A Fact-Based Worldview

Hans Rosling
Hans Rosling is Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and one of the founders of the Gapminder Foundation which wants to make statistics used and understood so we get the fact-based worldview.


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How comes that you are so closely related to the poorest in the world Hans Rosling?

Hans Rosling >
I worked as a young medical doctor in Africa where I participated in discovering a paralytic disease among very poor people in a remote rural area. We named the disease konzo as did the first affected population in their own language.Thereafter I spent twenty years researching konzo epidemics that is induced by poverty, malnutrition and insufficiently processed cassava roots in remote parts of rural Africa. I’ve done many field surveys in rural Africa. And that’s when I got irritated by at the world – the concept “developing countries” that puts Mozambique, Thailand and Argentina in one group of countries. That didn’t make sense as these countries are so very different. So I taught my students have a more upgraded worldview. Instead of sorting countries into two groups, they sould be sorted inte at least 4 groups. High income, middle income, low income and collapsed. That’s how it all started. I wanted to show that the health and economy of countries today form a continuous variations in the world, from the collapsed countries like Somalia and Afghanistan, therafter peaceful low income countries like Tanzania and Ghana, to the middle income countries now called “emerging economies” – like, China and Brazil eventually to the high income countries like South Korea and Germany. The health levels in countries vary from 40 years life expectancy to 80 years and you find all  health levels between these extremes, income levels which vary from 400 dollars per person and year ,000 orto 40,000 and countries can be found with all income levels in between.

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What is the core idea behind Gapminder?

Hans Rosling >
To use the graphic animation technology behind computer games to show the changing world. We apply computer games “enjoyment” to statistics to up-grade old mindsets and thereby creating a fact-based worldview. We must upgrade the world view from Tintin, i.e. the division in the Western world and the Rest. But now to understand economic development, demographic change, health improve- ments, we have to make data about the world accessible in a new format. Basically, it’s a new map: instead of north and south, we display country bubbles on a scale from healthy to sick, and instead of east and west, we show rich and poor.
And when those bubbles in our animations move, it’s like a football game. People can see how fast Singapore moved in the last decades to become the healthies country in the world. And use to talk like a sportscaster using these graphs to open the eyes of a very broad public on what is happening in the world.

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What is the driving force behind your work?

Hans Rosling >
Curiosity. It’s extremely interesting to see how the world has changed. And the conviction that you can talk about the world without doing advocacy. Some people should make it their task to explain how a city looks like. When you come as a tourist to a new city, you want to see museums, restaurants, and theatres, chaeological remainsand if you come in business you want to know where banks and companies are – you need a map to find your way around. Gapminder provides an updated economic, social and environmental map of the world so users can find their way around.

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What are the major future challenges we are facing?

Hans Rosling >
The residual poverty among our 2 billion fellow human beings who live in destitution with insufficient food, no shoes, miserable housing. That’s or major problem. The second problem is the enormous pressure on the environment, especially the climate. The third, I think, remains the risk of war.

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War between ….

Hans Rosling >
… a war between China and the United States. We haven’t organized the world in a way where we can accept that new nations and new countries reach the same level of wealth and human capacity. Let’s see if we succeed this time without a Pearl Harbour.

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Is it a possible scenario for the future that the internet and its data is a tool for avoiding conflicts between states? Conflicts between states are conflicts between the leaders of states and not between the people living in the states. The internet is a connection between the people, and the data gives us the opportunity to understand each others situations …

Hans Rosling >
I’m not so convinced that you’re right. People ask me “Do you reach the powerful people – the billionaires, the heads of state?” Yes, I do. And what they tell me is – turn around and tell the public.
There is one simply reason for that: We get the politicians the public want. We get the decisions made that the public want eventually. The big challenge is not to tell those in power, it’s to tell the general public. The real danger is not on the  leaders’ level. It’s really that people in the world get the sense and the trust that we can live together, that we can share this world in a decent and respectful way.

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But this is more than to change people’s mind, we’ll need a mindset that will translate into action …

Hans Rosling >
Good that you said that! I used to honour George W. Bush. I honoured him for a very specific reason. In the last month of his presidency – when he was sitting and waiting for it to end – then the entire economy blew up on Wall Street. He grabbed his pocketbook but he had no money. He had lowered taxes and he had no money for a bail-out. So he phoned his friends in the G7. He phoned Merkel and Brown and they had no money either. So he had to call a socialist trade union leader and he asked president Luna if Brazil had any money and he said yes. And he had to phone Russia, Saudi Arabia and China! And then Bush said no more G7! Now we start G20! And that’s what I honour him for. At the end he took the right decision.
This was the true end of the Second World War, the end of the concept of “the west and the rest”. It’s gone. We now have a new world. I call it the “continuous world”; Tom Friedman called it “the flat world”; Jeff Sacks called it “the converging world”. It all tells the same story …

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Which is?

Hans Rosling >
The new gap in the world will not be between Germany and China; it will be between China and Ethiopia, may be between China and Mozambique. That’s the big challenge: you have to bring all the poorest countries with you. You have to realize that the difference is no longer between the west and the rest – it’s between the fourth fifths of the world population that moves ahead and the one fifth that is left behind.

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How would you describe the “WE” today? What does it mean for you?

Hans Rosling >
6.7 billion people.

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What is “Western”?

Hans Rosling >

“Western” is a very vague and dangerous concept, because it’s ill-defined. For instance, is Chile a western country? Yes it is, it’s now a member of the OECD. If you look at the economic growth of Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan, which of those three countries are closest together in terms of economic growth? Sweden and Japan. Sweden is closer to Japan in terms of economic growth than it is to the Netherlands. Sweden is the Japan of northern Europe. That’s interesting! The Chinese solar energy system now being built – is that western because it’s modern?
I think a major problem in the world is dichotomization. It’s like the aristocracy who said you’re either an aristocrat or a commoner. But that was a false division, because if somebody was clever and became embarrassing, they made them an aristocrat. And in the end we found out that all humans are equal.

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Would it be possible to define a western lifestyle? Not in the sense of western states, but a modern lifestyle that has individualism … like pop culture?

Hans Rosling >
In the middle of your question you swopped from western to modern. You see when you dichotomize the world, you always end up in a mess. When you categorize it, it’s all so dangerous – so simply make more categories than two! As long as you divide the world’s countries into more than two groups …
Take this as an example: If you were to say that the western world was the Netherlands, Britain and France … And then all of a sudden Germany arised. I think it’s very interesting that the major conflict in the last century was the rise of German technology and German society which western Europe couldn’t deal with. Civilisation, Mozart, the democracy of the Weimar Republic didn’t stop us from entering this horrible world war and now gradually we are emerging from it. This is western culture, say my Indian friends, western culture is the slave trade, the drug trade, employment …
This is a form of self-identity that I think we have to overcome quickly. And especially we shouldn’t use that term “western” when we don’t know what we mean.

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And gradual change is defined by topics, by developments?

Hans Rosling >
Abba entered the hall of fame yesterday and they explained it was money, money, money. It’s wealth, the ability to accumulate wealth. We got Bach and Mozart because there were some people in Germany who accumulated wealth and invested it in culture. Great classical music came out of a  surplus which was used not just for daily consumption, but for creating something which became part of the heritage of all mankind.
So what I say about statistics, is that the world will never ever be understood without statistics. But equally it can never ever be understood only with statistics. Because you have those other dimensions like human rights, culture, dignity, which we cannot measure. Some things have to be handled as issues and described in written language. This is one thing we have to accept …

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Where do people get such a kind of world view?

Hans Rosling >
You can teach children that child health is good in Egypt, that Muslim Arabs having been very proficient in improving health, that they have family planning, that the age for the first marriage in Algeria now is 28. Teach them facts. Simple facts! Tell them that Vietnam has the same health and life expectancy as the USA in 1980.

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So you are challenging the way we are teaching  our kids?

Hans Rosling >
Yes, we’re not teaching them the truth!

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But the data for this fact-based learning is available …

Hans Rosling >
Oh yes, it’s been available these past thirty years! But if you have a “Tintin” head you don’t understand it or read it. And if it doesn’t fit with your old colonial mindset, you say there’s something wrong with it.

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Where do you get your data from?

Hans Rosling >
The United Nations. The World Bank. The OECD. Data is no problem. The problem is that we haven’t grasped what is happening in the Middle East, in most of Asia, in Latin America. We haven’t grasped that health-wise Brazil is progressing faster than Sweden ever did.

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Isn’t it also a problem that much of this data never reaches the public? It might be available but …

Hans Rosling >
It does reach the public, it goes into their eyes, hits the retina, but the problem is it doesn’t go into the brain! In nutrition we have a rule that food not swallowed has no nutritional value. You can chew it and spit it out – and that’s what we do.
I could end by saying that I have a neighbour who knows 200 different types of wine. He knows the names of the grapes, the families who grow them, the proper storage temperature …. I only know two types of wine: red and white. That’s enough – I’m not interested in wines. But my neighbour only knows two types of country – western and developing – because he’s not interested in the world. And I know 193 countries and can tell you the per capita GDP, the literacy rate, the child mortality rate, the speed and progress in reducing CO2 emissions. The problem in western Europe is that we have too many who know wine and too few who know the world. And major companies in western Europe have too many wine-tasting evenings and too few world-tasting evenings.

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We were talking about birth control. You said it’s almost solved …

Hans Rosling >
Yes, the population issue in the world is almost solved. When I was a young student, it was a major issue. We were four billion people in the world and in large parts of the world women had six children. And the death rate was two were dying, four survived. Populations were doubling in one generation. It was completely unsustainable. But what happened is that technology became available and attitudes changed. At independence in 1972 Bangladesh had 6 children per woman; now they have 2.4. And the child mortality rate has fallen. Today there are only a few countries that have many children per women – mainly in sub-Saharan Africa. Vietnam has 2 children per woman, Iran too – or even less than two children. Mexico and Brazil both have two children per woman. What this means is that the population issue has been largely solved.
The important thing now is to get the minimum of service for the last billion – mosquito nets against malaria, vaccinations for children, family planning access for women – and then we will all get two child families. There will be an additional increase of two billion people, it’s just adding one third more. And then we are done by 2050. This is a minor problem for the environment.
The major problem is that four billion people live miserable lives. They sleep on the floor, they don’t have tapped water, they can’t take a shower, they don’t have electric light. To increase their standard of living to a decent level like Sweden in 1950 would mean increasing the standard of living by a factor of from 5 to 10 for two thirds of the world population. That’s a 10 fold bigger challenge than the number of people. I can’t understand why people are still carried away by numbers – they must have some problem with mathematics! But how do you expect a young couple in India or Africa sitting on the floor with rats, cockroaches and flies, and carrying water in a bucket to be satisfied with this and expect their children to live as they are doing. They will work hard, fight hard – do anything to get a decent life for their children. I’m not talking about charter tourism or owning a car or air conditioning, I’m talking about a decent life, not minimal basic life, but a decent life. Perhaps going to the cinema once in a while or owning a musical instrument.
That will increase the standard of living and to do that, we need to have new technology. We can’t do that with existing coal technology. And that is a major challenge. We don’t have to change technology by 30% or whatever: we have to make a huge leap. But we are not making serious investment: the OECD countries are putting three to four times more into agricultural subsidies as they do into green technology. Green technology is not yet a serious issue. In fact the corporate sector is more serious about it than governments at present. So why don’t we channel the money from agricultural subsidies into green technology? When we discuss the car industry, we’re simply not serious. In the Second World War the United States were serious. They decided to win and they put their entire industry into winning that war. If we did the same with energy, we would solve it. But we’re not serious about it.
We’re trying to win the next election, not to solve the problem. And in terms of long term trends, people in India and China won’t sit on a mud floor while we in the richest countries aren’t serious.


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