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Column: Just the facts

Posted: August 9, 2018 4:27 p.m.
Updated: August 10, 2018 1:00 a.m.

Ronald Reagan created the mantra, “Let’s Make America Great Again” for his 1980 presidential campaign, a point of view we are now repeating -- and repeating. The fact is, this country and this world have never been greater, unquestionably for women, children, minorities, and in no particular order, science and the arts, invention, technology, general health and life expectancy --  time to smell the roses.  And the data.

FACTFULNESS, Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, a must-read book (Flatiron Books, 2018) by Hans Rosling, a physician, professor of international health, and a renowned public educator, listed as one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world, prompts this column. Bill Gates calls it, “One of the most important books I’ve ever read -- an indispensable guide to thinking about the world.”

Rosling maintains how media bias, politicized preconceptions and statistical illiteracy prompt many people, especially in rich countries, to believe in a dismal and dramatically mistaken worldview. He demonstrates with -- hard data -- how positive developments are systematically underreported, with disasters consistently at the top of the news. As one reviewer puts it, “Next time you are depressed, just think about how the proportion of the world’s population categorized as “extremely poor” has dropped from about 4-in-10 in 1981 to less than 1-in-10 today.”

In his research, Rosling, routinely asks questions about, for example, infant mortality or female literacy or access to clean water.  Most respondents, especially the more educated ones, guess at the low-range for any economic, demographic, or health-related variable for people living in what they might characterize as the developing world. 

Samples from Rosling’s questions:

1. In all low-income countries across the world today, how many girls finish primary school?

A: 20 percent B: 40 percent C: 60 percent  (The correct answer is: C )

2. Where does the majority of the world population live? A: Low-income countries B: Middle-income countries C: High-income countries (The correct answer is: B )

3. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has…

A: almost doubled B: remained more or less the same C: almost halved (The correct answer is: C)

4. What is the life expectancy of the world today? A: 50 years B: 60 years C: 70 years (The correct answer is: C)

5. There are 2 billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. How many children will there be in the year 2100, according to the United Nations? A: 4 billion B: 3 billion C: 2 billion (The correct answer is: C )

6. How did the number of deaths per year from natural disasters change over the last hundred years? A: More than doubled B: Remained about the same C: Decreased to less than half (The correct answer is: C)

7. How many of the world’s 1-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease? A: 20 per cent B: 50 per cent C: 80 per cent (The correct answer is: C)

8. Worldwide, 30-year-old men have spent 10 years in school, on average. How many years have women of the same age spent in school? A: 9 years B: 6 years C: 3 years (The correct answer is: A )

9. In 1996, tigers, giant pandas, and black rhinos were all listed as endangered. How many of these three species are more critically endangered today? A: Two of them B: One of them C: None of them (The correct answer is: C )

10. How many people in the world have some access to electricity? A: 20 per cent B: 50 per cent C: 80 per cent (The correct answer is: C )

Skeptics might well point out that we Americans are now 31st in longevity among industrial countries (Japan is 1st) and 35th in infant mortality (Australia is lowest). Our fear of socialization -- although government bailouts for corporations and banks routinely pass muster, seems to prevent us from enjoying the medical, educational and economic safety nets and opportunities most progressive nations have put in place. Some commentators among us even insist on the same dim view of the successful European countries as they do with us.  

That said, our scientists, inventors, and technicians have been transforming not only America, but the entire planet, for some time.  Without question, tragedy seems built into the human equation, and we know money does not buy happiness; in the meantime the sun is shining brightly. Time to look up.



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