What role do insights agencies and organisations play in the factfulness of our society?
In a nutshell
- Most Kiwis would probably agree that if we want a better society and if we want people to make better decisions we need to respect facts. But how do we know what’s true?
- If New Zealand organisations want to earn the respect of customers, then it is time for them to stand up for factfulness.
- A good place to start is around three key areas: transparency, clarity and purpose.
In what seems like a lifetime ago in the pre-COVID era, I spent a weekend away with a group of friends, off the grid – no internet access for 48 hours, but plenty of wine and time to kill.
After the initial withdrawal panic came a period of peaceful, fully in the room engagement with friends. Very soon the conversation turned to various current issues and a general putting-of-the-world-to-rights. This is when being off the grid became a challenge for me, as my friends made statements that, as someone who studies and surveys New Zealanders professionally, I knew to be incorrect. No, most people killed on the roads are not killed by tourists! But, without internet access I couldn’t show them how to fact check – and did it really matter?
My point is that while any right-minded person wholeheartedly condemns deliberate fake news and ‘alternative facts’, in reality we succumb to it all the time. I use my friends as an illustration, but we hear unfounded assumptions all the time in business meetings. For example, ‘most families are streaming on multiple devices around the home’. No, they’re not. Some families are, but not most. At a conference I spoke at recently I asked everyone to stand up if they had heard or taken part in a conversation to the effect that ‘no one watches linear TV anymore’. Almost everyone stood. Then I asked them to sit down if they personally had watched any linear TV in the last 7 days. Hardly anyone was left standing.*
If we want a better society, if we want people to make better decisions, if we want organisations to earn the respect of customers, then it is time to stand up for factfulness
Even before Covid-19 we were cursed by information overload and misled by the cognitive biases that are hardwired to help us deal with it. Covid-19 has only added to this load as we learned what an R-number was and how data could show if we were flattening the curve. People saw more graphs and data visualisations in a month than they would normally see in a year. There were conversations about the validity of the statistics, about whether you could compare data if the information was being collected differently and even a little glimmer of wonder at what a log scale was. At least people were recognising that facts, not speculation or myths, would get us through this. Respect for knowledgable experts grew in New Zealand. Sadly, this was not the case in other nations.
Most Kiwis would probably agree that if we want a better society and if we want people to make better decisions we need to respect facts. But how do we know what’s true? Because although people are not great at discerning fact from fiction or opinion, they do worry about the implications of that. According to this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer, 73% of global respondents worry about false information being used as a weapon.
And, if New Zealand organisations want to earn the respect of customers, then it is time for them to stand up for factfulness.
So who should we trust to tell the truth?
The job to be done for insights
It would seem like a no brainer that insights should be a bastion of factfulness, yet there have been challenges from many quarters when research seems to have got its ‘facts’ wrong. For example, wrongly predicting political election results – but that isn’t the same as getting the facts wrong. The pollsters accurately reported what people told them – where they failed was not recognising the context of how people vote versus how people answer polling questions.
Let’s be clear, context is everything. Data doesn’t live in some special world of its own, it is attached to people – real human beings, fallible human beings, people who want to please and answer questions even if they don’t understand them. One overriding truth remains and that is that it should never be stripped of context. Consider the simple question: how many countries are there in the world?