Rosling realised that we have what he called an “overdramatic” worldview, and that we intuitively refer to this when thinking, guessing or learning. Our tendency to misinterpret facts is instinctive — an evolutionary adaption to help us make quick decisions to avoid danger. While we still need these instincts, they can also trip us up.
Rosling, a doctor, professor of international health and data lover, spent his life, until he died last year, combating such ignorance by making us look at the statistics. If that sounds dry, his style is not. He was a showman, enlivening his talks about child mortality rates with demonstrations of sword swallowing (you can watch them on YouTube). His children Ola and Anna have finished this book, but the voice — folksy, humorous, amiable — is his. It is a blast of optimism against the monstrous regiment of doomsters.
Rosling backs up his ideas with an extraordinary ability to bring data to life. Progress in his native Sweden — which at the time of his birth in 1948 had the same levels of health and wealth as today’s Egypt — is illustrated by a story of his grandmother’s fascination with the washing machine. Having spent much of her life hand-washing clothes, she was so enthralled by the labour-saving device that when Rosling’s mother bought one, she would watch entire spin cycles as avidly as if she were enjoying television. That sort of transformative progress is happening all around the world today, says Rosling, including in south Asia and, increasingly, in urban Africa — a continent about which he is far more “possibilist” than most commentators.