We Need To Fight For Data In Today's World

With many decisions being taken with anecdotes, we need to give data center stage


There is the famous saying 'Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it.’ It is something that the world could do with remembering today with jingoism, nativism, and racism suddenly rearing their ugly heads across the globe. We have seen certain political candidates and movements across Europe smearing entire religions, bringing up dark anti-semitic rhetoric and even bringing racist sentiment back to national consciousness. We all know that this doesn't lead to a productive society.

Much of this is based on misinformation being spread throughout society; that migration increases crime, that Muslims are terrorists or that immigrants create a net loss to a country. These have all been proven to be incorrect, yet it is still a commonly held belief amongst many segments of the population - consider that immigration has been shown to be the key reason for people voting for Brexit and is the key sentiment behind much of the support for Donald Trump in the US.

In both cases the view that immigration is somehow worse than it was before is false, in the case of Donald Trump who claimed:

'For instance, we have to listen to the concerns that working people — our forgotten working people — have over the record pace of immigration and its impact on their jobs, wages, housing, schools, tax bills and general living conditions.'

In fact, data has shown that between 2009 and 2014 there was a 140,000 net loss in the number of immigrants in the US, so there is no record pace of immigration and, with a net loss, the impact on society has actually decreased.

In the case of Brexit, we saw several claims about the negative impact of immigrants on the UK and public services, when fullfact.org found through their studies that 'Migrants from the European Economic Area (EEA) and recent migrants are more likely to have a positive net fiscal impact / less likely to have a negative net fiscal impact.' It shows that one of the core reasons for voting to leave the EU was false and that through emotive commentary the public has been misinformed.

It is not only in the case of nationalism and unpleasant anti-immigrant rhetoric that data has suffered. We saw in the May 2015 UK general elections that pollsters failed spectacularly in their predictions of the public mood, which foresaw a close race, but ended with a majority government for the Conservative party. It had two effects - firstly, it made people distrust polls and, secondly, distrust the media for reporting on them.

In effect, it was questioning the validity of data, which is not only a political problem but one that we may see across society. From the fight against global warming through to economic and business forecasts, people need to work from data. Instead, we are seeing a considerable amount of anecdote-based decisions, one CEO makes $100 million dollars which shows that all CEOs are paid too much, a heavy snowfall and cold temperatures for a week shows that global warming is a myth or one person being robbed by an illegal immigrant shows that all immigrants are criminals.

Basing policy or business decisions on a story is the thing the data community has been fighting against since its inception. We need our society, our businesses, and our governments to work with data, not against it. During the Brexit campaign, when Michael Gove said 'people in this country have had enough of experts,’ he was essentially saying 'ignore the data' and this is something that as a community we must rally against. It is not a case of political allegiance, but instead about basing important decisions on data.

As a species, we need to be thinking in the prefrontal cortex, where we make decisions based on data and education. Basing our decisions on anecdotal evidence engages our limbic system, which is our emotional centre. We are always taught to not think emotionally, yet somehow as a society, we are being told that it’s the thing to do today. We need to make sure that this isn't the case.

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