We Need More Data

I remember a class in college where I raised my hand, made an argument, and the teacher immediately pointed out that I shouldn’t be starting with a conclusion and then working backwards to a set of facts that support my end game. It was embarrassing, in the moment, but a lesson that’s stuck with me. We all have our biases, and we all look for narratives that support our positions. In that vein, two articles about Covid-19 grabbed my attention today.

The first was in the Washington Post regarding individual risk tolerance and what each individual is willing to incur. Your risk threshold “depends on our perception of likelihood and consequences.”

The word that got my attention is “Perception.” As the article points out, how we perceive likelihood of getting sick and consequences of our decisions to live our lives vs stay healthy has a lot to do with where we get our information about the threat of getting sick.

Perception is shaped to a large extent by where we get our information and how that reinforces our our preexisting beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias. And since there’s so little still understood about this coronavirus we’re all still searching for information. And going to our preferred news outlets.

The second article was an interview in the Wall Street Journal with a scientist at Stanford named John Ioannidis. The article was ostensibly about how Ioannidis was attacked for questioning whether the lock-downs were necessary and whether Covid-19 was in fact as deadly as initially feared. But buried in the article was a line from Ioannidis that said, “Most important, ‘what we need is data. We need real data. We need data on how many people are infected so far, how many people are actively infected, what is really the death rate, how many beds do we have to spare, how has this changed.’”

Here’s a lesson that I learned a long time ago. “Facts tell but stories sell.” Humans are wired to absorb a good story, especially if it conforms to our preferred worldview. But we need to do a better job of demanding facts and challenging our perceptions. This is true of our current situation and more broadly in decisions we make every day. We need more data. Let the data control the story and make decisions based on facts rather than on whatever narrative fits your end goal.


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