Business Today

World's Not Getting Worse

A critical insight into why we assume things will get worse even though data says otherwise.
Govindraj Ethiraj   New Delhi     Print Edition: July 15, 2018
World's Not Getting Worse

How much do we understand the world around us? Who do we believe? Are things getting worse or better?

The late Hans Rosling, doctor and data whiz, contends we are being misled. And we are being misled, he says in his seminal book Factfulness, because reporters and journalists - among others - are being misled too.

Rosling builds this argument about our ignorance by focussing on a theme he has consistently done, across his book and in many TED speeches. That things are fundamentally getting better or improving, but we do not seem to know or pay attention. So, chin up and feel happier about life in general.

Consider these examples:

  1. The number of new HIV infections per million people has dropped from 549 in 1996 to 241 in 2016.
  2. Deaths from disaster fell from 971 out of 1,000 deaths per year in the 1930s to around 72 in 2010-16.
  3. Plane crash deaths per 10 billion passenger miles have gone down from 2,100 in 1929-33 to negligible numbers. More specifically, 10 in 2016.
  4. The share of undernourished has gone down from 28 per cent in 1970 to 11 per cent in 2015.
  5. The share of girls in primary school age enrolled has gone up from 65 per cent in 1970 to 90 per cent in 2015.

Although Rosling refers to India in some general examples, many of these data points also hold good for the country, reflecting the changes happening here. For instance, India's poverty level (people living below the poverty line) fell from 407 million in 2004/05 to 270 million in 2011/12, down 137 million in seven years, a period which also saw fast economic growth.

Rosling says we often make mistakes because of our 'straight line instinct' where we assume things will get worse in a single direction. For example, we are living longer and healthier and yet the world is not going to get overpopulated. Global population will peak at around 11 billion in 2021. It is because people now have fewer children. We can see that even in India while the birth rate in the US has fallen to a 30-year low.

So why do we jump to conclusions about our current state of affairs? Rosling says the human brain is hardwired with instincts that helped our ancestors to survive in small groups of hunters and gatherers. Our brains often jump to swift conclusions without much thinking, which helped us avoid immediate dangers.

We crave sugar and fat, which used to be life-saving sources of energy when food was scarce. We have many instincts that used to be useful thousands of years ago, but we live in a very different world now. Not that we can cut out everything, the drama, the sugar and the fat, but we need to control it, our appetite for the dramatic, says Rosling.

We are also drawn to extreme examples. The stories of opposites, Rosling argues, are engaging and provocative and tempting and very effective for triggering our gap instinct, but they rarely help our understanding. There will always be the richest and the poorest, worst regimes and the best, but the majority is usually found in the middle.

Brazil is a classic example. The richest 10 per cent in Brazil earns 41 per cent of the total income which sounds quite disturbing. But that figure itself has dropped from 50 per cent in 1989 and the number of Brazilians in the middle, earning $8-32 a day, has been rising steadily.

Let us look at a non-Rosling example. Until three years ago, Delhi enjoyed its winters. Suddenly, we were aware that winter also brought high pollution levels. What brought it to the fore was data, including the realisation that Delhi was the most polluted city in the world.

Rosling's book is a critical new contribution to our understanding of the world around us, the good and, unfortunately, the bad.

The reviewer is Founder of IndiaSpend.com

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