Celebrate Hans Rosling’s Fact-Based Optimism about Our World

Swedish epidemiologist, statistician, and beloved purveyor of good news Hans Rosling died this week, and tributes and encomia are proliferating from admirers around the world. My colleague Hans wrote a fine one himself earlier this week.

Fans of free markets and limited government were often especially disposed to Rosling-admiration, given his relentless debunking of the scare stories about declining standards of living and public health outcomes that are often used to justify greater government control over our lives. The team at HumanProgress.org posted an excellent summary of his career on Wednesday:

A professor of global health in Stockholm, Rosling discovered that his students and even colleagues were widely ignorant of the improvements the world has seen in the last few decades. He was baffled by how many people thought that the developing world would remain mired in extreme poverty and decided to educate them by spreading data-based evidence of human betterment. 

In 2006, Rosling set up Gapminder, a charity that promotes international development by increasing the use of statistics and raising awareness of human progress

Rosling was immensely successful with his project and he became a world famous educator about the state of the world. Almost 8 million people have watched his BBC video explaining how countries have become richer and how the world’s population has gotten healthier. He gave 10 TED talks – more than any other person – giving lectures on how the world is constantly getting better. 

Rosling demonstrated that a public intellectual can take on serious issues and still be engaging and entertaining, even referring to himself as an “edutainer.” That combination of education and entertainment, viewed millions of times via online videos, carried his ideas much farther than a series of articles in elite but infrequently-read journals ever would have.

Public policy advocates know it’s not enough to be right – even when it comes to the basic facts of how many people are living and dying in the world today. We all need to make the issues we care about into issues that other people care about, even when those other people come from different tribes.

So here are two of Rosling’s greatest hits. First, a very big picture overview of how the nations of the world have become healthier and wealthier over the last two centuries:

And a much more personal, emotional presentation on how economic development and technology have liberated people to lead more fulfilling lives. Rosling calls this the story of the Magic Washing Machine: