Right On: What we think about the world is mostly wrong

Images courtesy of Pixabay, St. George News
OPINION —

There are two billion children in the world today, aged 0 to 15 years old. According to the United Nations, how many children will there be in the year 2100?

  1. 2 billion
  2. 3 billion
  3. 4 billion

How many of the world’s 1-year-old children have been vaccinated against some disease?

  1. 20 percent
  2. 50 percent
  3. 80 percent

In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has:

  1. Almost doubled
  2. Remained more or less the same
  3. Almost halved

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

  1. 20 percent
  2. 40 percent
  3. 60 percent

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?

  1. 9 years
  2. 6 years
  3. 3 years

The answers: A, C, C, C, A

Don’t feel badly if, like me, you missed many of these questions. Almost all university professors and government officials who should be knowledgeable about these very topics scored poorly, usually worse than picking answers at random.

Hans Rosling, a Swedish medical doctor turned developing nations public health researcher and United Nations consultant, offers these and similar questions in his current book, “Factfulness, Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World and Why Things Are Better than You Think.”

The book is short: 255 pages loaded with illustrations and easy-to-understand graphs. Rosling writes in a breezy style intended for nontechnical readers. He uses a number of his own entertaining and eye-opening experiences, both his successes and his failures.

He demonstrates with facts gathered over many years that most of us have a distorted picture of how “the rest of the world” lives. Some examples:

  • In Malaysia, child deaths before the age of five per 1,000 births have dropped from 93 to 14 in the last 35 years. Child mortality is decreasing in every country in the world
  • Malaysia’s health and wealth today equal Sweden’s in 1975
  • With the exception of a few well-publicized places like Somalia and Afghanistan, most countries in the world have steadily and significantly improved the lives of their citizens
  • In the last 50 years, the number of people worldwide living in extreme poverty has dropped from 50 percent to 9 percent
  • The number of undernourished people in the world has dropped from 28 percent in 1970 to 11 percent today

An overarching misconception haunts most of us in the “developed” world. All we read and hear implies there is a huge gap between “us” and “them” in the rest of the world. This is simply not true. A large majority of the world’s population live somewhere in between. In fact, living standards are spread along a continuum from poor to rich.

Given the negatives we hear routinely, it’s easy to believe that things are getting worse. They’re not by many of the most important measures: health, longevity, wealth, education, democracy, safety, etc. Objective measures of these characteristics and many others show steady improvement over recent decades.

The number of natural disasters has not changed significantly in recent decades but the number of deaths due to floods, earthquakes, droughts and storms has dropped by 92 percent since the 1930s, especially in the poorest countries.

The number of children under the age of 15 will stay about the same for the next 60 years because of the dramatic worldwide drop in number of births per woman. In 1965, there were 5 births per woman; in 2015, there were 2.5.

Families in extreme poverty needed large families to provide the child labor required to subsist and because many children died young. As countries increased in health and wealth over the last 50 years, those needs diminished. Parents increasingly wanted their children to have better lives, which meant having fewer of them.

This trend was amplified as women became better educated and birth control became widely available.

World population will peak at about 11-12 billion people late in this century. This will be due not to increasing numbers of children but to greatly improved worldwide health leading to longer lives for today’s inhabitants.

Average age expectancy for a child born these days is approximately 72 years, up dramatically from about 45 years for those born shortly after World War II.

The author points out a paradox: the image of a dangerous world has never been broadcast more effectively than it is now, while the world has never been less violent and safe.

Our media may be free, professional and truth-seeking but that does not make reported news representative of the world. The media report the dramatic in order sell news. Good news doesn’t attract viewers or website clicks.

For example, in 2016 4.2 million babies died, mostly from preventable disease. This heartrending number is one you’ll read in the media. What you won’t read is that in 1950 when world population was only about a third of today’s population, 14.4 million babies died.

Rosling outlines the many small, incremental but steady improvements that have added up over time. He also describes the mental traps and pitfalls that lead most of us to misunderstand “the rest of the world.”

I heartily recommend his book. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I’m refreshed knowing how much better things are today than they were when I was young.

Howard Sierer is an opinion columnist for St. George News. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Email: hsierer@stgeorgeutah.com

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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7 Comments

  • utahdiablo June 28, 2018 at 8:21 pm

    Well, whichever answer your choose, be it A,B,C or D, if your a Liberal, it’s Trumps Fault

    • Badshitzoo June 29, 2018 at 10:18 am

      Yeah, who gives an “F”. I listen to eight years of whining about the Obama, Clinton, White house blah blah blah! I didn’t vote for any of them. It was year after year of investigations (11) for Clinton alone! Yeah, she’s probably an anti-Christ demon of some sort; but ohshitzoo did she get “F’ing” lit up on election night; as did Obama, and many others. So why are the Republicans, Fox News, the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazi party, and the Tea baggers still whining about it? Did Clinton wipe up the floor with you guys too many times? The difference between Trump, and Clinton is amazing! She gets investigated 11x, and gives them “Nothing”; because she knows, it “Doesn’t matter what you believe! It only matters what you can prove!” Apparently you guys didn’t understand that quote, or maybe you boycotted the movie because Tom Cruise was in it? That’ll teach them! Sometimes I think Republicans are the party of self-inflicted wounds; because he has never once been able to shut his pie hole about anything! He just can’t. And there in lies the bad ending his Presidency is doomed to. The most entertaining president in U.S. history, and the most tragic. And it was always going to end this way.

  • comments June 28, 2018 at 10:11 pm

    I’ve got a little book I’d like to recommend also. I know that Mr. Howard will like it. It’s called “The libruls done it: how all the world’s problems are caused by libruls and treehuggers”.

  • commonsense June 29, 2018 at 6:34 am

    Making the world look horrible to fit your own political narrative is what liberals do well these days.
    America is a much better place by all things measurable than it was two years ago but that would make Trump look good and Obama look bad. Facts just get in the way of lust for political power.

  • Scott June 29, 2018 at 8:00 am

    I agree that the world as a whole is going to be better off in the coming decades. The population will probably level off at some point. Unfortunately our way of life in St. George is going to worse. 400,000 people in the county is just too much.

  • Mike P June 29, 2018 at 9:33 am

    I think I’ll claim myself a “consultant” , kinda like claiming to be a Prophet, and spew my words of knowledge as truth. Write down some words, Maybe pick up a follower or two and then, Bada-Bing, Bada-Boom I got me a nice little cult going there!.

  • bikeandfish June 29, 2018 at 10:48 am

    Sounds like an interesting book worth a read.

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