The Power of Numbers

Hans Rosling uses data to demolish many myths in his last book. As he writes, “The world cannot be understood without numbers, nor through numbers alone.”

A few years back while flying from Mumbai to New Delhi, I got talking to an old gentleman sitting next to me. He was getting terribly jittery, after the flight went through some turbulence.

“You know, I never wanted to fly,” he told me. “My daughter just forced me to.”

“But what’s wrong with flying?” I asked. “ Or you don’t like the idea of your daughter paying for your air ticket?”

“No. Nothing like that.”


“If this thing crashes, all of us will get killed. So, that way, travelling by rail is safe because at best few bogies get derailed.”

Over the years, this is a conversation that keeps coming back to my mind, every time I see someone get jittery whenever the flight goes through some turbulence. People respond to it in different ways. Some people just close their eyes. Some people start praying, and so on.

What they don’t know is that traveling by air is by far the safest form of travelling.

But why does it travelling by air seem so unsafe? The answer lies in the fact that every air crash gets reported in the media. But all the safe landings that happen every day don’t make it to the news at all.

As Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund write in Factfulness:

In 2016 a total of 40 million commercial passenger flights landed safely at their destinations. Only ten ended in fatal accidents. Of course, those were the ones the journalists wrote about: 0.000025 percent of the total. Safe flights are not newsworthy.

In fact, flying has gotten 2100 times safer over the last seventy years.

The sad part is that many people don’t realise this. In fact, in the aftermath of 9/11, many Americans started to travel long-distance by car instead of taking a flight, and this led to a spike in the rate of accidents. These accidents would have never happened had people flown and not driven.

The Roslings demolish many more myths in Factfulness. The basic message of this book is that everything might not be right about the world that we live in, but it is a much better place than we actually think it is. The Roslings use excellent data along with brilliant storytelling to make their points. The balance between storytelling and data is well maintained throughout the book. Too much data can put off the reader and too much story telling makes a non-fiction book a non-serious effort. The Roslings do not fall into either of these traps.

In fact, one of the major myths that they bust in the book is about population. Most people tend to assume that the global population will keep increasing at a massive rate (the Roslings calls it the Straight Line Instinct). This is not true. The fertility rate, or the average number of babies per woman, has been falling over the years. It was at 5 in 1965 and at 2.5 in 2017.

There are multiple reasons for it. The Roslings write:

As billions of people left extreme poverty, most of them decided to have fewer children. They no longer needed large families for child labour on the small family farm. And they no longer needed extra children as insurance against child mortality. Women and men got educated and started to want better-educated and better-fed children: and having fewer of them was the obvious solution.

The replacement rate or the level of fertility of women at which the population automatically replaces itself, from one generation to the other, typically tends to be at 2.1. The world is not very far from that level. Having said that, this does not mean that the global population will stop increasing overnight. It will still take nearly three generations and by around 2075, the global population is likely to stabilise at around 11 billion, against the current population of 7 billion. Of course, as medicines and health facilities will improve and people will live longer.

Hans Rosling, who died of cancer in 2017, was a star TED speaker. I had the privilege of listening to him in 2008 in Mysore, the only time TED has happened in India. In the presentation that he made at TED in Mysore (and other TED conferences) he made use of excellent graphs designed by his son Ola and daughter in law Anna (both co-authors of Factfulness).

Similar graphs and data form the core of Factfulness. At the same time numbers and data are not the be-all and end-all of everything, the Roslings explain. The context is important as well. “The world cannot be understood without numbers, nor through numbers alone.”

The Roslings offer several instances of how the data can be and is being misused, intentionally or otherwise. One example is that of Cuba. Hans Rosling was invited to the country to give a presentation on “Health in Cuba in a Global Perspective”. He writes: “I showed them Cuba’s special position on my health and wealth bubble chart. It had a child survival rate as high as that of the United States, on only one-quarter of the income. The minister of health jumped onstage directly after I had finished and summarized my message. ‘We Cubans are the healthiest of the poor,’ he said. There was a big round of applause and that turned out to be the end of the session.”

A young man later rightly told Hans Rosling that Cuba was not the “healthiest of the poor,” but the “poorest of the healthy,” which is why understanding the world is not just about numbers, but much more than that.

To conclude, if you are the kind who likes to read non-fiction, this is one book that you should definitely read this year. Also, buy a physical copy, the graphs are no fun to look at in the Kindle version.

About the author

Vivek Kaul

Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) and The Economic Times. His latest book India’s Big Government—The Intrusive State and How It Is Hurting Us, has just been published. He is also the author of the Easy Money trilogy.