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Let the facts speak for themselves

Hans Rosling’s name is not one that is widely known, but it should be. He died last year at what today is a young age – just 68 – but his last book (Factfulness) has recently been published (with his son and daughter as co-authors). He was a physician and statistician and professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute.

Bill Gates is quoted by the publishers as saying: “One of the most important books I've ever read - an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” Reviews have been almost universally positive (eg, from the FT, Why the world isn’t nearly as bad as you think it is) and Daniel Finkelstein has devoted his Times column to it this week (Here’s how to make the world a better place).

Rosling’s main thesis is that people are too pessimistic. When presented with a range of options for questions about human development and the state of the world, the answers given even by highly educated audiences (in fact, perhaps particularly by highly educated audiences) always err towards the negative, even though the objective evidence says otherwise. As some stories put it, random choices by a chimp would be closer to the truth. It’s not a question of people thinking they don’t know. They think they do know, and they always think things are worse than the reality.

The fact that his conclusions were based on hard evidence should please everyone, particularly those with scientific training. But there is also a danger, some will say, that this is a case of looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and that we will become complacent about the real problems that still face too many people. By this line of thought, a degree of alarm is needed to raise awareness and keep focussed on the goal of, for example, eradicating poverty or malnutrition.

Whatever the reason, policymakers and opinion formers have been exposed to views like this from Rosling and others on a number of occasions, but they are still more susceptible to the messages from campaigners that highlight problems, and the mindset remains one of pessimism. The danger is that by thinking we are making no progress, we take our eyes of achievable goals while focussing on absolutes. The perfect then becomes the enemy of the good.

Rosling pointed out the facts, but did not ascribe the improvements to any particular policies or economic system. He also signed up to the consensus on the dangers presented by climate change. For that reason, he has not generally come in for the sort of criticism reserved for other optimists (more correctly, realists) such as Bjorn Lomborg or Matt Ridley. Nevertheless, despite the good reviews of his work and the sadness at his early death, we are unlikely to see his outlook becoming commonplace in political circles.

This suggests that pessimism is somehow hard-wired into our psyche. It may be a real benefit in modern societies, or it may be just another trait that was important for our more primitive ancestors but is more of a hindrance in today’s world. In practice, though, the facts still speak for themselves. At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that Rosling had died at an early age by today’s standards, where men can on average expect to live to about 80. However, in 1970, less than 50 years’ ago, the average life expectancy was just 69 and Rosling’s death would have been nothing out of the ordinary.

And to put the rate of human development into even sharper perspective, here is what Daniel Finkelstein has to say: “When Rosling was born in 1948, Sweden had the national income and many of the social circumstances found today in Egypt. In 1863, when his grandmother was born, it had been like Afghanistan is today; by 1891 it was like Lesotho; by 1921 like Zambia.”

Statistics like this point to why someone like Bill Gates is such a fan. Having made a fortune from Microsoft, Bill and his wife Melinda are now dedicated to spending most of that to make the world a better place. Their foundation takes a hard-headed, business-oriented approach to this. Rather than be steered by emotion about those suffering the most, an objective analysis is done of projects to choose those with the greatest likelihood of doing the most good.

As an example, much has been invested in trying to eliminate the scourge of malaria, which still kills far too many people – often children – in tropical areas. Distributing insecticide-treated bed nets is highly cost-effective, while improving ways to manufacture the most effective anti-malarial drug available (artemisinin) has made treatment more widely available. But, like any insect and parasite, the targets evolve to become resistant to existing treatments, so more money is being spent on alternative prevention and treatment strategies.

The point is that there are always bad things in the world and today we are more aware of them than ever, via the ubiquity of the internet. Some seem almost intractable and are essentially man-made: there is no simple answer to poor governance and civil war, in particular. But the world is getting richer, the number of people in absolute poverty is falling and the number of malnourished people, although remaining stubbornly at around 800 million, continues to fall as a percentage of the global population.

If we accept that good things are achievable, and that we need to focus our attention on those projects most likely to do the most good, continued progress will be made. The facts speak for themselves.