Just how do Americans do on an “ignorance test” about world development?

Hans Rosling, a guru of development data and TED star, has for decades asked people around the world what they know about international development. The results are not good:

In the 1990s, a professor at a medical university in Stockholm decided to test his students’ knowledge about the progress of global development. He was staggered to discover the class, some of the brightest people in Sweden, scored fewer than two out of five on average…

That academic was Hans Rosling, Professor of Global Health at the Karolinska Institutet and a medical doctor who had carried out decades of research in Africa, discovering the complexities of the continent (and a new disease) along the way…

Rosling has been on a mission to inform since the realization that his students — and his fellow professors — were somewhat woefully informed about the state of the world. Today CNN publishes Rosling’s latest survey of the United States which shows Americans, like most of the world, are far behind the reality in their understanding of world development but ahead of some — for example, Swedes…

In 2005, he co-founded the Gapminder Foundation, which aims to “promote a fact-based world view.” The following year, Rosling spoke at a conference run by TED — the non profit organization “devoted to ideas worth spreading.”…

Rosling realized the concept of “developed” and “developing” countries was hindering understanding of the emerging world, giving an impression of remaining homogeneity of a so-called “developing world”.

Nothing that an introduction to sociology course couldn’t help.

While Rosling wants to focus on facts (and there are some improving figures in the global fight against some major problems), I wonder if it isn’t also about getting people in the developed world to pay attention to the bigger picture. To be honest, many Americans, residents of Sweden, and people in other first-world countries don’t always have to know or consider what is going on in the rest of the world. For example, American media discussion of foreign countries is often pretty woeful and often presents a very American perspective. It is a luxury of being in a wealthier nation as your life is in decent shape (in global comparison).

Data guru Hans Rosling named to Time’s 100 most influential people

Hans Rosling’s talks are fascinating as he makes data and charts exciting and explanatory in his own enthusiastic manner. Named as one of the 100 most influential people by Time, Rosling is profiled by sociologist and MD Nicholas Christakis:

Hans Rosling trained in statistics and medicine and spent years on the front lines of public health in Africa. Yet his greatest impact has come from his stunning renderings of the numbers that characterize the human condition.

His 2006 TED talk, in which he animated statistics to tell the story of socio-economic development, has been viewed over 3.8 million times and translated into dozens of languages. His subsequent talks have moved millions of people worldwide to see themselves and our planet in new ways by showing how our actions affect our health and wealth and one another across space and time.

When you meet Rosling, 63, you are struck by his energy and clarity. He has the quiet assurance of a sword swallower (which he is) but also of a man who is in the vanguard of a critically important activity: advancing the public understanding of science.

What does Rosling make of his statistical analysis of worldwide trends? “I am not an optimist,” he says. “I’m a very serious possibilist. It’s a new category where we take emotion apart and we just work analytically with the world.” We can all, Rosling thinks, become healthy and wealthy. What a promising thought, so eloquently rendered with data.

Here are some of Rosling’s presentations that are well worth watching:

200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 minutes – The Joy of Stats

TED Talk: No More Boring Data

TED Talk: The Good News of the Decade?

Here is what The Economist thinks are Rosling’s greatest hits.

I’ve used several of Rosling’s talk in class to illustrate what is possible with data and charts. Rosling gets at an important issue: data should tell a story and be interactive and available to people so they too can dig into it and understand the world better. By simply taking a chart and adding some extra information (like population size of a country displayed as a larger circle or being able to quickly show the quartile income distributions for a country) and the dimension of time, you can start to visualize patterns and possible explanations of how the world works.

(A side note: alas, I don’t think any sociologists were named as one of the 100 most influential people.)