How Factfulness Saved My Life

“I think we should run,” whispered the young teacher standing beside me.

Two thoughts raced across my mind. One was that if the teacher took off, I would have no way of communicating with the agitated crowd in front of me. I grabbed his arm and held on tightly.

The other thought was something that a wise governor of Tanzania had told me: “When someone threatens you with a machete, never turn your back. Stand still. Look him straight in the eye and ask him what the problem is.”

It was 1989 and I was in a remote and extremely poor village named Makanga in the Bandundu region of what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was part of a team investigating an epidemic of the incurable paralytic disease called konzo that I had first discovered in Mozambique years earlier.

The research project had been two years in the planning and everything—all the approvals, drivers, translators, and lab equipment—had been meticulously prepared. But I had made one serious mistake. I had not explained properly to the villagers what I wanted to do and why. I wanted to interview all the villagers and take samples of their food, and their blood and urine, and I should have been with the head of the village when he explained that to them.

That morning, as I had been quietly and methodically setting up in the hut, I heard villagers starting to gather outside. They somehow seemed uneasy but I was occupied with getting the blood sample machine to work. Eventually I managed to start the diesel generator and do a test run with the centrifuge. The machines were noisy and it was only when I switched them off that I heard the raised voices. Things had changed in seconds. I bent forward and stepped out of the low door. It had been dark in the hut and when I straightened up at first I couldn’t see a thing. Then I saw: a crowd of maybe 50 people, all upset and angry. Some of them were pointing their fingers at me. Two men raised muscled arms and waved big machete knives.

That was when the teacher, my translator, suggested we run. I looked right and left and saw nowhere to go. If the villagers really wanted to hurt me there were enough of them to hold me back and let the machete men cut me down.

“What’s the problem?” I asked the teacher.

“They are saying that you are selling the blood. You are cheating us. You are giving money only to the chief, and then you are going to make something with the blood that will hurt us. They say you shouldn’t steal their blood.”

This was very bad. I asked him if he would translate for me and then I turned to the crowd. “Can I explain?” I asked the villagers. “I can either leave your village right away, if you want, or I can explain why we have come.”

“Tell us first,” the people said. (Life is boring in these remote villages, so they probably thought, We can let him talk first, and we can kill him afterward.) The crowd held back the men with the machetes: “Let him talk.”

This was the talk we should have had before. If you want to go into a village to do research, you have to take small steps, take your time, and be respectful. You have to let people ask all their questions, and you have to answer them.

I started to explain that we were working on a disease named konzo. I had photos from Mozambique and Tanzania, where I had studied konzo before, which I showed them. They were very interested in the photos. “We think it’s linked to how you prepare the cassava,” I said.

“No, no, no,” they said.

“Well, we want to do this research, to test whether we are right. If we can find out, maybe you won’t get the disease anymore.”

Many of the children in the village had konzo. We had noticed them when we first arrived, lagging behind while the other children ran alongside our jeep with charming curiosity. I had spotted some children in this crowd with the classic spastic walking style too.

People began to mumble. One of the machete men, the more dangerous-looking one, with bloodshot eyes and a big scar down his forearm, started screaming again.

And then a barefoot woman, perhaps 50 years old, stepped out of the crowd. She strode toward me and then turned, threw out her arms, and in a loud voice said, “Can’t you hear that it makes sense, what he is saying? Shut up! It makes sense. This blood test is necessary. Don’t you remember everyone who died from measles? So many of our children died. Then they came and gave the children the vaccine, remember, and now no child ever dies of that disease. OK?”

The crowd shouted back, unmollified. “Yes, measles vaccine was good. But now they want to come take our blood, blah, blah, blah.”

The woman paused, then took a step toward the crowd. “How do you think they discovered the measles vaccine? Do you think it grows on trees in their countries? Do you think they pulled it out of the ground? No, they do what this doctor calls”—and she looked at me—“RE-SEAR-CHE.” As she repeated the word the translator had used for research, she turned round and pointed at me. “That is how they find out how to cure diseases. Don’t you see?”

We were in the most remote part of Bandundu, and here this woman had stepped up like the secretary of the Academy of Science and defended scientific research.

“I have a grandchild crippled for life by this konzo.The doctor says he can’t cure it. But if we let him study us, perhaps he will find a way to stop it, like they stopped measles, so that we don’t have to see our children and our grandchildren crippled anymore. This makes sense to me. We, the people of Makanga, need this ‘research.’” Her dramatic talent was amazing. But she didn’t use it to distort the facts. She used it to explain them. Forcefully, in a manner I had seen confident African women act in villages many times before, she rolled up her left sleeve. She turned her back on the crowd, pointed with her other hand to the crook of her arm, and looked me in the eyes. “Here. Doctor. Take my blood.”

The men with machetes lowered their arms and moved away. Five or six others wandered off, grumbling. Everyone else lined up behind the woman to give their blood, the shouting replaced by soft voices and faces turned from anger to curious smiles.

I have always been extremely thankful for this courageous woman’s insight. And now that we have defined Factfulness after years of fighting ignorance, I am amazed at how well it describes her behavior. She seemed to recognize all the dramatic instincts that had been triggered in that mob, helped them gain control over them, and convinced her fellow villagers with rational arguments. The fear instinct had been triggered by the sharp needles, the blood, and the disease. The generalization instinct had put me in a box as a plundering European. The blame instinct made the villagers take a stand against the evil doctor who had come to steal their blood. The urgency instinct made people make up their minds way too fast.

Still, under this pressure, she had stood up and spoken out. It had nothing to do with formal education. She most certainly had never left Bandundu and I’m sure she was illiterate. Without a doubt she had never learned statistics or spent time memorizing facts about the world. But she had courage. And she was able to think critically and express herself with razorr-sharp logic and perfect rhetoric at a moment of extreme tension. Her factfulness saved my life. And if that woman could be factful under those circumstances, then you, highly educated, literate reader who just read this book, you can do it too.

Factfulness in Practice

How can you use Factfulness in your everyday life: in education, in business, in journalism, in your own organization or community, and as an individual citizen?


In Sweden we don’t have volcanoes, but we have geologists who are paid out of public funds to study volcanoes. Even regular schoolkids learn about volcanoes. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, astronomers learn about stars that can be seen only in the Southern Hemisphere. And at school, children learn about these stars. Why? Because they are part of the world.

Why then do our doctors and nurses not learn about the disease patterns on every income level? Why are we not teaching the basic up-to-date understanding of our changing world in our schools and in corporate education?

We should be teaching our children the basic up-to-date, fact-based framework—life on the four levels and in the four regions—and training them to use Factfulness rules of thumb—the bullet points from the end of each chapterThis would enable them to put the news from around the world in context and spot when the media, activists, or salespeople are triggering their dramatic instincts with overdramatic stories. These skills are part of the critical thinking that is already taught in many schools. They would protect the next generation from a lot of ignorance.

• We should be teaching our children that there are countries on all different levels of health and income and that most are in the middle.

• We should be teaching them about their own country’s socioeconomic position in relation to the rest of the world, and how that is changing.

• We should be teaching them how their own country progressed through the income levels to get to where it is now, and how to use that knowledge to understand what life is like in other countries today.

• We should be teaching them that people are moving up the income levels and most things are improving for them.

• We should be teaching them what life was really like in the past so that they do not mistakenly think that no progress has been made.

• We should be teaching them how to hold the two ideas at the same time: that bad things are going on in the world, but that many things are getting better.

• We should be teaching them that cultural and religious stereotypes are useless for understanding the world.

• We should be teaching them how to consume the news and spot the drama without becoming stressed or hopeless.

• We should be teaching them the common ways that people will try to trick them with numbers.

• We should be teaching them that the world will keep changing and they will have to update their knowledge and worldview throughout their lives.

Most important of all, we should be teaching our children humility and curiosity.

Being humble, here, means being aware of how difficult your instincts can make it to get the facts right. It means being realistic about the extent of your knowledge. It means being happy to say “I don’t know.” It also means, when you do have an opinion, being prepared to change it when you discover new facts. It is quite relaxing being humble, because it means you can stop feeling pressured to have a view about everything, and stop feeling you must be ready to defend your views all the time.

Being curious means being open to new information and actively seeking it out. It means embracing facts that don’t fit your worldview and trying to understand their implications. It means letting your mistakes trigger curiosity instead of embarrassment. “How on earth could I be so wrong about that fact? What can I learn from that mistake? Those people are not stupid, so why are they using that solution?” It is quite exciting being curious, because it means you are always discovering something interesting.

But the world will keep changing, and the problem of ignorant grown-ups will not be solved by teaching the next generation. What you learn about the world at school will become outdated within 10 or 20 years of graduating. So we must find ways to update adults’ knowledge too. In the car industry, cars are recalled when a mistake is discovered. You get a letter from the manufacturer saying, “We would like to recall your vehicle and replace the brakes.” When the facts about the world that you were taught in schools and universities become out of date, you should get a letter too: “Sorry, what we taught you is no longer true. Please return your brain for a free upgrade.” Or perhaps your employer should tackle the problem: “Please go through this material and take this test, to avoid embarrassing yourself at the World Economic Forum or similar.”

Replace Sombreros with Dollar Street

Children start learning about other countries and religions in preschool. Cute little world maps with people in folklore dress from across the world are intended to make them aware of and respectful toward other cultures. The intention is good but these kinds of illustrations can create an illusion of great difference. People in other countries can seem stuck in historic and exotic ways of life. Of course some Mexicans sometimes wear large sombreros, but these large hats nowadays are probably more common on the heads of tourists.

Let’s show children Dollar Street instead, and show them how regular people live. If you are a teacher, send your class “traveling” on dollarstreet.org and ask them to find differences within countries and similarities across countries.


A single typo in your CV and you probably don’t get the job. But if you put 1 billion people on the wrong continent you can still get hired. You can even get a promotion.

Most Western employees in large multinationals and financial institutions are still trying to operate according to a deeply rooted, outdated, and distorted worldview. Yet global understanding is becoming more and more crucial, and more and more possible. Most of us now work with consumers, producers, service providers, colleagues, or clients all across the planet. Some decades ago, when it was perhaps less important for us to know about the world, there were almost no reliable and accessible global statistics. As the world changed, though, the need for knowledge about the world also changed. Today, reliable data is easily available for almost every subject. This is quite new: my first partner in the fight against mega misconceptions was a photocopier, but today all that data is freely available online. In recruitment, production, marketing, and investment, it has never been easier or more important for business leaders and employees to act on a fact-based worldview.

Using data to understand the globalized markets has already become part of the culture. But when people’s worldviews are upside down, data snippets can be just as misleading as wrong data or no data. Until one day someone actually tests their global knowledge, everyone assumes they are getting it kind of right.

In sales and marketing, if you run a big business in Europe or the United States, you and your employees need to understand that the world market of the future will be growing primarily in Asia and Africa, not at home.

In recruitment, you need to understand that being a European or American company no longer gives you bragging rights to attract international employees. Google and Microsoft, for example, have become global businesses and made their “Americanness” almost invisible. Their employees in Asia and Africa want to be part of truly global companies and they are. Their CEOs, Sundar Pichai of Google and Satya Nadella of Microsoft, were both raised and educated in India.

When I present to European corporations, I always tell them to tune down their European branding (“remove the Alps from your logo”) and to move their headquarters—but not their European staff—elsewhere.

In production, you need to understand that globalization is not over. Decades ago, Western companies realized that industrial production had to be outsourced to the so-called emerging markets on Level 2, where products could be manufactured at the same quality for less than half the price. However, globalization is a continuing process, not a one-off event. The textiles industry that moved from Europe to Bangladesh and Cambodia as they reached Level 2 some decades ago will most likely soon move again as Bangladesh and Cambodia become wealthier and approach Level 3. These countries will have to diversify or suffer the consequences as their textiles jobs are shifted to African countries.

In making investment decisions, you need to shake off any naïve views of Africa shaped by the colonial past (and maintained by today’s media) and understand that Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya are where some of the best investment opportunities can be found today.

I think it will not be long before businesses care more about fact mistakes than they do about speling miskates, and will want to ensure their employees and clients are updating their worldview on a regular basis.

Journalists, Activists, Politicians

Journalists, activists, and politicians are also humans. They are not lying to us. They suffer from a dramatic worldview themselves. Like everyone else, they should regularly check and update their worldview and develop factful ways of thinking.

There are further actions that journalists can take to help them to present a less distorted worldview to the rest of us. Setting events in their historical context can help to keep them in proportion. Some journalists, aware of the distorting influence of negative news, are outlining new standards for more constructive news, with the goal of changing bad news habits and making journalism more meaningful. It’s hard to tell at this point how much impact they will have.

Ultimately, it is not journalists’ role, and it is not the goal of activists or politicians, to present the world as it really is. They will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. They will always focus on the unusual rather than the common, and on the new or temporary rather than slowly changing patterns.

I cannot see even the highest-quality news outlets conveying a neutral and nondramatic representative picture of the world, as statistics agencies do. It would be correct but just too boring. We should not expect the media to move very far in that direction. Instead it is up to us as consumers to learn how to consume the news more factfully, and to realize that the news is not very useful for understanding the world.

Your Organization

Once a year, the ministers of health from every country come together at the World Health Assembly. They plan health systems and compare health outcomes of different countries and then they have coffee. One time, the minister of health from Mexico whispered in my ear during a coffee break, “I care a lot about Mexico’s average number, one day every year. That is today. All the other 364 days I only care about the differences within Mexico.”

In this book, I have discussed ignorance of facts on a global level. I think there must be systematically ignored facts on the country level too, and in every community and every organization. So far we have only tried a few local fact questions, but it seems like they follow a very similar pattern to the global facts we have tested more widely. In Sweden, for example, we asked:

Today, 20 percent of Swedes are older than 65. What will the number be 10 years from now:

A: 20 percent

B: 30 percent

C: 40 percent

The correct answer is 20 percent—no change—but only 10 percent of Swedes picked that answer. That is devastating ignorance about a basic fact that is crucial in our Swedish debate about planning for the next ten years. I think it is because people have heard a lot about the aging population over the last 20 years, when the number did in fact increase, and then they assume a straight line.

There are so many more local and subject area fact questions we would love to try. Do people in your city know the basic proportions and trends that are shaping the future of the place they live in? We don’t know, because we haven’t tested it. But most likely: no.

What about your niche of expertise? If you work on marine life around Scandinavia, do your colleagues know the basic facts about the Baltic Sea? If you work in forestry, do your colleagues know if wildfires are getting more or less common? Do they know whether the latest fires caused more or less damage than those in the past?

We think there are endless such ignorances to discover if the fact questions are asked. Which is exactly why we suggest that as step one. You can hunt for ignorance in your own organization using the same methods we have used. Start simply by asking what are the most important facts in your organization and how many people know them.

Sometimes people get nervous about this. They think their colleagues and friends will be offended if they start checking their knowledge, and will not appreciate being proved wrong. My experience is the opposite. People like it a lot. Most people find it inspiring to realize what the world looks like. Most people are eager to start learning. Testing their knowledge, if it is done in a humble way, can release an avalanche of curiosity and new insights.

Final Words

I have found fighting ignorance and spreading a fact-based worldview to be a sometimes frustrating but ultimately inspiring and joyful way to spend my life. I have found it useful and meaningful to learn about the world as it really is. I have found it deeply rewarding to try to spread that knowledge to other people. And I have found it so exciting to finally start to understand why spreading that knowledge and changing people’s worldviews have been so damn hard.

Could everyone have a fact-based worldview one day? Big change is always difficult to imagine. But it is definitely possible, and I think it will happen, for two simple reasons. First: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, just like an accurate GPS is more useful for finding your way in the city. Second, and probably more important: a fact-based worldview is more comfortable. It creates less stress and hopelessness than the dramatic worldview, simply because the dramatic one is so negative and terrifying.

When we have a fact-based worldview, we can see that the world is not as bad as it seems—and we can see what we have to do to keep making it better.


In September 2015, Hans and the two of us decided to write a book together. On February 5, 2016, Hans received a diagnosis of incurable pancreatic cancer. The prognosis was bad. Hans was given two or three months to live or, if the palliative treatments were very successful, perhaps one year.

After the initial horrible shock, Hans thought things through. Life would continue for a while. He would still be able to enjoy time with his wife, Agneta, and his family and friends. But day-to-day, his health would be unpredictable. So within a week he had canceled all his 67 planned lectures for the coming year, as well as all planned TV and radio appearances and film productions. Hans was so sad to do it, but he realized he had no choice. And this dramatic change to his professional life was made bearable by one thing: the book. Following the diagnosis there was pleasure in the sadness as the book turned from being a burden on top of other tasks to being Hans’s intellectual inspiration and joy.

There was so much he wanted to say. Over the next months, in our enthusiasm, the three of us pulled together enough material for a very thick book: about Hans’s life, the work we had done together, and our latest ideas. Until the very end, he remained curious and passionate about the world.

We agreed on the outline for the book and started to write it. We had worked together on challenging projects for many years, and were used to constantly fighting over how best to explain a particular fact or concept. We were quickly humbled to discover how easy the collaboration had been during the years when we had all been well, and how terribly difficult it was to maintain our usual sharp and combative way of working now that Hans was ill. We almost failed.

On the evening of Thursday, February 2, 2017, Hans’s health suddenly deteriorated. An ambulance was called, and into it Hans took printed copies of several chapters of the latest draft, his scribbled notes all over them. Four days later, in the early hours of Tuesday, February 7, Hans died. He had taken comfort over those last days from the drafts, discussing them with Ola from his hospital bed and dictating an email to the publishers, which said that he thought we had at last achieved “exactly the kind of book we have been aiming for.” “Our joint work,” Hans wrote, “is finally being turned into an enjoyable text that will help a global audience to understand the world.”

When we announced Hans’s death, an avalanche of condolences immediately poured in from friends, colleagues, and admirers from all over the world. Tributes to Hans were all over the internet. Our family and friends organized a ceremony at Karolinska Institutet and a funeral at Uppsala Castle, which together beautifully reflected the Hans we knew: brave, innovative, and serious-minded, yet always looking for the circus around the corner; a great friend and colleague and a beloved family member. The circus was there. There was a sword swallower onstage, of course (Hans’s friend, whose X-ray you saw at the beginning of this book) and our son Ted did his own homemade trick with a bandy stick and helmet. (Bandy is a bit like ice hockey but friendlier.) We concluded with Frank Sinatra’s anthem “My Way ” Not just because Hans always did it His Way, but because of a lucky accident of a few years earlier. Hans didn’t care much about music and he always insisted he was totally tone deaf, but his youngest son, Magnus, had once heard him sing. Hans had accidentally called Magnus from his pocket and, completely unaware, left him a four-minute voice message. This recorded Hans driving through traffic while singing loudly and lustily to Frank Sinatra’s defiant anthem. This was just so Hans. You have seen his list of global risks but it couldn’t stop him from singing on his way to work. Two thoughts at the same time: concerned and full of joy.

We had worked with Hans for 18 years. We had written his scripts and directed his TED talks, and argued with him for hours (sometimes months) about every detail of them. We had heard all his stories many times and had them recorded in many forms.

Working on the book had been painful in the last months of Hans’s life but was strangely comforting in the months immediately after his death. As we completed this precious task, Hans’s voice was always in our heads, and we often felt that he was not gone but still in the room beside us. Finishing the book felt like the best way to keep him with us and to honor his memory.

Hans would have loved promoting this book, and he would have done it brilliantly, but he knew from the moment of his diagnosis that that was not going to be possible. Instead, it falls to us to continue his mission and ours. Hans’s dream of a fact-based worldview lives on in us and, we hope now, in you too.

Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Ola Rosling Stockholm, 2018

About the Author

Hans Rosling was a medical doctor, professor of international health, and renowned public educator. He was an adviser to the World Health Organization and UNICEF, and he cofounded Médecins Sans Frontières in Sweden and the Gapminder Foundation. His TED talks have been viewed more than thirty-five million times, and he was listed as one of Time magazine’s one hundred most influential people in the world. Hans died in 2017, having devoted the last years of his life to writing this book.

Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund, Hans’s son and daughter-in-law, are cofounders of the Gapminder Foundation, and Ola its director from 2005 to 2007 and from 2010 to the present day. After Google acquired Trendalyzer, the bubblechart tool invented and designed by Anna and Ola, Ola became head of Google’s Public Data Team and Anna became the team’s senior user-experience (UX) designer. They have both received international awards for their work.





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