Data And Democracy in the Age of Disinformation

Jeffrey Jordan, President and CEO, PRB
Population Association of America 2022 Annual Meeting
Atlanta, GA – April 8, 2021

PRB CEO and President Jeffrey Jordan spoke to a crowd at the Population Association of America 2022 Annual Meeting about data and disinformation. His remarks were followed by a lively discussion by a distinguished panel including PAA President Sonalde Desai, PRB Board member Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, and Board Chair of the National AIDS Control Council (Kenya) Angeline Siparo. Crystal Edmonson of the Atlanta Business Chronicle served as moderator. (In the photo, L-R: Kyler Sherman-Wilkins, Sonalde Desai, Angeline Siparo, Crystal Edmonson and Jeffrey Jordan.)


Good afternoon. I’m very pleased to be with all of you today—to be honest, after two years of seclusion, I’m pleased to be anywhere.

And given the topic of our discussions today, it is especially meaningful this meeting is taking place in Atlanta, the city known for being the cradle of the U.S. civil rights movement.

It will warm the hearts of the demographers out there to know about new research from Harvard Business School linking population shifts in the United States to the success of the civil rights movement. Between 1940 and 1970, more than 4 million Black Americans moved from the south to the north during what’s known as the Second Great Migration. This mass migration resulted in the election of political leaders in northern states who supported civil rights, which eventually led to the passage to federal civil rights laws in the 1960s.

Positive stories like that aren’t something we’ve necessarily come to expect from the demographic community. From population bombs to migration crises, demographers have gained a reputation for providing a depressing view of where the world is headed. It was a demographer, Thomas Malthus, who predicted that population growth would outpace the food supply, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

If economics is the dismal science… demography might be thought of as a gloomy younger sibling. Which is ironic, because demographers often have good stories to tell. The data distilled from censuses and surveys has led to advances in science, medicine, and technology that are helping people lead longer, healthier lives. It’s that same data which reminds us that the proportion of people living in extreme poverty is at its lowest point ever; that fewer women are dying in childbirth; and that child survival rates are rising nearly everywhere in the world.

At PRB, much of our work centers around analyzing and communicating about demographic data. Population dynamics provide us with a lens to form a common understanding of complex topics that defy easy solutions—issues like environment and climate change, food and water security, economic issues, migration, resilience, and human rights.

In Africa, an understanding of the demographic dividend is helping the African Union identify strategies to drive economic growth and empower youth, while addressing challenges like forced migration, violence, and extremism.

As demography professor Jen Scuibba says in her new book 8 Billion and Counting, When we understand population trends, we gains insights into the dynamics of violence and peace, of repression and democracy, and of poverty and prosperity.” 

But increasingly, we’re seeing data of all types being twisted and misrepresented to serve less-noble purposes. With help from social media, misinformation is being disseminated in ways designed to polarize society by creating a toxic climate of doubt and mistrust.

I firmly believe that informed skepticism is essential to good decision-making and good governance. But indiscriminately dismissing the authority of all knowledge-producing institutions has dangerous consequences—with profound implications for the lives of real people. 

A Wake-Up Call      

Fifteen months ago, the world watched in disbelief as an angry mob broke into the U.S. Capitol building because they falsely believed the U.S. presidential election had been stolen. There was no credible evidence to support this belief. Just rumors and conspiracy theories fueled by the echo chamber of social media.

One of the biggest surprises turned out to be the rioters themselves. Most had no previous connection to extremist groups. They included doctors, lawyers, accountants, and real estate agents. Middle-aged and middle class. Just regular folks.

So, how does this happen? What makes otherwise rational people cast aside logic and common sense to embrace lies and conspiracy theories that lead them to take part in an armed insurrection against their own government?

It starts with a gradual distortion of the truth. Then an outright lie. Followed by another lie. And another.

Lies and liars are nothing new. What’s different are the technologies that allow lies and liars to propagate at breathtaking speeds. The internet and social media have not only changed how we interact with our fellow human beings but they’ve impacted peoples’ ability to form reliable beliefs.

January 6, 2021, was more than an attack on the U.S. Capitol building. In many ways, it was the culmination of a longstanding war on science, data, and truth.

It was also a wake-up call for many Americans, myself included, who had taken for granted the resilience and strength of democracy in the United States.

War on Science

A belief in science and a commitment to evidence-based decision-making are at the heart of the modern democratic state. The men who devised our system of government were greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, which championed science and the pursuit of knowledge through reason and evidence.

Nearly 200 years later, when the Apollo astronauts rocketed into space, it felt as if people everywhere were united by a shared faith in scientific advancements as a force for good in the world. I know a lot of you weren’t born yet, but take my word for it.

As we’ve seen time and again, great things can be achieved when the world comes together around a shared understanding of science and data.

In the late 1970s, leaders heeded the advice of the scientific community and moved quickly to ban the chemicals threatening the ozone layer. More recently, despite political headwinds and celebrity antivaxxers, the scientific community has risen to the challenge of delivering vaccines at incredible speed to protect people from COVID-19.

But even as Neil Armstrong was taking that giant leap for mankind onto the surface of the moon, science was already under attack. First, from tobacco companies who paid experts to cast doubts on the science linking smoking to cancer and other deadly diseases. Later, the fossil fuel industry would utilize similar tactics to attack climate science, delaying action on climate change for a generation.

Fast forward a few decades, and public trust in mainstream science has declined and battle lines are drawn around scientific issues the same way they are on social issues. Long-established facts are questioned and debated by conspiracy theorists and those who consider themselves experts because they’ve conducted a Google search or have watched a YouTube video.

Those of us working in science-related fields like public health and demography must shoulder some of the blame. We naively believed that if we made evidence available, people would make good decisions, and often they do. But as the current pandemic has vividly demonstrated, simply presenting the facts and hoping for the best is NOT enough.

We humans like to believe that we’re rational creatures who make decisions based on reason and fact. But in reality, our beliefs are also based on factors that have little to do with logic. What we think about any given topic is greatly influenced by our social and cultural networks, and by our own demographic profile—when we were born, where we live, who we know, our level of education, our religious beliefs, and so on.

But more often than we like to admit, we believe what we want to believe because it’s convenient or easy. And we’re good at finding information that fits within our preconceptions of how the world works, and discarding any contradictory evidence—including those pesky inconvenient truths that Al Gore talks about.

Social media is quite good at letting us surround ourselves with people who share our existing biases. But then it goes to the next level of achievement by exposing us to even more extreme views. People who believe:

  • Vaccinations cause autism.
  • Climate change is a hoax.
  • A deep state is sabotaging the government.
  • Russia has invaded Ukraine to save it from Nazism.

Before long, we’ve built our own personal echo chamber, where innuendo and rumor are validated by the number of likes and retweets while clever algorithms filter opinions that might contradict our own.

Over time, the sheer number of these accusations and attacks chip away at public faith, weakening the legitimacy of experts and institutions and their role in the normal processes of legislation and governance.

Until, at last, we arrive at the point where no one can be trusted, and everything is fake.

Informed skepticism is essential to good decision-making and to democracy. But the false dichotomies that result when we indiscriminately dismiss the authority of all knowledge-producing institutions has dangerous consequences. With profound implications for the lives of real people. 

A Common Basis of Understanding

In the earliest days of the HIV and AIDS crisis, I worked in public health in the Global South. I can still vividly recall my feelings of utter helplessness amidst such suffering and despair. There was so much fear and stigma about HIV/AIDS that there was little space left for public dialogue or shared learning about how to effectively fight the disease.

Finally, an analysis of data about young military conscripts and pregnant women provided some of the first important clues about how the disease was being spread. When that information was shared at a multi-country conference hosted by Benin’s government, a cabinet minister in attendance revealed publicly that he and his wife were raising their grandchildren due to the death of their own children from AIDS.

From there, the floodgates opened, as leaders and people across society were finally free to acknowledge their own pain and losses from HIV, and countries began working together towards solutions based on evidence and data instead of rumor and superstition.

Many countries took action, but not all. Even in those pre-social media days, there were leaders who rejected the science, and many of their citizens needlessly and tragically died as a result.

Three decades later, our world is changing more quickly than ever, driven by complex technologies.

What will it mean, not just for governance, but for people’s lives, if our leaders don’t use solid evidence in their decision-making? If data are ignored or misrepresented to support social or political agendas, how do we have any hope of tackling the challenges we face as a global community? Issues like climate change and climate justice. People fleeing war and crisis. The global pandemic and decline in vaccinations that are leading to more deaths from diseases like measles.

Scientists aren’t perfect and science has been rightly criticized for falling victim to the many of same biases we see in society. From census-taking to clinical trials, data collection has historically focused on people like me—white, male, educated, of a certain age, from a wealthy Western nation. If we are to benefit from the full power of data, we must take care to ensure equity and diversity are included in our collection and analysis of information.

Because without accurate information, we cannot hope to form a common basis of understanding. Without a shared set of facts and agreed upon standards for verification, rational decision-making becomes impossible.

This makes it even more critical that every person regardless of race, sex, age, orientation, economic status, or legal status is counted in national censuses, laying the groundwork for both voice and agency across all levels of society. 

Call for Action

History has no shortage of dictators and despots twisting the truth for their own dark purposes. We react with disbelief at the lies Putin tells to justify his barbaric actions in the Ukraine. Yet, right here in the U.S., there’s no shortage of people willing to latch on to the latest conspiracy theories from politicians willing to say or do anything necessary to get elected.

It’s disheartening, to say the least. What is the point of fighting for the truth if people will deny it, even when presented with data and evidence?

The answer is simple. If we care about freedom, if we treasure democracy, if we want a brighter future for our children and their children, we cannot give up the fight for truth and justice. As the Washington Post states on its masthead: “Democracy dies in darkness.”

Whatever our political beliefs, we must stand united in the fight for truth if we are to defeat the very real threats posed by demagoguery and disinformation.

And there’s no time to lose. The next couple years mark a critical and potentially chaotic period for the world, as many of the largest democracies conduct censuses, and elections are held in countries like Brazil, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and the United States.

All nations and the international community must be on high alert. The world has a shared responsibility to put a stop to those seeking to interfere with democratic processes or create instability through the spread of disinformation.

What does that mean in practical terms?

We know data are critical to making smart decisions, yet demographic data are incomplete in parts of the world where some of the most dramatic changes are taking place. All countries must prioritize the collection of data and provide the necessary tools and resources to conduct accurate censuses, demographic and health surveys and strengthen civil registration and vital statistics.

Governments, aid agencies, and private philanthropy must continue to fund research and support scholarship on population dynamics.  All actors must come to the table with solid evidence as the basis for finding solutions.

All of us in civil society must raise our voices and take a more active role in advocating for good data and providing support for evidence-based solutions.

Institutions of knowledge have an obligation to be more thoughtful about how information is shared, using clear language to explain findings and providing context to enable a better understanding of scientific methods and conclusions. We must avoid providing fuel to those who seek to undermine truth by twisting and misinterpreting science.

Elected officials everywhere have a moral and ethical obligation to step up and speak the truth about fringe beliefs and conspiracy theories. And we must hold them accountable when they fail to do so.

The media have also contributed to the public’s confusion by presenting views from opposing sides of a debate as if all views carry equal weight, even those debunked by mainstream science. Dissenting voices should be heard, of course, but given their appropriate weight in context of accepted principles of knowledge.

We must call upon the public—ourselves included—to exercise common sense in our thinking about the world and her leaders.

Last, but not least, the demographic community must step up to the plate. We must acknowledge that conducting research and analyses, and then putting it out there and hoping good things will happen, is no longer enough.

We must hold ourselves accountable not just for the accuracy of our data, but for its effectiveness in catalyzing change. We must do a better job of explaining our work and our methods, providing the necessary analysis and context, and using language that can be understood by the general public. And we must actively seek ways of engaging with a generation of young people who have been on social media since birth and get their news from TikTok and Twitter.

Finally, we must heighten our efforts to hold our leaders at all levels of government accountable for collecting accurate information and reject efforts to manipulate the data by pointedly excluding certain groups from the census or other surveys, for whatever reason.

As the 20th century American poet and playwright Archibald McLeish once said, “It is not enough, in this war of hoaxes and delusions and perpetuated lies, to be merely honest. It is necessary also to be wise.”

And I would add, to be bold.

To all who care about humanity, are inspired by democracy, and share my optimism for a brighter future—this is the moment. We can’t afford to fail.

Through our words and our actions, we must demonstrate unyielding support for truth, for facts, and for wisdom, wherever it may be found. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.

Thank you.