‘The loss of Hans Rosling is keenly felt at a time when fake news is rife’

Keith Morris of Cardiff Metropolitan University remembers late Swedish health professor Hans Rosling in this piece first published by The Conversation.

'The loss of Hans Rosling is keenly felt at a time when fake news is rife'
Hans Rosling during one of his lectures. Photo: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

Many who have had to use statistics, or even worse, to sit through hours of lectures on statistical theory from a boring speaker, regard them as a necessary evil. Numbers aren’t often terribly exciting, and it can be hard to decipher their meaning. But statistician Hans Rosling, who has died aged 68, somehow managed to be both hugely entertaining and passionate about data.

Rosling was a professor of international health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, but the talented presenter and sword swallower also regarded himself as an “edutainer”. He could make statistical data interesting and entertaining like no other – his animations and alternative methods of visualising data have featured in numerous films, TED Talks and on YouTube.

I became aware of his presentations around ten years ago, when I was desperately trying to find new and exciting ways to communicate statistics. When I first watched his videos, I was entirely taken aback by his ability to do this with both wit and clarity. He had an incredible ability to inject humour into statistics and used objects such as toys, cardboard boxes and teacups to liven up disease inequality and population growth data.

Although it was entirely unexpected for an epidemiologist/statistician, he was so effective in communicating ideas that Time magazine included him in its 2012 list of the world’s 100 most influential people. They said that his “stunning renderings of the numbers … have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways”.

In fact, after watching one of his lectures on global health, Bill Gates decided to donate billions of dollars to the issue. He described Rosling as “a global health hero” and Melinda Gates said that that learning from him was “one of the biggest honours in the world”.

Rosling’s original research had a particular focus on the links between economic development, agriculture, poverty and health. He spent many years investigating outbreaks of the neurological disorder, konzo, in remote rural areas across Africa. His work with a number of collaborators and colleagues, found that outbreaks occurred among the hunger-stricken rural populations, where diets were dominated by insufficiently processed cassava which led to malnutrition and high cyanide intake.

Despite being extremely popular, his showmanship and excessive optimism in relation to population growth were certain to attract some criticism. Rosling said that “fast population growth is coming to an end” which may have been true globally, but noted biologists Anne and Paul Ehrlich said that this ignored the fact that in Nigeria, Zambia and The Yemen this was not the case.

They described him as a confused statistician, a “Pollyannaish” figure who wanted to put a positive spin on all situations despite continuing population growth and environmental degradation in many countries. They said that Rosling’s claim that “the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ worlds have gone” was not true, and that almost half of humanity live in conditions that the average American, Australian, European, or Japanese would find unacceptable, while two billion are seriously underfed or malnourished.

This view was not held by all however, and many such as noted psychologist Steven Pinker continued to admire his work – describing it as “a stroke of genius”.

Stats to tackle social issues

Rosling remained popular and one of his most famous statements remains: “My interest is not data, it’s the world, and part of world development you can see in numbers.” After his work in Africa, he described data as the most effective way to understand and overcome global development issues – a way to tackle the huge and devastating ignorance that drove many of the world’s health, social and economic problems.

Rosling was highly motivated and focused on developing data communication methods which promoted sustainable global development and aimed to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. He even set up the Gapminder Foundation in 2006, with his son and daughter-in-law, which “fights devastating misconceptions about global development” by presentation of the facts.

As a young man, Rosling unfortunately discovered a problem with his liver, and later contracted hepatitis C which developed further into liver cirrhosis. Given his detailed knowledge of epidemiology, he would have been very aware of his increased risk of developing one of the most malignant of diseases – pancreatic cancer. And to the sadness of the world, this is what took him at the relatively early age of 68.

He once said, “I became so famous with so little impact on knowledge. Fame is easy to acquire, impact is much more difficult” – but on this point, I have to disagree with him. Rosling had a huge impact on the world of statistics and their communication, and his loss is even more keenly felt at a time when fake news, alternative facts and misinformation is rife. He stood for the idea that both facts and an open mind are needed before informed discussions can begin, and he will surely be missed.

Keith Morris, Professor of Biomedical Sciences and Biostatistics, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Debunk: No, Sweden isn’t cancelling a Christmas concert because of migrants

Several international far-right websites claimed that a Swedish Christmas concert had been cancelled in order to avoid offending Muslim migrants. In fact, the cause was a delay on budget and logistics planning from the company behind the event. The Local explores how the story got misrepresented.

Debunk: No, Sweden isn't cancelling a Christmas concert because of migrants
File photo of Sweden at Christmas. Photo: Pontus Lundahl/SCANPIX

The O Helga Natt (Oh, Holy Night) event in Örebro, central Sweden, is the country's biggest open air Christmas concert. It has been held since 2001 and broadcast on TV for ten years, but won't be broadcast this year and it's unclear if it will be held at all.

One extremist far-right website reported that the disruption to the event was “likely” to be an example of “Swedish traditions being suppressed in order not to offend migrants who don't hold Christian beliefs”, without providing any evidence for this claim.

The column was written under the name 'Emma R' and published on the alt-right website Voice of Europe, before spreading to other far-right sites including the Geller Report and on the alt-right Peter Sweden Twitter account.

It cited SVT Nyheter Örebro, which published a short article last week about the decision not to broadcast the concert. The article stated that it was unclear whether the event itself would still take place, contrary to Voice of Europe's article which stated the concert had already been “cancelled”.

“TV4 is not broadcasting O Helga Natt this year,” executive producer Karin Dofs confirmed to The Local in a written comment. “Because it isn't certain that the concert will be staged, we cannot plan for a TV broadcast either.”

“It is sad that we're losing such a great and long-standing Christmas tradition, but we hope to be able to show O Helga Natt next year again,” Dofs added.

“We deal with untrue news being spread by answering questions we get with transparency. The reason why we decided not to broadcast the event is that there are uncertainties about whether the event will actually take place. These uncertainties have nothing to do with the untruths that have appeared in various forums,” she said, when asked how TV4 reacted to the false reports.

READ ALSO: How a minor traffic incident was reported as 'horror' by international media

As for the uncertainty over whether the concert will take place, there are a few contributing factors, none of them apparently relating to religion. Firstly, it's important to note that the concert has not been cancelled by “Sweden”, as stated on the far-right sites, but rather removed from the programming schedule of one TV channel, TV4. 

In September, Örebrokompaniet – the marketing company for Örebro municipality – announced that it was withdrawing its offer to be a partner of the event and its support of 900,000 kronor. The reason given was that the company organizing the event, Ambitiös, had failed to put forward a detailed budget or event plan.

“We are not able to wait any longer for information because we need to move on in our planning before Christmas. We are commissioned by the municipality of Örebro to conduct a larger event for Örebro residents over Christmas and so we need to have enough time to find ways to use these resources in another way. Therefore, we are now withdrawing the offer,” Christer Wilén, CEO of Örebrokompaniet, said in a statement in late September, adding that it was up to Ambitiös, the event's organizers, to let residents know if the event would go ahead. The Local has contacted Wilén for comment.

Ambitiös took over organization of O Helga Natt after the company previously responsible went bankrupt in 2016, and was acquired by Ambitiös. Davor Dundic, CEO and owner of the latter company, said the strong brand and popularity of O Helga Natt was one of the main reasons for the acquisition, and Dundic was earlier this year nominated for an award as 'Örebro resident of the year' for his role in rescuing the free concert.

When The Local contacted Ambitiös, we were told no one in the office was available to speak about O Helga Natt and to send an email, which at the time of publication had not received a response. The website for the concert has not been updated since February 2018, and still lists the details for the 2017 event, while several long-term past collaborators, including a producer and director, told SVT that they have also been unable to find up-to-date information on the event's status.

Last year's concert

In its headline, Voice of Europe wrote: “Sweden cancels traditional Christmas concert and increases promotions for Islamic events”, implying that funds and time slots set aside for traditional Christmas festivities were being diverted to Islamic cultural events. In fact, Örebrokompaniet has said it still plans to spend the money it had allocated to O Helga Natt on another large-scale Christmas event for the community.

The Netherlands-based website describes itself as a “conservative news network” but most articles have a strong anti-migrant and anti-Islam bias. 

The article about O Helga Natt concluded with a statement calling on readers to “start speaking up and to stop accepting the destruction of our culture, counties (sic) and continent NOW”, in a thinly veiled attempt to appeal to far-right, anti-immigration or anti-Muslim sympathizers.

Journalism professor Christian Christensen highlighted the impact of presenting biased takes on news in order to appeal to certain groups in a tweet:

It's not the first time that Sweden's local Christmas festivities have been falsely reported abroad.

In 2016, extremist fake news rights reported that the Scandinavian country had issued a ban on Christmas lights for religious reasons and particularly to avoid offending Muslims. The reports came as a surprise to anyone who was actually in Christmas for the festive season, where cities and towns were covered, as usual, in sparkly lights and other festive decorations.

As with the O Helga Natt reports, that story started with a grain of truth. Transport administration Trafikverket had announced that councils wishing to hang lights on state-owned lampposts had to apply for permission, both for legal and health safety reasons.