Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hans Rosling, R.I.P.

Hans Rosling died last week. He was a Swedish statistician known for his TED talks. I usually include at least one of them in this course, but usually later in the semester.

His stock-in-trade was debunking gloomy stereotypes about poor countries and economic development. There were five surprising facts, for instance, that he loved to hammer home: population growth is slowing rapidly; the divide between the global rich and poor is blurring; humans are living much longer than 50 years ago; many more girls are getting an education; and the number of people in extreme poverty fell by a billion between 1980 and 2013.

That’s from the obituary The Economist. Everyone should know those facts by heart (here’s a more detailed version, with a short video on the first point). It is deeply disturbing the extent to which otherwise normal people think life on this planet is getting worse. The broadest sustained improvement in the human condition has occurred during your lifetime. Denying that is a twisted pasttime that is all too popular. Fight it.

(I’ve been putting together a video answer to Pascal’s question for the class Quodlibet. It uses Lego bricks. I swear I was working on it before I saw this video from the obituary in The Guardian):

(In all honesty, lots of people use Lego bricks to make points about statistics, including my son in a 1st grade science project back in 2006).†

From the obituary in The New York Times, here’s Rosling on the magic that is all around us:

“My mother explained the magic with this machine the very, very first day,” he recalled. “She said: ‘Now Hans, we have loaded the laundry. The machine will make the work. And now we can go to the library.’ Because this is the magic: You load the laundry, and what do you get out of the machine? You get books out of the machines, children’s books. And Mother got time to read to me.”

“Thank you, industrialization,” Dr. Rosling said. “Thank you, steel mill. And thank you, chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”

This is Rosling’s most famous video (and also the one I usually require students to watch at home in April) about improved well-being around the world:

There’s also a shorter version of this one that I show in class.

Here’s a similar one, that’s a bit more about improving technology:

Here is a longer one about why we should not worry about overpopulation entitled “Don’t Panic — The Facts About Population”; you do have to view this one through the website of the enterprise he founded, Gapminder.

P.S. Rosling tweeted in 2010 that he’d noticed how average he was statistically back in 1972. Some of you are probably still idealistic, and certain you will turn out nothing like your parents. You probably would not even move the meter on that one when compared to me at your age. But how do things turn out? I have a 14 year old who thinks I’m sooooo old and out-of-touch because I’m 52. And yet in 1978 I was 14, my dad was 52, and I was certain he was sooooo old and out-of-touch. Turning out like your parents in a world with washing machines or Uber is actually pretty sweet.

† I would not differ from Rosling on what’s going to happen to the number of little black disks representing carbon dioxide, but I would question his implicit assumption that they matter much. I’m not an anthropogenic global warming denier; but I will point out that global temperature is really, really, inelastic with respect to carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn are really, really, inelatic with respect to people’s quality of life. That’s a recipe for worrying a lot more about the quality of life of poor people, and for worrying a lot less about temperature. Rosling is on the record agreeing with that conclusion.

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