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Data & Analytics

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Addressing David Brooks' Data Skepticism at the New York Times

Decision making is never fundamentally about available information, but rather the questions one is able to ask about it.

When the New York Times' conservative columnist David Brooks penned an essay called "What Data Can't Do" last week, I couldn't help thinking he was channelling Edmund Burke, the 18th century progressive driven by historical circumstances to become, paradoxically, the father of modern conservatism. In his seminal work, "Reflections on the Revolution in France," Burke wrote: "the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever."

Like Burke, Brooks seems to want to conserve the emotional and intuitive quality of human affairs from the encroachment of a dehumanized kind of rationalism. He starts with an anecdote of a banker who, despite whether the numbers were quite right, decides to continue to do business in Italy because of his irrational sense of obligation to his customers. Brooks comments:

People and companies that behave well in tough times earn affection and self-respect that is extremely valuable, even if it is hard to capture in data.

Brooks goes on to assert several limitations of data, including struggling with things social, being bad at dealing with context, and creating "bigger haystacks" within which its manipulators are attempting to find a given needle.

Brooks' critique is right, and I would recommend that every insurance company C-level officer read what he says. However, Brooks falls short of making the essential point, which is the source of much of the drama about data and analytics: it's never about the data, it's about what insights you can draw from it. Decision making is never fundamentally about available information, but rather the questions one is able to ask about it.

Burke was right to rue the potentially dehumanizing effects of "calculation," which tend to reduce individuals to means to ends rather than ends in themselves. That dehumanizing effect was in play during the "Terror" phase of the French that Burke anticipated, where counterrevolutionary agents were disposed of with businesslike efficiency. One of its grimmer formulations is Stalin's chilling dictum that, "when one man dies it is a tragedy, when thousands die it's statistics."

Brooks discusses the more benign threat of data's failures, but as I suggested at the beginning, he probably has deeper concerns. And not without reason. A certain banal dehumanization stands behind the preference to think of consumers rather than customers and the term "human resources," which emphasizes people as means, has superseded "personnel" which conserves a sense of them as ends in themselves. Managing large numbers of accounts — as a business of any size must — also reduces people to their statistical dimension, and by doing so eases their treatment as statistical entities.

[Related: Poor Insurance Customer Experience May Drive Away Customers - Capgemini .]

Marketing executives are not unaware of the danger of treating people as numbers, even if only because it's bad business. Hence the "customer intimacy" and "customer experience" trends. It's probably no accident that the United States, Europe's modern and, in many ways very rationalistic offspring has simultaneously been a leader in entrepreneurship and customer service. Unlike the actions of an all powerful rational state, voluntary business transactions need to benefit both parties or they won't continue for long.

But it is the essential uselessness of data alone that will humanize data, or at least enable intuition to keep pace with linear reason. Mere data is nothing, and high-performance data processing has no inherent power to direct itself. The "science" of data analysis is really an art that combines fundamental intuition about the right questions with data processing techniques.

It's not so much a question of "What Data Can't Do" but that data can't do anything except in dialogue with intuition about what to do with it.

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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