Fighting ignorance with fact-based worldviews


Hans Rosling: photographer Stefan Nilsson

Do you do your homework? Are you able to answer questions such as: What is the life expectancy of the world population? If this leaves you scratching you’re head, you’re not alone; turns out most of the public don’t know about basic global patterns and macro-trends. 


That is exactly why Professor Hans Rosling, his son Ola Rosling and daughter-in-law Anna Rosling Rönnlund are “fighting devastating ignorance with fact-based worldviews everyone can understand.”


“There is a surprising ignorance about the present state of the world and there is still the old world view, especially in West Europe and America,” Hans says.


A professor of International Health at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden, Hans has become renowned for his ability to present statistics in an engaging and entertaining way; his theatrical presentations and animated data graphics have become a signature style, attracting millions of video views online and leading to a number of appearances on BBC television programmes.


However, it’s through their non-profit venture the Gapminder Foundation that he and Ola hope to have the most impact.


In 2013 the Gapminder Foundation initiated the Ignorance Project to measure public lack of knowledge about global facts. After surveying various representative groups in different countries, they found all kinds of pre-conceived ideas and outdated concepts about our contemporary world.


“Education is easy when people don’t know anything. Ignorance or ill-conceived ideas are something else; they’re the illusion of knowledge. To teach someone who has the illusion of knowledge… that’s very tough, because you have to spend 90% of your time erasing what was once right,” Hans says.


“The ideas about the world are not wrong, it’s not like someone believing in something that doesn’t exist or never existed, it’s just an idea that the world has remained as it was 30 to 40 years ago.”


Through finding these knowledge-gaps, they have been able to determine what teaching materials they need to develop. “We gather the facts showing what people don’t know. People don’t know that poverty reduction is progressing faster than ever, and they are unaware of progress towards global gender equality. Then we can be pretty sure there are no good widespread methods out there for how to teach these facts,” Ola says.


They aim to identify the least known facts across all dimensions of global development, such as environment, health, energy, gender, economy, demography and governance, and turn them into a global knowledge certificate, saying it will help public agencies, corporates, UN and other organisations certify their staff as globally knowledgeable.


Gapminder materials are freely available under the creative common license; allowing for modification and integration into commercial products. The vision is to turn Gapminder into a “Wikipedia for Statistics”.


“We have no reason to reinvent the wheel and build yet one more teaching platform. We much rather see our material integrated into teaching material which already has a distribution channel and is already in use,” Ola says.


“We hope other software developers can bring our innovations further and our videos and slideshows can find users we didn’t think of. Our job is to turn high-quality statistics into understandable visualisations. Then teachers can use them to tell all kinds of fact-based stories, and still track the sources of the data.”


Hans and Ola have been developing teaching materials for over nine years, evaluating the best way to communicate the facts. Together they visited 60 schools and educational institutions across the world to decide on their current strategy. This strategy allows for usage without computers, makes sure all material is in small fragments that can be used in isolation, and ensures material is easy to modify for all kinds of needs whilst being mobile-friendly.


When asked whether he thinks Gapminder is already making an impact Ola said: “We are already making a large impact in some educational fields. Most teachers in development and global economy studies have seen our animating graphs and realised that the complex history of 200 countries across 200 years must not be reduced into simplistic economic theories that can explain everything with one simple principle.”


He also attributes this impact to new technology. We are living in a time where “tons of public statistics are collected.” This has created opportunities that never existed before.


“For the first time in world history it is now possible to teach a fact-based worldview about all the different societies of the world. At such time in world history, it’s easy to have impact,” Ola says.

At ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN, Ola will be presenting what he calls a ‘flipped keynote’ in Friday’s Opening Plenary. For this, you really need to do your homework. You can find it here.


Hans is unable to attend OEB this year as he is in Liberia helping with the fight against Ebola. You can find out more about the Ignorance Project in his entertaining, yet informative, TED Talk.


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