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.