‘FACTFULNESS’ – mindfully interpreting facts


FACTFULNESS by Hans Rosling;

Published in 2018 by Sceptre, United Kingdom.

ISBN: 978-1-473-63747-4. Pages 340.

I first heard about Dr Hans Rosling from my colleague Dr Maria Sandberg, at Karlstad University (Sweden), when I was assisting her in a first-year course in Environmental Technology. Rosling’s ‘baby’ – GapMinder (refer www.gapminder.org) – was to be introduced to students, the purpose being exactly the same which Rosling pursued for most of his professional life as a doctor and educator. Rosling is no more. FACTFULNESS is his last contribution to humankind, a game-changer which will stand the test of time and immortalise the ‘Swedish doctor with a mission’, which will (the reviewer would very much wish that) be fulfilled as more and more readers get to read FACTFULNESS.

Rosling was a doctor who believed in the importance of communication (words are often as important if not more so, than deeds) if one wished to heal the world. Just as it takes time for one to dig through coals to get to the diamonds far beneath the seams (a process which requires patience, curiosity, persistence and hard work), Rosling, in FACTFULNESS, urges readers – one and all – be he/she the President of a country or a common officegoer watching BBC or reading the New York Times to be mindful – factful rather – and question, criticise and debate (in a friendly way) fearlessly to convince oneself about the veracity or otherwise of what one hears or reads.

Barack Obama calls FACTFULNESS a ‘hopeful book’. Bill Gates labels it as ‘one of the most important books I have read’. In today’s world, data is called the ‘new oil’. Just as oil has caused conflicts, data can be used to mislead, misguide and fill one’s coffers (‘fake news’?). Think of how politicians use data to gain traction on their own ulterior motives. However, if oil has to be used responsibly to curb global warming, the ‘new oil’ needs to be used responsibly and honestly to provide the right impetus to actionable meaningful change.

FACTFULNESS has ten chapters in it – ten reasons we are wrong about the world – with one word common to all the ten titles. Instinct. The word ‘Instinct’ at once tells us that it is human nature to not send ‘data signals’ received by the sense organs back to the intellect for analysis and reasoning. We ‘feel’ without much exertion and avoid ‘thinking’ too much, as the latter is energy-consuming and strenuous; often stressful. We do have valid reasons to do so in the postmodern world, in which a surfeit of data, a veritable ‘data bombardment’, makes one seek shortcuts (analogous to fast food). We end up deluding ourselves and become victims to manipulative politicians and businessmen.

“Data therapy” to relieve stress

Reading FACTFULNESS will be the first step – the removal of the blindfolds we walk around with. The next step would be the conscious implementation of this awareness in our daily lives when we are constantly bombarded with data – while reading newspapers, while watching TV, while conversing with friends or colleagues or sellers in the marketplace. In this age of diverse therapies and ‘pathies’, Dr Rosling recommends ‘data therapy’ to relieve humankind of the stress encountered on a daily basis by misinterpretation of data (which is presented to misguide and mislead often) and the resulting illusion of deterioration.

Rosling’s messages can be interpreted by those of us readers who are spiritual and believe in God, as ‘Good (God) acts silently in the background, while Bad (Satan) works noisily in the foreground seeking attention’. One must train oneself to understand the strength of the spirit soul seated deep inside each one of us, even as we witness the battering the sense organs receive from external stimuli. It is the sixth sense (not the one of apprehension though) of true understanding which Rosling recommends as therapy. I recall a Greek student of mine at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim sometime in 2012, asking me if the Mumbai slums shown in the film Slumdog Millionaire was representative of India. He seemed sceptical when he asked me the question and that warmed by heart. Filmmakers unintentionally play a role in misleading the viewers often!

Is the world getting better or worse?

Rosling advises us to understand the present vis-à-vis the past, using time-series graphs…and then decide if the world is getting ‘better’ or ‘worse’. Now the point here is to define ‘better’ with respect to something, or ‘worse’ with respect to something, right? After all those two words are comparative forms of the adjectives ‘good’ and ‘bad’. That, I guess, is the Eureka moment for readers who immediately get to the gist of the book.

Legal slavery, oil spills, child mortality, cost of solar panels, HIV infections, use of leaded gasoline, battle deaths, death penalties, plane crash deaths, child labour, nuclear arms, small pox cases, ozone depletion etc, have all decreased over time (the ‘good’ working in the background waiting to be understood and appreciated). Likewise, access to electricity and clean water, access to sewage systems, access to the Internet, child cancer survival rates have all increased over time.

Data therapy is all about being conscious and aware of ‘where we come from’, and ‘where we are’. This knowledge will help us to plan the ‘Quo Vadis’ with patience and fortitude. In FACTFULNESS, Dr Rosling is not exactly a ‘Pollyannaish’ optimist. In fact, he labels himself as a ‘possibilist’. He rails against the negativity instinct which is inherent in most of us (in fact all of us) – an obstacle to thinking in terms of doing good for oneself and people around.

Read FACTFULNESS, and become possibilists. You can make what the vast majority thinks is impossible, difficult but attainable, after administering yourself the doctor-author’s data therapy. May the Rosling legacy live on through GapMinder.


G. Venkatesh is Associate Professor, Department of Engineering and Chemical Sciences, Faculty of Health, Science and Technology, Karlstad University, Sweden. He is also a freelance writer for several magazines around the world.