Posted by Jamie Matthews on 2020-03-08

Data won’t save us

Open data, public data, data journalism. Visualisation and interpretation, tables and faceting and aggregation. Using data to tell a story, or discover a story, or dispute a story. Truth is king and all we need to change the world is more evidence about what needs changing and why.

Well, yes and no. Yes: this is how it should be. But no, this isn’t how it is.

Consider the public response to the accelerating climate catastrophe, which has been largely lukewarm despite the seriousness of the probable outcomes. Or the blatant lies told and retold during the EU referendum campaign. Consider the fact that measles is re-emerging as a serious threat due to the rise in anti-vaccination. Or that hand sanitizer is selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars a bottle in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, when hand washing with soap and water is known to be more effective.

The reason for all of this is simply that facts and evidence are not the guiding principles by which most human beings make their decisions.

To the filter-bubbled middle-class tech industry this seems almost shocking when spelled out. The idea barely even seem worth considering. How could any rational person make decisions that go against the best interests of themselves, their families and wider society even in the face of strong evidence that alternative courses of action would be vastly preferable?

Put simply, most people are not rational. Decades of advertising, marketing and spin has swept truth out of politics, news, the media, and public consciousness. As a society, our ability to critically evaluate information has been fundamentally broken. And, perhaps worse, those who work to produce and verify that information are criticised and distrusted: we are “fed up of experts.”

So the problem that those of us in the tech industry with ethical leanings should be solving right now is not (or not only) how we expose and present more data in increasingly persuasive and understandable ways. This kind of work is, of course, valuable and fascinating, but no matter how clever your visualisation or how compelling your data, the whole thing crumbles in the face of irrationality. It’s a category error, it’s bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Instead (or, perhaps, as well) we need to find ways to make facts matter again. To go back to the fundamentals and work to rebuild the foundations of an intellectually functioning society: scepticism, rationality and critical thinking.

If we can solve this, the floodgates are opened and the investment we’ve made in data communication begins to pay off. If we can’t, our weary fingers will still be desperately pointing at our pretty graphs while the world burns and the oceans boil.


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