The Zen Master of Statistics

By Keith Kloor | May 20, 2013 2:43 pm

You may not know this, but there is a celebrity data geek who isn’t named Nate Silver. This other famous statistician is a rock star in the global health and development world. He captivates audiences with innovative presentations that illuminate abstract facts and figures. Last year, Time magazine called Hans Rosling one of the 100 most influential people in the world, writing:

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.

How does he do it? Well, here is is showing 200 years of progress in four minutes. 

Here he uses green boxes to explain socio-economic demographic trends.

Watch this and you’ll have a newfound appreciation for the washing machine.

The Guardian recently published a piece on Rosling, including a new video of his fact-driven artistry. Here’s the description:

Laying out toy bricks and a handful of counters on the table, he shows in 3-D how the dynamics of global population, child mortality and carbon emissions have changed over the past 50 years – and how the world might look by the end of the century.

After watching that Guardian video and several of the others, you’ll notice that Rosling speaks offhandedly about the importance of “green energy.” This piqued my curiosity. What else has he said about energy? I googled around and found this interesting interview, in which he said:

We need to be able to see the energy supply for human activity from each source and how it changes over time. The people who are now involved in producing solar and wind produce very nice reports on how production increase each year. Many get the impression that we have 10, 20, 30% of our energy from solar and wind. But even with fast growth from almost zero solar and wind it is nothing yet. The news reports mostly neglect to explain the difference in percentage growth of solar and wind energy and their percent of total energy supply.

In a talk last year, Rosling said that the world needs a “data driven discussion of energy and resources.”  That would be nice, but we humans aren’t exactly a data-driven species.

*Headline inspired by this blog post.

[Image from 2010 TED talk]
CATEGORIZED UNDER: economics, select, statistics
  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I watched the washing machine one. I hope nobody tells Michael Pollan about how we should be back to ennobling wash tubs.

    But what a funny observation about his enviro students’ answers to his question on that.

    And he thanks the steel, power, and chemical industries for books. Interesting conclusion.

    • http://twitter.com/CountCarbon Robert Wilson

      Very true,

      I’m reminded of an observation from John Carey’s excellent book “The Intellectuals and the Masses.” A large number of well off intellectuals showed disdain at how so many people were incredibly proud when they got central heating into their houses. Somehow this meant they were “unrefined.”

      The attitudes of Pollan et al are no different. It’s pure old fashioned small minded bigotry. So what if someone makes all of their meals from a microwave? Pollan would have us look down on them as somehow living inferior lives, which is a pretty repulsive point of view. For most of human history, and for many people living today, food is simply a means of getting enough energy to stay alive. If someone thinks that it is better to spend 5 minutes cooking something than 1 hour and having more time to do other more worthwhile things than it’s hard to argue with them.

  • Matt B

    Rosling is tremendous, and truly has a gift for communication.

    For energy, I believe Davis MacKay’s Sustainable Energy – without the hot air remains the gold standard.

    What a shame that these gents are not the “go-to” media experts…..if I was cynical I might think that since they view the world as a complex, nuanced place, perhaps many in the media would find working with them a bit of a headache……..

    • Matt B

      Ooops….that is DAVID MacKay…..

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Boon-Tee-Tan/1068880297 Boon Tee Tan

    An excellent educator and presenter, simple yet appropriate, especially when aided by animated charts and 3-D objects. He will make a good teacher trainer. The world should have more of such interesting motivator. (btt1943)

  • prasad

    The washing machine video is superb; every green should watch it, if only to understand viscerally the complex *moral* nature of the problem of cutting carbon, in a world where the richest billion consume half the world’s energy. Giving Hans Rosling a large global audience may well be the best thing TED ever did.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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