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Hans Rosling, together with his coauthors Ola Rosling, ‎Anna Rosling Rönnlund, encourages the reader to question their “knowledge” about the real world. Most people, he maintains, “know” a lot of “facts” that are absolutely untrue. Rather than acquire accurate knowleldge from reliable sources, most people base the information that they assume is factual on unproven assumptions and erroneous conclusions that are widely disseminated by the media. He wrote this book, therefore, to separate the wheat from the chaff, so that more people can grasp the “big picture” that otherwise eludes us. He offers to do this by providing “simple thinking tools.”

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I have posed hundreds of fact questions…about poverty and wealth, population growth, births, deaths, education, health, gender, violence, energy, and the environment—basic global patterns and trends—to thousands of people across the world… [M]ost people do extremely badly.

Rosling identifies a quality he calls “the negativity instinct.” He argues that human beings tend to pessimism, believing in scenarios of doom and gloom more often than in hopeful ones. He encourages the reader to counter this tendency in order to control that negativity. He promotes optimism, and confidence in improving conditions, as an antidote; this will help us to continue finding solutions to real problems rather than to give up or ignore them.

How can we help our brains realize that things are getting better when everything is screaming at us that things are getting worse?… The solution is not to balance out all the negative news with more positive news. That would just risk creating a self-deceiving, misleading, comforting bias in the other direction… I am certainly not advocating looking away from the terrible problems of the world. I am saying things can be both bad and better.

One of the questions he routinely poses to people has to do with global population. He asks them to show on maps of the world where the majority of the world’s people live. Which continent has the largest percentage of human beings? This question has numerous practical implications in terms of consumption, energy usage, and need for access to services. Although in the initial stages, he was shocked to realize the extent of misinformation, Rosling came to accept that most people he queried did not know where people lived. Their scores were below even randomness, but closer than on other questions.

[W]here is the world market? Where are the internet users? Where will tourists come from in the future? Where are most of the cargo ships going? And so on….

This is one of the fact questions where people score best…. They are almost as good as random….

Seventy percent of people don’t know that the majority of mankind lives in Asia.

One of the cautionary notes that Rosling sounds relates to the manipulation of statistics. The case he uses to bring home why this is problematic is that if infant mortality. Overall, globally, the number of infants dying each year seems very high; for 2016, the number was 4.2 million infants not reaching their first birthday. While this number seems dreadfully high, he shows that the percentage rate over more than 60 years has declined from 15 percent to 3 percent. While these numbers are still very high, the decline is for him significant and should be addressed. The relationships among numbers is as significant as the numbers themselves.

When you see one number falling it is sometimes actually because some other background number is falling…. Some people feel ashamed by doing this kind of math with human lives. I feel ashamed when not doing it. A lonely number always makes me suspicious that I have misinterpreted it. A number that I have compared and divided instead can fill me with hope.


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