Hans Rosling, a Swedish public health expert who was famous for his TED Talks that helped make statistics interesting, passed away on Tuesday. Rosling was 68 years old. He used TED Talks to make statistics about a number of difficult topics, such as poverty, global warming, and HIV, accessible to the general public, though he himself was not sure of how much of an impact he actually made. “I have no impact on knowledge,” he said, in an interview to the Guardian. “I have only had impact on face, and doing funny things, and so on.”
Yet the immense popularity of his TED Talks suggests that he at least got people to think about these topics. Rosling, who was suffering from pancreatic cancer, “dropped out” of teaching public health at Stockholm’s Karoinska Instituet, and started a Foundation called Gapminder whose goal was to help fight misconceptions about global development. It describes itself as a “Fact Tank, not a Think Tank”, and produces free teaching resources to make the world understandable based on reliable statistics.
Rosling was best known for 10 TED Talks on a number of different topics, and for his heavy reliance on data, coupled with an endearing sense of humour that used a mixture of animations and props, to liven up what could have been straightforward presentations.
The magic washing machine is one of his TED Talks, and it’s an illuminating talk to watch, a fine blend of education and humour. He starts off by talking about watching his mother first use a washing machine, and then starts to talk about global poverty and global consumption. These were themes that Rosling would come to again and again, using statistics in a simple and easy to understand format to discuss issues of politics, equality, and globalisation.
In a talk titled New insights on poverty, Rosling compared worldwide income levels, and the problems with the distinction between developing and industrialised countries, which stems from a lack of access to statistics. Over the course of the 19-minute talk, he used a number of graphs to illustrate his point while also managing to joke about how Sweden was the only country to be able to produce statistics in 1820. As he walks through over a century of data he gives running commentary about “how there comes India and now that’s China and it’s not doing so well and then Mao Tse Tun dies and you can see the numbers change,” as if he was announcing a particularly exciting race instead.
Using this, he is able to show that countries like those in Sub-Saharan Africa have done a lot better than others after you take into account the conditions they had to overcome; he points out that people need to know much more about the world, and illustrates this with a joke: “My neighbour, he knows about 200 types of wine. I know only about two types of wine, the red and the white. But he knows only about two types of countries, industrial and developing.”
But in case you thought that Rosling was limited to a few funny jokes in the middle of his talks, well, the same talk ends with him demonstrating the running theme of how the seemingly impossible is actually possible – by swallowing a steel bayonet. He does this with great showmanship, complete with a drumroll, and it isn’t really related to the content of his talk, yet it helps to ensure that everyone remembers the talk.
From bayonets to empty cardboard boxes, Rosling was willing to use everything at his disposal to try and get his message across to the audience. A statistician and teacher who was an entertainer at heart, Rosling was able to reach many more people through his TED Talks than he could have teaching in a university.
Rosling’s death was announced on Gapminder with the following message: “Across the world, millions of people use our tools and share our vision of a fact-based worldview that everyone can understand. We know that many will be saddened by this message. Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!”