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Remembering The 'Edutainer' Who Made Statistics Come To Life


Hans Rosling called himself an edutainer (ph). He was a Swedish doctor and health statistician who died this week at the age of 68. He had an enthusiasm for numbers and knew how to translate them into a bouncing, morphing graphics that made statistics come alive.


HANS ROSLING: Here come all the countries - Europe, brown; Asia, red; Middle East, green; Africa, south of Sahara (ph), blue; and the Americas, yellow. And the size of the country bubble show the size of the population. And in 1810, it was pretty crowded down there, wasn't it?

SIMON: Our math guy Keith Devlin joins us from Stanford University. Thanks very much for being with us, professor.

KEITH DEVLIN: Oh, thanks for having me on again, Scott.

SIMON: You liked Hans Rosling a lot.

DEVLIN: I did indeed. I've never met him, but I just knew him through his many YouTube videos, and they were absolute dynamite. I saw the first one when he did - I think it was his first one - in 2006, a TED Talk. And for the first time in my life, I thought here's someone who can take statistics that most people regard as dull and boring and bring it alive. In fact, from that little clip, it's like a commentary on a football game. You know, it's like a Super Bowl commentary.


ROSLING: Your yellow ones here are the Arabic countries, and they get larger families, but they - no - a longer life but not larger families. The Africans are the green down here. They still remain here. This is India. Indonesia is moving on pretty fast.

DEVLIN: We've had pie charts. We've had bubble charts. We've had graphs for years and years and years. And people sort of look at them and then they yawn. But when you animate those and you show what's been happening over a period of 20, 30 or 40, 50 years, your view of the world is completely upended. We realize that most of the assumptions we carry around with us about the world are completely wrong.

SIMON: Such as?

DEVLIN: So we tend to think things haven't been getting much better. In fact, we tend to think things have been getting much worse. In fact, over the last 50 years, almost everything in the world on a global scale has got better. And the way that Hans did this - it was very good. He was indeed a sort of an edutainer. He typically would go into the room, and he would ask the audience questions. Often they had to answer them with clickers or raising their hands or something. One that he asks that I particularly like - he would go in and he'd say, what percentage of the world's 1-year-old children are vaccinated against measles? Is it A, 20 percent; B, 50 percent; or C, 80 percent?

Now, most of us from the affluent Western countries will think, well, maybe 20 percent, maybe 50 percent. The answer is C. It's 80 percent of the world's 1-year-old children have been vaccinated against measles. We get it wrong because 50 years ago that wasn't the case and because we haven't had these graphics we don't realize that over the last 30, 40, 50 years things have changed dramatically. And you see how the world has been getting a better, safer, more homogeneous place. It just has.

SIMON: That doesn't mean, of course, that poverty is even - is any less pernicious for the hundreds of millions of people who have to...

DEVLIN: No, no, and in fact, you know, some of the - some of the justifiable critiques has been by - been so successful in telling this story, you know, there's a danger of saying, oh, well, you know, we don't need to worry about this because that's absolutely not the case. What Rosling is doing is showing us an overall global trend, which in a sense tells us how bad things were - doesn't mean to say the problems are gone, doesn't mean to say they're any less. And in fact, when you try to use his data to predict the future, all sorts of problems arise. But what it does do is say, hey, just catch your breath a minute and see what's really been going on. We do have reason to feel good about the fact we've made progress.

SIMON: Keith Devlin, our friend the math guy from Stanford, thanks so much for being with us.

DEVLIN: OK, my pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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