Commemorating Hans Rosling: Is the world’s health improving?

Summary in Swedish below

On August 16 we will commemorate Hans Rosling by arranging a seminar and debate in the Jacob Berzelius auditorium at the Karolinska Institutet. You are invited to join in a discussion addressing one of the most salient questions of the day: Is the world’s health improving? You can find the program and registration on KI’s website.

As most readers of this blog will know, Hans Rosling responded to this question with a resounding yes. With his dynamic bubble diagrams, he took us all on a travel through the past to make a convincing case for upward trends and a bright tomorrow. In his book Factfulness, published posthumously, he writes that “Though the world faces huge challenges we have made tremendous progress”. In exposing such a positive world view he has been seen as sharing the stage with Steven Pinker who in his Enlightenment Now states that “none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become”.

Unsurprisingly, Rosling’s works and views have been met with criticism. Roland Paulsen, for one, argues that we should better not listen to “self-serving optimists like Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker”. According to Paulsen, “Rosling only acknowledges those truths that are convenient to his optimistic theory of progress.” Others have entered the debate and forcefully refuted this critique (in Swedish).

It would be to do Hans Rosling and his proud legacy a disservice if we should shy away from an open and critical debate on his works and views. As a university we should welcome such a debate and provide a forum for it, as we will be doing on August 16. I believe it would be in the spirit of Hans that we scrutinize his works with the same “factfulness” that he himself applied to his analysis of the world’s development – not least because the question at hand is of fundamental importance for policies, education and research alike. If health is on a steady upward course, why bother to change current policies? If there is an extant or impending health crisis, as others would say, we must think anew, invest more, and look for governance dysfunctions that are in need of repair.  Obviously, it’s not a matter of black or white. We will all benefit by a nuanced debate on the status of the world’s health and future scenarios.

My wish is that the upcoming seminar will bring to the fore the complexity of the question at hand – how the issue whether health improves or not depends on the metrics used, the data employed, and – not least – the time scale applied. Also, we need to discuss to what extent past trends can be projected into the future. One example: the increase in life expectancy – rightfully hailed as a prime indicator of progress – is now about to flatten out or reverse in countries like the UK and USA. This issue was very much in evidence at our conference on the Sustainable Development Goals, held at Karolinska Institutet in March this year. In other fields recent progress is impressive and unquestionable. According to the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation global under-five mortality has been cut by more than half since 1990.

On a personal note: Hans was the one who brought me – a basic scientist – into the realm of global health and who directed my attention to the stark and unacceptable health inequities in present day society. His work and thoughts provided much of the foundation of The Lancet-UiO commission on Global Governance for Health. This commission – which I led – was tasked to identify the political determinants of health and to come up with suggestions for changes.

The subtitle of Hans Rosling’s memoirs (link to Swedish title and summary): How I got to understand the world (Hur jag lärde mig förstå världen). As I wrote in my piece on Hans Rosling in Socialmedicinsk Tidskrift: This subtitle could just as well have read: How I taught the world to understand itself. For this is the legacy of Hans Rosling: He provided us all with new and fundamental insights about the world and its development. He did so with facts, and he did so compellingly, passionately, and with an optimism that both encourages and inspires.

Is the world’s health improving?  A seminar and debate in memory of KI Professor Hans Rosling (program and registration)

Svensk sammanfattning

Den 16 augusti både minns och hedrar vi Hans Rosling med att arrangera ett seminarium med debatt i Jacob Berzelius-auditoriet på Karolinska Institutet. Du är inbjuden att delta i en diskussion om en av de viktigaste dagsaktuella frågor som finns: Förbättras världens hälsa? Du hittar program och registrering på KI:s hemsida

Hans Rosling var en forskare som verkligen berörde och en del av det han förde fram har diskuterats och också kritiserats. Så ska det vara – all forskning måste kunna debatteras öppet och det var något som Hans Rosling själv framhöll. För att hedra hans arv har vi som universitet skapat ett forum för att i hans anda hålla en öppen och kritisk debatt. Den 16 augusti ska vi diskutera en av de viktigaste dagsaktuella frågor som finns: Förbättras världens hälsa?.

Min önskan är att vårt kommande seminarium kommer att belysa komplexiteten i den aktuella frågan, d.v.s. hur frågan om världens hälsa förbättras eller ej, beror på de mått och uppgifter som används och inte minst vilken tidsskala som används. Dessutom så måste vi diskutera i vilken utsträckning tidigare trender kan projiceras på framtiden.


Related posts