A book that makes data speak. And speak in a way that you want to listen. With the passion of a true data geek, who also loves humanity Rosling brings us the data, but also makes it relatable. A book that makes you take a step back from the daily onslaught of bad and worse news and allows you to appreciate the progress in the world in an informed way. A new type of feel-good book! One that is based on facts.
I got this book from a friend and it came with the recommendation of being uplifting. I must admit I was a bit skeptical at the beginning because the title feels a bit aggressively clickbaity. Another disclaimer I must make is that I was oblivious to Hans Rosling and his work before starting this book.
This was not a problem, because Rosling does a great job of introducing himself before he launches into the meat of his argument. He was a physician by education, but throughout his life, he also became in love with data and embarked on a mission to encourage people to use data to overcome their biases.
What Rosling aims to do is really what he mentions in the title of the book. Show us how data does not support the grim outlook that everything is doomed. That said he is not dismissing the climate crisis, but he does also want to focus on how other things have improved. Bombarded daily with the news that feeds on crises, disasters, and suffering we tend to adopt a very negative perspective on where the world is. Rosling validates those assumptions, but before he does that he asks 13 questions, that he had asked thousands of times before. You can take a shot at them here.
Then going through those questions he explodes the whole East/West or North/South divide that is so ingrained in our perception of the world. He shows it really doesn’t hold anymore and hasn’t for a while. But he does acknowledge our need for categories to be able to deal with the world’s complexity. Instead of a dual divide, he proposes to divide the world by the level of income into 4 groups. He then proceeds to vividly describe what it means to be in each of those groups and using real-life examples shows how the world is making progress with more and more countries making their way up over the decades.
He then links those four income groups to the progress in healthcare, education, equality. Because as much as money does not buy happiness it is the foundation of progress in the system we operate in. But Rosling’s goal is not only to give us an uplifting message about humanity’s progress. It is also a call to action. He explains that saying that things are better than they were is not equal to saying the work is done. Things can be better and require more improvement at the same time.
This is an approach that is very rare. We often beat ourselves up and think how bad things are as if it motivates us to improve them. While Rosling’s approach is to appreciate the progress made and use it as a springboard to further action. If what we already achieved was possible, what else may we be able to achieve?
I am a data person by trade (if not by education) and I loved how Rosling is able to navigate between the data and the personal. For every statistic, he wheels out he is bringing several individual examples, of what the statistic means in real life. He is able to make data relatable.
It was also very refreshing to change the perspective and zoom out a bit. We tend to be narrowly focused on what’s closest to us. This book brings perspective back. As imperfect as the things are now, they are significantly better than they were even just 50 years ago. And Rosling often charts this progress throughout his own life experiences. It is in a way the other side of the coin used in A Life on Our Planet: Sir David Attenborough’s Witness Statement, where the span of one person’s life is used to chart the changes.
It was an enjoyable, educating, and surprisingly moving read.
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska
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