As we all know, the global war against poverty is one of attrition. The poor are increasing their numbers endlessly, to an extent that the West can barely cope. All we can do is grimly press on, doing what little we can to stave off an inevitable and certain population apocalypse.
Everything I’ve written so far is not true. Actually, the world is getting steadily better. Yes, the poorest of the poor are suffering, but the world is making slow, steady progress, with billions of people steadily being able to better their lives.
We don’t hear this story for two reasons. First, the media long ago realized that scary stories get people to read or see the news. Secondly, far too many nonprofits (particularly large ones) think the best way to get people to give is to paint excessively scary scenarios in the wrong-minded hope that by scaring donors they can get them to write checks.
Fortunately, there are clear-minded people to turn to for accurate information about development. One is Sir Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel Laureate in Economics, whose book The Great Escape I recently reviewed. Another is Dr. Hans Rosling, a professor of global health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute. Amy Maxmen profiles Rosling in a very informative article in Nature.
What Dr. Rosling is brilliant at are TED talks. I have problems with TED talks because I like arguments that last longer than 20 minutes, but TED talks force speakers to be incisive, in much the same way that sonnets ensure that a poet finishes in 16 lines. What Dr. Rosling does is come up with very elegant ways to pass on important information.
The Nature piece links to two of Dr. Rosling’s talks: “How Not to Be Ignorant About the World” (done in collaboration with his son, Ola Rosling) and “Global Population Growth Box by Box”.
Dr. Rosling asks his audience simple demographic questions. For example: the average male today goes to school for eight years. How long do women go to school: seven years, five years, or three years?
He explains that a survey of Swedes showed that 45 percent thought that women only went to school for three years, while 24 percent of Americans and 49 percent of the audience agreed with the pessimistic solution. But Dr. Rosling has a control group: the chimps at the zoo, “who choose by random” so that their answers are always exactly 33 percent. But this time the chimps are smarter than the audience: women today have an average of seven years of education. They’re not yet equal but women spend more time in school than TED audiences think they do.
In other questions Dr. Rosling poses, the gloomiest answer is the wrong one. For example, has the number of deaths from natural disasters doubled, stayed about the same, or has it been halved? The audience, Americans, and Swedes all thought things had gotten much worse, but in fact death rates from natural disasters have steadily declined since World War II.
Getting accurate information is important because bad information about development leads to bad conclusions about what to do about people living in the world’s poorest countries.
The jaw dropping sentence in Maxmen’s profile is this one:
“Melinda Gates says that after a drink or two, people often tell her that they think the Gates Foundation may be contributing to overpopulation and environmental collapse by saving children’s lives with interventions such as vaccines.”
I can’t imagine being so cold as to think that way.[i] Surely their vaccine research is among the more admirable activities of the Gates Foundation.
How did Dr. Rosling end up being a master explainer? Maxmen shows that he has had a very colorful career. He came of age in the late 1960s, and after duly protesting against the Vietnam War and South African apartheid, earned his M.D. and went to Mozambique, fulfilling a promise to Mozambican Liberation Front founder Eduardo Mondlane that he would practice medicine in that country should Mozambique gain independence. He spent four years in northern Mozambique as the only doctor serving 300,000 desperately poor people.
Dr. Rosling returned to Sweden to teach public health. He became the world’s expert on konzo, a neurological disorder. In 1992, at the request of the Cuban Embassy in Sweden, he went to Cuba to see what was causing a konzo outbreak that was causing Cubans’ eyes to blur and their legs to go numb. The first day, he recalled, he was meeting Cuban epidemiologists when Fidel Castro walked in.
“My first surprise was that he was so kind, like Father Christmas,” Dr. Rosling said. “He didn’t have the attitude you might expect from a dictator.”
Dr. Rosling’s research showed that the cause of the disease was poverty. Communism had produced meat rationing, and people were limiting their meat rations so that children, pregnant women, and old people could have enough protein in their diets.
Eventually Dr. Rosling reported back to Castro. “I know your neighbors want to force their economic system on you, which I don’t like,” he said. “But the system needs to change because this planned economy has brought this disease to people.”
Afterwards, while on the toilet, a Cuban epidemiologist went up to Dr. Rosling and thanked him. He had come to the same conclusion, but he and several other investigators were blocked from doing research because they had spoken out against communism. Castro, however, had listened; the meat ration increased and the disease receded.
Dr. Rosling was convinced that the world needed to have accurate information about poverty. He realized that far too many people thought the Third World was a shapeless and hopeless mass and that the problems of Argentina, China, and India were somehow identical. So he began crafting his lectures, which became his TED talks.
Another project of Dr. Rosling and his children is the Gapminder Foundation. One very interesting project of this foundation is Dollar Street, created by Dr. Rosling’s daughter, Anna Rosling Rönnlund. The idea behind this project is a good one: go to hundreds of different homes around the world and take photos of identical places. Where, for example, do people cook—on the floor, on a hotplate, or a stove? What toys do children have? What pets does the family have? What products does a family dream of having but currently can’t afford?
Dollar Street is a great idea—and one that is ideally suited for schools.
I wish Dr. Rosling well in his effort to provide accurate information about poverty. As Amy Maxmen concludes, “with the right facts, he hopes, people will make the right decisions.”
(Hat tip: Steve Hayward, Power Line)
[i] Philanthropy Daily contributor, Matt Gerken, wrote a recent article reflecting on the implications of this passage at “Modern philanthropy and the new eugenicists.”
Photo credit: Neil Fantom via Visualhunt / CC BY
4 thoughts on “Dr. Hans Rosling, making the data make sense”
In April 2018, Dr. Rosling’s posthumous book FACTFULNESS: TEN REASONS WHY WE’RE WRONG ABOUT THE WORLD–AND WHY THINGS ARE BETTER THAN YOU THINK was published.
I’ve learned that Dr. Rosling passed away in early February at age 68. He will be missed.