Sometimes, someone dies and you think “it’s a pity their time came.” And sometimes, someone dies and you think “oh no! We needed them.”

Hans Rosling (for me) was in the second camp: someone using maths for social good, someone combining graphic design, storytelling and numbers to make the world a better place. His TED talks are life goals for most maths outreach people.

When I got Factfulness for Christmas, it went straight to the top of my to-read pile, and from there very rapidly to my “read” pile1.

Factfulness begins by asking questions about the state of the world - over the last 20 years, has the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty almost doubled, stayed about the same, or almost halved? How many people in the world have some access to electricity? - and reveals that practically everyone gets almost all of the questions wrong. His graphs of the results, pointedly, have a line with a picture of a chimp at the bottom to show how well an ape would fare on average; it is rare for any set of humans, no matter how educated, to do better.

It then takes on ten instincts people have about the world - for example, the Gap Instinct (that there’s a Developed and a Developing world, and nothing in betwee) and the Destiny Instinct (that things never change) - and systematically dismantles them with advice on how to avoid falling into their traps.

The aforementioned TED talks are renowned for their use of vivd, animated charts that tell a story. That’s a problem for a black-and-white book: apart from the frontispiece, there’s not really much room for colour, and printing technology has not yet reached the stage where graphs can move independently of the page they’re on. That’s about the worst thing I have to say about Factfulness.

The whole thing is peppered with stories of Rosling’s career, giving example of how he fell foul of the same instincts, a nice touch to make the reader feel less self-conscious about their own failings. I enjoyed it greatly, and I think you will too.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. I wish the past tense of ‘to read’ was ‘red’. It would make that sentence much clearer, although perhaps chromatically ambiguous. []


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