Factfulness: How Well Do You Know the World?

Get a glimpse into Hans Rosling's book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.

Hans Rosling
6-minute read

Factfulness is about the world, and how to understand it. First, I would like you to test your knowledge about the world. Please find a piece of paper and a pencil and answer the 13 fact questions below.

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

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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

4. What is the life expectancy of the world today?

A. 50 years
B. 60 years
C. 70 years

5. There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations

A. 4 billion
B. 3 billion
C. 2 billion

6. The UN predicts that by 2100 the world population will have increased by another 4 billion people. What is the main reason?

A. There will be more children (age below 15)
B. There will be more adults (age 15 to 74)
C. There will be more very old people (age 75 and older)

7. How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years?

A. More than doubled
B. Remained about the same
C. Decreased to less than half

8. There are roughly 7 billion people in the world today. Which map shows best where they live? (Each figure represents 1 billion people.)

9. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?

A. 20 percent
B. 50 percent
C. 80 percent

10. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school?

A. 9 years
B. 6 years
C. 3 years

11. In 1996, tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today?

A. Two of them
B. One of them
C. None of them

12. How many people in the world have some access to electricity?

A. 20 percent
B. 50 percent
C. 80 percent

13. Global climate experts believe that, over the next 100 years, the average temperature will...

A. get warmer
B. remain the same
C. get colder

Here are the correct answers:

1: C, 2: B, 3: C, 4: C, 5: C, 6: B, 7: C, 8: A, 9: C, 10: A, 11: C, 12: C, 13: A

Score one for each correct answer, and write your total score on your piece of paper

Scientists, Chimpanzees, and You

How did you do? Did you get a lot wrong? Did you feel like you were doing a lot of guessing? If so, let me say two things to comfort you.

First, when you have finished this book, you will do much better. Not because I will have made you sit down and memorize a string of global statistics. (I am a global health professor, but I’m not crazy.) You’ll do better because I will have shared with you a set of simple thinking tools. These will help you get the big picture right, and improve your sense of how the world works, without you having to learn all the details.

And second: if you did badly on this test, you are in very good company.

Over the past decades I have posed hundreds of fact questions like these, 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. The tests are not complicated and there are no trick questions. I am careful only to use facts that are well documented and not disputed. Yet most people do extremely badly.

Question three, for example, is about the trend in extreme poverty. Over the past twenty years, the proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has halved. This is absolutely revolution-ary. I consider it to be the most important change that has happened in the world in my lifetime. It is also a pretty basic fact to know about life on Earth. But people do not know it. On average only 7 percent—less than one in ten!— get it right.

(Yes, I have been talking a lot about the decline of global poverty in the Swedish media.)

The Democrats and Republicans in the United States often claim that their opponents don’t know the facts. If they measured their own knowledge instead of pointing at each other, maybe everyone could become more humble. When we polled in the United States, only 5 percent picked the right answer. The other 95 percent, regardless of their voting preference, believed either that the extreme poverty rate had not changed over the last 20 years, or, worse, that it had actually doubled—which is literally the opposite of what has actually happened.

Let’s take another example: question nine, about vaccination. Almost all children are vaccinated in the world today. This is amazing. It means that almost all human beings alive today have some access to basic modern healthcare. But most people do not know this. On average just 13 percent of people get the answer right.

Eighty-six percent of people get the final question about climate change right. In all the rich countries where we have tested public knowledge in online polls, most people know that climate experts are predicting warmer weather. In just a few decades, scientific findings have gone from the lab to the public. That is a big public- awareness success story.

Climate change apart though, it is the same story of massive ignorance (by which I do not mean stupidity, or anything intentional, but simply the lack of correct knowledge) for all twelve of the other questions. In 2017 we asked nearly 12,000 people in 14 countries to answer our questions. They scored on average just two correct answers out of the first 12. No one got full marks, and just one person (in Sweden) got 11 out of 12. A stunning 15 percent scored zero.

Perhaps you think that better-educated people would do better? Or people who are more interested in the issues? I certainly thought that once, but I was wrong. I have tested audiences from all around the world and from all walks of life: medical students, teachers, university lecturers, eminent scientists, investment bankers, executives in multinational companies, journalists, activists, and even senior political decision makers. These are highly educated people who take an interest in the world. But most of them—a stunning majority of them—get most of the answers wrong. Some of these groups even score worse than the general public; some of the most appalling results came from a group of Nobel laureates and medical researchers. It is not a question of intelligence. Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong.

Not only devastatingly wrong, but systematically wrong. By which I mean that these test results are not random. They are worse than random: they are worse than the results I would get if the people answering my questions had no knowledge at all.

Imagine I decide to head down to the zoo to test out my questions on the chimpanzees. Imagine I take with me huge armfuls of bananas, each marked either A, B, or C, and throw them into the chimpanzee enclosure. Then I stand outside the enclosure, read out each question in a loud, clear voice, and note down, as each chimpanzee’s “answer,” the letter on the banana she next chooses to eat.

If I did this (and I wouldn’t ever actually do this, but just imagine), the chimps, by picking randomly, would do consistently better than the well- educated but deluded human beings who take my tests. Through pure luck, the troop of chimps would score 33 percent on each three-answer question, or four out of the first 12 on the whole test. Remember that the humans I have tested get on average just two out of 12 on the same test.

What’s more, the chimps’ errors would be equally shared between the two wrong answers, whereas the human errors all tend to be in one direction. 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 and the Fact-Based Worldview

This book is my very last battle in my lifelong mission to fight devastating global ignorance. It is my last attempt to make an impact on the world: to change people’s ways of thinking, calm their irrational fears, and redirect their energies into constructive activities. In my previous battles I armed myself with huge data sets, eye- opening software, an energetic lecturing style, and a Swedish bayonet. It wasn’t enough. But I hope that this book will be.

This is data as you have never known it: it is data as therapy. It is understanding as a source of mental peace. Because the world is not as dramatic as it seems.

Factfulness, like a healthy diet and regular exercise, can and should become part of your daily life. Start to practice it, and you will be able to replace your overdramatic worldview with a worldview based on facts. You will be able to get the world right without learning it by heart. You will make better decisions, stay alert to real dangers and possibilities, and avoid being constantly stressed about the wrong things.

I will teach you how to recognize overdramatic stories and give you some thinking tools to control your dramatic instincts. Then you will be able to shift your misconceptions, develop a fact- based worldview, and beat the chimps every time.