Hans Rosling – doctor, health researcher, educator, communicator par excellent and open-data advocate – passed away on February 7, 2017, in Uppsala, Sweden. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year ago.
Rosling is best known for his TED talks and was a great believer in the liberating potential of globalisation. Influenced by his early research in Africa, he decided that it wasn’t germs alone that caused disease. “Extreme poverty produces diseases. Evil forces hide there,” he said in an interview to the journal Nature in 2016. In his eyes, to be a good epidemiologist, he had to become a good economist first. But he shied away from prescription, saying in another interview, “Everybody wanted to say, ‘do this, do that’. Nobody took it as their task to describe the world as it was. So that is what I did.”
It was the enthusiasm and the humour with which he approached this task, describing the world through data and statistics, that made him a global sensation and the definition of a 21st-century public intellectual. He pioneered a five-dimensional chart using software built by his son, Ola Rosling. This software, Trendalyzer, was acquired by Google and is now freely available; even non-programmers can generate equally spiffy motion charts using basic spreadsheets. These charts allow the usual two variables: one on the x-axis and one on the y-axis of the graph. Then, the size and colour of the bubbles allow for two more variables and, finally, if you hit the play button, you could see how the graph evolved over time as numbers rose, fell and came to be.
When people first saw it on the TED stage in 2006, it was an instant hit. Since then, Rosling has been a regular at the conference, speaking at least nine other times on topics from HIV to population growth.
At the centre of Rosling’s agenda was the idea that, in many ways, the world has become a better place. In one moving talk on the magic of washing machines, he said, “This is the magic: you load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books”. Rosling goes on to explain that industrialisation and the wonders of the mechanical age liberated his parents’ generation in many ways and gave them the time to read books and grow. Specifically, it gave his mother time to read to him and start him on his path to becoming a professor.
In terms of child and mother mortality, in terms of poverty and in terms of diseases like malaria, there have been reductions in many places. Some of them in absolute terms, others in percentages. But his firm stand on this, and corollary criticism of the media for being extremely misleading, made him catch a lot of flak – for being too simplistic, reductionist or naïve. It didn’t help that he called them ‘facts’ and titled his book Factfulness, easily perceivable as blind confidence or arrogance. His critics felt his depiction of progress would leave people feeling satisfied with the status quo when in fact the problems of infant mortality, poverty, universal healthcare and education are far, far away from being solved.
However, this is mostly misplaced. His first-hand experiences in various African countries had shown him beyond doubt that the world was not a just and equitable place. But like Steven Pinker who made similar claims about declining violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Rosling was likely trying to articulate a message of hope, that change for the better is possible. It cannot be the case that the world is so terrible that anyone who is optimistic is automatically pollyannist.
Of course, it is another matter that his message was gratefully received by corporations like Goldman Sachs and philanthropic institutions like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which slotted his talks right into their global narrative of saving the world, one neoliberal policy at a time.
Like Freeman Dyson said of Richard Feynman, it will not be for any one discovery that Rosling will be remembered. His contribution was a new way of communicating, one that has already inspired numerous students to go out and become statisticians, economists or social scientists. A reliable and trustworthy voice for the value of statistics will be missed with his passing – especially in this time when its stock is at an all-time low. Maybe what the world needs is more people with Rosling’s sheer love for the subject. As he said on The Joy of Stats, a TV show he did for the BBC, “I know having the data is not enough. I have to show it in ways people both enjoy and understand.”
In November 2009, Rosling had visited India to give one of his trademark presentations at the first TEDIndia conference. He opened his talk by recalling the one month that he had spent in St. John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, as a 24-year-old. “That changed my mindset forever”, he said. “The course was good, but it was not the course content in itself … It was the brutal realisation, the first morning, that the Indian students were better than me.” He predicted that, on July 27, 2048, India would overtake Sweden in terms of per capita income, to the obvious amusement of the audience. Coincidentally, it was also to be his 100th birthday. At the end of his talk, arms pumping enthusiastically, his voice ringing with that familiar infectious enthusiasm, Rosling signed off saying, “I expect to speak in the first session of the 39th TED India. Get your bookings in time. Thank you very much.”
That wasn’t optimism. That was celebration.