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Hans Rosling, July 27, 1948 – February 7, 2017

Posted by on in Keith Devlin
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For many of us, the linked video of Hans Rosling's 2006 TED Talk was our first encounter with the Swedish academic and his powerful data visualization tools Trendalyzer and Gapminder. I don't know when he first gave that talk, but over the ensuing years he gave essentially the same presentation (audience-interactive performance would be a better description) many times, albeit always with up-to-date data. He was right to do so. At the heart of his presentations was one message. Data matters. Provided you collect them with care, analyze them properly, and present them in honest ways that the human mind can readily grasp, numbers are one of Humankind's most powerful tools.

For all his engaging presentation skills, the numbers were at the heart of Rosling's talks. It was not his oratory that convinced us, in an instant, that our preconceptions of our world were wrong -- often violently so. It was the data -- the numbers displayed on the screen in front of us. For that reason, I decided that I would let Hans and his graphs occupy all of this month’s post. There was neither need nor place for my words.

As it happens, Rosling's death comes at a moment in time when people in highly powerful positions are waging an assault on scientific facts, on numerical data, and indeed on truth in general. I did not want to detract from using my MAA blog to pay respect to the passing of a great numerist (I had to make up a word to adequately describe him) by inserting this observation into what I wanted to be one final platform for him to spread his message. Like Hans, I wanted his numbers to do the talking.

But here, in the comments section, I feel free to speak as an individual mathematician. An attack on truth is an attack on Society in general. Those of us whose lives revolve around discovering and communicating numerical and mathematical truth have a duty to speak up forcefully, in opposition. If our Society loses the respect for, and dependency on, truth, the loss of mathematics will be the least of our worries.

Original author: Mathematical Association of America
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