Hans Rosling’s “Factfulness”

Hans Rosling just published his latest and probably last book, titled “Factfulness”. I trusted Bill Gates’ recommendation for the book.

I wish I could tell Hans how much I liked it. Factfulness is a fantastic book, and I hope a lot of people read it.

Having read the book, I agree.

The book starts out with a pop quiz. 13 questions on various facts about the state of the world, with three multiple choice options each. I got only 11 of them right, missing the correct distribution of world population over continents (question eight) and the correct answer on endangered species (question eleven).

But I cheated. I didn’t bother recording my answers the first time around. I then went back after reading some more. By that time I understood that the general principle of these questions was to trick the reader, and the way to avoid the traps was to always choose the most optimistic choice.

The book then goes on to explain that most people taking this test have very bad scores. And it develops some theories why those scores are so bad. It is a general theory of lacking knowledge.

I don’t think this part is very useful. The reason I missed the right answers to questions eight and eleven was simply that I hadn’t studied the topic in question enough. There is no need for complex theories explaining that. If you don’t know something, the simple reason is that you didn’t bother to learn it.

And since information is exploding, people will fail some test or other even if they read and understand this book. There is no substitute for actually learning things.

If your goal is to have less people who lack important information, you should think about what makes learning processes more effective. None of the reasons for lack of information discussed in the book stop anyone from learning the facts that were tested, if they are inclined to do so.

That said, I still agree that this is an excellent book. I will discuss it from the climate change point of view.

Actually, the test question on climate change stood out. It was consistently the one with the highest percentage of correct answers.

That’s good news. Most people understand the basic fact that the planet is getting warmer.

The most important message was in the chapter about the “Urgency Instinct”. Roslund reports Al Gore telling him “We need to create fear!” and insisting on stressing the worst case scenarios for that reason, until Roslund closed the discussion down. Roslund then appeals to climate hawks (I count myself among them) to stop picking the most dramatic estimates and show worst-case scenarios.

When you are talking about an “inconvenient truth”, refrain from using convenient lies to make your case.

If it is true that 55% of human CO2 emissions over the last ten years were absorbed by carbon sinks (it is), don’t disregard that fact because it doesn’t fit in the narrative of an appeal for urgent action.

I learned from this book that about half of CO2 emissions are caused by the top one billion of the population.

The good news, as described all over the book, is that there is progress everywhere. Much less people are in extreme poverty now. And in the long run, it is only a matter of time until everyone on the planet reaches level 4, which is the top billion people spending more than $32 a day.

The bad news is that this would make emissions worse by a large factor.

Unless the future people arriving at level 4 refrain from making the same mistakes as the first billion people on that level.

In Germany and Japan’s periods of high growth fifty years ago, they didn’t have the option of using solar panels instead of coal power plants.

India and China do have that option. And since these are now cheaper than fossil fuel, they are the obvious choice even if there was not any CO2 emission problem.

Also, with all seven billion people at level 4, fossil fuel supply would need to increase dramatically. Since oil and coal reserves are not infinite, that would pose serious problems. Running a world with 7 billion people on level 4 with a fossil fuel based energy system is impossible anyway because fossil fuel would run out very fast.