Sunday, February 12, 2017

Hans Rosling, in memoriam


I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death earlier this week of Gapminder's Hans Rosling. 68 was too young for anyone, certainly too young for someone so dedicated to helping the world know itself through the truth. Scott Gilmore's article in MacLean's is one I recommend.



From Davos, to the White House, to the offices of the World Bank, Rosling could be found tirelessly preaching the gospel of facts, data, and truth. For generations, aid and charity decisions were taken for reasons of vanity, simplicity or self-interest. Billionaires gave money in ways that would grant them the most publicity. Bureaucrats channelled aid dollars to projects that were the easiest to administer. And western governments built dams in Africa solely to help their own construction companies. The real impact of aid on poverty was rarely considered and almost never measured. Rosling helped change that, by explaining to donors that ignorance is the first battle that must be fought in the war against extreme poverty.

This idea, as obvious as it seems in hindsight, was new. And it mattered. Governments listened. Donors became converts to Rosling’s religion of evidence-based policy. He was not its only apostle, but he was among its most well-known, and the only one with millions of views on Youtube.

Ironically, Rosling had a much more critical assessment of his own influence on the world. He called himself an “edutainer”, and in a 2013 interview he bemoaned the fact that the average Swede still overestimated the birth rate in Bangladesh: “they still think it’s four to five.”

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

The deputy prime minister of Sweden, Isabella Lövin, disagreed. After Rosling’s death was announced, she wrote: “He challenged the whole world’s view of development with his amazing teaching skills. He managed to show everyone that things are moving forward … I think the whole world will miss his vision and his way of standing up for the facts—unfortunately it feels like they are necessary more than ever at the moment.”


What can I say but that I wish that his vision be continued?

Sunday, January 01, 2017

On Max Roser's A history of global living conditions in 5 charts and the future


Some days ago, I saw shared on Facebook an essay, Max Roser's "A history of global living conditions in 5 charts" at the Our World in Data project. In this essay, Roser makes the argument--contrary to the zeigeist of 2016--that, in fact, in the longue durée things have been getting decidedly better for people. Extreme poverty and premature mortality have faded, rates of literacy and education have risen, and both living standards and levels of political freedom have increased hugely. (Fertility rates, Roser has noticed, have fallen markedly worldwide as a result of these trends' conjunction.) Towards the end of this, Roser created a chart exploring just how radically things have changed.



The shift has been marked. Back in December 2010, I wrote about the demographic dynamics of the Roman Empire and other pre-modern polities, noting after Vaclav Smil that there are no modern equivalents to the terrible suffering of the past anywhere on our world now. Even central Africa, probably the least developed area of the world, is better off. More, as Roser notes, the dynamics to date are positive: rates of premature mortality and undereducation are falling, for instance.

Why is there unfounded pessimism about the world's future prospects? Roser suggests that the answer can be found in our failure to adequately understand the significance of long-running trends.

One reason why the media focusses on things that go wrong is that the media focusses on single events and single events are often bad – look at the news: plane crashes, terrorism attacks, natural disasters, election outcomes that we are not happy with. Positive developments on the other hand often happen very slowly and never make the headlines in the event-obsessed media.

The result of a media – and education system – that fails to present quantitative information on long-run developments is that the huge majority of people is completely ignorant about global development. Even the decline of global extreme poverty – by any standard one of the most important developments in our lifetime – is only known by a small fraction of the population of the UK (10%) or the US (5%). In both country’s the majority of people think that the share living in extreme poverty has increased. Two thirds in the US even think the share in extreme poverty has ‘almost doubled’. When we are ignorant about global development it is not surprising that few think that the world is getting better.

The only way to tell a history of everyone is to use statistics, only then can we hope to get an overview over the lives of the 22 billion people that lived in the last 200 years. The developments that these statistics reveal transform our global living conditions – slowly but steadily. They are reported in this online publication – Our World in Data – that my team and I have been building over the last years. We see it as a resource to show these long-term developments and thereby complement the information in the news that focus on events.

The difficulty for telling the history of how everyone’s lives changed over the last 200 years is that you cannot pick single stories. Stories about individual people are much more engaging – our minds like these stories – but they cannot be representative for how the world has changed. To achieve a representation of how the world has changed at large you have to tell many, many stories all at once; and that is statistics.


Individual stories matter, but statistical trends like these also merited tracking. Let's try to do them both this coming year, here at Demography Matters and elsewhere.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Nature's Amy MaxMen on the achievements of Gapminder's Hans Rosling


In January 2011 and June 2013, I linked to two videos by Swedish statistician and popularizer Hans Rosling demonstrating different demographic trends. Today, via 3 Quarks Daily, I came across Amy Maxmen's excellent long-format article on Rosling and his accomplishments, "Three minutes with Hans Rosling will change your mind about the world". It does a great job of explaining just what Rosling, and his Gapminder Foundatin, are trying to achieve, and why.

Back in Sweden, Rosling continued to teach global health, moving to the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in 1996. But he came to realize that neither his students nor his colleagues grasped extreme poverty. They pictured the poor as almost everyone in the ‘developing world’: an arbitrarily defined territory that includes nations as economically diverse as Sierra Leone, Argentina, China and Afghanistan. They thought it was all large family sizes and low life expectancies: only the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries served as their reference point. “They just make it about us and them; the West and the rest,” Rosling says. How could anyone hope to solve problems if they didn’t understand the different challenges faced, for example, by Congolese subsistence farmers far from paved roads and Brazilian street vendors in urban favelas? “Scientists want to do good, but the problem is that they don’t understand the world,” Rosling says.

Ola, his son, offered to help explain the world with graphics, and built his father software that animated data compiled by the UN and the World Bank. Visual aids in hand, the elder Rosling began to script the provocative presentations that have made him famous. In one, a graph shows the distribution of incomes in 1975 — a camel’s back, with rich countries and poor countries forming two humps. Then he presses ‘go’ and China, India, Latin America and the Middle East drift forward over time. Africa moves ahead too, but not nearly as much as the others. Rosling says, “The camel dies and we have a dromedary world with one hump only!” He adds, “The per cent in poverty has decreased — still it’s appalling that so many remain in extreme poverty.”

Rosling’s online presentations grew popular, and the investment bank Goldman Sachs invited him to speak at client events. His message seemed to support advice from the firm’s chief economist, Jim O’Neill. In 2001, O’Neill had coined the acronym BRIC for the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, often considered part of the developing world. He warned that financial experts ignored these rising powers at their peril. “I used to tease my colleagues who thought in a traditional framework,” O’Neill says. “Why are we talking about China as the developing world? Based on the rate of economic growth, China creates another Greece every three months; another UK every two years.”

Rosling welcomed the new audience. “They request my lectures because they want to know the world as it is,” he says. The private sector needs to understand the economic and political conditions of current and potential markets. “To me it was horrific to realize that business leaders had a more fact-based world view than activists and university professors.”

[. . .]

Rosling’s charm appeals to those frustrated by the persistence of myths about the world. Looming large is an idea popularized by Paul Ehrlich, an entomologist at Stanford University in California, who warned in 1968 that the world was heading towards mass starvation owing to overpopulation. 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. She is thrilled when Rosling smoothly uses data to show how the reverse is true: as rates of child survival have increased over time, family size has shrunk. She has joined him as a speaker at several high-level events. “I’ve watched people have this ‘aha’ moment when Hans speaks,” she says. “He breaks these myths in such a gentle way. I adore him.”


Here's another clip, a video taken last year where Rosling explains the reality of a strong convergence of Mexico with the United States.