HIT Think

A doctor and his quest for statistical truth

Swedish physician Hans Rosling's second career as a globally renowned data guru and apostle of progress impressed a lot of people, me included. It didn't impress Hans Rosling much, though. Here he was, talking to the Guardian in 2013:

I have no impact on knowledge. I have only had impact on fame, and doing funny things, and so on.

Rosling earlier in February at age 68 of pancreatic cancer. The news was greeted with a global outpouring of appreciation and sadness that Rosling himself surely would have found a little amusing and confounding.

Early in his career, according to an in-depth profile published in Nature in December, Rosling worked as a district medical officer—the only doctor in a region of 300,000 people—for Mozambique's National Health Service. After a few years, he and his family moved back to Sweden, but he continued to spend lots of his time in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, doing research and fighting diseases. During the Ebola outbreak of 2014, he showed up unannounced in the Liberian capital of Monrovia and stayed for months helping the country's government combat the epidemic.

By then, he was an international celebrity. It started when he was teaching global health at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm's great medical university, in the late 1990s. He found that his very smart students had no real sense of the progress and change afoot outside of Europe. They still saw the planet as divided between a healthy, wealthy West and a struggling "Third World." When he showed them five pairs of countries and asked which country in each pair had the highest child mortality rate, they got an average score of 1.8 right—worse than random chance. His fellow professors at Karolinska scored similarly poorly.

Together with his son and daughter-in-law, Rosling created a graphic animation that shows the movement of different health and economic indicators by country over time. I saw him present it at an event in Switzerland in 2005 (and afterwards chatted with him about it while riding a funicular, as one does). A year later he spoke at the TED conference in Monterey, California. This was the first time TED released videos of some of the talks, and Rosling's became a sensation; it has now been viewed more than 13 million times.

Much of the appeal was in Rosling's presentation style. He narrated changes in fertility rates, life expectancy and per-capita gross domestic product like an excitable sports announcer. A year later at TED, he added sword-swallowing. TED had him back again and again after that, and he became a regular on the corporate speaking circuit, pulling in $600,000 a year in speaking fees.

He used that money to help finance Gapminder.org, where all his data animations are still available to be played with (Google acquired the information visualization software behind it in 2007). They're mesmerizing, and they definitely give one the sense that (a) things have been getting better in most of the world over the past century and (b) there's no longer a First World and a Third World, just a continuum of wealth and well-being along which nations are scattered.

Is that important for people to know? Rosling's take, from the Guardian article cited above:

“If people want to help with something, it's good to know where the problem is … [for example] the problem of lack of schooling for girls is not a global problem. It is not a developing world problem, it's a problem in the poorest 2 billion. But there it's an extremely severe problem … Men in Afghanistan have half the schooling of women in the world. But young women in Afghanistan have one-seventh (the schooling) of the men in Afghanistan. This is the world I would like to explain.”

Rosling's quest, then, was to a large extent about disaggregating data that is often presented in big lumps, and finding ways to present it that were still comprehensible. “He gets our puny human brain to appreciate five dimensions,” enthused Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker in the Nature profile of Rosling.

Still, Rosling was aware that even the national numbers at the core of Gapminder's illustrations could be misleading. He co-authored an article for the medical journal the Lancet in October that showed a widely cited statistic on maternal deaths and armed conflict was wrong because it failed to look beyond national-level data.

This, more than the sword-swallowing and even the great animations, may have represented the essence of Rosling's approach to statistics. He believed that they should be used to discover and illustrate the truth, not necessarily to make political points and definitely not to mislead. It's easy enough to understand why he didn't think that message was really getting through.

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