In times of war, there are no greater virtues than loyalty and bravery. A country with disloyal citizens is likely to lose every battle. Bravery is an essential trait to overcome the harshness of war.
Likewise, for most of human history, sexual purity was promoted as an essential virtue. Because contraceptives were not an option, a promiscuous society would be one with frequent unwanted pregnancies. As a result, many societies developed strong cultural norms to discourage physical relationships before marriage.
Today, the world is relatively free of wars and effective contraceptives are widely available, so these traits are valued less. Our culture constantly re-evaluates its norms.
Meanwhile, as more and more of our lives are recorded, the data we collect facilitate better decision-making. I’ve written about many aspects of that: data help journalists find better stories, help predict the future, and much more.
However, a data-driven society is only functional when people follow the right cultural norms. In a country at war, a culture of loyalty helps ensure that everyone is in line. In a capitalist society, a culture that discourages theft can allow small businesses to prosper without fear of losing property. In a data-driven society, we must stay intellectually honest.
Without intellectual honesty, the data are flawed and unreliable. Flawed data lead to poor decision-making; it’s usually better to use only your gut than to rely on a poorly formed data set. And unfortunately, many people are using data in intellectually dishonest ways.
Schools and Cheating
In a data-driven world, we must not cheat.
One of this year’s Goldsmith Award finalists is an astonishing data-driven series which uncovered high levels of school cheating. I’m proud that we honored that story, but I’ve been somewhat taken aback by some of the responses I’ve heard to it.
Many people I’ve spoken with, when told of this investigation, immediately blamed the reward structure. No Child Left Behind, they say, created an overly pressurized education system. The sort of large scale cheating exposed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was inevitable given the high stakes of the tests.
That is nonsense. One wouldn’t excuse a CEO stealing money from others because there was so much pressure on him to improve his company’s performance — even if the CEO thought the means of evaluating him were unfair. No Child Left Behind and other education policies aren’t perfect (my suggestions), but they’re a starting point.
To improve, we’ll need to refine our testing system and get better at measuring progress. We’ll also need a culture of integrity from teachers and administrators. Without that integrity, our system will consist of results we can’t trust — and a terrible example for students.
Guns and Intellectual Curiosity
In a data-driven world, we must approach major issues with an open-minded, intellectually curious approach.
Of course people use data dishonestly for political arguments. But it’s not just sleazy politicians: I see intelligent friends on both sides completely misrepresenting the data on gun violence in the US. Anti-gun advocates point out that the U.S. has more gun ownership and more gun deaths than other Western countries and jump to the “obvious” conclusion that more guns means more violence. Pro-gun advocates point out that the U.S. has far higher gun ownership rates than many (non-Western) countries that are much more violent than they U.S.; they jump to the also “obvious” conclusion that criminals will find a way to purchase guns regardless of gun policy, meaning decreases in gun ownership would have no impact on gun violence.
It’s likely that each side is at least partially correct. Millions more guns in Americans’ hands mean at least a few more deaths; many of the most violent criminals will find a way to kill regardless of gun laws.
Yet my friends who post these stats do so with a lack of intellectual curiosity. In most cases, they haven’t looked at the numbers with an open mind, and they don’t really understand how gun dynamics work. I’ve never seen, for instance, someone point out that gun ownership in states is highly correlated with suicide rates but minimally correlated with murder rates. That fact — which implies that less restrictive gun laws may lead to suicides but not terrible crimes — doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s pro- or anti-gun view of the world.
I’m realistic: I don’t expect that everyone is going to gather data sets on gun violence on their own. However, because the data are out there, I ask smart people to raise their bar: if you haven’t looked at the data closely enough to have an informed, nuanced opinion, please keep quiet. Either do some real research, or don’t spread your uninformed perspective.
Pitching Investors and Misleading
In a data-driven world, we must not mislead or be misled.
Working with many early stage companies, I see a lot of investor pitches.
Startups have gotten better at crafting an appealing pitch, by throwing out numbers like these:
- a) We’ve increased revenue by 25%, month over month
- b) Our user base is growing: we had 500,000 users last July and now have 800,000 (often with an attached graph showing total users at the end of each month)
- c) Our monthly retention rate is 75%
Most of the time, these stats aim to mislead.
(a) doesn’t have a baseline or a time horizon. It might mean that revenue was $12 last month and is $15 this month. Does that sound as impressive?
(b) looks at cumulative signups rather than monthly signups. Cumulative signups are always going up, and it takes a lot more effort for the viewer to see whether the second derivative (signups this month versus last month) was positive or negative. We did this in investor presentations for Circle of Moms, because we knew it would obfuscate some of our negative trends. I advocated that approach, and I don’t feel great about it.
(c) may be a useful stat, but it’s almost always calculated in an obfuscated, company-friendly way.
These kind of pitches are “just the way it is” — as is the case for misleading political data analysis. But in a data-driven world, we need to aim higher.
Entrepreneurs should assume their audience is intelligent and mature, cognizant that not all numbers go up.
And investors should understand what they’re looking at, and should call BS on entrepreneurs who surface their numbers like this.
Access to data is, on the whole, a very good thing. Deep, data-driven knowledge allows us to make better decisions and preserve resources. With the right data, we can better reward the best teachers, fund the top companies, and create better public policy.
However, for that to work, our society needs to create a stronger culture of honesty around data. We can’t cheat to get around failures. We must seek out all of the facts, and not promote only those that fit into a narrow ideology. And we must use data to inform rather than mislead. If we don’t do those things, we’ll make decisions that are driven by flawed data — lies — and many will suffer.
The good news is that we’re still early in an age of data-driven decision-making. Our collective culture has developed to better discourage practices like stealing and killing. In this wonderful age of data and better decision making, can we become more honest?