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EPIDEMIOLOGY Watching
“EPIDEMIOLOGY watching” is a forum to address broad aspects of epidemiologic research – its history, its methods, its impact – and to stimulate discussion among its students and practitioners.
Monday, February 21, 2011
120,000 numbers, 200 years of data, explained in 4 minutes.
Once I asked a science writer with a lot of experience in organizing science exhibitions whether it would be possible to organize an exhibition about epidemiology for a general public. He admitted that it would be difficult, because there are no artefacts to show, nor compelling pictures – mainly graphs and tables. We left it at that. After all, the first professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Greenwood (1880-1949),  once characterized himself as one who had loved his friends, wife and dog, and “… had pleasure in books and numbers” [1]. Having pleasure in ideas and numbers would still characterize many an epidemiologist today – but how can one make this into stuff that is exhilarating for a wider public?
 
The answer is in this 4 minutes 30 seconds video link:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbkSRLYSojo
 
It was mailed to me by Allen Wilcox who described it as "two centuries of social and public health progress boiled down to four graphic minutes.” The author and presenter is Hans Rosling, Professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute, Sweden. The remarkable achievement of his video does not come out of the blue. Rosling has made countless videos on statistics of diverse international health topics, like HIV, rising economies, and maternal and child health. He has his own website 'Gapminder', dedicated to teaching a “fact-based world view” at http://www.gapminder.org/ . He is a frequent contributor to TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), and was subject of a BBC program on the 'Joy of statistics'.
 
I am struck by the originality of Rosling’s techniques (and how he constantly improves them) in communicating complex numerical data. This culminates in his new video in which he shows the history of life expectancy and its determinants, for 200 countries over 200 years, with 120,000 data points. Awesome: a must-see.
 
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[1] Pemberton J. Will Pickles of Wensleydale; the life of a country doctor. Page 121: Letter from Greenwood to Pickles. Royal College of General Practitioners 1984 (2nd ed). [First edition, 1970].
 
© Jan P Vandenbroucke, 2011

 
About the Author

Jan P. Vandenbroucke
Jan P. Vandenbroucke is a professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Leiden University and an Academy Professor of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. He studied medicine in Belgium and epidemiology at Harvard. He serves on the advisory board of The Lancet, is co-editor of the James Lind Library and the People’s Epidemiologic Library, and is co-author of the STROBE guidelines (Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology).

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