Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (13 page)

During my lifetime, Sweden moved from Level 3 to Level 4. A treatment against tuberculosis was invented and my mother got well. She read books to me that she borrowed from the public library. For free. I became the first in my family to get more than six years of education, and I went to university for free. I got a doctor’s degree for free. Of course nothing is free: the taxpayers paid. And then, at the age of 30, when I had become a father of two and I discovered my first cancer, I was treated and cured by the world’s best health-care system, for free. My survival and success in life have always depended on others. Thanks to my family, free education, and free health care, I made it all the way from that ditch to the World Economic Forum. I would never have made it on my own.

Today, now that Sweden is on Level 4, only three children in 1,000 die before the age of five, and only 1 percent of those deaths are drownings. Fences, day care, life-jacket campaigns, swimming lessons, and lifeguards at public pools all cost money. Child death from drowning is one of the many horrors that has nearly disappeared as the country has become richer. That is what I call progress. The same improvements are taking place across the world today. Most countries are currently improving faster than Sweden ever did. Much faster.


Factfulness is … recognizing when we get negative news,
and remembering that information about bad events is much more likely to reach us. When things are getting better we often don’t hear about them. This gives us a systematically too-negative impression of the world around us, which is very stressful.

To control the negativity instinct,
expect bad news.

Better and bad.
Practice distinguishing between a level (e.g., bad) and a direction of change (e.g., better). Convince yourself that things can be both better and bad.

Good news is not news.
Good news is almost never reported. So news is almost always bad. When you see bad news, ask whether equally positive news would have reached you.

Gradual improvement is not news.
When a trend is gradually improving, with periodic dips, you are more likely to notice the dips than the overall improvement.

More news does not equal more suffering.
More bad news is sometimes due to better surveillance of suffering, not a worsening world.

Beware of rosy pasts.
People often glorify their early experiences, and nations often glorify their histories.


How more survivors means fewer people, how traffic accidents are like cavities, and why my grandson is like the population of the world
The Most Frightening Graph I Ever Saw

Statistics can be terrifying. On September 23, 2014, I was sitting at my desk in the Gapminder office in Stockholm when I saw a line on a graph that gripped me with fear. I had been concerned about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa since August. Like others, I had seen the tragic images in the media of people dying in the streets of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. But in my work, I often heard about sudden outbreaks of deadly diseases, and I had assumed it was like most others and would soon be contained. The graph in the World Health Organization research article shocked me into fear and then action.

The researchers had collected all the Ebola data since the start of the epidemic and used it to calculate the expected number of new cases per day up to the end of October. They showed, for the first time, that the number of cases was not just increasing along a straight line: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Instead, the number was doubling like this: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16. Each infected person was infecting, on average, two more people before dying. As a result, the number of new cases per day was doubling every three weeks. The graph showed how enormous the outbreak would soon become if each infected person kept infecting two more. Doubling is scary!

I had first learned about the effect of doubling at school. In the Indian legend, the Lord Krishna asks for one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard, then two grains on the second square, four grains on the third square, then eight, and so on, doubling the number of grains each time. By the time he gets to the last of the 64 squares, he is owed 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice: enough to cover the whole of India with a layer of rice 30 inches deep. Anything that keeps doubling grows much faster than we first assume. So I knew the situation in West Africa was about to become desperate. Liberia was at risk of a catastrophe worse than its recently ended civil war, and one that would almost inevitably spread to the entire world. Unlike malaria, Ebola could spread quickly in all climates and could travel on airplanes, across borders and oceans inside the bodies of unknowingly infected passengers. There was no effective treatment for it.

People were already dying in the streets now. Within only nine weeks (the time needed for three doublings) the situation would be eight times as desperate. Every three-week delay in dealing with the problem would mean twice as many people infected and twice as many resources needed. Ebola had to be stopped within weeks.

At Gapminder we immediately changed our priorities and started studying the data and producing information videos to explain the urgency of the situation. By October 20, I had canceled all my assignments for the next three months and was on a plane to Liberia, where I hoped my 20 years of studying epidemics in rural sub-Saharan Africa could be of some use. I remained in Liberia for three months, missing Christmas and New Year’s with my family for the first time ever.

Like the rest of the world, I was too slow to understand the magnitude and urgency of the Ebola crisis. I had assumed that the increase in cases was a straight line when in fact the data clearly showed that it was a doubling line. Once I understood this, I acted. But I wish I had understood, and acted, sooner.

The Mega Misconception That “The World Population Is 
Increasing and Increasing”

Nowadays, the word
is found in the title of almost every conference I get invited to. One of the most important numbers of the sustainability equation is the human population. There must be some kind of limit to how many people can live on this planet. Right? So when I started testing my audiences at these sustainability conferences, I just assumed that they would know the basic facts about global population growth. Seldom have I been so wrong.

We have now arrived at the third instinct—the straight line instinct—and the third and last mega misconception: the false idea that the world population is
increasing. Please pay attention to the word
which I’ve made italic and underlined for a purpose. This word is the misconception.

In fact, the world population
increasing. Very fast. Roughly a billion people will be added over the next 13 years. That’s true. That’s not a misconception. But it’s not
increasing. The “just” implies that, if nothing is done, the population will just keep on growing. It implies that some drastic action is needed in order to stop the growth. That is the misconception, and I think it is based on the same instinct that stopped me and the world from acting sooner to stop Ebola. The instinct to assume that lines are straight.

I rarely get speechless, but it happened the first time I asked an audience the following question. It was at a teachers’ conference in Norway (but I don’t mean to be too hard on the Norwegians: it might just as well have been in Finland too). Many of these teachers were teaching global population trends as part of their social science classes. When I turned my head around and saw the results from the live poll on the screen behind me, I couldn’t find words. I remember thinking that there must be something wrong with the polling devices.


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 UN?

Before asking the question, I had told the teachers, “One of these three lines shows the official UN forecast. The other two lines, I just made up.”

Again, chimpanzees pick the correct line 33 percent of the time. The teachers in Norway? Only 9 percent. I was shocked. How could such an important group of people score worse than random? What were they teaching the children?

I kind of hoped the polling devices were broken. But they were not. We got the same terrible results in our public polls. In the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, France, and Australia, 85 percent of people picked the fake lines. (The full country breakdown is in the appendix.)

The experts at the World Economic Forum? They answered much better than the public. Almost as well as chimpanzees. Twenty-six percent got it right.

Thinking it over more calmly after the teachers’ conference was over, I started to see the size of the knowledge problem. The number of future children is the most essential number for making global population forecasts. So it is central to the whole sustainability debate. If we get this number wrong, we are going to get a lot else wrong. Yet almost none of the highly educated and influential people we have measured have the slightest knowledge of what the population experts are all agreeing about. The numbers are freely available online, from the UN website, but free access to data doesn’t turn into knowledge without effort. The UN line is alternative C: the flat line at the bottom. UN experts expect that in the year 2100 there will be 2 billion children, the same number as today. They don’t expect the line to continue straight. They expect no further increase. I’ll soon get back to this.

The Straight Line Instinct

This graph shows the world population since the year 8000
. That’s when agriculture was invented.

Back then, the total human population was roughly 5 million people, spread along coastlines and rivers all over the world. The total of humanity was smaller than the population of one of our big cities today: London, Bangkok, or Rio de Janeiro.

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