The One-Sided Worldview of Hans Rosling

The One-Sided Worldview of Hans Rosling

Christian Berggren
Christian Berggren
14 min read

A review of Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Flatiron Books (April 2018) 352 pages.

Charisma and upbeat messages about global trends made the late Hans Rosling (1948–2017), professor at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, an international TEDTalk-star, listed among TIME Magazine´s “The World´s 100 Most Influential People” already in 2012. The posthumous book, Factfulness written with his son and daughter-in-law is now becoming a global bestseller. Bill Gates promises to hand it out to all US university graduates. Nature is full of praise: “This magnificent book ends with a plea for a factual world view. …Like his famous presentations, it throws down a gauntlet to doom-and-gloomers in global health by challenging preconceptions and misconceptions.” In Sweden, The Nobel Prize Foundation has teamed up with the Rosling family, announcing that it will “light up Stockholm every spring, in connection with the arrival of the light, with a new public education day in memory of Hans Rosling.”1

Unfortunately, Factfulness presents a highly biased sample of statistics as the true perspective on global development, avoids analysis of negative trends, and refrains from discussing difficult issues, such as the ecological consequences of the current type of growth and the risks related to the continued global population growth. A critical analysis of these shortcomings is the subject of this essay.

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A review of Factfulness needs to start with acknowledging that it makes several positive contributions, for example a new perspective on global poverty and well-being. During his many lectures Hans Rosling observed that the audience had a view of the world that dated back to the 1960s: a small group of rich countries in Western Europe and North America were set in stark contrast to the overwhelming majority of poor developing countries throughout the rest of the world. Factfulness shows that this dichotomy is outdated and proposes a grouping of countries into four income levels, where each level represents a fourfold increase in income over the previous level. The starting point is $1/day at Level 1, then $4/day at Level 2, $16/day at Level 3, and $64/day or more at Level 4. According to Factfulness, about one billion people is today at Level 1 (extreme poverty). The majority, three and two billion are at Level 2 and Level 3, with access to electricity, some form of education, and healthcare. One billion people are “rich” and live at Level 4. In 2016, the World Bank officially accepted this grouping, after 14 years of Rosling’s lectures. The United Nations, however, still adheres to the dichotomy of developed and developing countries.

The claim of Factfulness, however, is not just to present some good news: “This is a book about the world and how it really is.” Do the authors live up to this bold claim? The short answer is no. My criticism concerns three major problems in the book:

  1. Its selection of statistics does not do justice to the complex and contradictory trends in global developments.
  2. Its silence on the preconditions and ecological consequences of the current techno-economic regime makes its analysis of the positive trends superficial and inconsequential.
  3. Its view on global population growth as unproblematic and impossible to influence is flawed and has potentially serious political implications

1. The Best of All Worlds?

Factfulness includes many graphs of “bad things in decline” and “good things on the rise” but not a single graph of bad things on the rise. One graph depicts the reduction in oil spills at sea, but there´s no graph on the accumulation of plastic debris in the oceans and its effects on birds and fish. There is a graph showing the decrease in hunger around the world but no graph on the spread of obesity, though the book in passim notes that this is one of the largest health problems in the world (moreover, in September 2018 the UN World Food Program reported an increase in the number of hungry people in recent years).

The authors present a graph indicating a reduction of smoke particles in the air (measured as a decline in sulfur dioxide per person), but no graph on diesel emissions or the overall air pollution in industrializing Asia, although its “brown clouds” have been known for decades. In India alone polluted air was estimated to cause 1.1 million deaths in 2017, an increase of 50 percent since 1990. The book contains graphs on positive changes in protected nature, and good news on the conservations status of a few flagship species such as black rhinos, pandas, and tigers. However, it contains no information on the drastic decline in global biodiversity including a widespread decline of virtually all wild vertebrates, which researchers describe as the sixth mass extinction.2 The problem of carbon dioxide emissions is mentioned but mainly to complain about the West. An EU environment minister is attacked for saying, “China releases more carbon dioxide than the United States, and India more than Germany.” Instead, the authors argue, the focus should be on emissions per capita. From the perspective of the planet, however, only total emissions count, no matter how they are divided. The fact that China now releases more carbon dioxide than any other country is, therefore, a real cause for concern. Furthermore, if the authors had examined per capita emissions themselves, they would have found that China’s emissions have surpassed those of most EU countries: 7.45 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per person in China, compared to 6.4 tons for the EU as a whole. Still, the EU is working to reduce its emissions, while China is not. The book’s criticism of the EU environment minister thus falls flat on its face.

The authors attack what they describe as the erroneous notion of income gaps between countries, arguing that there is an income spread in every country and overlaps between countries. Yet the existence of variation in social variables is well known in social science, and it does not prevent the existence of socioeconomic gaps between countries. There is, for example, a significant gap between the average income in the United States ($67/day) and Mexico ($11/day). In Factfulness, the authors seek to visually eliminate this gap. Without explanation, they insert a logarithmic income scale in which each step reflects a tenfold increase over the previous level. This, they argue, provides a better idea of ​​the reality behind the numbers and they triumphantly exclaim: “Now the gap has almost disappeared.” This effect is of course trivial when a log scale replaces a conventional scale, and recalls the quip about “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The true difference between Americans’ $67/day and Mexicans’ $11/day remains, of course.

And so it goes on—with a selection of indicators that sometimes are correct and important, but often disregard contradictory evidence in a way that reduces the credibility of the book and the trustworthiness of its good news.

2. No Discussion of the Ecological Consequences of the Current Progress

Rosling’s interest in the long-term trends in health, education, and longevity permeates the book. However, there is no effort to analyze the techno-economic regime at the basis of these trends, and how its global diffusion is predicated on a massive increase in the use of fossil fuel and overall resource consumption. The authors cannot blame their omissions on the lack of data. Particularly relevant to Factfulness is the research by William Steffen and his colleagues on changes in industrial activities, resource use, and environmental impact since 1750. A remarkable finding in their studies is the acceleration during the last half-century, the period at the core of the story of progress told in Factfulness. In Steffen’s words: “We expected to see a growing imprint of the human enterprise on the Earth system from the start of the industrial revolution onwards. We didn´t, however, expect to see the dramatic change in the magnitude and rate of the human imprint from about 1950 onward.”3 The Great Acceleration, the name given to this period, was first identified in a book published in 2004 and its charts have since been updated to cover the decade up to 2010. The Great Acceleration illustrates a number of socioeconomic trends—population growth, urbanization, energy use, water consumption, fertilizer consumption, and transport. All have accelerated since 1950.

The same applies to the indicators that illustrate what the researchers call “earth system trends”: carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, methane emissions, marine acidification, loss of tropical forests, and terrestrial biosphere degradation. Almost every one of these trends is accelerating in a negative direction. The only exception is stratospheric ozone. The previous declining trend in the ozone layer—the so-called Antarctic hole—ceased in the 1990s thanks to the internationally binding Montreal Protocol (which received a strong support from the US president at the time, Ronald Reagan, but is now being eroded by the current President).

The Great Acceleration is reflected in an increasingly material-intensive and heavy civilization. In the period 1940–2015, for example, the production of copper rose from 2.4 million tons to 18.7 million, aluminum production rose from 0.8 million tons to 58.3 million tons, and iron production increased from 110 million tons in 1940 to 1,100 million tons in 2015. At the same time, carbon dioxide emissions from coal, oil, gas, and cement production multiplied. 4

Researchers from the Global Footprint Network summarize our use or abuse of the planet’s resources by calculating the Earth Overshoot Day. On this day, humans’ total consumption is considered to exceed the capacity of nature to rebuild the resources consumed during the current year. Thirty years ago, this day was calculated to be October 15. In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day occurred on August 1. There are several possible objections to this simple measure, but measurements of specific planetary boundaries arrive at similar results.5

A central assumption in Factfulness is that the economic growth underlying the Great Acceleration will continue to spread globally during the entire twenty-first century, when the world’s population is expected to increase by 50 percent. Should everyone enjoy an income at Rosling’s Levels 3 and 4, and the resource consumption of the people in these classes continue to rise as it has in the last 50 years, this will result in an eight- to ten-fold increase in global resource consumption and emissions. Is this at all possible? Or a better question: in what ways is it necessary to change the current techno-economic regime to make it possible to create a decent standard of living for the overwhelming majority of the world´s population?

For Factfulness these are non-questions. According to the authors, the key challenge now is for Western companies to take advantage of the new markets: “…if you work at a company based in the old ‘West,’ you are probably missing opportunities in the largest expansion of the middle-income consumer market in history, which is taking place right now in Africa and Asia. […] The Western consumption market was just a teaser for what is coming next.”

Factfulness infers this from its particular historical statistics, but an intellectually credible analysis of global trends cannot build on selective extrapolations.

3. Continued Population Growth: Inevitable and Unproblematic?

Global population development is an important theme in Factfulness and critical for the prospect of future sustainability, but the book´s analysis is misleading in several ways. The latest UN forecast, published in 2017, predicts that the world’s population will rise sharply. Today’s approximately seven billion people will probably grow to between ten and thirteen billion by 2100. According to Factfulness, there is no reason for worry: population will stabilize at the end of the century, and the key reason for this is that the current number of children is no longer increasing. Moreover, the authors argue, declining infant mortality is directly related to declining fertility: “More survivors lead to fewer people.”

All these statements—that the population will stabilize at the end of the century; that future population growth is determined by the current number of children; that lower child mortality leads to lower birth rates and population growth—are questionable.

First, the UN’s population forecasts are less stable than Factfulness suggests and have changed substantially since the beginning of the twenty-first century. This is especially true for the forecasts regarding Africa: in 2010 the UN predicted that the continent would have 3.6 billion inhabitants by the turn of the century; seven years later, the new UN forecast had increased this figure by 900 million to 4.5 billion. Moreover, new calculations based on Bayesian probability estimates show that uncertainty over forecasts of the world’s population in 2100 is greater than previously assumed. According to leading researchers, the likelihood of population stabilization is only 30 percent: “These predictions indicate that there is little prospect for an end to world population growth this century without unprecedented fertility declines in most part of sub-Saharan Africa.”6

Second, the UN reports do not show that the current number of children in the world determines future population growth. On the contrary, the forecasts emphasize that population growth is strongly dependent on future fertility. For countries with high fertility rates, “there is significant uncertainty in projections of future trends, even within the 15-year horizon of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development…. Fertility declines that are slower than projected would result in higher population totals in all subsequent time periods.”

Third, there is no causal link between lower infant mortality and lower birth rates. Factfulness presents Egypt as a “public health miracle,” as child mortality fell from 30 percent in 1960 to 2.3 percent today. The authors argue: “Now that parents have reason to expect that all their children will survive … a major reason for having big families is gone.” If they were correct, Egypt’s population would now have stabilized. Instead, the population increased from 70 million in 2000 to 97 million in 2017 and is expected to increase to 200 million by 2100.7 Other African countries display similar trends. In Niger, for example, child mortality has decreased by two-thirds since the 1980s. At the same time, birth rates have increased, leading to an expected population explosion.8

The combination of reduced infant mortality with high fertility and high population growth in Africa is an indication of the absence of any clear causal relationship between lower child mortality and lower birth rates. According to the latest UN forecast, Nigeria’s population will increase from 191 million in 2017 to 794 million to 2100, Tanzania from today´s 57 million to 304 million in 2100, and the Democratic Republic of Congo from 81 million to 339 million. How can this pattern with much higher birth rates than in Asia during its corresponding development phase be explained? Factfulness provides no answers; the book does not even mention the problem. Independent observers point to local norms that promote large families, religious resistance to contraception, and a tendency of political leaders to see a large population as a source of political power. According to Tanzania’s President John Mugufuli, for example, women who use contraception are lazy and should stop taking birth control pills, as the country needs more people.9 In the 1960s, many Asian economies started to change: growth increased, healthcare improved, schools expanded, and child mortality and birth rates declined. However, the transition from high to low birth and death rates did not constitute a causal chain where economic improvements reduced child mortality which lead to lower birth rates. Effective family planning played a big part in the decrease in fertility—from Iran to China and Korea. In China, fertility was halved before economic development took off, contributing to its rapid improvement in productivity and reduction of poverty. According to Guillebaud, lower birth rates usually precede improvements in prosperity, and these improvements accelerate when birth rates continue to fall. Many observers have criticized the reduced international support for effective family planning today, noting that only one percent of the current development aid goes to family planning. This has probably contributed to the continued high fertility in much of Sub-Saharan Africa which implies a serious drag on productivity growth and reduces the chances of eradicating poverty.

Ambivalence and Determinism

The treatment of family planning in Factfulness is ambivalent. On the one hand, the authors mention Iran’s “family planning miracle” where birth rates decreased from more than six children per woman in 1984 to less than two fifteen years later. According to Factfulness, this was related to investments in cheap contraceptives from the world’s largest condom factory and mandatory sexual education for young engaged couples. On the other hand, the authors do not draw any conclusions from this success, do not compare it with the so-called miracle in Egypt, and do not discuss how Iran’s strategy could be employed in other countries, for example, in the Muslim world.

When, a few years ago, Hans Rosling was queried about the most significant effects of the upwardly revised population forecasts by a journalist at a leading Swedish daily, he replied: “But it will be as it happens. It’s like asking how the world will be if the sun rises tomorrow. People are free and decide themselves. There is an idea that population increase is the problem, but it is a constant, it is impossible to do anything.”

This response resonates with a view in Factfulness of population growth as fundamentally unproblematic. The authors argue that everyone should have the same standard of living as today’s wealthiest billion but are silent on the questions of how the increase in population will affect the chances to reach this standard, and which problems it may cause regarding resource use, biodiversity, and global emissions. According to Crist et al.,10 the human population’s scale and current rate of growth are significantly contributing to biodiversity losses, and these will increase as revenue and resource consumption expand in today’s poor countries. Several researchers believe that, with climate change so close to a breaking point, it is necessary to reduce both our average (carbon-based) footprint and the number of new feet which will create new large footprints in the future.

The issue of population growth and resource extraction is not only about numbers, however, it is also about social equity: Paul Ehrlich, who together with Anna Ehrlich authored the often-misunderstood 1960s classic The Population Bomb, maintain that It is the combination of high population and high consumption by the rich that destroys the natural world.” Factfulness contains countless bubble charts on the diminishing differences between countries and continents, but it does not devote one chart to the growing inequality within countries, despite the abundance of statistics on this subject (such as the annual World Inequality Report).

If reading Factfulness has to be summarized in a single word, it would be “ambivalence.” It is hard not to be impressed by the energy and enthusiasm that permeate the book, with its stream of statistics regarding global improvements in vaccination, education, and longevity. Had the title of the book been Factfulness: A Book about the World’s Positive Changes, its one-sidedness would be less disturbing.

But Factfulness not only suffers from a selection problem. On a salient subject—the world’s population growth—the book is positively misleading. The authors argue that the expected 50 percent increase in the world’s population in the twenty-first century is determined by the current number of infants, cannot be influenced by policy actions, and that the rate of growth will level off by 2100. These arguments are not supported by the reports they refer to or the research on which those reports are based. Instead, these reports show that changes in birth rates over the next few decades will be very important for future population growth. In this case, as in many others, Factfulness tends to treat social issues with a gross economistic determinism. Thus the authors argue that the “male chauvinistic” values ​​in Afghanistan and other Asian countries are “patriarchal values​​ like those found in Sweden only 60 years ago, and with social and economic progress they will vanish, just as they did in Sweden.” Culture, identity, religion, historically based customs, legal systems, and institutions have no meaning; the economy determines everything.

The reputation of the Nobel Prize has been tarnished by the scandals at the Swedish Academy in 2017–18, and the scientific and medical scandal caused by the fatal windpipe transplantations at Karolinska.11 The Nobel Foundation seeks to improve its public profile by utilizing Rosling’s name for various public events, and supports the handout of Factfulness to all Swedish students when they leave senior high school. However, the propagation of a celebrity-based view on global development is a very different task from the Nobel Foundation’s primary role of letting specialized committees select and reward the best researchers in their academic disciplines. The Foundation´s close link with Factfulness runs the risk of backfire and could, in the end, damage its core scientific reputation.

This article is an abridged version of a much longer paper which can be found here.


1 Dagens Nyheter (Daily News), May 21, 2018.
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Pennisi, E. 2016. We’ve destroyed one-tenth of Earth’s wilderness in just 2 decades. Science Sept. 8.
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