Last week I was buying some shoes for my daughter. Here’s how the conversation went at the till.
Shop Assistant: “Isn’t it warm?”
Me: “You should get used to that.”
SA: “You don’t believe in all that, do you?”
Me: “Me and just about every scientist in the world.”
SA: “Ooh, there are lots of scientists who disagree.”
Me (gathering up my children): “Not many who aren’t funded by oil companies.”
The end of an age
It’s telling that we talk about ‘the Age of Enlightenment’. We can call it that because it ended. Across almost every sphere of life, views are coloured and decisions made not on the basis of fact and evidence but on faith, emotion and ideology.
This is fine for certain decisions. Back to the shoe shop. In the grand scheme of things it really doesn’t matter whether I chose purple shoes or blue ones. My one-year-old isn’t going to care either way. But it matters that I chose the right size.
The first thing the shop assistant did was measure my daughter’s feet. Imagine she told me my daughter needed a 4H, but I chose to buy a 4F because I didn’t like the idea of my daughter having wide feet.
The shop assistant wouldn’t have liked this. She may well have waved evidence in my face to try to convince me otherwise. But ultimately I was the one doing the spending, so she would probably have sold me the shoes. And this would be bad for my daughter.
Here we have three parties in a decision:
The Actor — the shop assistant
The Affected — my daughter
The Influencer — me
We have evidence on what is the right decision for the Affected: she needs a pair of 4H shoes. But the Actor’s decision is swayed more by what the Influencer believes than by the evidence of the impact on the Affected. This pattern is repeated across society.
Yesterday I met with David Trott, a friend and marketing consultant with a background in charities. He’s coming on board to advise us on the future of charities. David told me a much more disturbing story about fundraising for humanitarian aid.
Money for aid comes from us putting coins in a bucket, or more likely these days, giving by direct debit. As a result we get to influence how the money gets spent much more than the evidence of the best way to spend it.
David’s example is this: imagine you could jumpstart the creation of an affordable, national healthcare system in a deprived country. Effectively setting this country on its way to having its own NHS. In the long term you can show that this will have the greatest impact on the citizen’s lives for every pound spent.
It would be nearly impossible to fundraise for this as a goal. It just doesn’t grab people.
So instead you pick a single issue: child blindness for example. Kids are going blind for want of simple eyedrops. You put up posters and roll out TV ads: “You could help this child to see again for just £3.”
It tugs the heart strings and the money rolls in. Once you’ve raised money against this issue you have a mandate to spend the money on this issue and this issue alone. But the country has no infrastructure: where and how are you going to deliver the eye drops?
So you roll out clinics: small ones, specialising in the eye drops because that’s what you’re mandated to do. These clinics are separate from the country’s own limited health care services. They don’t deliver any other services. They confuse the local population who come to you with general health queries.
You tackle the blindness issue. Great. But you could have done so much more if the criteria for how the money was spent were defined not by the giver — the Influencer — but by what would deliver the best outcome for the Affected.
In the political sphere the situation is slightly different. We, the people are both Influencer and Affected. Though individual policies may more directly impact some more than others, ultimately we succeed and fail as a society.
Which is what makes it so frustrating when evidence is ignored in policy making. Evidence that is usually telling politicians what would make life better for all of us. Evidence that many us as Influencers, find unpalatable.
Climate change, teenage pregnancy, offender rehabilitation, drugs and much, much more. Clear evidence is available about the way forward on all of these issues. But instead of taking note and pushing for the right sort of change, we the people prefer to keep our heads in a Dark Ages hole.
A New Hope
I wrote recently about transparency for the Institute of Leadership and Management. Ten years ago in ‘The Naked Company’, Don Tapscott and David Ticoll described the Internet as “a transparency medium without peer in human history.”
The web is arguably a presentation medium without peer: it is capable of rapidly delivering facts packaged in a compellingly visual and interactive format to vast numbers of people in seconds. It is this that has supported the rise of ‘armchair activism’, with millions who might not otherwise have been reached signing up to petitions and emailing their politicians to tell them what they think.
Now this ‘slacktivism’ can be just as easily misdirected as any other form of influence, especially once complex arguments are dumbed down for rapid sharing. But it at least engages the electorate in making a decision and showing their influence more often than every five years.
If we can use the tools of the Internet age to better communicate evidence over emotion and engage armchair activists in well-directed campaigns, we may just have a chance of bringing the country back into the light.