09 Feb 2017   |   News

Science loses an exuberant storyteller

Hans Rosling excelled at presenting fun, accessible data and busting myths on the perceived gap between the industrialised and developing worlds

Hans Rosling, the endearingly upbeat physician, epidemiologist, and data visuals wizards, died on Wednesday aged 68.

In life, he usually came bearing good news, told with the urgency of a sports commentator.

The way he presented it, things were never really as bad as you thought: Deaths from natural disasters in the world have halved since 1900; the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved in the last 20 years; girls today spend about as much time in school as boys; 80 per cent of the world’s one year olds have been vaccinated against measles.

A part-time professor of international health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, and co-founder of Gapminder, a non-profit group based in Stockholm that works to educate the public about disparities in health and wealth around the world, Rosling became well known for something else: his online TED Talk appearances.

Here Rosling, who lacked the grants or spate of publications in top journals of his peers - a feature which always left him open to some criticism - found a way to hop-skip the usual academic landmarks and become a viral star.

A persistent theme was correcting common misperceptions about the perceived gap between the industrialised and third world.

Rosling would dig into numbers packed like sardines into UN and World Bank datasets and come out with something compelling. His data charts, full of colourful bubbles bouncing across several axes, which he created with the help of his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, were so captivating that Google bought the software that made them in 2007.

But it was not all snazzy computer graphs: Rosling would employ analogue, everyday items to help him tell stories.

A washing machine provided the hook for a lesson on women’s education; pitchers of orange juice helped explain global vaccinations; toilet rolls helped us learn about population growth.

The glass-half-full approach won Rosling many admirers. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates called him the world’s most articulate speaker on development policies. Rosling’s counsel was sought by the likes of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, environmental activist Al Gore and even the late president of Cuba, Fidel Castro.

An advocate for a “fact-based worldview”, the kind under severe challenge today from fake news and ‘alternative facts’, Rosling sometimes reserved a harsh word for the media, pooh-poohing it for partial reporting of facts.

Once, Rosling scolded a Swedish news presenter who tried to highlight the terrible conditions in parts of Africa today as evidence that things were not really getting better.

“You only show a part of something and call it ‘the world’,” Rosling replied.

To emphasise his point, he reached down to retrieve his scuffed footwear. “If you only chose to show my shoe, [you’ll see] a very ugly shoe, [but] it’s just a part of me.”

One popular device of Rosling’s was setting humans and chimpanzees an identical quiz on public health issues and comparing scores.

Amazingly, the chimps would often beat the humans.

Their advantage, Rosling wryly observed, was that they didn’t watch the evening news.

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