website. It asks about the percentage of species currently threatened or endangered among those that have been evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

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