An interview with Gapfinder’s Professor Hans Rosling
Troy Media – by Rohit Talwar
Editor`s Note: Rohit Talwar, CEO of London-based Fast Future Research, took time out from his busy schedule to interview Hans Rosling co-founder of Gapminder for us during the recent AAAS Annual Event, held in Vancouver. Professor Rosling shares some of his thoughts on global population development and ways to communicate science to the world.
Gapminder was founded in February 2005 as an online tool that converts international population statistics and trends into compelling, interactive graphics.
RT: If you had an extra hour every day, what would you do for that hour?
HR: I would use it to revise my work for that day. I would change details: for example, today I lacked 30 seconds to explain that in Africa the number of children are increasing at the same rate that they are decreasing in Asia.
RT: What would you do if you had six hours less every day?
HR: I would never attend any conferences; I would only produce videos and documentaries.
RT: What is the most exciting future trend or innovation that you see on the horizon?
HR: It’s the new responsibility taken by the emerging nations. You can see the intellectual leadership in India, the politburo in China, the democratic leaders in Brazil, they are thinking about the world today. Every Brazilian citizen today lends $1,000 to the U.S. to help them economically – that is the world is today, this is where the power for the future is. I don’t think the power for the future is with the richest countries. They are so concerned with not being on the top.
I really appreciated Canada for the little plaque on the wall [at the Vancouver Convention Centre] about how the Chinese workers who came to build the railroads 1870 were treated. That is the greatness of a nation, to admit that in that little clear way, instead of it being embarrassed by it. It also shows the links that British Colombia has with Asia – it’s really a part of Asia!
RT: What would the future look like with a global society that is positively engaged with science?
HR: Not positive, knowledgeable! I don’t do science. The (information used on Gapminder) is public statistics produced by civil servants – it has nothing to do with science, it is the core data of the world. But this audience (at the AAAS convention), the crème de la crème of the scientists of North America, didn’t know about the number of child births per woman in the world – everyone just has a view about world population.
When you get to the bar in North America, and people get drunk they say I have no problem with Muslims and Africans, but they (have sex) like rabbits, they are going to take over the place if we let them. Then 10 minutes later, the same person will say, my grandma raised eight children in North Dakota – they never say my grandma (had sex) like a rabbit.
This (attitude) means that a lot of the environmental concern in the world is the new place for racism. Racism is a terrible creature; it finds new places to live. This is why I like the plaque about the Chinese workers that shows how each foot of rail equalled a dead Chinese worker. To really shape and understand the world, we need to understand we are all in the bedroom (together) and we are planning for nine billion, and that’s it. There is a remaining racist idea that there should be a West that is ahead of everyone else and not integrated. This is the main problem the world faces today.
RT: Does science contain power and politics, and if it does, how do you communicate that?
HR: We win in the end, we always win. I started out as a young medical student when the first publication came out about smoking and lung cancer. Everyone laughed and said that you couldn’t stop smoking, we smoked on aeroplanes, and in hospital wards doing the clinical rounds, and now it’s gone, so we won. Then we won the battle over the formula in babies’ feeding bottles that was preferred over breast feeding, and killed so many babies, we win all the time! It just takes some time – smoking was easier (than the environmental concerns), because it wasn’t a big economic power, and every family had a tragic case where someone died from pulmonary cancer, so everyone got involved. But to change a concept in that way takes about 50 years.
For example, I was threatened with being thrown out of the house and losing my family, my wife had her bags packed – unless I stayed home and helped look after the children in 1974. So I stayed home and took care of the children for two years while she worked and studied. Now, 25 per cent of Swedish men do the childcare, and that will be 50 per cent in another 25 to 30 years. Now we have a lesbian bishop in Stockholm who lives in a same-sex relationship, along with her three-year-old son. No one would ever have thought that was possible before.
Things change all the time. And when scientists come (up) with new discoveries that are undisputable they win; the world will adapt. But we have to discuss how to adapt to it, that is a big discussion with climate change – how to generate wind power, or solar, or whatever. . . . my problem with activists is that people have to look at nuclear energy and fossil fuel at the same time – and not be so emotional, be a bit more rational.
RT: Finally, do you think the U.S.’s approach to the world has changed as you hoped when we you last spoke with us five years ago?
HR: Yes. On the 15th of November 2008 Bush called a meeting of the G20 in Washington and they all lined up next to each other. To his right was Luna, a Latino socialist trade leader, to his left, Hu Jintao from China, and next to him the worst dictator in the world, King Abdullah from Saudi Arabia. That was politeness – he [Bush] learned that he shot himself in the foot and blew the economy, and learned that he had to talk to the rest of the world, and the G20 became more important than the G7. Then they had to sort out all the other things, so (U.S.) did change, and not in a way that I would have expected, by borrowing money. So they learned.
I thought it was very interesting that the vice-president of China came to the U.S. to visit on a ‘business-like’ trip to get to know the U.S. before he takes power. As external people, we don’t like the way China chooses their leaders, definitely not, but it’s not bad to dislike the way Americans choose their leaders either, with a lot of money and commercialism – but as long as the U.S. fired Nixon and elected Obama, I admire the system.
I think that it’s very interesting that the Chinese-U.S. relationship is extremely important for the world in the future. That is why I jumped on the journalist (during the plenary who) said the world is largely undemocratic. Bloody wrong! There are a billion more democratic people living outside the high-income countries than inside them. This is a typical stereotype about how the world is today. And even if they are not democratic in China, they are very knowledgeable, so it evens out one way or another!
Another thing I also hear from Swedish companies is that there is nowhere else in the world where male and female engineers can work so well together like they can in China – gender equity is extremely high in China. In India, which is in most respects fairly democratic, gender equity is very bad.