Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (32 page)

Our press may be free, and professional, and truth-seeking, but independent is not the same as representative: even if every report is itself completely true, we can still get a misleading picture through the sum of true stories reporters choose to tell. The media is not and cannot be neutral, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

The journalists’ poll results are pretty disastrous. They are the knowledge equivalent of a plane crash. But it is no more helpful to blame the journalists than it is to blame a sleepy pilot. Instead, we have to seek to understand why journalists have a distorted worldview (answer: because they are human beings, with dramatic instincts) and what systemic factors encourage them to produce skewed and overdramatic news (at least part of the answer: they must compete for their consumers’ attention or lose their jobs).

When we understand this we will realize that it is completely unrealistic and unfair to call for the media to change in this way or that so that it can provide us with a better reflection of reality. Reflecting reality is not something the media can be expected to do. You should not expect the media to provide you with a fact-based worldview any more than you would think it reasonable to use a set of holiday snaps of Berlin as your GPS system to help you navigate around the city.


In 2015, 4,000 refugees drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe in inflatable boats. Images of children’s bodies washed up on the shores of holiday destinations evoked horror and compassion. What a tragedy. In our comfortable lives on Level 4 in Europe and elsewhere, we started thinking: How could such a thing happen? Who was to blame?

We soon worked it out. The villains were the cruel and greedy smugglers who tricked desperate families into handing over 1,000 euros per person for their places in inflatable death traps. We stopped thinking and comforted ourselves with images of European rescue boats saving people from the wild waters.

But why weren’t the refugees traveling to Europe on comfortable planes or ferry boats instead of traveling over land to Libya or Turkey and then entrusting their lives to these rickety rubber rafts? After all, all EU member states were signed up to the Geneva Convention, and it was clear that refugees from war-torn Syria would be entitled to claim asylum under its terms. I started to ask this question of journalists, friends, and people involved in the reception of the asylum seekers, but even the wisest and kindest among them came up with very strange answers.

Perhaps they could not afford to fly? But we knew that the refugees were paying 1,000 euros for each place on a rubber dinghy. I went online and checked and there were plenty of tickets from Turkey to Sweden or from Libya to London for under 50 euros.

Maybe they couldn’t reach the airport? Not true. Many of them were already in Turkey or Lebanon and could easily get to the airport. And they can afford a ticket, and the planes are not overbooked. But at the check-in counter, they are stopped by the airline staff from getting onto the plane. Why? Because of a European Council Directive from 2001 that tells member states how to combat illegal immigration. This directive says that every airline or ferry company that brings a person without proper documents into Europe must pay all the costs of returning that person to their country of origin. Of course the directive also says that it doesn’t apply to refugees who want to come to Europe based on their rights to asylum under the Geneva Convention, only to illegal immigrants. But that claim is meaningless. Because how should someone at the check-in desk at an airline be able to work out in 45 seconds whether someone is a refugee or is not a refugee according to the Geneva Convention? Something that would take the embassy at least eight months? It is impossible. So the practical effect of the reasonable-sounding directive is that commercial airlines will not let anyone board without a visa. And getting a visa is nearly impossible because the European embassies in Turkey and Libya do not have the resources to process the applications. Refugees from Syria, with the theoretical right to enter Europe under the Geneva Convention, are therefore in practice completely unable to travel by air and so must come over the sea.

Why, then, must they come in such terrible boats? Actually, EU policy is behind that as well, because it is EU policy to confiscate the boats when they arrive. So boats can be used for one trip only. The smugglers could not afford to send the refugees in safe boats, like the fishing boats that brought 7,220 Jewish refugees from Denmark to Sweden over a few days in 1943, even if they wanted to.

Our European governments claim to be honoring the Geneva Convention that entitles a refugee from a severely war-torn country to apply for and receive asylum. But their immigration policies make a mockery of this claim in practice and directly create the transport market in which the smugglers operate. There is nothing secret about this; in fact it takes some pretty blurry or blocked thinking not to see it.

We have an instinct to find someone to blame, but we rarely look in the mirror. I think smart and kind people often fail to reach the terrible, guilt-inducing conclusion that our own immigration policies are responsible for the drownings of refugees.


Remember the Indian official in chapter 5 who so persuasively rejected the claim that India and China should be taking the blame for climate change? I used the story then to talk about the importance of per-person measures, but of course it is also about how finding someone to blame can distract us from looking at the whole system.

The idea that India, China, and other countries moving up the levels should be blamed for climate change, and that their populations should be forced to live poorer lives in order to address it, is shockingly well established in the West. I remember, during a lecture about global trends at Tech University in Vancouver, an outspoken student saying with despair in her voice, “They can’t live like us. We can’t let them continue developing like this. Their emissions will kill the planet.” It is shocking how often I hear Westerners talking as if they hold remote controls in their hands and can make decisions about billions of lives elsewhere, just by pressing a button. Looking around, I realized that her fellow students were not reacting at all. They agreed with her.

Most of the human-emitted CO
accumulated in the atmosphere was emitted over the last 50 years by countries that are now on Level 4. Canada’s per capita CO
emissions are still twice as high as China’s and eight times as high India’s. In fact, do you know how much of all the fossil fuel burned each year is burned by the richest billion? More than half of it. Then the second-richest billion burns half of what’s left, and so on and so on, down to the poorest billion, who are responsible for only 1 percent.

It will take at least two decades for the poorest billion to struggle from Level 1 to Level 2—increasing their contribution to global CO
emissions by roughly 2 percent. It will take several decades more for them to get up to Levels 3 and 4.

In these circumstances, it is a testament to the blame instinct how easily we in the West seem to shift responsibility away from ourselves and onto others. We say that “they” cannot live like us. The right thing to say is, “We cannot live like us.”

The Foreign Disease

The body’s largest organ is the skin. Before modern medicine, one of the worst imaginable skin diseases was syphilis, which would start as itchy boils and then eat its way into the bones until it exposed the skeleton. The microbe that caused this disgusting sight and unbearable pain had different names in different places. In Russia it was called the Polish disease. In Poland it was the German disease; in Germany, the French disease; and in France, the Italian disease. The Italians blamed back, calling it the French disease.

The instinct to find a scapegoat is so core to human nature that it’s hard to imagine the Swedish people calling the open sores the Swedish disease, or the Russians calling it the Russian disease. That’s not how people work. We need someone to blame and if a single foreigner came here with the disease, then we would happily blame a whole country. No further investigation needed

Blame and Claim

The blame instinct drives us to attribute more power and influence to individuals than they deserve, for bad or good. Political leaders and CEOs in particular often claim they are more powerful than they are.

Powerful Leaders?

For example, Mao was undoubtedly an extraordinarily powerful figure whose actions had direct consequences for 1 billion people. But his infamous one-child policy had less influence on birth rates than is commonly thought.

Most often when I show the low birth numbers in Asia, someone says, “That must be because of Mao’s one-child policy.” But the huge, fast drop from six to three babies per woman had happened in the ten years preceding the one-child policy. And during the 36 years the policy was in place, the number never fell below 1.5, though it did in many other countries without enforcement, like Ukraine, Thailand, and South Korea. In Hong Kong, where again the one-child policy didn’t apply, the number dropped even below one baby per woman. All this suggests that there were other factors at play here—the reasons I have already outlined for why women decide to have babies—than the decisive command of a powerful man.

The pope is also credited with enormous influence over the sexual behavior of the 1 billion Catholics in the world. However, despite the clear condemnation of the use of contraception by several successive popes, the statistics show that contraceptive use is 60 percent in Catholic-majority countries, compared with 58 percent in the rest of the world. In other words, it is the same. The pope is one of the world’s most prominent moral leaders, but it seems that even leaders with great political power or moral authority do not have remote controls that can reach into the bedroom.

The Inside of Sister Linda’s Door

In the poorest rural parts of Africa, it is still the nuns who maintain many basic health services. Some of these clever, hardworking, and pragmatic women became my closest colleagues.

Sister Linda, whom I worked with in Tanzania, was a devout Catholic nun who dressed all in black and prayed three times a day. The door to her office was always open—she closed it only during health-care consultations—and on its outside, the first thing you saw as you entered, was a glossy poster of the pope. One day, she and I were in her office and started discussing a sensitive matter. Sister Linda stood up and closed the door, and for the first time I saw what was on its inside: another large poster and, attached to it, hundreds of little bags of condoms. When Sister Linda turned back around and saw my surprised face she smiled—as she often did when discovering my countless stereotypes of women like her. “The families need them to stop both AIDS and babies,” she said simply. And then she continued our discussion

The situation with abortion is different. Mao’s one-child policy did have an impact. It resulted in an unknown number of forced abortions and forced sterilizations. Across the world today, women and girls are still being made the victims of religious condemnation of abortion. When abortion is made illegal it doesn’t stop abortions from happening, but it does make abortions more dangerous and increase the risk of women dying as a result.

More Likely Suspects

I have argued above that we should look at the systems instead of looking for someone to blame when things go wrong. We should also give more credit to two kinds of systems when things go right. The invisible actors behind most human success are prosaic and dull compared to great, all-powerful leaders. Nevertheless I want to praise them, so let’s throw a parade for the unsung heroes of global development: institutions and technology.


Only in a few countries, with exceptionally destructive leaders and conflicts, has social and economic development been halted. Everywhere else, even with the most incapable presidents imaginable, there has been progress. It must make one ask if the leaders are that important. And the answer, probably, is no. It’s the people, the many, who build a society.

Sometimes, when I turn the water on to wash my face in the morning and warm water comes out just like magic, I silently praise those who made it possible: the plumbers. When I’m in that mode I’m often overwhelmed by the number of opportunities I have to feel grateful to civil servants, nurses, teachers, lawyers, police officers, firefighters, electricians, accountants, and receptionists. These are the people building societies. These are the invisible people working in a web of related services that make up society’s institutions. These are the people we should celebrate when things are going well.

In 2014, I went to Liberia to help fight Ebola because I was afraid that if it weren’t stopped, it could easily spread to the rest of the world and kill a billion people, causing more harm than any known pandemic in world history. The fight against the lethal Ebola virus was won not by an individual heroic leader, or even by one heroic organization like M
decins Sans Fronti
res or UNICEF. It was won prosaically and undramatically by government staff and local health workers, who created public health campaigns that changed ancient funeral practices in a matter of days; risked their lives to treat dying patients; and did the cumbersome, dangerous, and delicate work of finding and isolating all the people who had been in contact with them. Brave and patient servants of a functioning society, rarely ever mentioned—but the true saviors of the world.

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