In Appreciation of Hans Rosling

Many of us here at BHL were big admirers of Hans Rosling. As you probably know, he passed away from pancreatic cancer yesterday. Sarah and I have posted an appreciation of him over at FEE that many BHL readers might enjoy.

RIP Hans. You made the world smarter and you helped us to appreciate just how far humanity has come.

Here’s a snippet:

“The story of his life and career can be found both at Wikipedia and in this marvelous Nature profile. What those sources cannot quite convey is Rosling’s importance as a role model for intellectual honesty, personal warmth and charisma, and a willingness to go where the facts took him, regardless of whether those facts adhered to any simplistic political narrative of humanity’s past and future. Both Rosling’s intellectual fearlessness and the substance of his work have importance for those who care about human freedom and progress.

But it isn’t just the content of Rosling’s work that matters. He was an amazing rhetorician. He had a unique ability to use and present data in easy to understand and visually appealing ways that were very effective at conveying an argument. He also was able to think creatively about the linkages among the various causes of wealth and the improvements they made in human well-being. His natural storytelling ability gave him the capacity to put those complex historical factors into narratives that not only got the history right, but did so in a way that appealed to our shared humanity.

Rosling’s work opens up countless useful discussions of the importance of economic growth for increases in life expectancy, as well as what exactly concerns us about growing inequality.”

Published on:
Author: Steve Horwitz
  • I’d never seen the “Magic Washing Machine” video before now (shame on me). Having watched it I couldn’t help analyzing why the video is so powerful, and hope you all won’t mind if I discuss that a bit.

    I think the key points are a) Rosling starts with a story, and b) he then uses data and extrapolation to address the most common objections an unsympathetic audience might have. He starts with a story because most people absorb information best in the form of stories, especially ones that involve real people and their hopes and fears. Having heard the story, the obvious objection is “that’s just an anecdote”. So Rosling immediately moves to the data: how many people, though not living in wealthy societies, can afford washing machines, and how they form a distinct group apart from the truly poor and those who have electricity but no household appliances.

    The obvious next objection is, “everybody can’t have what we [in wealthy societies] have because global warming/peak oil/whatever”, but Rosling is ready for that one too. First, by introducing the concept of the “wash line” vs. the “air line” he’s already expressed the goal not as people “having what we have” (cars, planes, computers, etc.) but simply as their not having to break their backs doing hand washing—a perfectly justifiable goal, given that he’s already demonstrated (via the story about his students) that even the “greenest” individuals are unwilling to give up their washing machines. Second, by extrapolating out to 2050 he shows exactly what has to happen (e.g., in terms of promoting renewable energy sources) to make achieving that goal possible, and implicitly charges the audience to help achieve it.

    The final section brings together the abstract and the personal in a really marvelous way—who would ever think to personally thank a steel mill, or a power station? The whole thing is quite masterful, and anyone arguing in favor of free market policies could learn a lot by watching it. It’s a textbook example of the point Garrett Hardin made in his book “Filters Against Folly”: that to effectively analyze an argument, or in this case to make a compelling one, you have to be literate (“what are the words?”), numerate (“what are the numbers?”), and what he called “ecolate” (“and then what?”).