How Not to Be Ignorant about the World: The Most Influential Man You've Never Heard Of

Hans Rosling was a physician and statistics superstar who advised world leaders and tech tycoons.

Numbers bombard us constantly and few can really grasp their significance and weight when we start talking about matters in millions and billions. Swedish Professor Hans Rosling became famous for taking giant, unwieldy data sets and making them emotionally and intellectually relevant. He was as close as we’d had to a statistics superstar (perhaps until this election cycle’s breakout stat guru Nate Silver). Very sadly, Rosling passed away recently, in February 2017.

A frequent TED speaker, Rolling has been listed numerous times as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by magazines such as Time. What he communicates has been so crucial in matters of public health that he’s been consulted by world leaders and famous execs like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Melinda Gates offered this praise for his consultations with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation:

“To have Hans Rosling as a teacher is one of the biggest honours in the world.”

Rosling’s background was in medicine. He was a physician and epidemiologist, working from 1970s to '90s in Africa, where he studied epidemics like the paralyzing konzo as well as the effects of poverty on the creation of diseases. 

“Extreme poverty produces diseases. Evil forces hide there,” says Rosling. “It is where Ebola starts. It’s where Boko Haram hides girls. It’s where konzo occurs.”

He also investigated a “cassava” outbreak in Cuba, meeting Fidel Castro in 1992. 

“Then, two men walk in with guns, and in comes Fidel Castro,” he remembers. “My first surprise was that he was so kind, like Father Christmas. He didn’t have the attitude you might expect from a dictator.”

But it was Rosling’s gift for communicating data that has perhaps been his most wide-reaching contribution. He specialized in unique, very accessible presentations of hard-to-grasp macro-level sets of data on key topics like health and poverty. This work led to the creation of his non-profit Gapminder Foundation which developed “moving-bubble” stat-presentation software Trendalyzer, eventually acquired by Google in 2007. 

Check out Hans Rosling’s great video for BBC where he shows how the health and economic status of 200 countries changed dramatically in the last 200 years: 

Centering his work on the elimination of global poverty, Rosling thought it was entirely possible to achieve that objective, as proportionally the numbers living in extreme poverty have been declining by more than half in the past 25 years. For his somewhat positive and can-do attitude on this and other issues, he has been criticized for minimizing the scope of certain tragedies. But he saw his mission in communicating how problems can be solved, so showing progress and possibilities is a key tactic towards that. 

Here’s an interesting TED talk by Roslling on how religions affect birth rates:

Cover photo: Hans Rosling, Statistician & Founder of Gapminder speaks about the impact of growing global population on resources at the ReSource 2012 conference on July 12, 2012 in Oxford, England.(Photo by Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images)

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