Like many others, I first heard about the work of the late Hans Rosling through his TED lectures, in which his animated bubbles (nations over the decades shown as bubbles proportional to population size, rising or falling against some criterion, such as lifespan) revealed the mostly good news about human progress across the world. The lecture content was not a surprise. For decades the UN, WHO and other institutions had been showing welcome improvements in health and educational attainments in formerly poor countries. Documentaries in the 1980’s and 1990’s had illustrated the living circumstances of people at different levels of income. I can still remember an African man at the lowest living standards proudly showing off his heart-breaking annual material gains: a good shirt, a pair of trousers, and some shoes. The daily battle of the poor to get water, firewood and other necessities was contrasted at the end of the scale with a middle income European, where water came without any problem from taps in the home, the toilets flushed, and electricity and food were always available. It was all the more impactful because the Austrian’s income was low and his flat was modest, but it seemed bathed in luxury when set in global context.
This good message was amplified by many authors. Matt Ridley’s “Rational Optimist” was an excellent example. For centuries having light at home was a cumbersome and expensive business. The Romans had oil lamps with simple wicks. Candles were a great improvement, paraffin lamps with mantles (I grew up with those) an improvement on candles, and then incandescent bulbs were a paradigm shift, making night work possible. Since then the cost of lighting has fallen even further, with LED lighting consuming a fraction of the wattage of the older lamps. A good story of human ingenuity.
Hans Rosling, with whom I shared a Nobel Prize in 1985, follows a noble tradition of clear-headed helpfulness. A doctor specialising in public health, he used research to focus efforts on bringing health to poor (and poorly ) countries. Like all good educators, he begins with a quiz. The revelation of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. I did pretty well on his questions, but felt I had cheated. From previous publications and some of my reading I knew the global story was a good one, so if in doubt I just went for the most positive outcomes. There are 13 questions, and I claim 9 right. By the way, question 7 is about the number of deaths from natural disasters. Page 5 says the deaths halved over the last 100 years (true) but page 271 says they doubled. Not good to criticize punters for getting questions wrong if the book can’t consistently get the answers right.
What is the book about? The major theme is that the state of the world is far better than people realise. Rosling does not regard himself as an optimist, but a possibilist. He shows that improvements are possible. While giving the figures, Rosling tries to explain why they come as a surprise to so many people, including aid workers, government officials, journalists, documentary film makers, and leaders of global corporations. He does very well on this, showing that we make a number of errors, particularly in using news broadcasts about exceptional events as a fallible benchmark regarding country differences. A lot of the book is about the proper management of data, and all this is good, and informative. He clearly shows that bad things are decreasing, and explains that publicizing these facts is not tantamount to declaring that no further effort is required to make things even better. Crime seems to be going up because we find murder stories more interesting than proper crime statistics. So long as we get an awful crime story once a week we can maintain our subjective feelings about society falling apart. Rosling is also good about the perils of simple extrapolation, and stresses the need to think in curves rather than just straight lines. Many global statistics are S shaped: a slow start when nothing seems to work, then a very rapid improvement, and then a gently rising plateau.
All this is very well, yet it would be wrong not to mention what the book leaves out. The underlying assumption is that all people all over the world are fundamentally the same, and although some countries have persistently rotten governments the people themselves are sensible, and have worked to achieve the great advances that the book records. Rosling puts no stock on the effects of ideology or religion, but believes that the data show that incremental improvements occur everywhere, despite those supposed differences.
There is validity in this argument, but it is far from a full picture. It is good to show that people make their own decisions about family size regardless of religion. I think that the “fundamental-sameness-of-people” argument somewhat elides obvious objections. Why should the good citizens of Africa require the services of a Swedish epidemiologist? Why not use home-grown talent? Rosling gave up his Christmas to hurry to Africa to sort out the Ebola crisis, having noticed the exponential rise of cases which normally denotes an epidemic. Once there he did a bit of work to distinguish between suspected and confirmed cases, showing that there was an understandable fear-driven over-diagnosis, super-imposed on a real epidemic, but that the steps taken so far were having the desired effect of reducing real cases. Good stuff. How come, some five or six decades after liberation from the colonial yoke, that no one on the ground in Africa had done the necessary spade work with the spreadsheets? (If they had, an apology is required from the authors).
David Landes’ conclusion, having studied the economic history of the world to determine how a nation becomes wealthy, can be summarised in one word: innovate. Rosling never mentions innovation. African inventions should be making their impact by now, at the very least challenging Asian and Indian businesses. He does not mention that China and India shot ahead by turning away from full central planning to their own versions of free enterprise. Rosling sees the growing level 2 world mostly as an investment opportunity for Western businesses. Some Africans have higher ambitions, and would like to be welcomed in Europe as wealthy tourists, once their own economies flourish in the globalised world economy. Too early to say when that will happen.
On the predicted African population boom Rosling is confident the UN is right to predict global population in 2100 as 11 billion, and that getting people out of extreme poverty will bring Africa down to the world pattern of less than 2.5 children per woman. However, he accepts that by 2100 there are predicted to be 3 billion more Africans and 1 billion more Asians, for a world picture of 1 billion Americans, 1 billion Europeans, 4 billion Africans, 5 billion Asians. He says that by 2014 60% of wealthy people (level 4) will live outside the West, and that Western domination of the world economy will be over. I feel that, in a mobile world, and given the track record of African governments, an extra 3 billion Africans will present the world with some problems, not least of which will be African migration to Europe.
Rosling is what the English would call “a good bloke”. Anyone who has done a fraction of his noble work would be justifiably proud of themselves. He is not afraid to distance himself from popular hysterias. For example, he points out, politely, that DDT was given a bad name by an alarmist book, and has never been shown to harm a human being, whilst its prohibition has contributed to many preventable deaths. He shows that the alarmist response to Fukushima killed many elderly people who were unnecessarily evacuated. He is clear-eyed about the Cuban regime. He does not buy the story that climate change must take priority over other pressing needs. Most of the time, Rosling is evidence-based.
Rosling is good at tracking down cognitive errors in medicine, such as not noticing the patients one does not see. Practical medicine in poor countries should be community and not hospital based. Don’t expend too much effort on perfect treatment of the visible individual case if it distracts you from the hundred invisible cases that could be helped with minimal imperfect interventions. Always put numbers in context. Don’t let them be lonely. Don’t be swayed by big number scares.
Rosling at times almost argues that we should we forget countries, and just talk about 4 global levels of income: the four strata of humanity. I forsee problems with that.
In his section “Africa can catch up” Rosling talks about the different status of Africa north of the Sahel, noting that Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Egypt have life expectancies of 72 years, but does not mention that they have higher intelligence. Indeed, as you would expect from these sorts of publications, there is no mention of intelligence at all.
Although the book is replete with statistics, there is no attempt to model them and identify causal links. In that sense, it is not a research-based book on national progress rates. They are described, and the causes are ascribed, often with stories. Questions about the relative impacts of capitalism, international aid, Chinese appetite for resources and globalization generally are not considered. It might have been too much for one book, but sometimes the anecdotes, entertaining as they are, get in the way of analysis.
I give this book two cheers: one for showing the improving state of the world, and the other for being clear headed about statistical and epidemiological matters. I cannot cheer this book for ignoring any discussion of human capital. In another decade or two we will see whether Rosling or Rindermann is the better guide to national prosperity.