Hans Rosling: Seeing and Understanding the Big Picture

Hans Rosling the race to health

Even the most worldly and well-traveled among us had their perspectives shifted at the hand of Hans Rosling. He was a Swedish doctor and professor of global health who used his skills as statistician to dispel common myths about the so-called developing world.

His quipped that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions but not to his own facts” is a good reminder that our knowledge needs to turned into data and that it's important to see that “most of our representations arise collectively, and that gives them greater power,” as physicist David Bohm says in On Dialogue. The Latin root of the word “fact” means “what has been made,” as in “manufacture.”

Rosling could make data sing, trends come to life, and the big picture snap into sharp focus. His presentations are grounded in statistical data (his most cited source: United Nations data) and are illustrated by the free visualization software he developed (available through the non-profit Gapminder he founded with his son and daughter-in-law.)

The animations transformed development statistics into moving bubbles and flowing curves that make global trends clear and intuitive, even playful. Here are Hans and Ola Rosling challenging how much we know about the world.

During his legendary presentations, Rosling took this one step farther, narrating the animations with the flair of a sportscaster. He insisted that data is usually better than what we think and set out to demonstrate it showcasing races to health# between countries like the U.S., Japan, and Sweden in front of live audiences.

Looking at the Big Picture means going beyond the obvious to seeing and understanding the underlying data points and the best statistics we've ever seen# to help us change our mindset#. As the world's population is projected to grow to 9 billion over the next 50 years, Rosling felt that we could keep it in check only by raising the living standards of the poorest#.

He was a fan of the greatest invention of the industrial revolution—the washing machine—because it led to economic growth and electricity and turned a boring wash day into an intellectual day of reading.

In an interview with the Economist he said, “I produce a road map for the modern world. Where people want to drive is up to them. But I have the idea that if they have a proper road map and know what the global realities are, they’ll make better decisions.”

Of himself he said, “I’m a very serious possibilist. […] The only way to reach sustainable population levels is to improve public health. Child survival is the new green.” Reading good books is one of the best ways to learn about the world and to ignite our imagination.

Rosling co-founded Médecins sans Frontièrs (Doctors without Borders) Sweden, wrote a textbook on global health, and as a professor at the Karolinska Institut in Stockholm initiated key international research collaborations. He's also personally argued with many heads of state, including Fidel Castro.