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Mind the (knowledge) gap

Hans Rosling, one of Sweden's pioneer stay-home Dads, has been feted as a leading global thinker. He wants to banish ignorance in the world, by making statistics sing and, sometimes, swallowing swords.
Saturday, October 24, 2015 - 05:50
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"You should do breastfeeding for at least six months. That a country as well off as Singapore, and as well-organised, and as decent and nice, only gives four months (maternity leave) - that's mean, ugly patriarchal tradition."

DO an online search for Hans Rosling, and Google will tell you that he is a medical doctor, academic, statistician, public speaker and an accomplished sword-swallower. The straight-talking 68-year-old Swede is a multi-hyphenate - long before the term was even coined. Now, add to that list a feminist. For Dr Rosling, being a feminist is not about being a woman. "It's about wanting a society where women get their right place and thereby you reform the role of the men," he says. This, he adds, is how Singapore and other societies can boost their flagging fertility rate.

Compared to the past when the balance in population size was kept by death, it is today being kept by love. "It's no longer decided by tragedy but by couples. The world is managed from the bedroom today. And the young couple will say, let's make a baby tonight."

And not only does reforming the role of men in society contribute to a higher birth rate, it also has the attendant effect of extending life expectancy for men.

"Because when men stay at home and take care of their children, they get a broader base in life," says Dr Rosling. "And when they have a crisis, when they're fired at 50 or something, their identity doesn't fall into pieces. They have emotional connections and they can deal with it."

Dr Rosling, a statistician who has gained celebrity status as a guru on demographic data, speaks from experience. The father of three had stayed home for six months each time a new child came along, quitting his job to do so. This was, however, not by choice - at least, not at first.

When his first child came, his wife packed his luggage and gave him an ultimatum: either pull his weight as a father, or leave the house. And so he became among the first generation of stay-home fathers in Sweden.

"I did it full-time. I cooked, I did everything, because we don't have maids. No one in the country has a maid at home. No one. Zero. Our tax level is so high, you can't have a maid. But we have all the machines."

Sweden has developed a "completely different" culture, and that has not been led by the government. Rather, it came about from the demands of women like his wife, Dr Rosling says.

At that point in time, a friend had told him that he was making the wrong decision - that he would miss out on opportunities for his career, and he would regret it his entire life.

As it turns out, Dr Rosling got listed as one of 100 leading global thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine in 2009, and was ranked among Time's most influential 100 people in 2012.

He had the last laugh when he eventually met his friend again at a reunion. "I asked him, have you been on Time's list of the most influential people in the world?"

For Dr Rosling, the achievement had been due to - and not in spite of - him staying at home to take care of his children.

"That enhanced my understanding of society and enhanced my ability to deal with public health. It enhanced my ability to see other cultures. It's good for the career of a man, to stay home."

"You know how it is to take responsibility for a child, you see how vulnerable the children are. You really understand how you have to have 100 per cent attention for a whole day, you can't just sit and read a book. You see how many small things it takes to keep a house moving, which I wouldn't see otherwise. You get a completely different perspective."

He asks about the length of maternity leave in Singapore, and tut-tuts when he learns it is four months.

"It's ridiculous!" he exclaims.

"How long should you breastfeed a child?" he asks rhetorically. "You should do breastfeeding for at least six months. That a country as well off as Singapore, and as well-organised, and as decent and nice, only gives four months - that's mean, ugly patriarchal tradition."

Instead of preserving traditional families by "patriarchal values", societies should use wealth for reproduction, he says.

"Societies must do two things: produce and reproduce."

Referring to Singapore, he adds: "You're very good at producing, but you have to take the output of the production for reproduction."

Couple the four months of maternity leave with the lack of participation by men in sharing the load at home, "that means you're planning for immigration... or otherwise you will vanish".

In his view, while most women now have full access to education and employment, family and household tasks are still not fairly divided.

He quotes an example he had cited just hours earlier before the interview, when he gave the keynote speech at the Singapore Scientific Conference. An accomplished female banker in Hong Kong had once told him: "Every day I think about children. It's the idea of a husband I can't stand."

This is a key reason why birth rates are falling. "To a certain extent our system still holds women back in professional life. And you have the choice. If you stay single you can make it as high as you want in Asia."

But the tension between raising fertility rate and immigration could be good for Singapore, says Dr Rosling.

Setting standards

"This island was nothing 100 years ago, so you're all immigrants. It's a great nation. Singapore is absolutely unique in world history and you've done it independently.

"And you've stayed in peace with the neighbours - the mighty neighbours, you have dealt in a decent way with them... This could have been the Balkan of the world, the Malaccan peninsular, with all these ethnic groups... It's a fantastic example."

It is interesting what Singapore will do to solve its fertility problem, because the country will set the standards for the rest of Asia, he adds.

Dr Rosling is an unabashed admirer of Singapore. He first visited the island in 1972 with his wife, and saw personally the "enormous speed" of urbanisation.

"We could see how fast Singapore was transforming. It was such an enormous change, having been first in Indian cities, then Rangoon, then Bangkok."

Rangoon - now Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar - was not much improved from colonial times, while Bangkok was slightly better off.

"Then when we came to Singapore... to us, this was not Asia. It was like home. Yes, another language; yes, another culture; yes, another climate; but this was home. We really liked it.

"We decided to marry when we were here," he told the conference. "And now 43 years later, we have three children and seven grandchildren.

"So it was a very successful visit for us," he said, to chuckles from the audience.

Eye-opener

Dr Rosling had then been studying medicine as an exchange student in Bangalore. That was when he also discovered something that will forever change the way he views developing countries: that he was wrong to have thought he would be smarter than the Indian students simply because he had been born in a richer country.

After he qualified as a doctor, he moved to Mozambique, where he studied diseases and nutrition for two decades. And when he eventually moved back to Sweden, he was appalled by the ignorance of Westerners about progress in developing countries.

As he recounts in one of his 10 TED talks, when he first joined the Karolinska Institute in Sweden as a professor, he did a test to gauge his students' level of understanding of the global healthcare sector.

He presented them with five pairs of countries - Sri Lanka and Turkey; Poland and South Korea; Malaysia and Russia; Pakistan and Vietnam; Thailand and South Africa - and asked to pick the country in each pair that had twice the child mortality rate of the other. (The correct answers are, respectively, Turkey, Poland, Russia, Pakistan and South Africa.)

The students did badly. A chimpanzee in the zoo would have done better if it had just chosen at random, he says.

Professors at the Karolinska Institute, which hands out the Nobel prize for medicine, fared only just as well as the chimpanzees.

"It's astonishing," he says. "I went to the zoo and tested the chimps and they got ABC right. How come the informed public fared worse than the chimps?"

Such pervasive lack of knowledge about what was going on in the world must be due to preconceived, outdated ideas, he concluded.

Hence, Gapminder - inspired by the "mind the gap" warning at Tube stations in London - was born. The non-profit organisation aims to "fight devastating ignorance with fact-based world views that everyone can understand", and does so by animating statistical information that would otherwise be little more than meaningless numbers for most people.

The organisation was so successful, Google purchased its Trendalyzer software and development team - including Dr Rosling's son and daughter-in-law - in 2007, hence allowing Dr Rosling to stop working as a professor and move fulltime to Gapminder.

Most people in the world, he says in another TED talk, have preconceived notions due to three factors:

  • Everyone has personal biases, due to different experiences we have from the people we meet.
  • We learn outdated facts, and teachers teach outdated worldviews - what they learnt when they were themselves in school.
  • The news we watch and read have a bias towards sensational and unusual events.

These have resulted in misguided views, especially on developing countries - a term he dislikes as it presents a binary distinction which is no longer true with the success of countries such as China, India and Brazil. The "them and us" mentality, like that espoused in Tin Tin stories which he says many take as their textbooks, needs to be put to an end.

And it is an uphill task. While he is now invited to speak to world leaders and organisations such as the International Monetary Fund, the general public remains mainly ignorant, as the test he conducted - the same one given to the chimpanzees - at the Singapore Scientific Conference shows.

But Dr Rosling takes on the challenge with indefatigable relish anyway.

Some of the problems he believes the world is facing are: extreme poverty which destabilises societies and provides safe havens for groups like Boko Haram; financial instability as the US dollar goes down in importance and Asia takes over; and, in the long run, climate change.

"My judgement is it will be less dangerous in the short term than activists say, and it'll be more dangerous in the long term. Long term, it can be disastrous economically if we don't act now."

He believes, however, the world can get climate change under control. "Yes we can do it if we want to. But it takes wise actions and a lot of knowledge."

These global problems, plus the most dangerous one, the black swan - the unknown unknown - can be managed, he says. "We can manage the world, and we are doing quite well already," he says as the interview draws to a close, his voice carrying the same mix of optimism and defiance that characterised the sword-swallowing act at his first TED talk in 2006.

Then, after the end of a presentation that questioned which countries could truly be considered developed, he stripped off his shirt to reveal a gold-sequinned black singlet underneath and said: "I'll now prove to you that the seemingly impossible is possible, by taking this piece of solid steel and pushing it down my body of blood and flesh."

The sword disappears down this throat. And as he takes it out a few seconds later with a flourish and a bow, the crowd, clapping and cheering wildly, rises to a standing ovation.

A multi-hyphenate like no other indeed.


HANS ROSLING

Chairman, Gapminder Foundation

1948 Born in Sweden

Education

1967 Statistics, Uppsala University

1974 University Medical Degree, Uppsala University

1977 One-year course in International Aid and Disaster Relief, Sandö School, Sweden

1978 10-week Diploma Course in Nutrition, Public Health & Tropical Medicine, Uppsala University

1986 Doctor of Medical Sciences (PhD), Uppsala University

1990 Associate Professor of Internal Medicine, Uppsala University

Employment

1974-83 MD Internship, and Lung, Infectious & Internal Medicine in Sweden

1974-84 Caring for his children in periods during this time

1979-81 District Medical Officer, Nacala, Mozambique

1983-96 Lecturer, International Health, Uppsala University

Since 1997 (part-time) Professor of International Health, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm

2007-2008 Visiting researcher at Google (4 months)

Since 2007 Chairman of Gapminder Foundation