Why Are We Afraid of Data?

My friend, Gbenga Ajilore, is an economics professor. Last month, he gave a great talk at AlterConf in Chicago entitled, “How can open data help facilitate police reform?” It concisely explains how data helps us overcome anecdotal bias.

I was particularly struck by his point about how we need police buy-in for this data to be truly useful, and I was left with a bit of despair. Why is buy-in about the importance of data so hard? This should be common sense, right?

Clearly, it’s not. Earlier this year, I expressed some disbelief about how, in professional sports, where there are hundreds of millions of dollars riding on outcomes, there is still strong resistance to data and analytics.

On the one hand, it’s incredible that this is still an issue in professional sports, 14 years after Moneyball was first published and several championships were won by analytics-driven franchises (including two “cursed” franchises, the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both led by data nerd Theo Epstein).

On the other hand, it’s a vivid reminder of how hard habits and groupthink are to break, even in a field where the incentives to be smarter than everyone else come in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars. If it’s this hard to shift mindsets in professional sports, I don’t even want to imagine how long it might take in journalism. It’s definitely helping me recalibrate my perspective about the mindsets I’m trying to shift in my own field.

The first time I started to understand the many social forces that cause us to resist data was right after college, when I worked as an editor at a technology magazine. One of my most memorable meetings was with a vendor that made a tool that analyzed source code to surface bugs. All software developers know that debugging is incredibly hard and time-consuming. Their tool easily and automatically identified tons and tons of bugs, just by feeding it your source code.

“This is one of the best demos I’ve ever seen!” I exclaimed to the vendor reps. “Why isn’t everyone knocking on your door to buy this?”

The two glanced at each other, then shrugged their shoulders. “Actually,” one explained, “we are having a lot of trouble selling this. When people see this demo, they are horrified, because they realize how buggy their code is, and they don’t have the time or resources to fix it. They would rather that nobody know.”

Nervous in Nigeria

My project with the LDM program for reproductive health leaders in developing countries took me to India and Ethiopia in March, and today, it has taken me to Kano, Nigeria. I arrived here safe-and-sound, although I had a somewhat traumatizing run-in with security at the airport in Abuja. More on this in a sec.    (MYX)

I’m here to meet with the in-country managers of the project’s participating countries. I’ll get to see Cheryl Francisconi, Sanjay Pandey, and Haddis Mulugeta again, and I’ll be meeting Judith Ann Walker, Kamyla Marvi, and Magdalena Lopez in the flesh for the first time. I came here with Adam Thompson from GIIP, who’s been working on the technology side of the project, and Scott Reed, who’s also with GIIP.    (MYY)

Strangely enough, I’m more nervous about this trip than I was about my previous one. You would think that my previous experiences, which were overwhelmingly positive, would have made me a hardened, confident traveler. But the vibe leading up to this trip has been much different.    (MYZ)

One of my best and oldest friends, Gbenga Ajilore, is Nigerian. So is one of Blue Oxen‘s advisors, Ade Mabogunje. I spoke with both of them before the trip, and they were excited about me coming here. The reaction from other friends and colleagues was quite the opposite. Most of the non-Nigerian Africans I spoke to do not think highly of Nigerians for reasons that I don’t quite understand. Several of my well-traveled friends had horror stories to share, although none of them had actually visited here. Cheryl is the most fearless and experienced traveler I know, and even she had some scary stories.    (MZ0)

On the plane ride over, I read a report written by Adam’s boss at GIIP, Paul Lubeck, who has researched this country for 30 years. It’s about how the U.S. has a strong interest in West Africa and particularly Nigeria because of the oil there. Nigeria provides 10-12 percent of U.S. oil imports, and that number is expected to grow significantly. The bad news is that Nigeria is a volatile country as it is, and the demand for oil is only making it worse. Corruption is rampant, and violence is widespread. Predictably, U.S. policy over the past seven years has only worsened the situation.    (MZ1)

You can see why I was nervous. But on the plane today, I was mostly just tired. We arrived safely in Abuja on a stopover to Kano, and they asked us to deplane. While in the waiting area, I decided to snap a picture of Adam and Scott.    (MZ2)

Out of nowhere, a stocky man dressed in a white dashiki grabbed my camera in my hand, and exclaimed, “What are you doing? Why are you doing that? Come with me!” I thought this guy was nuts. “What are you doing?” I responded, increasing my hold on my camera and looking around for help. As far as I could tell, everyone was doing an excellent job of pretending nothing was happening.    (MZ3)

My reaction just agitated the man, who kept insisting that I come with him and who said that I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. I kept my cool, but I also kept my grip, and I insisted a number of times that he tell me who he was and show me some identification. “I don’t have to show you anything!” he barked. “Come with me!”    (MZ4)

He was wearing some kind of badge around his neck, which was obscured by his arms. I wasn’t making the situation better, so I decided to go with him. Both of us continued to hold onto the camera. Every time I saw someone in uniform, I explained to them what this strange man had done. Enough people said that I needed to follow this guy that I continued to cooperate, but I was not going to let go of my camera, and I wasn’t going to shut up.    (MZ5)

Eventually, we ran into two official looking men who asked me why I was taking pictures. “I was just taking pictures of my friends,” I explained to them, showing them the pictures.    (MZ6)

“Why would anyone take pictures in an airport? What were you doing?”    (MZ7)

I explained to them that I had no idea this was not allowed, and that I took pictures in airports all the time. The security guy then claimed I tried to fight him, which infuriated me. Still, I kept my cool. “Why were you harassing this man?” they asked me.    (MZ8)

“I wasn’t harassing anyone. What would you do if a strange man came out of nowhere and just grabbed your camera?”    (MZ9)

“Why didn’t you ask for ID?”    (MZA)

“I asked several times, and he wouldn’t show me.”    (MZB)

The security guy then responded, “He never asked me for ID.”    (MZC)

I looked at him disgustedly, but I was surprisingly resigned. So this was how it was going to be. “I have a number of witnesses who can verify that I asked for his ID.”    (MZD)

I then explained, “Look, I’m not trying to cause any trouble. All I want to do is get back on my plane. I didn’t know this was a policy, and I was taken aback by how this man reacted. I will happily erase the pictures.”    (MZE)

The men agreed to that and told the security guy to take me back. I breathed a sigh of relief.    (MZF)

As we walked back to the room, the security guy turned to me and asked, “Why are you so arrogant?”    (MZG)

I couldn’t believe what he had just said, but again, I kept my cool. “I wasn’t being arrogant. I didn’t know the policy, and I had no idea you were anyone official. How would you have reacted if someone had come out of the blue and grabbed your camera? In any case, I’m sorry for any trouble that I caused.”    (MZH)

Surprisingly, that seemed to satisfy him, and when we got back to the room, he held out his hand. I shook it, and that was that.    (MZI)

Scott and Adam looked relieved when I returned, and Scott observed that he would have just let the guy take the camera. If the circumstances had been different, I would have also, but we were surrounded by people, and he did have that badge (even though he wouldn’t show it to me). It happened to turn out for the best, but it was a good kick in the pants for me to stay on my toes while I’m here.    (MZJ)

Soccer Head Butt

Like everyone else in the world, I was stunned to see Zinedine Zidane headbutt Marco Materazzi in yesterday’s World Cup final. I mean really, are soccer players so unaccustomed to using their hands that they’ve forgotten how to throw a good old fashioned punch?!    (KSX)

Yes, it was incredibly dumb. But I loved Dr. Z‘s commentary about it:    (KSY)

Zinedine Zidane is not a flopper or a whiner or a moaner. I have never seen him pull one of those scenes from the last act of La Boheme, enacting his death tableau on the field after the merest brush of contact. I haven’t seen him lying there at death’s door while they go through with the most ridiculous of all dramas, the entry of the stretcher.    (KSZ)

Imagine if the NFL were like that. Half a dozen stretchers called for during the course of the game, whereupon the nearly deceased leaps off it, shakes off the very fingers of the Evil One and trots back onto the field. Maybe Zidane was tired of all this, of this travesty, which rewards all the things that we were once taught were cowardly, but can be used to great advantage in this game.    (KT0)

So Zidane slammed a guy. He lost it. Writers all over the world are competing with themselves to heap scorn on France’s greatest player. You know something? I don’t blame him for getting sore. Almost every time I could find him on the screen, he had someone tugging at his shirt, tripping him or messing with him in some sneaky way.    (KT1)

The problem is he doesn’t hit the canvas as the rest of those prima donnas do. So the ref must figure nothing is happening. Sure, he should have held off on the head butt, but to put the defeat of his team on his shoulders is a reach.    (KT2)

Also, from my buddy Gbenga Ajilore, comes this gem with a link to a hilarious two-second video mashup/video game homage.    (KT3)

Wal-Mart, Meijer Commentary

Gbenga Ajilore, one of my oldest friends in the world and an economics professor at the University of Toledo, was quoted on the Wal-Mart versus Meijer battles. For you non-Midwesterners, if you’ve never been to Meijer, it’s a sight to behold — acres of everything you might possibly need, open 24 hours a day. Just don’t buy anything there when you visit.    (IO0)