Factfulness: Are You Wrong About the World?

Factfulness by Hans Rosling, book review bookstagram

Something about this bright orange cover caught my eye and I found myself adding Factfulness to my online trolley. I have been trying to change the type of books I consume, from fictional stories and fantasies to something a little more solid and real, a little more informative and applicable to every day conversations. 

Factfulness was actually a pretty good choice.

A little wrecked up from traveling to and fro in my bag…

Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent and more hopeless- in short, more dramatic- than it really is.

Factfulness

The author spends a lot of time talking about how people get facts and figures all wrong, even worse than if a chimpanzee was to guess the correct answer. That is to say, people performed worse than chance. I feel like the author made an unnecessarily big deal out of this; just because people performed poorer that if they had performed with absolutely no knowledge or opinion of the world, doesn’t mean that they know less than chimpanzees. It just means that people look at the world in an inherently negative light. They are biased towards believing that the world is worse than it really is and that’s why they end up performing so poorly in these multiple choice questions.

I really don’t understand why he had to go make things sound more dramatic than it really is with the chimpanzees.

The whole game that the author plays involves statistics. Statistics can be skewed in any way to make any point seem relevant and valid, especially to people who don’t really know enough about statistics to realize how misleading it may appear and how easy it is to manipulate data. After all, the average person can’t interpret data the way a statistician can and is thus blind to seeing how much is really missing from the data presented. There’s also the fact that only data for negative things are often shown. To combat this, the author attempts to show us data of ‘good’ things, although I must say, all the ‘good’ things he gathers up for us, from the declining rate of oil tanker spills to the rising of movie productions, aren’t really good things when it comes to the state of the world.

I mean, come on. How does more films coming out have anything to do with the world getting better? Sure, okay, so 2019 looks great because Captain Marvel, Endgame, Spiderman, Detective Pikachu, IT Chapter 2 and The Lion King are coming out but that doesn’t mean the overall state of the world is doing great because of these movies???

 The negativity instinct has three things going on: the misremembering of the past, selective reporting by journalists and activists and the feeling that as long as things are bad, it’s heartless to say that they are getting better.

Factfulness

By misremembering the past, the author refers to the rosy tinted filter people tend to apply when talking about the past. Starting with “back in my day-“, those from earlier generations talk about a past that sounds better than it actually was. I actually don’t agree with this at all. 

First of all, people tend to remember the harsher times of their personal lives. For example, whenever my parents and my grandmother talk about their life from over thirty years ago, it’s actually pretty bloody. Both, my mother and father and their families used to live in Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, and back in their days, violence on the streets on innocent people was not uncommon. Just the other day, my grandmother was talking about how a pair of boys in her neighborhood had gone out to get some breakfast for their family for sehri (it was Ramadan at that time) and how they never came back. All that was found were their tortured bodies, tendons cut to stop them from running.

That doesn’t sound rosy tinted at all to me. 

Another point that I felt the author missed was that if people in this day and age can’t correctly the death rate and other statistics, how exactly does he expect people to remember the death rate of thirty years ago? Or even know what the current death rate was, thirty years ago? I feel like a lot of this book was written specifically for developed countries that had a vast population which was educated and possibly bored enough to talk about these kinds of statistics in the first place.

Selective reporting on the other hand, is understandable. After all, it’s sensational news that grabs attention. The media runs on misery. While it’s good that important issues are being highlighted and brought out to the front, it often eclipses other issues that are just as important, and as a result, creates an atmosphere of doom where it feels like things are only going from bad to worse.

It seems that this entire book is written for people who are severely disillusioned with the world and need to rebuild their entire perspective because it’s affecting their lives so much. After all, the point that this book is trying to hammer home is that yes, things are bad, but they are getting better. It’s also trying to reprogram on what we mean by good news by offering the alternate and palatable explanation that the absence of bad news itself is good news. I don’t really agree with this, but for someone who has absolutely zero hope for the world, this just might be a good place to start from.

More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering and not a worsening world.

Factfulness

Now this, I can agree with. Bad news just means that somewhere out there, someone’s suffering is being made apparent so that they can get the help they need. If there’s bad news coming out and no one around you is doing anything to help out, then you should be really concerned. Imagine if the media never reported any bad news: the world would be the same. We just wouldn’t know what was going on.

Overall, it was really hard to read this book without having a lot of my own opinions that contrasted with what the author was trying to say. My little brother also read this book and all he had to say was that he disagreed with the book (he’s eleven years old…) and that the author had a ridiculously positive outlook on life. I’m going to have to agree with my brother. At the same time, there were lots of things that I definitely learned from this book and therefore would definitely recommend to people who are interested in reading about view points that can cause their thinking gears to grind.

I also feel like this would be a great book for med students to read, especially med students who are doing or have done their community medicine rotation. Maybe it’s because the author is also a doctor, maybe it’s because a lot of the content in the book I was already familiar with thanks to commed, regardless, I would definitely recommend it as worth reading during that rotation. It can help put into picture how important it is for doctors and other health care professionals to be aware of statistics, data and inferences from numbers.


This was the first book I read that I heavily chronicled in my journal. While I had definitely written about Kafka On The Shore and discussed it in my journal, Factfulness was the book that I chronicled while reading. It was a little cumbersome, but an overall enjoyable task as it helped consolidate a lot of the ideas and opinions I had formed while reading.

I used to write out lines that I liked from the book and follow it up with a short summary of the chapter or things I agreed or disagreed with. I feel like it’s a great way of recording books I’ve read, especially ones that deal with timeless concepts like statistics and data interpretation. It’s great to flip back and read from, whether it’s to refresh my memory about the book or write a book review of it for my blog!


Have you read Factfulness? Is non-fiction like this your cup of tea? What’s the last informative book you’ve read that you actually learned a thing or two from? How do you feel about books that discuss views you don’t agree with?

Thank you for reading! Have a nice day!

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Author: Kanra Khan

I'm a Pakistani American student of medicine, or more precisely, an almost-graduate of MBBS Class of 2019. I like to write about my experiences in med school and my adventures in life, which range from traveling, to art, to blogging and photography. Like what you're seeing so far? Consider exploring a bit more! The Lunar Descent is endless.

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