Data doesn’t care about you. Data doesn’t care about anything. And short of casting a few puns about a Star Trek TNG character, Data is something we tend to ignore.
That tendency leads us to our own peril.
This week’s book, Factfulness, illustrates the data behind a far richer, more hopeful view of the world. We just have to see it. In seeing this data, we can understand reality more objectively, eliminate the distractions, and accelerate our progress. So let’s start now, shall we?
No! We shall not! Not all of us anyway. It would involve changing our minds and that is something we do not like to do. Even when lives are at stake. This is the lesson delivered through the tragic life of Ignaz Semmelweis.
If you haven’t heard of Semmelweis, I strongly urge you to leave this article and read about his life instead. His sad story is much more worthwhile and the deepest proof of the George Bernard Shaw quote:
“If you want to tell the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
That is Semmelweis’s life. Despite the fact that medicine is supposed to be science, science is supposed to be fact-driven, and doctors are supposed to be beholden to their Hippocratic oath, the “Establishment” rejected the man’s great discovery. Semmelweis’s gift to the world was the research and evidence to prove that washing your hands saves lives.
Not just any lives. His work was performed in obstetrical clinics. He saved the lives of mothers and their newborns. His legacy is as “the savior of mothers”. So why aren’t there more statues of Semmelweis?
The reasons are the stuff of human nature, the stuff that would make me laugh if it wasn’t so sad. When faced with inconvenient truths—namely, those truths that do not fit our prefabricated narratives—we hairless apes plug our fingers in our ears, close our eyes, and scream loudly at the world. And in Semmelweis’s case, the “Establishment” doctors rejected his research, counter-explained his incredible results (in his clinics, hand-washing reduced mortality rates from as high as 15% to 1%), and effectively cast him out of the Austrian medical community.
Years later, Semmelweis suffered a nervous breakdown. Castigated from society, he was committed to an asylum and beaten to death fourteen days later. The savior of mothers.
Lest you think we’ve evolved beyond such intransigence, please consider the story of Barry James Marshall, the brave doctor that dispelled decades of misperceptions when he proved that ulcers were caused by bacteria, not stress. So great was the resistance to his theory that the man had to ingest the bacteria himself and cause his own ulcers to prove the causative link.
Nonetheless, credit where credit is due: we have gotten much better at celebrating these brave pioneers. Marshall is still alive, doing well in Australia, and was awarded the Nobel prize. But again, the resistance to accept the truth of his work, and others, is so great—even among experts, other science-minded people—that Marshall had to go to lengths that most would not be able to stomach (ahem).
A great New Yorker piece covers the rigid inability of the human mind. One quote that resonates is delivered by the co-author of the book “Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore Facts That Will Save Us.” Great title. When asked why mothers refuse to vaccinate their children, there is the usual stuff of confirmation bias but then there is research that is far closer to what I think the truth is: research that suggests “people experience genuine pleasure—a rush of dopamine—when processing information that supports their beliefs.” As the co-author says, “It feels good to ‘stick to our guns’ even if we are wrong.”
And it hurts to be wrong. It really hurts. In the workplace, I’ve seen managers proclaim a situation to be X. I’ve then asked for data and seen the data prove the situation is Y. When confronted, I’ve seen managers still proclaim X.
This scenario has occurred many, many times in my career. Within every level of authority.
I understand why. It has happened to me. I regularly see my own professional beliefs disproved by data. Every single time it happens, I feel pain. As if someone gut-punched me.
Conversely, every time the data proves me right, my brain is flooded with dopamine. For people like me, there are few highs quite as exquisite as the ecstasy of being proven right.
To circle back to the New Yorker article, researchers attribute this extreme pleasure/pain dynamics to our hunter-gatherer instincts, our proclivity for socialization over rationality, confirmation bias, and other such things. I’m sure that’s all true. But more simply, this is about ego. We feel our ego, our sense of self-importance, diminish when data tells us we are wrong.
The key to happiness and success is getting over that. As Ray Dalio suggests in his TED talk, and his book Principles, we can overcome these limitations and be rewarded greatly. Lives are at stake. Entire worldviews.
Which gets us back to Factfulness. Hans Rosling’s book is a gift to society. But only so much as our ego will accept it. Being wrong isn’t half as bad as ignoring what is right. Can we fix this? Can we adjust our attitudes and the underlying ego so that we find pleasure in being proven wrong? Rosling thinks so. I do too.