Wissot: Here’s some good news: The world is actually getting better (column)
You probably don’t know who Hans Rosling was. I sure didn’t. He was a noted Swedish physician and lauded statistician who died of pancreatic cancer in 2017.
Rosling first received recognition within the global health community for the work he did in the Congo and Tanzania in solving the mystery of “konzo,” a paralytic illness that was killing the inhabitants of remote villages.
Rosling discovered that the paralysis was caused by the improper processing of the cassava root, a staple in the diets of people living in Sub Saharan Africa. The villagers were poisoning themselves.
Rosling had uncovered more than a cure for an illness. He began to understand that the cause of diseases in the most impoverished places in the world was a failure on the part of richer nations to address the problem with the necessary financial and educational resources at their disposal. Ethnic strife, warlords, corruption and cruelty were not eradicated with money. Disease was different.
In his own words, “Extreme poverty produces diseases. Evil forces hide there. It is where Ebola starts. It’s where Boko Haram hides girls. It’s where konzo occurs.” (“Hans Rosling: A Truth-teller In An Age of ‘Alternative Facts,” Scott Gilmore, Maclean’s, Feb. 7, 2017.)
Rosling went on to become a leading world advocate for attacking extreme poverty with evidence-based scientific research. His compelling message was captured in the book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — And Why Things Are Better Than You Think,” published in 2018, a year after his death.
The thesis of Rosling’s book is that we understand very little about the actual conditions in those areas of the world so starkly different from the material comfort and safety we enjoy in our highly privileged society.
He decried our reliance on a faulty picture of how much progress is actually occurring in those distant places, and the human tendency to substitute unsubstantiated beliefs for the hard evidence, the data-driven research, which coincides with the facts on the ground, not our misinformed brains.
Rosling referred to himself as neither a pessimist or an optimist. He preferred the term “probabilist” because he relied on facts, not fears or hopes, to describe concrete progress and predict the possibility of future advancement.
Here’s an example of one of 13 multiple choice questions Rosling used when speaking to groups about the need for factfulness:
• In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world living in extreme poverty has:
A: Almost doubled.
B: Remained more or less the same.
C: Almost halved.
I answered B. How about you? If you got it wrong don’t be discouraged. The correct answer is C and of the thousands of people Rosling presented this question to “only 7 percent — less than one in 10 — got it right.” (“Factfulness,” p. 17)
Among the other surprising — to us — facts that Rosling’s research proved is that 60 percent of the girls living in low income countries in the world finish primary school; 80 percent of the world’s 1-year-old children have been vaccinated against some disease; 80 percent of the world’s population has access to electricity.
I think it is safe to say that you and I would probably have gotten those answers wrong, too.
In the last chapter of the book, Rosling lists “Five Global Risks That We Should Worry About.”
• global pandemic
• financial collapse
• world war
• climate change
• extreme poverty.
The first four risks are hard to predict and even harder to prevent or solve. Only “extreme poverty” meets the probabilistic standard because there is hard evidence of the impressive progress made in the last few decades.
He used this analogy to explain that progress: “The next generation is like the last runner in a very long relay race. The race to end extreme poverty has been a marathon, with the starter gun fired in 1800.” (“Factfulness,” p. 306)
We live in a time when our political leaders often operate in a fact-free vacuum. Climate change is viewed by some as opinion. Accepting scientific evidence is treated as an option, not an obligation.
Rosling “may have been the most famous statistician in history,” (Maclean’s, Feb. 7, 2017).
He may also have been one of the most important.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.