Why data isn’t enough, with apologies to Hans Rosling

By Dr. Julianna Sandholm-Bark


Dedicated to the students enrolled in Global Cornerstone Seminar in spring 2021, and written in deep appreciation of Yasmin Mehboob-Khan and Sarah Grosso’s performance of the song “Dreamer’s Water”.

Note: Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think is a book by Swedish statistician Hans Rosling written with his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund in 2018. In the book, Rosling probes why the majority of people believe the world is poorer, less healthy, and more dangerous than it actually is. He attributes this not to random chance but to misinformation resulting from ten cognitive instincts that prevent us from seeing real progress in the world.


Dear Students,

Thanks for reading Hans Rosling’s Factfulness with me this term.

There are two main reasons why I asked you to read this book. First, I thought that reading about (what Rosling calls) a fact-based worldview seemed like a reasonable ask, given that our world has fallen prey to conspiratorial ways of thinking lately. Rosling presents his book as a corrective to various types of cognitive bias, and he urges us to take back control of our minds, warning us about the dangers of overdramatic thinking, drawing a compelling comparison between the consumption of drama on the one hand, and sugar/ fat, on the other, both having a similar effect on the brain. The other reason I asked for you to read this book is because of Rosling’s ultimate goal to restore our sense of optimism and sense of possibility for the future.

Rosling makes many claims which we discussed in class and found useful. For example, what he says about how middle-aged people tend to get stuck in outdated world views – this seems like a great incentive to all of us to continue educating ourselves until the very end our lives. Nobody wants to be irrelevant. And there is much to be said about Rosling’s futurist moments in this book, like when he writes that “the Western domination of the world economy will soon be over” and that the economic centers of the future will be located in Asia and Africa. This seems like an exciting prospect, though I am uncertain that his prediction is having much of an impact on educational curricula in Switzerland today. One has to wonder: are we doing enough to educate young people about African and Asian history and culture today that would suitably affect their worldview about the planet once they reach middle age? These are valuable ideas to think about, and possibly my favorite section in the book occurs towards the end when Rosling lists all of the things we should be teaching young people. 

The book delivers many valuable lessons on cognitive bias, on our predisposition to generalize and blame, amongst other instincts, and for this I would definitely recommend the book to anyone. But it seems to me that book falls short on its other goal, which is to convince us that “things are better than we think.” Rosling may have convinced us in part, but you can only go so far with statistics and data, especially during the harrowing days of the pandemic.

As I was powerfully reminded not long ago, hope is not the currency of data, but of art. Art is infinitely more powerful than data when it comes to the mission of restoring hope. Art can beckon to us from across the room (and perhaps sometimes from across a screen), take us completely by surprise, and leave us speechless. It can make us cry. It can give new life to our emotions. Yasmin and Sarah’s beautifully performed song “Dreamer’s Water” which won Webster’s Got Talent this year, is a case in point. 

There are so many things to say about this song. I must have listened to it dozens of times since February 18 when I first heard it performed online. And actually, who am I kidding, much of this essay was written while listening to it. This song has given me more creative fuel than anything else I have seen or heard since the beginning of the pandemic. And that is saying a lot, as the lockdown has been an exceptional time for discovery of new art via social media (the students enrolled in my Current Art course can confirm!). Still, this song blew everything else out of the water, Rosling’s book included. 

How to describe where this song’s power begins or where it culminates? It could be the ethereal leading vocals. It could be the seamless way in which the leading and backing vocals are enmeshed. It could be the lyrics. It could be the resonant sound of the piano. The audio and video production, too, is a marvel. Everything about it. And if I could come back to the lyrics for a minute, this song embodies so many aspects of what it means to be alive – wanting to make a difference, feeling hopeless about the little that we manage to accomplish, and yet returning to a place where one dares to dream, over and over again.

I feel such an overwhelming sense of gratitude that this song has entered my life at this opportune time – it seems like a harbinger of spring and of more clement times ahead. It has awakened my senses after what has been a life half-lived from behind a computer screen. A life of semi-dormancy lived inside wormholes of hyperlinks. It has renewed my belief in art and its glorious capacity for making us feel like we’re alive and in the moment, that we’re here, and that projecting ourselves into a dream of a better future is possible. It has made me want to retreat out of my digital life and look eagerly for connectedness and optimism.

It isn’t Rosling’s fault that art possesses a visceral and cathartic effect that facts just do not. How can data compete with art? “Art”, as Jerry Saltz put it, “is a verb”, an active force that does things to us and for us.” How can we then truly take to heart Rosling’s plea to “look for systems, not heroes”? Many artists deserve to be considered heroes of our time – and Yasmin and Sarah certainly do – for putting themselves out there, for all of our sakes as well as their own. They and other artists should get all the recognition that heroes deserve. 

Instead of telling ourselves to avoid rose-tinted glasses altogether, I would say, let’s allow art to jolt them off our noses from time to time. Let’s allow ourselves to let down our guard and step into “dreamers’ waters”. We should accept that it won’t be up to us when it happens, so we might as well embrace it when it does happen and let art wash over us.

Students, please close your copies of Factfulness as we look forward to another term of heated discussion and debate about other topics in class. 


Yasmin and Sarah: thank you for the music.

Creating warmth in the cold

by Sarah Grosso 

Dear Yasmin, 

We have talked about doing Webster’s Got Talent many times, partly in jest, ever since we discovered a mutual passion for music. This was the last chance before you graduate. And I’m so glad I got to accompany you on this journey.

I have always enjoyed accompanying, musically and otherwise. When I was at school, I played piano and accompanied the choir, the orchestra and many friends singing or playing solos. If you do it well, people don’t really notice the accompaniment at all. The goal is to showcase the performer and their talent and make them shine. This is what I hoped to do here: to provide a safe base so that you could share this beautiful song and so that others might hear your voice.

Accompanying is what we do as professors. The work I do at Webster is all about the students. I feel immensely privileged to have the opportunity to get to know you and your fellow students. Each of you is unique and uniquely talented. (Yes, even you, the student reading this thinking that you are not talented. You just don’t know it yet. Ask your best friend. They will tell you). A lot of what we do, alongside and during the courses we teach, is to guide and mentor. To provide opportunities to prove to yourself what you can do. To help you build confidence along the way. These are the ‘hidden’ things you learn at university. Of course, you will learn about anthropology, media, gender, photography, or whichever courses you choose to take. But, you will also learn a lot about yourself.

We can learn so much when we create and when we collaborate. To create music, especially with others, we need to open our ears. A little while ago, a friend was accompanying me playing a song he had never heard before. He added just the right amount of violin. When I complimented him on his playing, he simply said, “I just listened.” This has stayed with me: “I just listened.” I’m trying to do that more. I’m learning too.

You said that you would not have done this without me. I want you to know that you absolutely could have done. (I’m not sure I would have done this by myself either. You students inspire me to go outside my comfort zone. Did I mention I don’t like filming myself?). This song was an obvious choice. The tune has been stuck in my head ever since I first heard it a couple of years ago. And it is authentically yours. It would have been a shame for no one else to get to hear it too.

There is a value to surrounding ourselves with nourishing people, people who can encourage us and give us courage. There is perhaps an even greater value in that now, in these days when we are increasingly isolated and frustrated with the continued disruption to our lives wrought by this pandemic.  

Making this song with you made me realize how much I miss those creative moments. You inspired me to start playing more again after this pandemic winter. Coming together around a metaphorical camp fire to sing and tell stories is something we could all use right now. A little warmth in the cold.

Keep creating; keep in touch,