A new book by Swedish academic Hans Rosling is a powerful antidote to the fact-free nonsense of modern politicians, writes Gavin Esler
It might not seem like it, but the world has never had it so good
Cheer up, it’s not as bad as you think. That's not my opinion; I know it for a fact, and that fact is as follows: things are, mostly, getting better around the world.
It may be difficult to believe at a time when it’s easy to recite a long list of things that are not going well. We have humanitarian disasters, from the refugee boats in the Mediterranean to the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya people. We have grinding poverty, crime, and disease. We also have climate change and the loss of species, including great beasts being poached for their horns or as trophies by self-absorbed hunters, or the loss of their habitats through the destruction of ancient forests.
But just because there is a lot of bad in the world does not mean that things are not improving for most of us. In reality, they are. And there’s a recently published book that goes to great lengths to prove it: Factfulness by the Swedish doctor, researcher and academic Hans Rosling.
In his own words, Mr Rosling's life’s mission was “to fight devastating ignorance with a fact-based worldview". I cannot think of anything more important right now than treating facts and fact-based arguments with respect. The book does so with real insight. For example, rather than dwell on the inequalities between rich and poor, Mr Rosling points out that in the past 50 or so years, more people have been pulled out of poverty than ever before in human history, most notably in China and India.
Yes, there are still great inequalities, but for most people life is getting better, even for those considered poor. As Mr Rosling puts it: “Life expectancy in low-income countries is 62 years. Most people have enough to eat, most people have access to improved water, most children are vaccinated, and most girls finish primary school…the idea of a divided world with a majority stuck in misery and deprivation is an illusion. A complete misconception. Simply wrong.”
Part of Mr Rosling’s analysis is in that phrase “divided world”. Humans tend to share the common failing of dividing the world into binaries. You are “for us” or “against us”. You are rich or poor. You live in the developed or developing world. Mr Rosling argues that these categories are not useful, and indeed are misleading.
He suggests four income levels. At the bottom, level 4, is grinding poverty. At the top, level 1, the kind of wealth we associate with Japan, Europe, the UAE, Malaysia and the US. In the middle, levels 2 and 3, we have a range from Kenya and Pakistan right up through India and China. China is on level 2 but ready to burst into level 1.
Mr Rosling’s point is that, for all that is wrong in the world, the movement up from the bottom has brought about one of the biggest positive changes in human history.
His book is worth reading as a counterweight to the miserable nature of today’s news and the headlines about death and destruction around the world.
But it is also worth cherishing for another reason: Mr Rosling celebrates facts. Facts are the basis of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement rooted in the 18th century, which brought us modern science, modern medicine and overturned generations of superstition and ignorance.
Unfortunately this fact-based world view is itself being challenged and eroded by the phenomena we call fake news, a “post-truth world” and deliberate disinformation and lies. It often feels as though we have moved from fact-based enlightenment to a kind of un-enlightenment.
In the UK, those of us who point rigorously to the obvious facts are told, as I was lectured recently, to “have faith” in a political programme bringing Brexit to Britain.
But the idea of “faith based politics” rather than fact-based politics appears everywhere. In Britain, the facts about Brexit are that it has profoundly unsettled many businesses, with some speaking openly about relocating outside the UK. Disregarding these concerns, some politicians, on the basis of no facts whatsoever, claim money and wonderful new trade deals will roll into the UK from a fanciful “Brexit Dividend”.
In America, President Donald Trump’s casual disregard for facts is even more noticeable. In his un-enlightenment world, facts about trade, tariffs and promising new industries are ignored in favour of protecting the old rustbelt US economy of steel and automobiles.
Worse still, an un-enlightenment worldview can cost lives. In many countries vaccination rates against common childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella have started to go down after an aggressive campaign based on no scientific evidence whatsoever that vaccinations may cause autism and other serious conditions.
Mr Trump, politicians in the new Italian government and elsewhere have endorsed such fact-free malevolent nonsense. The result will be increased incidence of preventable diseases and even child fatalities.
Despite all that, there are reasons to be cheerful. Mr Rosling’s book is full of them. It’s just a pity that Factfulness is not a compulsory text for anyone seeking political leadership anywhere in the world.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter