”Factfulness”: a more accurate title for this new book would have been ”Selecting Facts to Make You Happy”

by Frank Götmark

This year Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnblad (below the “Rosling team”) published “Factfulness” (Note: H.R. died in February 2017.) As the book to a large extent is about global population and as Bill Gates is giving free copies of it to college graduates in the US, we need to take a look at its content. The subtitle is “Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think”. Many of us probably have thought that the mass media tend to report too much negative news. A merit of the book is that it reminds us about the improvements of human conditions that have taken place in the last century. How well does this book succeed in balancing good and bad news, and in giving a realistic picture of the world?

It begins with 13 questions about the world, and alternative answers for the reader to choose among. Then follows 11 chapters organized around various “instincts”, such as the “Gap instinct” and the “Negativity instinct”. These instincts cause misconceptions, according to the Rosling team; that the world can be divided into developed and developing countries (with a “gap”) or that “things are getting worse” (“negativity”). The 13 questions come back in the chapters, and graphs show the (high) percentage of people who chose a wrong answer in polls. The correct answers are supposed to show how much better the world is than people think. This has the effect of people becoming happier; the millions of people who have seen Hans Rosling in action also tended to become happy, by his style, voice and rhetoric.

Of the 13 questions, 11 are about population matters and people’s living conditions, and two are about environmental conditions. Thus, already from the start a strong anthropocentric outlook is obvious – the environment on which all humans depend (for food and freshwater, for instance) is largely left out. Of the environmental questions, one is for the correct answer “temperature will get warmer within 100 years”. Correct answer for the other question, about tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos, are that they are not more critically endangered today than in 1996. This is a deceptive question, as these are only three among the thousands of threatened species.

This issue is followed up in a later section, where the team write ”Humans have plundered natural resources across the planet. Natural habitats have been destroyed and many animals hunted to extinction. This is clear.” This is correct, but then follows: ”If I check the Red List or World Wildlife Fund (WWF) today, I can see how, despite declines in some local populations and some subspecies, the total wild populations of tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos have all increased over the past years.” Here the story ends. The Rosling team wants to highlight good things, but to emphasize these three species of mammals – that get extra attention and protection – is strongly misleading.

Extinctions over time IUCN2012
Cumulative vertebrate species recorded as extinct or extinct in the wild by the IUCN (2012) (Source: Ceballos et al. 2015)

A recent study in Nature gathered information for more than 8,700 species on the Red List. ‘The big killers’, the study concluded, are overexploitation (the harvesting of species from the wild at rates that cannot be compensated for by reproduction or regrowth) and agriculture (the production of food, fodder, fibre and fuel crops; livestock farming; aquaculture; and the cultivation of trees). Climate change is also a threat, but still a minor one. Species go extinct, but this is difficult to measure, especially for many plants, fungi, and insects. An equally serious concern is that populations within species go extinct – the raw material for resistant gene pools and future speciation. A study in PNAS mapped population extinctions between 1900 and 2015 in 177 mammal species, for which good data existed. All had lost 30% or more of their geographic ranges and more than 40% of the species have experienced severe population declines (>80% range shrinkage).

Taking a more comprehensive view, it is clear that wild nature has been greatly degraded in recent decades, and the prognosis is for more of the same. People who care about preserving wild nature should not feel happy about what has happened in the past century, or what is likely to happen in the coming one. Focusing on a few happy exceptions is misleading.

The book has a heading “16 good things increasing”. One graph here is incomprehensible, labeled “Monitored species: Listed species with assessed threat status” and showing an increase from 34 in 1959 to 87,967 in 2017 (a good thing!?). Another graph shows an increase in protected areas, from 0.03% of total land area in 1900 to 15% in 2016. Again, strongly misleading.

Firstly, protected areas are mostly low-productive lands (mountains, desert, or alpine/arctic lands), and other ecosystem are under-represented. More importantly, between 1900 and 2016 huge areas of natural and semi-natural ecosystems were converted for intensive human use globally. For instance, large areas of semi-natural boreal forest in northern Sweden were converted to production stands between 1950 and 2012, through a rapidly increasing network of forest roads and clear-cutting. By 2012, a few percent had been formally protected, but overall, semi-natural forests in Sweden had greatly decreased (see short film here). This same pattern was repeated in many nations of the world, and in the world as a whole, over the past century: despite the growing formally protected area, the total area of wild natural and semi-natural land is decreasing. An extra graph in the book should have illustrated this.

Similar neglect of the fate of the environment – that we, like other species, depend upon for our future – can be found in the Rosling team’s long film “Don’t panic”. For instance, an African river is shown, and is supposed to be used only for irrigation; there is no mention other values of such large rivers (ecosystem services; including habitats for other species, fishing, and recreation).

Regarding humans it is true that extreme poverty has decreased, and longevity increased in many countries, through medical advances, education, and technology. These achievements are heavily emphasized, but must also be related to current overpopulation and our future, given that Homo sapiens already dominates all ecosystems (directly or indirectly, through e.g. climate change). The UN population forecast projects 3.8 billion more people to 2100 (medium variant, 2017 projections). More people lead to more greenhouse gases, climate change, unsustainable economic growth (hardly dealt with in the book), further increase in demand for food and freshwater, more pollution and toxins, continued decrease in wildlife populations, and so on.

“Factfulness” describes the former successful family planning program in Iran, which is good, but the Rosling Team fails to emphasize that global fertility must be reduced, for a brighter future. For a “positive fact question” on this topic, the team could have asked, “How many fewer babies per woman would be needed to get the same global population in 2100 as in 2018?” Possible answers; on average a) 1,5, b) 1, or c) 0.5 baby less per woman? Correct answer: Only 0,5 baby! This can be seen in an often presented UN graph, ‘low variant’ projection.

UN-Population-Projection-half-a-child-Logo-1024x724

The Rosling Team stresses the role of education of women and men for fertility reduction; this is fine, but what is taught in classes, at different levels, in different countries? What do we really know about the content of education, with respect to sexuality and contraception? Religion is one factor in education, but the team downplays its role in determining fertility. They conclude ”Muslim women have on average 3.1 children. Christian women have 2.7. There is no major difference between the birth rates of the great world religions.” But wait, the average difference here is 0.4 baby – compare the effect of 0.5 baby above. Small numbers can make a major difference in the long term, which the team emphasizes in their “Destiny instinct” (“Slow change is still change”). Religion can boost population growth, as Eric Kaufmann has described in his book. A relevant question to add could have been, “How did the percentage of the world’s population belonging to a religion change between 1970 and 2010?” Possible answers; a) decreased from 88 to 81%, b) no change, c) increased from 81 to 88% – c) is the correct answer.

It is surprising that the Rosling team does not mention the fine work by the Population Media Center – through Internet and powerful radio and TV shows this organization helps spreading knowledge about family planning and contraception to people in poorer countries. It is one of several effective population organizations.

The book has a long list of references, though it is dominated by webpage sources and agency reports. The team states they checked their facts (a better word is “data”; more neutral, used by scientists). The best sources of knowledge are scholarly articles in the many scientific journals, but “Factfulness” lacks reference to two important articles on population (in Nature 2016 and Science 2017). There, the authors explain the unfortunate diminished role of family planning since the mid-1990’s, what this might mean for future food insecurity and the fates of endangered species, and what must be done.

The Rosling Team points out that critical thought is needed – surely, but the main message of the book still becomes “things are getting better” with respect to population growth and the environment. A strong relevant message about the need for renewed action to curb population growth and increase international aid is lacking. In contrast, an excellent article published last week in Science explains how we can slow down population growth in a warming world. That article, rather than “Factfulness”, should have been delivered free to students in the US. Less paper, less greenhouse gases, too.

More broadly, we need to ask: What makes people take action to improve the world? I assume that most well-educated persons have a quite realistic view of the world. My hypothesis (well, I’m a scientist!) is that too strong positive (biased) messages to them about the world will make fewer take action to improved conditions. Recall how negative media reports of famines have led millions of people to give money to charity organizations. If millions of people would get clear, balanced information about the negative effects of population growth, and about the ameliorating effect of family planning programs, many of them would probably economically support the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, Population Media Center or other progressive organizations. Such support is crucial to creating a better future for people and the rest of life.

See also a well-written, detailed critical review of Factfulness, by Christian Berggren here!

11 thoughts on “”Factfulness”: a more accurate title for this new book would have been ”Selecting Facts to Make You Happy”

  1. The article makes a mainly fair description.
    Man has certainly changed the forest ecosystem somewhat, different in different parts of the world. The article gives a biased picture of Swedish forestry by cherry-picking. Even if more relevant for the world, this article origins in Sweden and affects the impression of Sweden. And as the article anyway do not focus on the population issues, but focus on correctness of fact-finding it seems OK to post this.
    1) The forest was denser before Man. Man has more than halved the volume of standing forest. What Sweden has done is mainly to partly repair this action of Man and restored the forest density to near what it would have been without man, thus made the forest more natural in that respect.
    2) The Swedish forest species remain mainly the natural: Norway spruce, Scots pine and birch. The ecology of the forest does not change much.
    3) The real BIG threat to the biological diversity of Swedish forests is the fire-brigade. In the “seminatural” or “natural” Swedish forest some hundred years ago wildfires occurred hundred times as often today. Thanks to the income harvests generate Sweden can afford to use fire in the forest for natural conservation to near the same extent as current wild-fires.
    4) To an increasing degree during more than a century the environment of future forest has been considered. 30% of the Swedish forest today is excepted from management (even if most not strongly protected and in biologically and economically bad areas)
    5) Of around 20000 screened species 19 forest species has got extinct since 1950. For five of those forest management was classified as cause. There is no increasing trend over time for extinct forest species during the last century. In the same time manifold times more new forest species immigrated. The species richness of the Swedish forest is higher than ever before. The extinction rate is roughly the naturally expected to the next glaciation.
    6) No single species domestic to Sweden some hundred years ago has got globally extinct. The Swedish species immigrated after glaciation and are thus generally characterized by ability to move and ability to adapt to new conditions. “Getting extinct” in Sweden generally means that a species close to its populations fringe in Sweden now only occurs on the east side of the Baltic.
    7) It was a little surprising to me before taking a closer look myself (and not just listening to ecologists worries), that the Swedish forest flora and fauna was so resilient against passed changes. But Swedish nature is more forgiving than in most places.
    8) But if global temperature raises three degrees I really think it would make big changes with our flora and fauna. And as Swedes climate gas exhausts has raised the last years and Swedens territorial exhausts only sink a percent per year I think our grand-children should be prepared. One way of reducing the heat in the future is to get fewer children.

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    1. Thank for your comment. I certainly agree with the last sentence. Compared to many other countries, including tropical countries, Sweden has protected a small proportion of its productive forests (those producing on average at least 1 cubic meter of wood per hectare per year). According to the agency SCB in Sweden in 2017, the proportion is 5.6%, while international recommendations, including advice from many researchers, are much higher for the preservation of biodiversity.

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      1. As the issue of the article is facts, I continue the issue.
        “Facts” are much about definitions, and it becomes cherry-picking when only a single “fact” is chosen without clarifying the circumstances.

        SCB uses a restricted definition of “protected”. The Government and Parliament of Sweden state that 17.2% of productive forest is “protected”, thus “intentionally” not used for forestry mainly for species consideration reasons, and that´s what Sweden intends to report internationally. The Government consider the Swedish figure meets international demands. The person, who was politically responsible as minister for environment when definitions were made, reported that on the web a week ago, and the latest figures origin from the current government.

        Thus even if reports contain “facts”, the “facts” may differ (in this case by more than a factor three) as different bodies use different definitions of what figure to use as “fact”.

        Many specialists in ecology will always recommend more. We have always a tendency to emphasize the need for more resources to our own fields.

        This polarization and limits of arguing is general for Mankind and almost all problems, and I think this is the largest threat to our survival as species, as it does not seem to improve by time or correlated with increasing knowledge and “easier” “fact”-finding neither individually nor collectively.
        Bigger threat than all those people, who trust that technological developments will make the world 2100 better, richer and happier, even if we become 60% more to share the earth. They may be right and even if I sincerely warn that it is very unlikely this will not happen. But the future may prove me to be wrong.

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  2. The author misses something when he writes “The Rosling Team stresses the role of education of women and men for fertility reduction; this is fine, but what is taught in classes, at different levels, in different countries? What do we really know about the content in education, with respect to sexuality and contraception?”

    When girls are educated, they have fewer children. The subject matter in school does not need to teach fertility reduction. Brookings Institute says that women with 12 years of schooling have 4-5 fewer children than women with little or no education.

    The reason for this is that girls who are not in school are often pushed into early marriage and pressured into early pregnancy and childbirth.

    Drawdown.org claims that Girls Education is just as important as Family Planning – they both have the capability of saving 59.6 gigatons of carbon emissions and thus both affect population growth equally. In fact, Drawdown says they are so intertwined, that they were grouped together to determine the impacts and then each assigned half.

    Without an education, a child bride is ill-equipped to say ‘no’ to sex or to seek out contraception. Married girls rarely have access to contraception, or knowledge about it, because their husbands have too much influence over their lives.

    In our project with a Maasai community in rural Tanzania, the percentage of girls from going to school in our project area rose from 38% in 2015 to 47% in 2016, 50% in 2017, and 82% in 2018. This was due to our emphasis on education and women’s empowerment, school uniforms and sending girl role models to English Boarding schools.

    During the same time, the percent of married girls under age 18 in our area dropped from 55% in 2015 to 50% in 2016, 44% in 2017, and 31% in 2018.

    Girls Not Brides says that, with no reduction in child marriage, high fertility rates alone will raise the global number of women married as children to 1.2 billion by 2050.

    See Masai-Harmonial.org

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    1. Many thanks for your interesting comments on my text. It is especially interesting – also hopeful – to see the result of your good work in Tanzania. As I wrote, it is fine to recommend more education for girls (and men). In particular, I assume education at higher levels (like in college) should be effective in reducing fertility. What is lacking though are studies of the content of this education, versus its effects on fertility. In recent decades, religiousness has increased globally (see e.g. Rodney Stark, “The triumph of faith”), and I suspect this may have played a role in the slower reduction (than expected) of fertility globally. Hopefully, this can be clarified in future studies.

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  3. Can the tragic and ever escalating deaths of migrants drowning in the Meditterannean or far more numerously and invisibly dying of thirst in the Sahel, be laid at the feet of the denialist and industrial strength wishful thinker Rosling and now his proud children?

    is this an inreasing or decreasing trend?

    Peddling optimism is very lucrative, as Steven Pinker shows us

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  4. Frank, thanks for a constructive book review in English! I’m sorry we haven’t reacted to this yet, but I didn’t see it until now. I’m especially glad that you suggest questions that we can ask the public. That’s very constructive. We will include them in our ongoing surveys, and share the results with you. By the way, anyone who reads this, who have ideas for more fact-questions we should ask, please suggest them here: http://www.gapm.io/gms18p . We want to make sure we are not biased towards optimism. The reason we end up showing almost only positive trends, is that the public is clearly biased towards pessimism. And we are guided by the misconceptions of the public. This means that almost all misconceptions we find are overly negative. In our future work we would love to include neglected deteriorations. But I’m afraid all negative developments have been effectively communicated to the public already and I’m afraid that we will find that most negative trends are rather exaggerated than neglected. But I must admit we haven’t looked hard enough! We are extremely interested to try more of these negative trends, in order to make sure Factfulness is not turned into a synonym for Optimism, which is a very bad habit of pretending things are good. So please suggest bad development’s that you think are neglected. I also hope to get back to you with a detailed reply to this article as soon as possible. We’re working on a reply to another article by Christian Bergren, which he is currently translating to English, to enable a transparent international dialog: https://kvartal.se/artiklar/bra-saker-pa-uppgang-roslings-varldsbild-ar-ensidigt-positiv/ . I’m looking forward to a non biased fact-based discussion, that is not optimistic but actually include all kinds of reliable facts. But I really like to challenge your statement “I assume that most well-educated persons have a quite realistic view of the world.” Our impression is the opposite. Public health experts for example. When I tested the audience at the World Health Summit in Berlin 1.5 year ago, they scored worse than random and worse than the public on some of the basic demography questions and vaccination questions. At a conference for Baltic sea experts we asked about the trend for Phosphorous into the Baltic sea: http://www.helcom.fi/baltic-sea-trends ,… Those are experts who should know their own field. Now you believe educated people in general are right about the world in general. But our tests indicate the opposite. What defines a “realistic view of the world” according to you? I seriously doubt you’re right. What set of questions would you use to determine if you are right? Please send those quesiotns to us, and we can test the public, or just the educated. That’s exactly the kind of collaborations we are looking for! Best, Ola Rosling, Co-author of Factfulness

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    1. That’s nice you came here to comment this review.

      Your goal seems to be looking for facts that most people ignore or even better : are wrong about. Then you can say, “Ooh look, even informed people do worst than monkeys !”.

      But it is dangerous in a way. You can see it because you hand picked 3 species that are not more endangered now than a few years ago. Why did you do that ? Because you know people are mostly aware that we are ruining the planet. So you looked for data saying the opposite and were “happy” to see people give wrong answers.

      Your desire to show your point (people think the world is worst that it is) took over what should be the real goal : to help people see the world as it really is.

      But the thing is, saying “people are so wrong about so many subjects” is a better way to catch people attention (aka sell books) !

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  5. Are people generally too optimistic or pessimistic? In Factfulness there is a big stress on the importance of data and statistics: maybe even this issue should be addressed basing on data, instead on personal experiences and impressions.
    Personally I don’t see that “the public is clearly biased towards pessimism” as Ola Rosling claims in his comment, however I wonder if wondering this makes really much sense: is it so relevant? People have commonly strong misconceptions on crucial issues about the world: that is relevant! that is something we should try to correct, no matter of the direction we have to change our mind.
    Rosling decided from the beginning that world is better than people believe: it’s clear that such an approach had intrinsically a bias and the result risked to be a fair of cherry-picking.
    But I hope the next book will be better: the questions will be chosen with better criteria (what is really relevant for the world), and addressed without that initial bias. After reading the new book, some people will become more pessimistic maybe, some others more optimistic. Overall –this is my hope- we all will become more realistic. We need it.

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