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Visum Monachae… On a Hero

Sister Edith Bogue

My hero, Hans Rosling, died last week. Most readers will not recognize his name. My students remember videos of a Swedish guy who narrated his animated graphs like an MLB sportscaster. A little-known global health researcher for most of his life, his 2006 TED talk, “The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen,” launched him into instant fame. Google bought his Trendalyzer software. The World Bank and many governments sought his advice. Major philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates became his friends. He was a statistics rock-star.

Why call him a hero? Hans Rosling discovered that most people – even politicians and professors– hold mistaken views of global realities. Their assumptions undermine their ability to be effective. He believed that, if they could understand facts, and data, he could shift their world view.

He faced two obstacles: innumeracy and data silos. Moreover, he had little funding and a full-time job as a university professor. None of this deterred him.

He tackled innumeracy first. It’s a lack of training and comfort with numbers, a problem comparable to poor reading skills. With his computer-scientist son, he developed the Trendalyzer to create animated graphs. He became an edutainer (his term), posing serious questions in interesting ways. “Do Swedish graduate students get the answer right more often than monkeys? No? What about this audience?”

My statistics students enjoyed his 4-minute video of two centuries of change in life expectancy and wealth for 200 nations. They see all the nations bunched together in 1800 in the “poor and short-lived” corner of the graph. Wide-eyed, they watch some, then others, move up toward the “healthy, wealthy” corner. They grasp Rosling’s core message: most nations of the world have moved out of absolute poverty into a developing world. Their jaws drop when they realize that this simple, playful animation presented 120,000 data points. They are astounded to learn that anyone with internet access can explore similar data for free.

Data silos – the practice by governments and NGOs to make it difficult, costly, or impossible to work with the actual data – was a serious problem. The Open Data movement was just beginning. Rosling used brute force: scanning printed reports or entering thousands of numbers by hand. The Trendalyzer software gave him leverage. The World Bank and other organizations offered to give him access to their data in exchange for its use. He bargained hard, and won open data access for the general public.

Hans Rosling stood hard against today’s “post-truth” mentality. He was appalled when appeals to emotion and personal belief had more influence on public opinion than objective facts. St. Benedict would perceive this as a form of humility. Rosling was ready to let go of his ideas, even beloved ideas if the evidence showed otherwise. We would do well, in our polarized society, to stop arguing and humbly focus on the facts. Hans Rosling could make it fun for people to discover their misconceptions. How unexpected: a Swedish guy with a graph as a hero of change. He will be missed.

Sister Edith Bogue is a sociology professor at CSS and vocation director at the monastery. She is a birthright data geek, growing up in the underground computer center at the University of Chicago.