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Q&A with Hans Rosling (Part 2): How to change Fidel Castro’s mind … and everybody else’s

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In the second half of the TEDBlog’s interview with global health professor and stats expert Hans Rosling, he gets personal. With his usual wit, Hans tells stories of winning over Fidel Castro, remembers his battle with testicular cancer and explains why we can’t get enough of him. If you need to catch up before diving into Part 2, read Part 1 of the interview or watch his newest TED Talk, posted on Wednesday.

While we’re discussing world leaders — rumor has it that you have out-talked Fidel Castro. Would you like to tell that story?

Oh, that’s a very good story. It was 1993 in Cuba, and there was a huge outbreak of neuropathy which is basically damage to the nerves. It causes great damage to the legs and the eyes. There were 40,000 cases across the island. In May of ’93, I was approached by the Cuban Embassy in Sweden and invited to join a team of scientists going to Cuba. I agreed.

We were very well received in Cuba. I discovered that the Cuban government and professionals are great to make deals with. They keep to their word. If they don’t want something, they don’t want it, but if they say yes …

Fidel Castro actually came to me on the first day and chatted with me. It was a chat to go through my CV and check if it was true. Because of my work and time living in Africa, I have a Fidel-loving CV and he wanted to be sure all of this was true. He asked a lot of trick questions, but I passed the test.

I liked that he had stopped smoking, as leader of a country famous for their cigars. But, I also decided not to fall into calling him a great leader and all these things. I did not want to either promote or criticize the Cuban government, but to do what I was invited to do.

I told Castro that I would like to use qualitative research methods, incorporate some anthropology. But this was 1993, and it was very early to be using these methods in public health research. Now it’s totally accepted, but then it was a very new idea. And it was important to use in this case as I had noticed that the tobacco-growing provinces had much higher frequency of the condition. Also, the food distribution was equal in Cuba but the disease distribution was unequal, so that link was gone. So I said, “Let’s not just do a questionnaire here.” Quantitative people don’t like you to say that. So there was some argument, and that was the moment when Castro came in.

We sat for three or four hours and we got into a discussion over the details, the very smallest details. At one point I said, “We need to do good research.” He misunderstood me and thought that I meant that the research of his scientists was low quality. So he also had to give me a long lecture about how good the Cubans were at epidemiology. And it’s difficult to stop Castro when he begins talking — almost as difficult as it is to stop me. But then I said, “Can I tell you a story?” And as a Cuban, he immediately said, “Yes.”

So, I told him that I had watched a documentary on him, and he asked me more questions to verify that I remembered it all correctly and it was all true — and I passed. And then I said, “I liked especially when you lived in the Sierra Maestra. You worked along with the people, you ate with them, you played with their children. You must have learnt so much about them.” And he said, “Yes. Yes, we did.” And I replied, “But you didn’t have any questionnaires!” He laughed at that. So, I told him, “You see, today the methods of Sierra Maestra have become science.” He sort of liked that.

The next day the Minister of Health and the head of the Armed Forces and such all sat down with me for a meeting and said, “We would like you to stay in Cuba for the next six months. Tell us who you would like to work with.” So I stayed, and we did exactly the studies I had proposed.

I stayed for only three months, but I learned a lot about Cuba. And I will say this: What you think is good in Cuba is much better than you think. And what you think is bad in Cuba is much worse than you think.

So, my last question is a little lighter but also more personal. Everybody here at TED, and all our community, and all our commenters just love you, despite the fact that all your efforts are focused on breaking our realities and showing us just how wrong we are. That seems counter-intuitive. How do you get people to like you so much?

I have never been asked that before. That’s a good question. I know that I change my approach for different people. There’s a saying in Swedish, I don’t know if you have it in English — I move the coat according to the wind?

I’ve never heard of it. I’m not sure if we have the same saying.

No? Well, the truth is I’m very scared for people to dislike me. I have conflict-avoidance. When I have an argument with someone, even with someone I am not very close with, I can’t sleep at night thinking about it. It’s terrible. But I still manage speak out frankly because I have also been gifted with the ability to read people. I can sense when they start to get irritated with me, and then, I shift.

I also choose my fights. Very early, I had a teacher who told me, “You have to choose carefully what you want to say. You can’t just say everything is wrong. People won’t like it.” So, I praise a lot of people all the time. I say what is good. I could stand on stage and say, “You are all ignorant,” but I don’t. I say, “I don’t know either.” So, I think it’s best to avoid the conflict, but don’t compromise on your message.

The first TEDTalk, I chose my shirt and sweater very carefully. If I was talking at the UN, I would wear a perfect black suit and tie. You have to fit in sometimes to make people comfortable to listen to you. Also, I put my message in a form of storytelling where people can draw their own conclusions. I have discovered that’s why I talk about my mistakes in life. I talk about my mistakes and what I learned from them.

In fact, I have the secret to how to get the best help immediately from any customer service, like the phone company or the bank or anything. I have the best line, it always works. You want to know what it is? When I call, I say, “Hello. I am Hans Rosling and I have made a mistake.” People immediately want to help you when you put it this way. You get much more when you don’t offend people.

Actually, I wasn’t always this way. But when I was 30 years old, I had testicular cancer and it metastasized. That made me start my second life. I spent a year of my life preparing for dying. That made me more relaxed with other people and kinder. I was quite nasty with people when I was young. This helped. It calmed me down. However, I don’t recommend it. Cancer is awful. It took 10 years until I didn’t think about it every day. Nobody should go through this. Nobody. Maybe that is also why I do what I do.

I’m also a redneck.

Like the American saying, redneck?

Yes, yes. A redneck. I was the first in my family to go to school for more than six years. So, I don’t identify with the billionaires. I don’t know that world.

My whole life, I have had to change my values. I was a complete pacifist and now I understand that sometimes you need armies. I used to despise religion and I really came to respect the Catholic nuns I met during my time in Africa. The work they were doing and their reasons for doing it were amazing. I didn’t believe in giving aid through philanthropy, and then I met Bill and Melinda Gates. Life is full of killing preconceived ideas.

TED was also one of those instances for me. I kept refusing invitations. Finally, June (Cohen) asked me if we could have breakfast. I was still doubtful, but she was so nice, and that convinced me. So, I did the talk. But I said, no video. None. Absolutely not. This is a commercial! But, June called me and she convinced me again. And it changed my life. It’s one of the best things I’ve done. It makes you humble when you have fixed ideas and then you find out you are wrong.