Please stop showing me “the data”

This isn’t a reactionary rant against data-driven decision making and it isn’t about nostalgia for gut-driven benevolent dictators.

Instead it is an appeal for reason to play an equal part in decision making.

The seed of this post was planted by a keynote Ines Montani gave at EuroPython. At the time I was more interested in her central argument that paying customers are the most important metric a business can have.

But in part of the talk she talks about the cliche of “show me the data”, a phrase that I think originated at NASA where, in context, it makes a lot of sense but when transplanted to the world of small business quickly becomes expensive, slow and farcical.

In part of her talk Ines mentioned that when making decisions on how to run a small business there shouldn’t be a need to provide data for or against every decision. “Why can’t we use reason?” she asked.

The question had huge resonance for me. The emphasis on data-driven decisions in businesses has not led to improved data or statistical literacy. Instead it has led to the generation of fig-leaf numbers, impenetrable spreadsheets of data as obfuscation and irrelevant but voluminous data collection. I see little evidence that decision-making is better.

It has also exposed the idea that the problem is data collection. The more information we collect then the more it feels like the more any decision can be justified or any course of action advocated or vetoed. Interpretation, selection and analysis of the data is more important than ever, and this at its heart requires reasoning.

Reason is different from “common sense” in that it should be produce self-consistent decision making that can be justified and interrogated. Reasoning is a process applied to instinct, insight, intuition, experience and knowledge.

So please don’t show me your data, explain your decision instead.