Hans Rosling: Combating Ignorance

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Hans Rosling

I’ve mentioned Swedish statistician Hans Rosling in a couple posts here at Difficult Run. A recent article in Nature[ref]Thanks to Robert Couch for the article.[/ref] takes a look at the influence Rosling is having throughout the world as a public intellectual. His graphics-based presentations[ref]See his site Gapminder.[/ref] of world poverty and health have helped audiences visualize the major changes that have taken place over the last couple centuries. Cognitive scientist “[Steven] Pinker admires the animations that Rosling uses. One, which depicts countries as bubbles that migrate over time according to wealth, life span or family size, allows viewers to grasp multiple variables simultaneously. “It’s a stroke of genius,” Pinker says. “He gets our puny human brain to appreciate five dimensions.”” Rosling’s approach was undoubtedly influenced by his feeling that

neither his students nor his colleagues grasped extreme poverty. They pictured the poor as almost everyone in the ‘developing world’: an arbitrarily defined territory that includes nations as economically diverse as Sierra Leone, Argentina, China and Afghanistan. They thought it was all large family sizes and low life expectancies: only the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries served as their reference point. “They just make it about us and them; the West and the rest,” Rosling says. How could anyone hope to solve problems if they didn’t understand the different challenges faced, for example, by Congolese subsistence farmers far from paved roads and Brazilian street vendors in urban favelas? “Scientists want to do good, but the problem is that they don’t understand the world,” Rosling says.

The whole article is worth reading. While some of Rosling’s academic colleagues may not appreciate his work, I certainly do. Combating ignorance about the state of the world is a worthwhile endeavor.

You can test your knowledge of the world with this quiz.