Data can counter political appeals to emotion

Sunday August 21 2016

By NANJIRA SAMBULI
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We all know the famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein, that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.

By and large, a diagnosis of the Kenyan electorate is described by this quote, simply because when the pen meets the ballot paper the result is largely the same, elected leaders that we complain about for the better part of five years.

This diagnosis is more serious than we appreciate and mustn’t only be fodder for cynicism and sarcasm. We are suffering because of these habits.

We seem stuck in a vicious circle, and much as we desire to break it, at least rhetorically, it is not easy.

One thing that politicians understand, and are able to manipulate, is that we are primarily emotional beings. Evoke certain feelings and you have very likely secured a voter or follower.

The magic, often, is not in what you say but in how you say it. It’s not about whether you need a mall or new road in your constituency, but about making it sound like it heralds development and prosperity. The cost-benefit analysis becomes secondary to the illusion!

Therein lies the breeding ground for all manner of misinformation, disinformation and outright falsity.

NUMBERS INTIMIDATE

What chance, then, do data and facts have in the decision-making process? Honing in more specifically on our democratic process and the upcoming elections, will facts and data influence how we debate and eventually vote for our leaders?

Facts and numbers can be boring and intimidating and while they demystify a lot, they can also be twisted and spun to support existing biases and agendas.

Over the last couple of years, there has been renewed effort and focus on freeing data from laboratories, research institutions and other "silos" to the public who are the intended beneficiaries, and through their taxes, often the funders.

We have, for instance, the Kenya Open Data Initiative, which serves as a repository of data about us, collected for us from various government institutions. We have also seen numerous initiatives, such as efforts in data-driven journalism and fact-checking sites like Pesa Check.

The impact of these initiatives is varied, primarily because they may have overlooked, or cannot yet factor in, an important reality. More often than not, we are first emotional and then logical beings.

Philosophy categorises various logical fallacies, yet those hardly matter when emotions, especially feel good ones, have been stirred.  While data is increasingly being "freed", it is not necessarily lighting up people’s thinking and decision-making.

This may be because it is either not well explained, thus intimidating people, misreported, hence distorting reality, or plunging readers into a new level of disillusionment: “now I know, but what am I supposed to do?”

LOGIC OVER EMOTIONS

Many arguments from academic and policy circles, are rightly anchored in logic. They point out to us mythical, yet enticing proclamations, that, for example,  entrepreneurship will curb ever-rising unemployment, more roads will hasten development, or that more roads will ease traffic congestion , say in Nairobi.

The examples cited above have been weaved into narratives that the ordinary citizen can consume. Much more data is yet to be broken down into easily digestible formats.

Take reporting on corruption, for instance. We have been so inundated with the numbers that they evoke little emotion.

The net effect is that reporting on corruption or misuse of funds, as with the latest reports from the Auditor General, falls on deafening ears and hardened hearts.

It mustn’t be about choosing logic over emotions. In fact, the sweet spot of enlightened decision making lies in striking a balance between the two.

For instance, many of us are angry at the state of Kenya today. How, then, can that anger be channelled into better decision-making, say, at the ballot?

Will it be solely about voting out the politicians whose promises have fallen flat, or will it also be about replacing them with others whom can be kept accountable on promises while acting within our articulated interests?

In Nairobi, we have been served endless promises by the county government on the numerous issues we face.

Traffic and poor roads likely top the list of complaints and frustrations by residents here, but rather than just vent anger on the poor state of our roads, a few actors are taking things further.

BUZZWORDS OVER EVIDENCE

#WhatIsARoad, a campaign that started as an expression of frustration, is now morphing into a data and evidence collection process to map every pothole and poor road in the county and beyond, as reported.

The resulting data will be a powerful accountability mechanism that matches our emotions to facts and figures.

The promise of #WhatIsARoad is that next time a new road is commissioned, the beneficiaries will know about what standards to inquire about, that is, whether there are walkways, cycle lanes, street lights and such, based on the terrible experiences we have on existing roads, whose insufficiencies are being mapped.

So how do we generate sufficient momentum to balance our politically-charged emotions with facts and data?

First, we must laud and leverage new and continuing efforts to free up, and where feasible, generate data as in the examples above. What gives me hope with these efforts is that slowly, various citizen interest groups are realising that the old ways of doing things (complain, tunaomba serikali, accept and move on) don't work and are not sustainable.

We are tired of the constant state of anger. What, therefore, does it hurt to channel that anger into proactive, rather than reactive, citizen action?

Secondly, a culture of demanding data and facts from all forms of political representation could be a game changer. I have seen government executives squirm at being asked to state the baselines they are using to guide their work, indicating that we have let many a public servant get away with rhetoric and buzzwords over evidence.

"YOU BRING YOUR FACTS"

As campaign season hits, and as the State House Summits where various ministries account for their work to the nation continue, demands for data must accompany claims of accomplishment and impact.

Thirdly, information intermediaries, especially journalists and civil society actors must be impressed upon to go beyond regurgitating figures as put out, to investigating and putting them into context.

It is no longer tenable to merely report that billions of shillings are missing or unaccounted for when the same facts could be framed in terms of opportunity cost. We see this in fits and starts, but it must become the norm on reporting around data on our country’s development.

Finally, in our political discussions, wherever they happen, it would be very interesting to start peppering opinions with facts and figures. “You bring your facts, I’ll bring mine and let’s engage based on that.”

Granted, many of us will interpret data to confirm our biases, but wouldn’t it be interesting to walk into a charged discussion about verifying data?

I hypothesise that such an approach could even start widening the scope of political discussions, something that is much needed in an otherwise claustrophobic space that is limited to the politics of ethnicity and what this or that politician said and did.

So, why don’t you match our emotions with facts and figures on the ground? After all, we cannot afford another bout of ‘insanity’ with this election period.

Twitter: @NiNanjira