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Mourning Hans Rosling, Sultan of Statistics

10/02/2017 10:42
Matthew Lloyd via Getty Images

As a sentimental advocate of facts in what I'm increasingly being told is a 'post-fact' universe, today I mourn the loss of my fellow-countryman, the medical doctor and super-star statistician, Hans Rosling, who died yesterday at the ripe young age of 68 (pancreatic cancer).

I remember our geography teacher showing us Hans Rosling's second TED talk when I was in secondary school and being distinctly struck by a number of things. Firstly, how quickly he managed to capture the whole classroom's attention with his unique brand of 'edutaining'. Secondly, how he made very grand points about complex global trends and patterns in development accessible and easily comprehensible.

And, thirdly, I remember recognizing, as a Swede, both how typically Swedish he was in his positivist, humanist vision, "please remember my main message: the seemingly impossible is possible. We can have a good world!" and then, conversely, how fantastically un-Swedish he was! My fellow Scandinavians will know what I mean. To prove his point about the 'seemingly impossible being possible' to the puzzled but awestruck audience, Hans stripped off his red plaid shirt to reveal his sagging middle-aged physique draped in a black leotard with silver lightning bolts on his chest, and proceeded to swallow a sword live on stage. As a public educator, he was the most creative in his recognition that a bit of showbiz is very effective in helping to get your point across.

What I will miss most about Hans Rosling is, firstly, his stubborn adherence to facts and his refusal to be subsumed by the media narrative of the world. By this I mean the erratic narrative that is always obsessed by some isolated catastrophe for which it demands a collective response of outrage, before switching its attention to the next headline-grabbing chaos and forgetting about its previous obsession entirely.

As a Danish news anchor put it in an interview with Hans Rosling on Danish TV in 2015, the media perspective of the world's current state is that it is characterised by "wars, conflicts, chaos." Against this, Hans Rosling, who did not hesitate to contradict the sheepish looking news anchor, appealed to us to look at the facts and not at isolated incidents. "News outlets," he explained, "only care about a small part, but you call it the world." Flinging his foot on to the table he went on, "You can choose to only show my shoe, which is very ugly, but that is only a small part of me. If you choose to only show my face then that is another part of me." His smack-down rationality, his maturity and his wisdom was truly laudable, even though, obviously, it shouldn't need to be.

Those who criticize Hans Rosling by calling him a Pollyannaist (one who focuses disproportionately on positive news and events) misunderstand the essence of his position, which is not to ignore the world's problems. Rather, what Hans Rosling's work cautions us from doing is basing our worldview on partial information, e.g. Boko Haram are terrorising Nigeria, therefore Nigeria in its entirety is in a terrible state. If we look at the whole picture, Rosling says, we get a much better understanding of the current situation and can direct our policy and resources to those areas and issues that are most pressing, and those are not necessarily the same areas and issues that capture public attention.

The second thing I'll miss most about Hans Rosling is his dedication to illuminating facts in engaging and effective ways. His commitment to rectifying widespread views about the world based on prejudice and ignorance. Without being too didactic, we do need more figures like him in the present time where we have to constantly face down lies and distortions of the truth.

Today, I mourn my fellow-countryman, the sultan of statistics, the great Hans Rosling.

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