*The late Hans Rosling’s famous edutainment videos feature a bubbly World
Health Chart, with the bubbles representing nations, sized according to
population. As the video plays, the bubbles move toward ever-increasing
per-capita income and life expectancy over a span of 200 years. (Photo
courtesy of*
Features » March 27, 2019 Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Self-Serving
Optimists Like Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker

There’s a reason Bill Gates loves Pinker and Rosling—their analyses obscure
BY Roland Paulsen <>

In 2017, Bill Gates tweeted that Steven Pinker’s *The Better Angels of Our
Nature: Why Violence Has Declined* was “the most inspiring book I’ve ever
read.” It became the top-selling book on Amazon.

In 2018, Gates went a step further, offering electronic copies of the late
TED Talk star Hans Rosling’s book, *Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong
About the World—And Why Things Are Better Than You Think*, to all U.S.
college graduates for free
That prompted Peter Wallenberg Jr., scion of Sweden’s richest family, to offer
the book
as a free downloadable file to all Swedish high school students as well.

Pinker and Rosling, the stars of the glass-halffull school of intellectuals
known as the New Optimists
seek to persuade people that civilization is heading in the right
direction, with the world getting better every day. This affirmational
declaration is one of the global elite’s rituals of “neoliberal
as editor-in-chief of *The Baffler*, Chris Lehmann, puts it. While not
saying that all is well, New Optimists fixate on positive trajectories and
scold critics for being “alarmists.” Social progress is not a matter of
struggling for justice, the “optimistic” narrative goes, but rather
extending the benefits of economic growth, a task best supervised by
philanthropic capitalists (like, say, Gates), who, of course, are the
biggest beneficiaries of such “progress.”

The New Optimists have successfully marketed this worldview as “neutral”
and “fact-based,” to use two of Rosling’s favorite words. Some of these
pundits, like Pinker in his most recent book, *Enlightenment Now*,
aggressively argue that “none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given
how amazing our world has become,” and bemoan the fact that people seem to
“whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever.”

The “facts” these New Optimists offer, however, show that their progress
narratives rest on shaky assumptions, cherry-picked data and a faulty moral
compass. When it comes to measuring “progress,” these optimists confuse
what was, in centuries past, with what could have been, in the late 20th
and 21st.

In his native Sweden, Rosling is for the most part considered a harmless
“edutainer” (his word). He has, however, drawn the ire of
environmentalists. In his 2018 book, *Factfulness*, he depicts climate
activists as alarmists and the estimates of environmental damage as
inflated. He recalls a 2009 conversation in which Al Gore asked him to
present numbers on climate change that Rosling regarded as exaggerated.
Allegedly, Gore insisted, “We need to create fear.” Rosling nobly refused,
proving that fact-based researchers like himself are concerned with truth
and thus have a less extremist view of the world.

But Rosling only acknowledges those truths that are convenient to his
optimistic theory of progress. Though far from a climate change denier,
Rosling frequently cherry-picks the more hopeful predictions about the
environment, trumpeting the happy news that endangered tigers, giant pandas
and black rhinos have increased in numbers over the past 20 years.
Meanwhile, he neglects the severity of our actual peril: the rapid
acceleration of human-induced species loss that has become known as “the
sixth mass extinction
<>” (the fifth
occurred some 65 million years ago).

There are also more subtle problems with Rosling’s “factfulness.” As a
physician, Rosling is best known for his dynamic World Health Chart
<>, “a world map for health and
wealth” that depicts all nations as bubbles varying in size based on
population. In his famous edutainment sequence, the bubbles float upward
over time toward ever-increasing income and life expectancy. “With aid to
trade, green technology and peace,” he says, it is fully possible that
everyone will eventually make it to the “healthy, wealthy corner.”

There are several problems with this type of chart. As anthropologist Jason
Hickel recently remarked
the data on poverty has only been collected since 1981. Numbers going back
to 1800, as Rosling’s bubble chart does, are extremely uncertain—not to
mention meaningless on another level. Why track social progress starting
from the peak of colonialism? Much of the world had just suffered several
centuries of European exploitation and enslavement. What happened since
pre-colonialism was a process of proletarianization where most of humanity
went from having little need for money—and directly enjoying what the land
and water had to offer—to being forced into wage labor and learning to get
by on a few dollars a day. Since the GDP calculations, on which Rosling’s
numbers are based, tend to underestimate the value of noncommodified
activities, Rosling’s chart hides how people have been stripped of the
commons on which they traditionally depended. Yet Rosling, like other New
Optimists, ignores the history of colonialism and commodification when
presenting the income numbers, making it all the easier to celebrate them
as proof of progress.

Ironically, Rosling’s bubbles also use per-capita averages, for both income
and life expectancy, in a way that Rosling himself criticizes in
*Factfulness*. In his words, “Averages mislead by hiding a spread (a range
of different numbers) in a single number.” The spread his chart hides is
the disparities of wealth and health within nations, inequalities he
consistently chooses to play down.

This might sound trivial, but if we look at the United States, for
instance, the increase in percapita income reflects a reality that far from
all Americans have experienced
<>. For the poorer
half of the population, the average annual income has stagnated at about
$16,000 per adult since 1980.

During the same time, the average income of the top 1% has tripled from
$420,000 to $1.3 million. Since the income share of the 1% is almost twice
as large as that of the bottom 50 percent, when the rich become richer, the
national average rises.

Of course, inequalities like these affect how long people live. According to
a study <>in
Review & Education*, an American man in the top 1% has an average life
expectancy of 87 years, whereas a man in the bottom one percent has 73

This income spread, which reflects healthcare access and stress levels, is
not unique to the United States. In relatively egalitarian Sweden, similar
inequalities can be found. The average life expectancy of the less educated
inhabitants of a southern suburb of Stockholm, Vårby Gård, is 18 years less
than that of the highly educated inhabitants of a northern suburb,
Danderyd. Rosling must have known about these inequalities; they were
widely discussed in Swedish newspapers and the numbers came from the Karolinska
the university where Rosling once worked as a professor. Rosling relies so
much on what sociologist Saskia Sassen has called “methodological
nationalism”—the tendency to examine issues from the perspective of the
nation-state—that he fails to acknowledge the large groups within nations
who are left behind in the race to the “healthy, wealthy corner.”

Apart from these methodological flaws, it is baffling that Rosling presents
his bubble chart as a map of “world health,” given that it is actually a
map of income and life expectancy. Not even life expectancy can be counted
as a good measure of health, given that one’s life may be spent in poor
health. In a study measuring healthy life expectancy in 195 countries and
territories, researchers found that, while life expectancy increased
globally by 7.4 years between 1990 and 2017, the years of life gained in
Bahrain were spent entirely in poor health. Though Rosling mentions
physical illnesses in *Factfulness*, he discusses only those that are in
decline, such as measles and diarrhea. In other words, Rosling’s definition
of “health” is far from comprehensive.

Most strikingly, Rosling must have worked hard to ignore the data on mental
health, given that the global leading cause of ill health today is
According to new estimates by Sarah Flèche and Richard Layard of the London
School of Economics, mental disorders explain even more misery than poverty
and physical ill health
<>, as reflected in
life satisfaction surveys.

If mental health sounds like a less than life-and-death issue, bear in mind
that life expectancy in Britain and the United States has stagnated over
the past few years. In the United States
<>, this is clearly related to
so-called deaths of despair: deaths due to suicide, alcohol and drug
overdoses, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, have rapidly increased for at least 15 years. In fact, the *New
York Times* reported in 2018 that drug overdose deaths actually caused life
expectancy to drop over the previous three years, “a pattern unprecedented
since World War II.”

To see the global distribution of mental health, look at the Global Burden
of Disease Study, <> a data set funded by the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is referred to in *Factfulness* but
not with respect to mental health. This study has been promoted as having
the most reliable statistics on how the burden of disease is distributed
among nations. Type in “depression” or “anxiety,” and the Americas, Europe
and Australia light up on the world map. If you add “eating disorders,”
“bipolar disorder,” “drug use disorder,” “alcohol use disorder” and
“schizophrenia” and then distribute the combined burden of disease
according to national income level, you will notice how high-income
economies keep lighting up the map, as also revealed in the World Health
Organization’s (WHO) World Mental Health Surveys
(Most of this data has been gathered using diagnostic face-to-face
interviews with hundreds of thousands of adults from representative
household samples, minimizing the cultural impact on the data of, for
example, disproportional rates of psychiatric diagnosis in richer nations.)

So widespread is this type of suffering that, in 2017, the WHO mounted
a one-year
global campaign <>
to raise awareness of depression. Rosling chooses to ignore facts like
these that strike a discordant note with the New Optimist notion that
economic growth is a panacea. Except for their disproportionate emission of
greenhouse gasses, high-income economies are, to Rosling’s mind, leading
the world toward ever greater prosperity—which may explain why
philanthrocapitalists like him so much: He reassures people like Gates
that, since things are always improving, we need not bother to change how
the world operates (giving capitalists justification to maintain the status
quo). “Look for systems, not heroes,” Rosling writes. When something good
happens, “give the system some credit.”

But it’s unclear exactly what “system” Rosling has in mind.

Even if we recognize that life has improved in many respects, measuring
social progress by Rosling’s metrics quickly becomes problematic. In
dictatorships such as Qatar, Singapore and Kuwait, average income and
lifespan also have progressed, outshining several Western democracies, if
not all, as is the case in Singapore. In China, life expectancy grew
spectacularly fast between 1949 and 1976—probably the fastest growth in
life expectancy ever registered—which more than doubled Chinese life
expectancy in less than 30 years. And yet, during this growth period, China
was governed by Mao Zedong, one of the worst dictators in history.

Do these political and economic systems deserve credit? Maybe income, life
expectancy and even health statistics are poor indicators of whether we are
living in the best possible way. Maybe we shouldn’t only look at a society
as it is, but also consider its potential—what it could have been.

Rosling doesn’t make a single note in* Factfulness *on potentiality and our
increasing capacity to end poverty. To exclusively discuss social progress
based on a certain set of facts removes moral values from the debate. Facts
only point to that which is and has been, but when we argue about values
such as freedom or justice, we are considering the less measurable,
counterfactual world of what might have been or what might be. This is
precisely the world that the New Optimists refuse to acknowledge.

For example, when Rosling says that the death of 4.2 million babies in 2017
is a “beautifully small” number, he does so to point out that the annual
number of child mortalities has fallen markedly since 1950. But it takes a
certain kind of cold amorality to call 4.2 million infant deaths
“beautifully small.” Like other New Optimists, his argument is that we
should continue doing more of what has proved to work so far (economic
growth) and celebrate the improvements that have been made. But this
argument neglects to take into account other avenues that we have not
pursued and that could have led to a steeper decline in child mortality.

A recent UNICEF press release
for instance, notes that the global child mortality rate has declined since
1990, and adds that “without urgent action, 56 million children under five
will die from now until 2030.” Following the ruthless rationale of Rosling,
the annual death toll will likely become all the more “beautiful” during
this time provided that the decline continues, no matter how slow. But this
fails to acknowledge the present-day potential for eradicating child
mortality caused by poverty. It is not a scientific problem that 1 in 13
children in sub-Saharan Africa die before their fifth birthday while that
same statistic in high-income countries is 1 in 185. It is a social problem
and, as UNICEF notes, a problem of economic inequality.

Oxfam reported
in January that a 0.5 percent tax on the wealth of the world’s richest 1%
would raise more money than it would cost to educate the world’s 262
million children currently out of school and provide healthcare that would
save the lives of 3.3 million people. Instead, according to the British House
of Commons Library
we are on a course that will concentrate two-thirds of the world’s wealth
in the richest 1% by 2030.

Facts like these do not fit into the “optimistic ” TED Talk celebration of
neoliberalism—the docile, yet enthusiastically marketed, resignation to
business as usual. On the contrary, they point to potentialities that
remain unrealized due to the exploitative relationships on which global
capitalism relies. As Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge suggests
<>, it is more
morally conscientious to compare existing poverty “not with historical
benchmarks but with present possibilities: How much of this poverty is
really unavoidable today? By this standard, our generation is doing worse
than any in human history.”

To regard as “beautiful” the fact that children still die because they lack
cheap medicine, vaccines and clean water is to ignore our enormous growth
in global labor productivity and total affluence, as well as our potential
to eliminate inequality. To block out simple considerations like this does
not sound like “factfulness” to me. It does, however, sound like a
precondition for getting free promotion from Bill Gates.