Hans Rosling Brought Data to Life, Showed Our Misconceptions about the World

Many skeptics outside Sweden first encountered Professor Hans Rosling at the European Skeptics Congress 2013 in Stockholm. That was a day engraved in our memories. Rosling had enthralled us with his fascinating presentation of the world’s data. How wrong we were about so many things that we believed about the world. Years earlier, in 2006, Rosling had received the “Enlightener of the Year” award by the Swedish Skeptics Association Vetenskap och Folkbildning (VoF).

It fills us with deep sadness that Hans Rosling died of pancreatic cancer February 7, 2017, at the age of only sixty-eight. He was a professor of international health at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute who liked to call himself an “edutainer.”

Hans Rosling was able to bring data to life. His project gapminder.org, named for minding the gap between statistics and their interpretation, uses animated graphics to show us how the world has developed and grown since industrialization. Again and again, he shows us how we are wrong in many of our beliefs and that we just don’t know much about the world. We are particularly wrong, because of our prejudices, when it comes to what we think about the “third world.”

In the “Bangladesh Miracle,” he demonstrated how the fertility of women decreased from almost seven children per woman to less than three in just thirty years. It is currently at 2.19. He also shows us how wrong we are for blaming religion and “Islam” for high fertility rates. Poverty, high mortality rates, and lack of education and access to family planning for women—not religion—is why fertility rates remain high in many African countries.

Hans also put facts at the center of the current discussion around refugees. In his video “Where Are the Syrian Refugees?” (https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=0_QrIapiNOw), he rightfully criticized the European Union for doing everything it can to prevent Syrian refugees from exercising their right to asylum. While the rich EU takes only 2 percent of the refugees, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey carry 40 percent of this burden. Syria itself takes the rest as internal refugees. Such a situation was completely unacceptable to him.

As a global citizen, Rosling interrupted his regular work to go to Liberia to help the West African country fight Ebola. “I’m not a virologist, and I’m not a clinician,” he said, “but I have considerable experience investigating messy epidemics in poor parts of Africa.” Rosling had already played a key role in 1981 in identifying an illness outbreak as konzo. It turned out that the disease was not infectious. Rather, eating raw or insufficiently processed cassava had led to poisoning and the observed paralysis of the limbs of women and children.

My favorite of his legendary videos was the one on the “Magic Washing Machine” (https://www.ted.com/talks/ hans_rosling_and_the_magic_washing_machine). He saw this invention as something that liberated women from their tedious manual work of the past. Along with his mother, Rosling concluded: “Thank you, industrialization. Thank you, steel mill. Thank you, power station. And thank you, chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”

Hans Rosling was a realist whose assessment was based on data. In “Don’t Panic—End Poverty,” he showed how the goal of the UN to eradicate absolute poverty was not only achievable but that we are well on course to do so.

For most of us, his untimely death caught us completely by surprise. We have lost someone who motivated us and gave us hope. The skeptical movement revered him. Hans Rosling’s legacy will remain. His son, Ola Rosling, and his daughter-in-law, Anna Rosling Rönnlund, have promised to continue his mission. They write: “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!”

Hans, you can be sure that skeptics all over the world will do all they can to make your dream of a fact-oriented world come true.


Many skeptics outside Sweden first encountered Professor Hans Rosling at the European Skeptics Congress 2013 in Stockholm. That was a day engraved in our memories. Rosling had enthralled us with his fascinating presentation of the world’s data. How wrong we were about so many things that we believed about the world. Years earlier, in 2006, …

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