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It’s Not All Gloom And Doom

The Roslings illustrate the pessimistic bias in how humans see the world by conducting a simple multi-choice test with groups from many backgrounds and nationalities

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I have a longstanding disagreement with a friend over my rational world view. My friend understands my point that, objectively, the world is getting better in so many ways.

Lifeexpectancy has improved, crime rates are down and the number of books published annually is higher. Yet this friend’s subjective experience and intuition is that the world is a worse place for our children growing up than it was for us.

I often face similar resistance to data-derived optimism about the state and potential of India. Many foreigners, as well as some NRIs, cling to subjective bad experiences or negative media stories of India to discount the reality of the continuous improvements being achieved. The logic of compounding change over many years is that India will continue to improve exponentially in the next decades.

Hans Rosling (sadly no relation) spent much of his professional life presenting the world statistically in ways that are engaging and surprising. Factfulness, published posthumously with the help of his long-term collaborators, his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, is a compelling manifesto for a data-driven world-view. Bill Gates endorses Factfulness as “One of the most important books I’ve ever read”.

The Roslings illustrate the pessimistic bias in how humans see the world by conducting a simple multi-choice test with groups from many backgrounds and nationalities. As Hans Rosling mischievously delights in pointing out, people almost universally perform worse than chimpanzees on this test. By this he doesn’t just mean that we are simply ignorant, but rather that we are programmed to view the world as worse than it is. Take the test yourself and see if you perform better than Nobel laureates, professors, business tycoons and journalists (and chimpanzees).

The Roslings, for example, point to widespread ignorance over the global achievement of poverty reduction through economic growth. The majority of the world’s population now lives in middle-level countries. That success is insufficiently appreciated and celebrated, including in India. Widespread poverty is rightly seen as a lingering shame of India and a tragedy for too many individuals. Yet, objectively, reduction in poverty has been one of the proudest achievements in India since reforms began in 1991. Using the World Bank definition of poverty, some 200 million people have been lifted out of poverty since 1991 and the proportion of the population in poverty has halved to about 20 per cent.

Another wrong perception that the Roslings highlight, also all too relevant in India, is the widespread belief that large family sizes are associated with certain religions, whether Catholic or Muslim. Factually, there is no direct correlation between religion and family size. Instead, there is a causal relationship between income level and the number of children per woman, so that as countries get wealthier family size reduces, whatever the religious mix. There is, of course, some variation due to specific circumstances; surprisingly, the number of babies per woman in Iran (1.6) is now lower than in the US (1.9) due to concerted education and health policies.

There remain huge challenges and risks facing humanity, such as climate change, or the risk of nuclear war or a global pandemic. Factfulness is a welcome education about all that has been going right in the world and why it is rational to be hopeful about the future, especially in a country like India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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books book review Magazine 9 June 2018

Alan Rosling

The author is an entrepreneur and strategic adviser. He co-founded Kiran Energy and was earlier an Executive Director of Tata Sons. He was a Special Advisor to the British Prime Minister during 1991-93. He now lives in Hong Kong but is frequently in India. He is the author of Boom Country? the New Wave of Indian Enterprise.

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