This Stuff is Dangerous

Author: Dr. Julio Rivera

Published Date: 5/20/2020

Categories: School of Business Blog

Working with data and analysis is not easy and it can be dangerous.  In 2015 I was asked to give a keynote address to the British Conference on Undergraduate Research.  The audience was primarily undergraduate students who were presenting their research at the conference.  I explained to them that they were brave because research and data analysis is not always popular.  It is risky and puts you at peril.

At the time there were some larger stories about the anti-vaccine movement, climate change denial, and other anti-data/science movements.  I talked a little about those but I also talked about one of my former students who works in the research department of a large corporation that acquires real estate as part of its business model.  It is her job to explain why particular acquisitions fits or does not fit the goals of the company based on data analysis.  She describes herself as “unpopular” during real estate meetings because her analysis foils “pet beliefs” of the real estate brokers.  She is popular with the higher-level executives in the company because the limited resources available are focused into acquisitions that are more data driven less influenced by “belief” that it will work out.

One of the clearest examples of data as a risky profession came this week when Rebekah Jones was reportedly fired for her work at making the COVID-19 GIS Dashboard for the state of Florida transparent and easy to use.  At the time of this writing, both sides of the political spectrum are solidifying positions on this but missing the primary idea.  In a public health crisis access to data by researchers and the public is vital to addressing public needs effectively.

florida covid-19 data dashboard

In business and elsewhere I have often come across people who are belief driven rather than data driven.  I’m uncomfortable with that approach when the data driven approach is available.  I was a theology major as an undergraduate and I respect belief and I do not believe that everything we do should be or needs to be empirical.  I hold particular beliefs that are not empirical (you will sort those out as you read more posts).  However, I do think that some realms that were forged in empiricism, probably shouldn’t fall into theology.  I bristle when I hear economics as theology.  I cringe when business a business model seems to be based on a catchy line from a motivational poster.  These are all warning signs for me and yet I hear them too often.  I hear them from the right and the left.  Believing doesn’t make something disappear.  Understanding what the data tells you allows you respond to the world effectively even when you don’t like what the data tells you.

The problem is that it can be dangerous approach if you run up against theologians.


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