Leadership,  Science

Why are facts so hard to accept?

I think I can say, with some certainty, that I was not alone in feeling a little bit anxious about the recent election in the USA. Though the country’s importance in the world has shrunk in the past couple of years, it still holds a fairly large part of the world’s balance – financially and strategically.

After four years and a historical load of waffle from a President, who – despite good intentions – have found it extremely hard to uphold the respect the first office hold, the Americans were to decide whether facts actually matters… or not. Boiled down, this was in one sentence what it was all about.

Truth or convenient lies – facts or entertaining assumptions?

Any normal person, regardless of nationality, color or political stance, would aim for the first – truth and facts. We all would (I hope). So how come that some 72 million people in the USA went to vote for the latter? This is quite a mystery to me.

Does believing in lies make them true?

Well the short answer to the above is – “they believe the lies are the truth and see the entertaining assumptions as facts“.

Of course! But, this only applies when facts are hard to come by or if facts are simply too hard to grasp. None of those applies in America. Or none of them should apply in America. The general level of education is relatively high compared to many countries in the world, and the amount of information to clarify at least some of the more benevolent pieces of data are there. So why don’t they just get indisputable facts on the table?

I guess there’s a couple of answers. But the most predominant one is, I think:

Laziness!

It is much more convenient to stick with the opinion I had yesterday, than to check facts and risk having to change my opinion about something, no less having to explain to people why I suddenly changed my mind.

Don’t blame yourself. We all do this – all the time. According to behavioral science, our brains are actually designed to get us through the day, spending as little energy as possible. To divert from this human automation, we have to make a deliberate choice. We have to actively decide to put on the brighter light and accept that doing so will sometimes help us in the longer run. But complacency lures in the comfort of our living room couch (next to a bag of salty crisps).

Know the facts to shape the future

Swedish physician and Professor of International Health, Hans Rosling, spent a large part of his professional life, showing why facts matter, and how relatively easy indisputable facts are to find in major databases.

Hans Rosling 2012 | Gapminder.org
Hans Rosling, 2012 © Gapminder Foundation

Through a serious of multiple-choice questions, he has shed light on numerous assumptions, people in the wealthiest part of the world have about the world. Assumptions that are down-right wrong and built on misinterpreted facts … if any at all. Assumptions that are made out of laziness and could be easily corrected with a minimum effort.

For example, Rosling would ask how the number of people in the world living in poverty has developed through the past couple of decades, giving the options:

A) It has doubled
B) It is the same
C) It has halved

We are constantly bombarded by messages by well-meaning NGOs who desperately try to help people living in poverty. At the same time media throw in a mix of news full of disasters and war, and then they host huge charity shows on TV ever so many times a year. Neither are wrong. It is just not the full picture, what anyone (including me) would have realized, had we checked figures from the World Bank or the UN. Back to the above quiz.

The right answer is – C) it has halved. In the USA a large test showed, that only 5% of the respondents got it right. Two-thirds (66%) answered – A) It has doubled. This is not to point a finger at Americans. People in most other western countries answered equally bad when tested.

Why is this important, you might ask. Well, maybe instead of just aimlessly pouring billions of dollars into relief aid for a whole continent, that we falsely assume is on the brink of starvation, we could perhaps look at the facts and see, that many African countries need investments instead. Investments that could raise living conditions even more and create growth in both Africa and in the rest of the world.

To think about the future, you have to know about the present

– Prof. Hans Rosling, TEDtalks 2014
Back to facts in the west

Resuming to the opening of this blog. Why do facts have such hard times filtering through in current USA? Let’s just call out the monster from under the bed. Why does a large portion of the Republican leadership cling on to the assumption, that the election was fraud, despite the screaming lack of facts? In fact (no pun intended), all the facts gathered by several different organizations point to the opposite. There was NO irregularities worth mentioning in any state or county anywhere in the USA at this election.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument, that the Republican Party manages to somehow disqualify the election and allow Donald Trump to continue for another period. Then what? The nation is split in half – a large minority voted for the President, the majority voted for Joe Biden of the Democrats.

The majority will have to accept having a President, who can’t prove that won the election fairly, and the documentation is kept from from the public eye (psst, we call that a dictatorship or a ‘banana republic’ in Europe). A President, who will likely continue to spread falsehoods, that can be proven wrong in a matter of minutes, just by consulting USA’s own state institutions, the World Bank or the UN. The division of the country will continue to grow, and it will ultimately tear the nation apart. People will continue to die in large numbers – from Covid-19 now, later from other things. Financial instability will expand a begin to affect other markets, forcing these to seek other partners, and the national dept will lead the country to bankruptcy, unemployment… failure.

All because facts are made obsolete. The trust in democracy has dwindled. The very foundation under America is crumbling. Americans decided to take the easy way out – chose to elevate entertaining assumptions made by a dubious tycoon to facts. Why?!

What seems to be the convenient and easy way now, may soon become a narrow, winding and extremely cumbersome road. That is how much facts matters! Any engineer knows this. Any blue water sailor knows this. Any healthcare worker knows this. In fact, any successful business woman knows this.

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

John Adams, 2nd President of the United States of America

My point -> Don’t be lazy – Lean on science – Use only facts

Want to know more about facts?
– Read ‘Factfulness‘ by Prof. Hans Rosling
– Visit the Gapminder Foundation

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