Tuesday, November 16, 2010


If you’re like me, you probably get tired of people saying stuff like “We need to make a data-driven decision here.” (Of course, if you’re like me, you probably also eat cheese sandwiches with mustard and jelly, but that’s a different 327 words.)

Point being: there’s entirely too much reliance by decision-makers on that third type of misinformation (after lies and damn lies), statistics. Numbers aren’t the only reliable way to set policy or plan for the future and they may not even be the best. Give me a good story any day and see if I don’t come to just as good, if not a better, outcome to any course of action I undertake.

Your everyday qualitative data, in other words, is sorely undervalued. I realize, of course, that it’s considered a paradigmatic case of irrationality to rely more heavily on what your cousin Fred says about what a lemon is his Toyota compared to the reams of data published in Consumer Reports about how reliable his model of car is, but still, I’ll bet that I’d be just as happy ignoring both data sets and just buying a new bike, so there.

How come narrative isn’t considered “data” anyway? Hasn’t most of human history and culture proceeded by the small sample fallacy? What has historically defined us as individuals and societies isn’t number-crunching, it’s story-telling. The big time biblical story, for example isn’t the statistical improbability of virgin birth; rather it’s that one crazy account of immaculate conception that gets the whole thing rolling.

Perhaps, though, this example is the perfect illustration of how relying on the qualitative rather than the quantitative can get us into trouble. Maybe if our traditions were more in the habit of making “data-driven” decisions, there wouldn’t be such strife and warfare in the world.

Somehow, however, I can’t see it: if an all-powerful, all-knowing, creator of the universe based decisions on survey data, I’m sure they’d be no better.


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