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What data tells us: we want change, not the status quo

Everyday thousands of things are competing for our attention. We’ve learned to prioritize what is urgent, sudden, bad. Because of that, we don’t spend enough time looking at progress, its causes and how to push it forward. We’re too busy spending time lamenting over the status quo and what is so bad about it.

One of the reasons we don’t give progress enough attention is that it doesn’t happen quickly. It’s only realized in long term patterns and behaviors, which are harder to identify and maintain. But if we are willing to take the time to look for those patterns of progress, we’ll be able to understand its causes and design even better solutions.

It starts with data.

Hans Rosling was a Swedish physician and statistics guru who spent a lot of time exploring large datasets to bring social change patterns to light. Through animated visualizations, he was able to show amazing trends and his 2006 TED talk “The best stats you've ever seen” is one of the most viewed in the world. His goal was to get people to adopt a fact-based view of the world, a view that shows how humanity is improving.

We’ve created a view of a world that is driving us to focus on ourselves and prioritize short term needs. This view is driven by the media and politicians whose job is to tell stories that grab attention. It’s no secret that the best stories are the most extraordinary and dramatic, not stories of success and progress.

Data shows a different story: our quality of life is improving, cultural divides are not as wide as we think, we care about protecting our environment.

Here is an example looking at life expectancy by country over time. Each dot represents a country (the larger the population, the larger the dot). Between 1950 and 2019, we can clearly see how average life expectancy increases overall as dots concentrate on the top right corner of the chart.

Another great example: violent crime rates in the U.S. have been steadily decreasing since the mid-1990s. Less than 0.5% of Americans are victims of a violent crime each year, compared to 1.4% in 1994.

Percent of U.S. residents age 12 or older who were victims of violent crime excluding simple assault, 1993-2019. Data Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 1993-2019

Despite this data, we regularly hear from far right conservatives and our current president’s administration that crime is high and that we should focus on security–by voting for them. In the meantime, more important issues that need to be addressed like education or healthcare are de-prioritized.

Data-driven versus emotion-based decision making

The question is, how do we use data instead of emotions to drive our decisions?

It’s not easy but it’s critical if we want to continue our progress. Those who are content with a status quo that serves them–with power, money or influence–are the ones who try to appeal to our emotional sides. They only tell us about what is bad or scary because they know that we tend to make more conservative decisions when we are scared.

They reject what humanity is about: reason, collaboration and kindness. They promote what keeps them in power: fear and division.

If we look at the data however, it’s easy to see that we all share much more common ground than we think. Most people agree that a higher quality of life for as many people as possible is in the interest of the common good.

  • 60% of Americans agree that the federal government is responsible for making sure that all Americans have health care coverage (2018 Pew Research Center survey)

  • In 2017, 61% said the country needs to continue making changes to give blacks equal rights with whites (from Pew Research Center)

  • The majority of Americans say protection of the environment should be a priority, and over 60% say the government is doing too little (2018 Gallup Survey)

In the end we share core values of equality and opportunity for all. Now we need to understand that we share the responsibility for making it happen. We can use our common ground as the basis of our discussion to design solutions.


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