This is both a useful book and a simplified one that never questions its westernized assumptions. Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of public health, armed with decades’ worth of UN statistics, wrote this book (with the assistance of his son and daughter-in-law, who published it after his death) to convince people in rich countries that the rest of the world is better than we think, and that several logical fallacies prevent us from seeing it that way.
On the one hand, he’s absolutely right. Insulated in our well-off countries, we tend to hear about other places only in the news, which generally reports only the most dramatic, i.e., the most tragic and appalling stories. We struggle to see members of “other” groups as non-uniform and to believe their cultures can change in the way our own have (in fact, many societies around the world are changing and developing much faster than western Europe and the U.S. did). As a college student who only knew about Africa from the news, I remember thinking that one couldn’t afford to care what was going on there because it was only one horrible tragedy after another. In reality this is far from the truth, and I have to credit my world books challenge (to read a book set in each country in the world, with a preference for books by authors from the country; I’m up to 165 out of 201 now) for showing me a more accurate picture of what everyday life around the world is like. But UN statistics also show that the world is improving in many ways, such as widespread access to electricity, primary education, and vaccination against deadly diseases. And yet, many people in rich countries don’t know this and even believe the world is getting worse.
But there’s a lot Rosling misses too. His quizzes to test people’s knowledge of the world (one of which is included at the beginning of the book, and which distinguished audiences at his talks have consistently flunked) are designed to encourage wrong answers. Let’s look at the first three questions:
1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?
A: 20 percent
B: 40 percent
C: 60 percent
2. Where does the majority of the world population live?
A: Low-income countries
B: Middle-income countries
C: High-income countries
3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…
A: almost doubled
B: remained more or less the same
C: almost halved
Answers: 1. C; 2: B; 3. C
Rosling emphasizes throughout the book of how badly people answer these and similar questions. But many are designed to fool you. Question 1, for instance: leaving aside the issues of what constitutes a “low-income country” and “finishing primary school” (different countries’ educational systems being different), this question cues a negative answer because its options skew so negative. The incorrect answers set a lower bracket in test-takers’ minds, suggesting that 60% is a very high number indeed. When all we’re really saying is that something over half of girls in poor countries go to school at least until, what, age 11 or so? – an achievement, absolutely, but one leaving lots of work still to do. I wonder, if test-takers were asked to produce their own answer rather than seeing these suggestions, whether their guesses would be much higher. And then too, despite all the logical fallacies listed, one Rosling doesn’t mention is the fear of being labeled “naïve” for believing positive things about the world; might some test-takers’ answers be influenced by the desire to come across as jaded and cynical rather than as privileged Pollyannas?
Question 2 is an issue of definitions. Rosling chides people from wealthy countries for seeing everyone else as simply “poor,” despite their differences, but viewed from a wealthy country, everybody else is in fact “low-income.” Rosling divides the world into four income levels. Level 1 means living in a mud hut or flimsy house without electricity, traveling only on foot, and spending the vast majority of one’s time fulfilling basic needs: fetching water, gathering firewood, cooking over a fire pit, etc. Level 3 means having consistent electricity and running water, having access to some form of motorized transport such as a motorcycle, having many modern conveniences and kids in school, but still having to work very hard for what you have and falling short of Level 4, where you don’t have to worry about basic needs, have a car, can fly somewhere for vacation, etc. Certainly the differences between Levels 1 and 3 are enormous, and I think Rosling’s four-level framework is far more useful than the old first-world/third-world or developed/developing dichotomies, but people who answer incorrectly might not be as uninformed as he believes.
Question 3, though, is legitimate. Not everyone knows what “extreme poverty” means by UN definitions (living on less than $2 a day), but the basic fact is that standards of living have risen around the world over the last few decades, yet most people in Level 4 countries don’t know it. The book does a great job of driving home the progress that has been made, even while pointing out that much more is needed.
But Rosling’s analysis has two major issues. One is that it’s quite simplified. It’s nice, for instance, that most children in poor countries are in school. But in India, huge numbers of poor children remain illiterate even after several years of schooling. Of course learning can’t be improved without people buying into education, but if education isn’t happening in the schools, their value is limited.
And Rosling’s income divisions are quite rough, as I realized when visiting Dollar Street, a site set up by Anna Rosling Ronnlund that compiles pictures of the homes and belongings of people around the world at various income levels. It’s interesting to view, but an issue that quickly becomes clear is that people are classified into Levels 1-4 based on income per person, regardless of the number of people in the household. So, for instance, an American family of four (parents and their young adult children) with an income of $996 per month per person is considered Level 3. Now, living alone in the U.S. on an income of under $1000 per month puts you below the poverty line, with money tight even to meet basic needs, but a family of four with $48,000 a year and no childcare expenses is doing all right, as this family seems to be based on the photos. They’re nowhere near the poverty line, which for a family of four is $25,100. The effect of pooling resources is huge: every home needs a kitchen, for instance, but add several more people to your home and you still only need one kitchen. So the income level cutoffs, which seem useful to describe the rough income levels of different countries as a whole, are far less helpful for individual households.
And finally, Rosling assumes throughout the book that development is always good, without ever addressing the question directly. It was interesting to read this book alongside Unbowed, a memoir by a Kenyan activist for democracy, human rights and the environment. As a child, Maathai lived on Level 1 or 2, but that didn’t mean a terrible life; she found enjoyment and pride in cultivating the land, had a large, supportive family, and loved the storytelling around the fire each evening as the family waited for the food to cook. To Rosling though, Level 1 is nothing but suffering, and he never acknowledges any potential downsides to development except for environmental degradation. Now, it’s fair to say that it’s easy to romanticize “a simpler lifestyle” from one’s couch, while parents who have buried three of their five children have no such illusions (one of the key statistics Rosling often uses is child mortality). But loss of family, community and cultural connections can lead to increased mental health problems, while today’s diets, high in fat, sugar, and processed foods, lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other serious health problems. Rosling, though, paints a uniformly positive picture of modernization without acknowledging its costs.
All that said, his description of logical fallacies is still useful. For those still reading, they are below:
The Gap Instinct: The notion that humanity divides into two groups, with a significant gap between them, such as “rich countries” and “poor countries.” Countries’ income, like probably most other things, is actually on a continuum.
The Negativity Instinct: Paying most attention to negative information, such as apocalyptic news reports, without noticing the gradual improvements that get far less attention but are more impactful in the long run.
The Straight Line Instinct: Assuming a phenomenon will continue to occur at the same rate (this one is mostly for analyzing data: world population growth, for instance, is already slowing).
The Fear Instinct: People are more afraid of dramatic events that tap into our primal fears of violence, captivity, and poison, than of everyday stuff that’s more likely to occur. This is why American parents won’t let their kids walk places for fear of extremely rare stranger kidnappings, despite the fact that car accidents are far more common and deadly.
The Size Instinct: Also about analyzing data: get numbers into perspective by finding something to compare them to, and focus on the biggest items on a list (for instance in a budget) rather than the tiny ones.
The Generalization Instinct: Assuming that all members of a group are alike, or that two groups are similar when they aren’t.
The Destiny Instinct: Assuming something “will always be” the way that it is and that “culture” is immutable - at least when it comes to cultures other than our own.
The Single Perspective Instinct: Using your pet theory to explain everything that’s happening in the world and how to fix it.
The Blame Instinct: Looking for someone to blame for a problem can cause you to stop thinking. Looking for the system that caused that person’s behavior can be much more productive.
The Urgency Instinct: Decisions made in haste are poorly thought-through; slow down on important stuff.
At any rate, definitely an interesting book, and probably especially useful for those whose knowledge of the world mostly comes from the news. Even for those who are more knowledgeable, it’s useful to be aware of the ways your brain can trick you. That said, I think this book should form the beginning of a conversation rather than the end of it.