This week has been a maelstrom. BLM and anarchist riots are still currently in full swing at the time of writing. I have talked more about politics with family than I thought I ever would have in my entire life. Considering the circumstances, I suppose my mask slipped a bit. My optimism mask, as it were, slipped and revealed my true pessimistic feelings about the future. I find optimism in the near future bizarre. I think most people do regardless of political orientation at this point. Most things I write presuppose the assumptions that “graph twitter” is concerned about—we’re in the early stages of a long decline. As a minor point, pessimism in the future doesn’t mean you can’t live a happy fulfilling life. It just means our lives will be filled with just a bit more struggle than our parents. Our children’s lives will have a bit more struggle than ours, and so on. If peak America happened in the 50’s, when a single bread winner could provide for an entire family a middle class life style, then this concept shouldn’t really shake anyones foundations. It’s obvious that we don’t have at least that anymore.
But is it possible I’m wrong? Is my pessimism in the future entirely misplaced? I suppose any hypothesis or world view isn’t beyond questioning. One family member challenged me to read Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. This book is the antithesis to a ‘collapsitarian’ view point. The author Hans Rosling delves into different types of data analysis to try and paint a rosier picture of the future. One where people’s pessimism is entirely irrational. One where constant steady improvement is the norm. One where people are raised out of poverty by the billions. Vaccination of children across the globe is steadily increasing. Little girls across the globe increasingly are attending primary school, infant mortality decreases across the third world at steady rates, more people have access to electricity as each decade marches on, and a whole host of other statistics that paint a rosier picture of the future. He considers his worldview one of “factfulness,” one based on the facts.
We’ll start with a look at the author. Hans Rosling (died in 2017) was a Swedish physician, academic, and public speaker. He professes his favorite thing is to blow up major misconceptions about the world. And there’s no doubt about it, he exposes many misconceptions people have. Most of them are global in nature. He basically demonstrates to Western audiences that the Third World is improving at unprecedented rates, and there’s actually less differences between them and us than you might think. Which I believe would be an interesting tactical position to take, “According to Hans Rosling the Third World and developing countries aren’t really that bad, perhaps we should stop the flow of immigration from them?”
He’s spoken at numerous TED Talks and even, more interestingly, spoke at the Davos World Economic Forum in front of what he describes as, “One thousand of the world’s most powerful and influential political and business leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, activists, journalists, and even many high-ranking UN officials.” Fascinating crowd. And what does he essentially tell this crowd? He basically just cheer leads them. He tells them they’re doing a great job. I’m not sure how else to put it. He literally goes to a very globalist oriented venue, and gives everyone a pat on their backs for their efforts and he demonstrates it with plenty of cherry-picked data. Let’s be honest, you don’t speak in front of “the world’s most powerful” and truly challenge their world view. You don’t get invited to that venue. Now, I get it, this is a petty analysis, but it’s definitely worth noting.
Reading this book was certainly a challenge. There’s good information, certainly, but there’s some weird stuff going on. Hans Rosling has to truly believe what he’s saying for this book to make sense. Otherwise the parlor tricks he uses to sell the idea the future is getting better would be beyond malicious. When I say “parlor tricks,” boy do I mean parlor tricks.
One example of this is when he displayed a chart that showed American crime since the 90’s has been declining. While it is true, crime has declined since the 90’s, more context is needed. The 90’s was peak crime. The crime rates of US society today are much higher than they ever were in the early 1900’s (and likely before).
Let’s take a look at the first chapter. This chapter should set you up for how he might manipulate your perspective on data. To start, he refers to the “gap instinct” as a mythos you have to avoid. So if you analyze, for instance, average math sores between men and women on the SAT, there is a 31 point gap. Now he has a graph that shows this gap up close. The next graph he shows you is the same exact graph, same numbers, but he changes the scales on the vertical axis. The gap has shrunk! Because we essentially zoomed out, the gap is much smaller now. Does this parlor trick erase the differences? He actually does this same exact goofy thing with average income per day in the US vs Mexico. It’s $67 and $11 respectively. One graph is essentially zoomed in, and the other graph is zoomed out. Look there isn’t such a big difference after all! Really, there’s not big difference? Then why are illegals pouring into my bloody country for 6x pay increase?
Now to get to the heart of what he refers to as the “gap instinct.” He takes a look at women and men’s math scores on a bell curve. He then makes the argument, and I quote, “Looking at the data this way, is that the two groups of people, men and women, are not separate at all. They overlap. There is no gap.” So basically the thrust of the argument is that if you plot data on overlapping bell curves there is no gap and it’s improper to view men and women as being different when it comes to math. It’s a bizarre argument. It doesn’t make the differences between men and women go away. And it doesn’t make the extremes go away either. If I look at the right tail of the bell curve I can clearly see that men get a perfect score on the SAT twice as often as women. What’s interesting about the SAT is that you hit a wall of a perfect score. If the math section on the SAT were more complex and continued to such complexity until everyone failed, the sex differences would be even more pronounced on this extreme end. And these differences matter. It’s why advances in mathematics is a male phenomena. Women contribute little to science and mathematics in comparison to men due to this difference.
This concept is important because he tries to pull the same veil over your eyes when he compares prosperous Western European countries and East Asian countries to the rest of the world using this “bell curve trick.” But the extremes don’t go away. And small differences can have profound effects. Countries may over lap, sure, but the differences between Sweden and Somalia are still massive. And you can tell this by how many Somalians risk their lives to live in Sweden and the opposite isn’t true, in fact, the Swedish risk their lives if they simply visit Somalia.
I think it’s even more pernicious when he tells a story of dealing with his native Swedish students. To condense the conversation he recounts, he basically levels a Swedish classrooms conception of “us” vs “them” using this method when looking at birth rates. Rosling essentially makes the case that because birth rates are declining globally, there is actually less difference between Swedes and the rest of the world than the students initially thought. He uses a variety of statistics to paint this idea where Sweden isn’t that much different than any random country in the world. But there are differences. Just because his students aren’t capable of articulating that Sweden has cultural and historical differences with a country comprised of a unique ethnic group, doesn’t mean that differences don’t exist. But that’s what Roslin does. He tries to level differences using selective statistics.
Chapter two confronts the “negativity instinct.” He starts with a graph showing that a majority of people in countries polled believe the world is getting worse. And then his goal is to prove them wrong, that it is in fact getting better. He has 16 graphs of things that are decreasing that are good. For example: He demonstrates that extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years globally. The average lifespan (factoring in infant mortality) has risen from 31 year to 72 years since the 1800’s. Child mortality has dropped from 44% to 4% globally since the 1800’s. Oil spills have declined. Smallpox decreased. Now for a few things that have gotten better rather than decreased. He again has 16 graphs, and here’s just a few for example: Women’s right to vote has risen from 1 country (1893) to 193 (2015). Scientific research articles have had exponential growth since the 1900’s continuing on today. Steadily through the years more people have access to water, mobile phones, electricity, immunization, internet, new music, new movies, guitars per capita goes up, life expectancy steadily rises, more female voting, and the harvest every year steadily increases.
So, let’s tackle this. It’s a lot to take in. It certainly does paint a positive picture of humanity. But I’m going to demolish this with one weird trick. I’m not a global citizen. That’s it. That’s all it takes. What do people in Tanzania have to do with me? What does their access to electricity, water, and vaccinations have to do with my standard of living or subjective well being? The starkest example I can give is this: Take all this data and statistics and bring them to a man in Rotherham or Telford England. Take it to any one of the numerous English cities where 19,000 English girls were systematically raped and sexually abused by Middle Easterner’s and Africans. Does any of this stuff matter? If you’re a father to any of these girls, no amount of Third World advancement matters. Does global data improve Swedish wellbeing who as of 2012, had a rape rate of 66 per 100,000 making them the rape capital of the world?
I must admit that I’m not an English or Swedish citizen, and this is primarily a statistic fight. I have an interest in the US (particularly whites in the US), so how about a few statistics to demonstrate that the US is getting worse subjectively for a people I care about. Since the 70’s women in the US (and Europe as well) have felt less satisfied with their lives. The alcohol related deaths since 1999 have increased 130% for whites. Alcohol related death rate for white women has nearly tripled since 1999.
“White men—especially those aged 25-64—are at least twice as likely to take their own lives as men in every other racial group except Native Americans, who lag white men by about 15% (24 per 100,000 vs 20 per 100,000). And white males, who make up about 30% of the population, account for nearly 70% of all suicides. By the way, white women are far more likely than any other women except Native Americans to commit suicide.” –Medical Express
Let’s tackle something else. The white life expectancy has actually declined since 1998. So again, all these globalist victories don’t matter to me. Even most serious analyses of wages demonstrates wages in America have been stagnant since the 80’s when you account for inflation, the cost of living, transportation, food, etc. And why? Well because we’re “global citizens” and have to compete with foreign people’s in our own economy. The US is slipping in a lot of data. Even going backwards. It’s important because this is what actually concerns me. Your concerns may be more local than the whole of the US.
I believe it’s time to take a step back and assess Hans Rosling’s world view. He is fundamentally a materialist. A global materialist. He’s not concerned with any one group of people. He’s concerned with data points on a graph that can increase that reflect an increase of the standard of living overall. But does this basic materialistic worldview even make people happy in the US? The data I provide above suggests that it doesn’t. Think about what this book is as well. It’s a sales pitch that things are getting better despite people feeling uneasy about the future. If the world view he has was fundamentally correct, that electricity, television, healthcare, water, food, music, research papers, women’s suffrage, girls attending school, elimination of abject poverty, etc, made people’s lives better, then why are people’s subjective well being not improving? Shouldn’t everyone in the West with all these things already be happy and have a positive outlook? None of this stuff produces a positive outlook. Why is a sales pitch necessary then? Why do people have to be convinced? It’s obvious there is something being overlooked. It’s clear a materialistic world view that basically plots consumption of product doesn’t actually make people happy.
A lot of his descriptions for what a better world is are lacking. More television, movies, music, and mobile phones, don’t improve people’s well being. The topic of technology and the decline of meaning—engaging with one’s own reality as opposed to interfacing a screen—is a difficult subject not captured by data. He talks about a village in India in the 1970’s with half naked children, a primitive home, and people who had “no knowledge of the outside world.” He contrasts this with the same village in the 90’s with updated houses, more well dressed children, and “curious villagers watching tv.” Is that an improvement? “No knowledge of the outside world” means more knowledge of your own traditions, culture, surroundings, and friends. With consumption of tv, you’re displacing something. You don’t simply add something, something is displaced. I’m not convinced these people’s lives improved. I’m not even convinced being half naked was a concern to them if they didn’t know any better. I’d like a study done on these people’s subjective scores of happiness. Did modernity really make them happy? Or did they just become more alienated from friends, family, and cultural traditions like the rest of us?
I ask that because the author makes a special point of attacking people’s perception of the past. He believes everyone is looking at the past with rose tinted glasses and that everything was much harder, more difficult, and everyone was “miserable.” To this I’d say, “It depends.” I touch on this idea in my essay The Machine & The Carnival. You can’t just pretend that modernity has saved everyone from misery. The entire structure of pre-industrial European societies actually had enormous amounts of leisure time. Which, believe it or not Rosling, makes people happy.
I’m also reminded of a simple graph Adam Smith included in Exit Strategy. It basically conveyed this message: “With too much struggle, life is miserable. With no struggle, life is without meaning.” Attaining 1st world living standards doesn’t necessarily produce happiness. A life with meaningful experiences and struggles in a culturally high trust society produces happiness. If every need is met and you can’t engage “the power process” as Ted Kaczynski outlined it, people become detestable creatures. A man who’s every last need is met may binge on Netflix till he dies of an opioid addiction while never feeling compelled to reach out to his diverse “community” for help. With all the material comforts in the world, whites are still dying deaths of despair.
So to reiterate: First World living standards as they are, don’t even necessarily make people happy. Trying to sell the idea that because globally things are progressing to a typical First World living standard is supposed to make you—a non-global citizen—happy is absurd.
Rosling goes on to make a really weak argument about when people earn more income, they have more time to devote to culture. He pads this argument by demonstrating how much movies and music are being produced as well as per capita guitar ownership. And it’s funny really, has anybody listened to the music produced lately? How about watched a movie? It’s trash. I’m not comforted by the idea that there’s more of it than ever before! Good films and music were produced just fine before they hit an exponential growth curve.
It’s worth noting as well that arguably, some of the best works of art, literature, and architecture were in a place and time that Hans Rosling would describe as “abject poverty.” He describes every Western nation before 1800 as being one of a Level 1 income country (highest is 4). Notre-Dame was built from 1163 to 1354. By his analysis of income, this would be the equivalent of bushmen in the Congo today building a masterpiece on par with Notre-Dame. Perhaps, Rosling, there’s more to analyzing culture than simply looking at per capita income?
One point Rosling makes is that child mortality is the perfect statistic to look at. “If it decreases that tells you a wealth of information about the society behind it.” If I described a guy who had 13 children and 6 of them died before their 12th birthday. Could you describe the society he lived in? Could you predict what this guy did for a living or if he was rich or poor, or what year he lived in? Is he a dentist, a farmer, a blacksmith, a slave, or a lawyer? The correct answer would be an emperor. Marcus Aurelius. Certainly due to the losses in his life he would go on to write Meditations to deal with the sadness he had to endure. But the work survives today and Stoic philosophy still offers people moral guidance. This man was the head of the most powerful empire at the time that was culturally, materially, and spiritually well off. So, I’d have to disagree, child mortality doesn’t tell you that much about a society. It only tells you whether modern medicine exists or not. So dear reader, would you rather live in the Roman Empire with a 28% infant mortality rate or Zambia today with a 4% IMR? Only the most spiritually bereft bugman would choose the latter.
The environmental question is handled strangely in this book. In the earlier chapters he suggests that the world population will level out somewhere around 11 billion people. He makes the case that the Third World will have reached sufficient income levels to suppress the enormous population growth we typically see from them. Later in the book he demonstrates that most of the CO2 emissions released in the last 50 years has been from Level 4 countries—countries that make more than $32 per day—which would primarily be the Western world as we know it today. And lastly, in another section of the book he suggests that 60% of Level 4 incomes will be non-Westerners by 2040. Without spelling it out easily, the book provides a good argument that resource draw on all non-renewables—including oil, coal, and natural gas—will be from non-Western countries. The obvious must be said, once these resources disappear, the scale of civilization achieved before “peak production” will never be achieved again after. Alternative energy resources will never pick up the slack completely. A better argument rather than wasting words is to look at the Club of Rome doom spaghetti graph. Wherever we’re headed anyways, Rosling wants to step on the gas to get there sooner.
Of course, Western man, this might concern you. Maybe you’re concerned about a world where humanity might experience the most catastrophic malthusian disaster ever because every last country on Earth has been helped along to hyper-Industrialization and consumer capitalism. The resource pinch in the future is being accelerated by certain types of people with a globalist nature. But luckily Rosling wrote a chapter suggesting you should avoid the blame instinct. He says, “When something goes wrong don’t look for an individual or group to blame. Accept that bad things can happen without anyone intending them to. Instead spend your energy on understanding the multiple interacting causes, or system, that created the situation.” Thanks for kneecapping me Rosling. I shouldn’t investigate people behind power structures. I shouldn’t take a hard look at the people you give speeches to at Davos. Their motivations aren’t up for analysis. Things just happen. This is absolutely terrible advice. Peoples group interests are part of a systems analysis.
At this point, I believe I’ve belabored my point enough. This a globalist worldview that isn’t concerned about you. It’s concerned about the unwashed masses and billionaires. The high-low alliance as it were. At best this book is simply just a philosophical outlook that can be rejected. At worst, it’s a malicious misrepresentation of reality.
There’s a lot more in this book to dissect. The avalanche of stats and fundamentally bugman worldview would take a book to properly dismantle. There are positive things. Less plane crashes, less oil spills, and pandas aren’t in such a dire position. But this book doesn’t have an ecological perspective. Just enough padding to trick a neoliberal into thinking the future isn’t going to be a large strip-mine. When you have a book praised by Bill and Melinda Gates, it gives an insight of who this appeals to. Like I mentioned earlier, at best this book could be used tactically to ward off an argument for global migration. Their countries are improving! Read Factfulness! At worst, this guy is just celebrating those in power and the spiritually dead world they created.
2 Comments Add yours
Strong piece. This book sounds the same as the recent Pinker one, which I saw Gates recommended too. This line of thinking held Peterson back too
that Exit strategy book is good , you should put a link up for others hwho want to get it .