Factfulness and fish

I see that the great Hans Rosling is reported to be working on a major new book on positive world trends, according to Nature

“It has the working title Factfulness, and they hope it will inform everyone from schoolchildren to esteemed experts about how the world has changed”. The book will try to “erase preconceived ideas”.

Rosling specialises in ideas about poverty and world development, and is well known via his explanatory videos. Judging by those videos his book will certainly be worth reading, and may be especially interesting because he’s recently been outspoken about the use of misleading and tweaked NGO statistics for “advocacy purposes” at the government level. In the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, no less.

But the NGO/government level is just ‘the tip of the iceberg’, I’d suggest. Such statistical twiddling so easily slips over into boosting ‘awareness raising’ campaigns among the general public. Then it becomes essential to ongoing cycles of fund-raising among the pensioners and other regular givers. Eventually the organisational culture becomes so distorted that it normalises those who want to engage in blatant political point-scoring in the media — of the sort exemplified by Oxfam’s ongoing self-inflicted erosion of its brand values via skewed statistics, damaging itself among everyone except a small minority of Social Justice Worriers and other gullibles.

I wonder if all that will start to change, with Planet Trump and a parallel heightened awareness of the left’s ‘fake news’. In which case the wallet-opening headline-grabbing methods that NGOs learned during 1997-2017 may suddenly become less effective. Perhaps Rosling’s new book Factfulness will help to coax NGOs into adopting new and more honest approaches.


Of course sometimes it also happens that an NGO spots a perfectly genuine natural cyclical change, and seizes the bottom of the curve to shriek about ‘extinction’ — such as scary headlines about the extinction of the humble sardine in yesterday’s Daily Express: “Sardines under threat of EXTINCTION as overfishing pushes them towards being wiped out”. According to the NGO report being covered it appears that there is a real and growing threat of overfishing, of all sorts, off the west African coast — due to surging population growth, Chinese trawlers, new technologies, better roads and storage, new ports and canning factories, tourism growth etc. But the intention of Express‘s reporting is to make the casual skimming reader think: “if such a humble fish is set to go extinct, then the end of the world is nigh”. If that was really the intention of the report‘s writers — before the NGO’s press officer and the Express journalists tore into it — is unknown. But there are two factors which make one wonder about that.

Firstly, what the reader didn’t hear from the Express was that the world’s sardine population rolls through immense multi-decade cycles of boom and near-total bust. According to my Google Scholar searches and some reading, the fish appears to be about 18 months past a huge bust point in its global population. In a decade or so it will be becoming abundant again. But by misleadingly screaming in capital letters about “EXTINCTION” the Express newspaper effectively discredits an apparently valid report about overfishing and the need for fish stock conservation.

Secondly, The Express also completely overlooked a huge international plan that has just been funded to try to deal with such problems. Also to stimulate serious aquaculture farming and sustainable inshore fisheries on suitable parts of the vast African coast.

Instead the newspaper shrieks that the good old British ‘sardines on toast’ are soon to be off the menu forever. One thus has to suspect that the NGO involved didn’t do very much to steer the newspaper toward sardine population trends or the World Bank mega-project. Much as I’ve recently come to admire the Express for its pro-Brexit stance, I have to say that its sardines story seems to have stepped across the ‘linkbait’ line and was borderline ‘fake news’ in its approach. In such a context I’d suggest that the profession of newspaper fact-checker could usefully expand its remit, to have its members also ask “… and what optimistic facts have been been left out?”