One of our more lively discussions in this house is something I call “Death By Data.” My much better half gathers data for the Department of Education in Florida that is used to determine the effectiveness of all kinds programs. And, as a financial guy, you might think that I, too, would be a big believer in data. After all, financial planning is the quasi-science of accumulating and projecting data, it’s awfully hard to know where you are going if you don’t know where you are. But, in my lifetime, I’ve seen the world changed by a reliance on data and I don’t know that it is a good thing. Don’t you think that there are certain things that just can’t be measured?

No one argues that subjective attributes like emotions, motivation, and flat out stubbornness are not easily measured, it’s like trying to say something tastes like “blue.” What does blue taste like? So, in the interest of modern science, we tend to dismiss all things subjective. There are, of course, certain things that disappear as soon as you try to put a number on them: love, romance, sensuality.

“Ok, if this feather rubbed gently up your back is a 7, what would you rate the sandalwood candle?”

“Yea, never mind, what’s on TV?”

In the interest of data we have come up with hundreds of career justifying industries that measure the measurable and ignore the unmeasurable. In this age of science and reason, we are descendants of Spock, logic is our holy grail and data is the syllogism that proves our theories. We quantify and measure so we can create protocols and processes that prove what we already know. We’ve made a science out of a natural trait called, “Leadership.” Colleges teach it as if it was a science, developing leadership theories that work perfectly until another school comes along and can’t measure  it and comes up with its own theory, which another school will us data to disprove.

If you walk into a group of people, you can tell the “leaders” right away, they stand out. Can we measure them? Let’s say its a team, we know a good coach as soon as we see his players respond to him. But, how do we really know unless we have data? We will then probably measure the coach by wins and then use our data to model the winningest coaches. Even if he chewed tobacco, drove a Mini Cooper, and kept pet llamas, other organizations would try to duplicate his “model,” right down to the brand of chew. In reality, the coach might be successful simply because he has better players, but how could we measure and duplicate parental genes and other unmeasurable circumstances?

Numbers are the refuge of the unimaginative and those who want to play it safe. Data is safe, we measure what we cam measure, even if it has nothing to do with the attributes that truly matter.

Not long ago, I saw headlines about a study that couldn’t prove that drinking a lot of water was good for you. Everyone knows that drinking a lot of water is good for you, but here was data that told us otherwise, numbers don’t lie! Common sense and the feeling that comes with good hydration can’t be measured, at least by this study! I’ve seen it in business. In my younger days, stock analysts visited the companies they were  analyzing, and their competitors, and understood the business they were going to cover. Today, anyone with a company’s earnings release considers themselves an expert, numbers don’t lie. Unless, they do, that’s why securities salespeople are supposed to disclaim, “past results are not indicative of future performance.”

Modern science, the place where we have invested so much faith, is the headquarters for data, we believe what science can measure, numbers don’t lie.

You can’t measure creativity and Lord knows, people are trying. Plenty of academics are trying to come up with rules and traits of creative, (like 3 traits of creative workers: expertise, creative thinking skills,and intrinsic motivation) and good luck with coming up with a test for that. It would be very helpful if we could simply develop a “process” for creativity that anyone could follow. Process, by the way, is a wonderful word the corporate types have come up with, it means a series of rules and steps that guarantee success (and ass coverage).  Talent is a difficult thing to measure, entrepreneurs, customer service people, and, yes, teachers, are often born, not made.

We end up teaching things we can measure to children who get measured. We value coloring within the lines, only taking chances if we can prove the outcome, and only investing in companies that have measurable past results. Subjectivity is the tool of the superstitious and the vague, statistical outliers are part of the counter culture.

Future historians, digging through our rubble, will call it “Death by Data” and we will give them the numbers to prove it.

 

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