Don't Blame the Data for the Debacle

November 12, 2016


Recent newspaper headline: “How Data Failed Us in Calling An Election”. Here’s a flash – it wasn’t the data’s fault – it was the media’s mess. I realize that the search for someone or something else to blame is always successful; but I think it’s abundantly clear who was really responsible for the situation. It was the prognosticators and the professional blowhards who got it so wrong. The truth is that the data doesn’t know or care. It’s like the Dude in The Big Lebowski – it simply abides. What you do with it and how it’s used makes all the difference. If you let a monkey drive your car, it’s not the monkey’s fault when the accidents and crashes come.

So let's not dump on the data and data-driven decision making (which is essential to the future of almost every business) just because a bunch of over-eager media messiahs ignored the science, misapplied the mechanisms, and tried to manufacture a true miracle out of a mess of mixed messages which were  never going to accurately predict the ultimate voting behaviors of millions of people who weren't prepared to share their true feelings with anyone and especially not with paid political pollsters with an agenda and the answers they claimed to be seeking already firmly fixed in their minds. 

The most basic breakdown in the "research" process this time around was the fact that the pollsters weren't looking impartially for information; they were simply seeking confirmation and affirmation of what they wanted to see and hear using a deeply-flawed system and a methodology that everyone knows is meaningless in today's mobile and digital world. Just another ugly byproduct of the world of cable news where we only watch and listen to the people who tell us what we want to hear. It’s the worst possible combination of an echo chamber in which you sit drinking your own Kool-Aid.

If you use a screwdriver to slice your roast beef, who exactly do you think is to blame for the chunky cuts that result and which end up looking totally disgusting and pre-chewed? Is it really the tool's fault? Maybe you should have used a Phillips instead of a flathead for a more presentable platter. Or maybe you should have taken a moment to think about whether the instrument you chose would ever be up to the task that you set out to accomplish. The heaviest hammer still can't nail Jell-O to a tree. We should really know by now and freely admit that no amount of historical information is likely to accurately predict certain kinds of human behaviors. Voting isn’t the same as buying a vacuum cleaner – you never know what the voters will do until after they’ve done it.

In much the same way, if a major part of your prospective voter polling methodology is predicated on calling large parts of a population that no longer answers their phones or which has a substantial cohort under a certain age that doesn't even own a land-line phone any longer; what would lead you to believe that you had any real basis to believe your results or that they were probative or predictive of anything that mattered? 

And this is the situation even before you factor in the really depressing fact that the people desperate enough to waste their time talking to strangers on the phone are as likely as not to tell those folks exactly what they think they want to hear or what passes for the politically correct answers of the day rather than how they really feel or plan to vote. The telephone is maybe the worst possible tool for eliciting the truth about anything. Political research calls are the second most dreaded calls you can get these days – only PBS pledge drive calls are worse.   

But based on the self-serving and misguided mea culpas that we're reading and hearing these days in and from every major media outlet, they did their very level best to bring you the correct stories and you'd think that those rascally polling numbers underlying the breathlessly reported trends that seemed to change from minute to minute must have had a mind of their own and gone way way off the reservation and miles from the last remnants of reality. The people who can't dance always blame the band for playing the wrong music. 

The truth is that the numbers are neutral at best (except when they're just dead wrong as in some of the state polls) and the data's not to blame when it's tortured and twisted in support of answers and expected behaviors that it was never capable of predicting in the first place. It reminds me of a thermos – it doesn’t really know whether it’s keeping some beverage hotter or cooler for a period of time – it just sits there and does its job.

If we want explanations or excuses for the fact that the folks who were supposed to know didn’t know anything in the end – we have to look at them (the number crunchers) – not the numbers. They’re happy to have all of the responsibility; it’s only fair – given the results - that they have a full share of the blame as well.