Data and Demagoguery: Human Rights and Development in the Disinformation Age

Jeffrey N. Jordan, President and CEO, PRB
17th Rafael M. Salas Memorial Lecture, United Nations–New York, NY

December 15, 2021

Dr. Kanem, Madam Chef de Cabinet, Ambassador Salas, Mr. Ernie Salas, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Colleagues and Friends:

It is an honor and privilege to be here with you today to deliver the 17th Rafael Salas Lecture.

I stand here very much aware of the wise and eminent voices that have spoken before me and I am humbled and gratified to be among them.

I never met Mr. Salas, who was, by all accounts, an extraordinary man. He was a lawyer, a scholar, an economist, a diplomat…and a poet.

He was quoted as saying the only “honorable” excuse for tardiness was an unscheduled visit to a bookshop. In that regard, he was definitely a man after my own heart.

He rose to the highest levels of the Philippine government under Ferdinand Marcos. But as the regime became increasingly repressive, he grew disenchanted.

In 1969, he came to New York to run the UN’s population program, which was then a small, obscure office.

Under his leadership, it grew to become one of the UN’s most influential agencies. And family planning became an accepted and vital strategy in international development.

As a trained economist, Mr. Salas possessed a keen understanding of how evidence and data could be used to improve people’s lives.

More than 30 years after his death, his legacy lives on in UNFPA’s commitment to putting data at the center of its work.

An Improving World

Data tell us many important things—about ourselves and about our world.

At my organization, PRB, much of our work centers around analyzing, interpreting, and communicating demographic data.

If economics is the dismal science, demography might be considered its gloomy younger sibling.

It was the demographer Thomas Malthus who predicted that population growth would outpace the food supply, dooming mankind to unending poverty and hardship.

From population bombs to migration crises, demographers have gained a reputation for providing a depressing view of where the world is headed.

It’s ironic, since demography has such a good story to tell.

When we hear about the suffering, pain, and injustice that exists today, we can take comfort in the data, which remind us that for most people globally, life is better now than at any other time in history.

As recently as 1990, the majority of the planet’s 5 billion people lived in countries of extreme poverty. Today, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty is at its lowest point ever. Demographic data tell us that fewer women are dying in childbirth and child survival rates are rising.

We don’t collect population data merely for the sake of it. The data that we distill from censuses and surveys has led to advances in science, medicine, and technology that are helping people everywhere lead longer, healthier lives.  Back in the 1850s, it was census data that enabled Dr. John Snow to make the link between contaminated drinking water and London’s deadly cholera outbreaks.

Population dynamics and its supporting evidence provide a lens to form common understanding of complex issues that defy easy solutions—whether they be environment and climate change, food and water security, uneven economic growth, 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 an array of challenges, including forced migration, violence and extremism.

But increasingly, we’re seeing data 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.

Informed skepticism is essential to good decision-making. 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

Less than a year ago, the world watched in disbelief as an angry mob broke into the U.S. Capitol 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 connection to extremist groups. They included doctors, lawyers, accountants, and real estate agents. Middle-aged and middle class. Just regular folks.

How does this happen? How do otherwise rational people seemingly 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 doesn’t happen overnight. It starts with distortion of the truth, then one lie. And then another. And another.

Lies and liars are nothing new. What’s different is the technology. The internet and social media have not only changed how we interact with our fellow human beings but impacted peoples’ ability to form reliable beliefs.

January 6 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 the U.S. system of government were greatly influenced by the Enlightenment, whose philosophers championed scientific achievements and the pursuit of knowledge through reason and evidence.

Nearly 200 years later, when humans first rocketed into space, it felt as if people everywhere were united by a shared faith in science as a force for good in the world.

But by then, science was already under attack from tobacco companies who pioneered the strategy of using paid experts to cast doubts on the science linking smoking to lung cancer. Their methods would later be copied by the fossil fuel industry to attack climate science, delaying action on climate change for a generation.

But we have experienced what can be achieved when the world comes together around a shared understanding of science and data.

In the late 1970s, political leaders worked with the scientific community to ban the chemicals that were threatening the ozone layer. More recently, despite political headwinds and science denial, the scientific community has worked at incredible speed to deliver vaccines protecting people from the coronavirus.

Nowadays, battle lines are drawn around science the same way they are on social issues.

Long-established facts are questioned and debated by conspiracy theorists and those who believe themselves to be scientific experts because they know how to do a Google search or watch YouTube videos.

We human beings like to believe we’re rational creatures who make logical decisions based on reason and fact. But in reality, we base our beliefs on a variety of factors, including our social and cultural networks, and what we want to believe because it’s convenient.

We seek out information (not facts) that fit within our preconceptions of how the world works, and discard things that contradict those beliefs.

Social media allows us to surround ourselves with those who share our biases and then expose us to even more extreme views:

  • That the moon landing was staged.
  • Vaccinations cause autism.
  • Climate change is a hoax.
  • There’s a deep state sabotaging the government.

Before long, we’ve created our own personal echo chamber, where innuendos and rumors are validated by the number of “likes” and “retweets.” And algorithms block opinions that might contradict our own.

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

Until, at long last, no one can be trusted, and everything is fake.

A Common Basis of Understanding

In the earliest days of the HIV and AIDS crisis, I worked in public health in the Global South. And I can still vividly recall those feelings of utter helplessness in the face of so much suffering and despair. We had little information and few tools with which to fight the disease, which had created such fear and stigma that there was little space left for public dialogue or shared learning.

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 multicountry conference hosted by the Benin government, a cabinet minister who was in attendance revealed publicly that he and his wife were raising their grandchildren due to the death of their own children from AIDS.

It was as if the floodgates had been opened.

Leaders and people at all levels of society were finally free to acknowledge their pain and loss. And that spurred others to begin working together to find solutions to the crisis that were 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 tragically and unnecessarily lost their lives as a result.

Three decades later, our world continues to be driven by ever-more rapidly evolving 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 is 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—excluding women and nonwhites.

If we are to benefit from the full power of data, we must take care to ensure there is equity and diversity 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, laying the groundwork for both voice and agency across all levels of society.

Call for Action

Rafael Salas had seen information manipulated by those in power to silence dissent and impose martial law in his native country.

But whether he was improving rice production in the Philippines or arguing that access to family planning is a human right at the 1968 International Conference on Human Rights, he never lost faith in the power of evidence to improve policies, programs and most importantly, countless lives.

Today, linkages between data and human rights and development are at the heart of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, as well as embodied in UN Secretary General Guterres’ Data Strategy and Dr. Natalia Kamen’s declarations at the 2019 Nairobi Summit on ICPD+25.

If we are to defeat the threats posed by demagoguery and disinformation, we must act quickly and decisively, because we have no time to waste.

The next two 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, Indonesia, Ukraine, as well as in 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. Countries must prioritize the collection of data and provide the necessary tools and resources to conduct accurate censuses and 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.

Public trust in science has been dropping in recent years, and those of us working in science-related fields like public health and demography must shoulder some of the blame. We believed that if we made the evidence available, people would make good decisions. Often, they do. But as the current pandemic has vividly demonstrated, simply presenting the facts, and hoping for the best isn’t enough.

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 creating false equivalence:  presenting results from opposing sides of a debate as if all views carry equal weight, even those that have been debunked or discounted by mainstream science. Dissenting voices should be heard, of course, but given their appropriate weight in the context of accepted principles of knowledge.

Last, but not least, we must call upon the public—ourselves included—to exercise common sense in our thinking about the world and her leaders.

As the 20th century American poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish 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, “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 cannot wait.

We must not fail.

Through our words and our actions, we must demonstrate unyielding support for truth, for facts, and for wisdom, wherever they may be found.

Thank you.